Elliott’s sadness is heartbreakingly portrayed by Thomas, whose eyes hold a weariness well beyond his years. Most every shot in the film is from his, his siblings’, or E.T.’s vertically limited perspective. The only adult whose face is visible for the movie’s first two acts is that of their mother, whom Spielberg has said is like his own mom in that she’s very much a kid herself. Reading Peter Pan to Gertie, she’s as full of wonder as her daughter. Dressing up for Halloween, she’s even more excited than her children. She appears to regress, even as Elliott grows in responsibility.
The sadness that runs throughout E.T. is today more often associated with independent character studies than studio fantasies. The film’s small cast of players and its sparse script by the late Melissa Mathison (recruited by Spielberg after he saw her work on The Black Stallion) are more typical of Sundance than Comic-Con. And composer John Williams forgoes his full orchestral bombast for long stretches of the film, favoring instead a heartbreakingly minimal acoustic piano. Even when compared with Hayao Miyazaki’s filmography or Pixar’s more thoughtful efforts, E.T. is a deeply melancholy movie, as preoccupied with the premature loss of innocence as it is with rescuing a bug-eyed, latex-sculpted special effect.
Perhaps that’s what makes the action in its famed flying bicycle sequences so cathartic. The first of which sees Elliott and E.T. soar across the moon on a Kuwahara BMX on a mission to radio his people. (An image that gave Amblin Entertainment, Spielberg’s production company, its logo.) The second, a sunset reprisal, finds Elliott, Michael, and his friends narrowly escaping a squad of cops hellbent on stopping them from reaching E.T.’s mothership. (Spielberg received fan flak for digitally changing the cops’ guns to walkie talkies in the 20th anniversary edition, which he later disowned.)
Thankfully, the film gave its director a happier ending than the bittersweet goodbye Elliott exchanges with his friend, when, unlike Close Encounters’ hero, he decides to stay with his family on Earth. Though Spielberg wasn’t a parent when he made E.T., he said the movie helped him decide to be a dad.
“I was feeling very protective of Henry and Robert… and especially Drew, who was only six years old. I started thinking, ‘Well, maybe this could be my real life some day.’ It was the first time it ever occurred to me that I could be a dad. So when I left those kids, when we all went our separate ways, I really felt that that would be my next big production.”
Now with seven kids and six grandkids, Spielberg has likely filled the hole in his heart left by his parents’ breakup. Though any lingering demons should be put to rest with the release of The Fabelmans (starring Michelle Williams and Paul Dano as characters based on his mother and father) later this year.