A troubled child summons the courage to help a friendly alien escape Earth and return to his home world.
The first note that I wrote down while watching this film was “why this Spielberg movie? What sets this one apart?” I was truly troubled by this. Don’t get me wrong; this film holds a special place in my heart. I saw it when I was a kid (like most) and have loved it ever since. I even have memories of the ride at Universal Studios Orlando. But, looking at the film through a critics lens made it harder for me to determine why this film is on the American Film Institute’s list.
But, then it hit me: it has to be on this list because of the emotion it provokes. E.T. is a fantastical film. It radiates this youthfulness that other films just try to capture. Now, there are other Spielberg films that radiate this same youthfulness; Hook being a pretty good example. However, E.T. is the one that is original. It didn’t pull from a source material (kind of. I’ll get into that in a second.) The screenplay was written by Melissa Mathison. It didn’t pull from a novel or other stories, like the whole premise of Hook does. And, that’s why I think it’s on the AFI’s list. E.T. is a fantastical film that perfectly captures that childhood innocence while still dealing with some very serious issues, like divorce. And there’s not too many films that can do that.
Having a film so fantastical also be rooted in reality is impressive. E.T. really is a film about siblings who are learning how to cope with their newly divorced parents and their now nearly absent father. That element of the film is what keeps it grounded, in my opinion.
John Williams’ score for E.T. is absolutely iconic. There’s a perfect sense of childhood freedom mixed with science fiction elements that just work really well. The acting of all the young kids in this film is also good. Normally, I find myself annoyed watching certain children act because it doesn’t feel authentic. That’s not the case with E.T. In fact, young Drew Barrymore absolutely crushes it.
Now, let’s talk about the “original” part I mentioned above. There is an awful lot of debate as to whether or not E.T. is, in fact, original or if it was blatant plagiarism of an unproduced Indian-American science fiction film called The Alien. The Alien was written by Satyajit Ray and co-produced by Columbia Pictures. The first draft of the script was written in 1967, long before E.T. was even a discussion. However, due to some super shady copywriting by Michael Wilson, a Columbo-based producer who acted as Ray’s Hollywood representative, the film never came to fruition. Years later, when E.T. came out, Ray was certain that Spielberg and others had read his script in mimeographed copies. Spielberg, of course, denied this. He remembered when the script was circulating, but has repeatedly said that E.T. came about because of his parents divorce when he was a kid. But, whether that is fully believed or not is a different story entirely. Both Spielberg’s films E.T. and Close Encounters of the Third Kind have great similarities to Satyajit Ray’s script, from specific scenes to the look of the alien. If you have any interest in reading into this further, might I suggest a book: Travails with the Alien: The Film That Was Never Made and Other Adventures with Science Fiction by Satyajit Ray.
Even though E.T. is fantastical in nature and perfectly preserves that feeling of childhood, should it be on the AFI list of “100 greatest films”? Of that I’m not so sure. Steven Spielberg has directed five of the films on this list. I’m sure one that is shrouded in controversy over its origin can be omitted.