E.T. is one of those great movies that runs the whole spectrum of feeling. It's suspenseful, funny, charming, sad, and magical... all in less than two hours. The story is simple for being such an all-encompassing film.
The use of lighting and shadows intrigued the heck out of me, along with the staging. The beginning especially. I hadn't seen the movie all the way through before and I had never seen the establishing shots.
I didn't expect the first sequence to be the aliens leaving E.T. behind. But it makes sense for the story.
However, it isn't JUST that E.T. gets left behind. Below are my studies of the first sequence. (Read by column, not by left-to-right, sorry!)
The beginning establishes several things – First and most importantly, E.T. is a friendly alien. Not the Independence-Day-We-Are-Going-to-Kill-You kind of alien. He's also curious, enjoys plants, likes to make things grow, and is fond of young trees. His species communicate telepathically with the heart, which beats with a red light sometimes.
We get a sense that he is small in scale when he looks up at the trees and not menacing enough to scare even a rabbit.
The film shows all this without ever getting close up and focused on the aliens themselves. It leaves a mystery, gives us a little suspense. Quite possibly one of the richest beginnings to a film I've ever seen. It's a perfect hook to get us to sit and watch the rest of the movie.
There are many many scenes where there are multiple characters in a shot. I tried to pay special attention to how the characters were staged. Very rarely were two characters parallel to each other. For example:
In many of the shots with multiple characters, they formed a sort of triangle in the composition.
The soft, almost ethereal glow of light played a huge role in what we should fear. Because we already know that E.T. is harmless, the threat then becomes those that would hurt E.T. or take him away from Elliott. Which would be the human scientists.
How do you make scientists feel scary? Set the camera low, as if it was hiding in a child's bedroom and give the scientists a flashlight and identity-hiding plastic suits.
The shadows equally play a massive role. Most of the film, Elliott hides E.T. in the shadows, where lamps were strategically placed to illuminate a face, but keep the rest in darkness. For example:
With the lighting so specific, silhouettes were in abundance.
I especially like that last shot with Elliott and his brother Michael, knowing E.T. is alive. The sequence before had been lit very somberly. Contrast that with the specific lighting above the boys, and you get the sense that hope is rising and the boys begin to concoct a plan.
All this talk about cinematic lighting and staging, and I haven't really talked about the story at all.
Brian McDonald, in his book Invisible Ink, asserts that E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial is about a selfish boy learning to empathize with others. I agree with that assertion. If you'd like to know more, I suggest reading the book because it's fantastic and will likely change your life.
I also want to point out that there are many unexplained things that happen in the story. Things that we don't see or necessarily understand. One of them is how E.T. came back to life. While the movie hints that it's because of the spaceship approaching Earth, it never specifically says that's how he 'reincarnated' himself.
Another example might be when Michael, Elliott's brother, rescues E.T. from the icy waters of the forest. There is no explanation or scene about how he was able to return with E.T. to the house even though there were helicopters flying overhead. I think that was smart cutting there.
Perhaps one of the most intriguing mysteries would be how exactly Elliott and E.T. were biologically linked. It just happens and there are questions about it, even the scientists mention it, but those questions are never answered.
So... this film is ripe for some hypothesizing.
In all, I think this movie is classic and will stay that way. It has its own kind of magic. I will have to study it again and again. I have a feeling there are layers upon layers of techniques and decisions that will blow my mind. What did you think of E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial? Did anything blow your mind?