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E.T. the Extra Terrestrial Single Film Study: Part 1

Darin Caudle | Wednesday January 10, 2018

Categories: A Level, OCR A Level, Analysis, Film Analysis, Films & Case Studies, Directors, Steven Spielberg, Hollywood Films, E.T. the Extra Terrestrial, Genres & Case Studies, Families, Science Fiction

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  • E.T. the Extra Terrestrial Single Film Study: Part 2

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OCR Film Studies Paper 1

Section A: Film History

Silent Era to 1990

These examination tasks require that you study three American films with particular reference to responding to questions in the key areas:

  • Film language
  • Film meaning
  • Film context

And with specific reference to ideas of:

  • Meaning and response

The task will require you compare three films, one from each Component Group:

  • The Silent Era
  • Hollywood 1930-1960
  • Hollywood 1961-1990

Group 1: Silent Era

  • The Birth of a Nation (Griffith, 1915)
  • The Gold Rush (Chaplin, 1925)
  • The Mark of Zorro (Niblo and Reed, 1920)
  • The General (Bruckman and Keaton, 1926)
  • Sunrise (Murnau, 1927)
  • The Wind (Sjostrom, 1928)

Group 2: 1930–1960

  • Citizen Kane (Welles, 1941)
  • Singin’ in the Rain (Kelly and Donen, 1952)
  • Stagecoach (Ford, 1939)
  • Vertigo (Hitchcock, 1958)
  • Double Indemnity (Wilder, 1944)
  • All that Heaven Allows (Douglas, 1955)

Group 3: 1961–1990

  • 2001: A Space Odyssey (Kubrick, 1968)
  • Raging Bull (Scorsese, 1980)
  • E.T. (Spielberg, 1982)
  • Do the Right Thing! (Lee, 1989)
  • The Conversation (Coppola, 1974)
  • West Side Story (Robbins and Wise, 1961)


Section A of Paper 1 focuses upon the micro-elements of film form and the construction of meaning and response by both filmmaker and spectator, with a particular focus on US films from the Silent Era to 1990.

Knowledge and understanding of film form and its key terms will be developed through:

  • studying the micro-elements of film form
  • identifying how these elements construct meanings and contribute to the aesthetics of film
  • an appreciation of film poetics: film as a constructed artefact, resulting from processes of selection and combination

The purpose of this OCR Single Film Study guide is to provide a starting point for your own research and consideration of how each of the three films studied reveals ideas of how film language (the micro-elements of film form) create meaning and the response of audience spectators to this.

As such, the focus of this guide is not to provide a review or details of plot and narrative but to indicate how the micro-elements of lighting, sound, editing, performance etc. construct a look, a style of film that shapes how audiences respond to its ideas and intentions – film as a powerful emotional event that has manipulated audience feelings and attitudes since the silent era.

The work in this guide is linked by the Edusites OCR Film Studies Unit 1 where you will find ideas as to how to use the information contained in this guide to respond to the comparative tasks likely to be set in the examination.

The work in this single Film Guide assumes that you will have covered the material in the Edusites Advanced Level Film Studies Core Unit 1 where the elements of film language discussed in this guide are covered and explained in detail.
You must remember that the tasks set in the examination will require responses to questions about individual films from an era and comparisons of films from different era. You will find sample tasks at the end of this guide.


Every film reflects the concerns of its time, the particular way of looking at the world in that culture, that society, that time. To fully understand a film, you need to know something of the era that spawned it. As you will have already considered in your Edusites Core Units, film is very much a cultural artefact, a reflection of the society that created and watched it. Each film is influenced by all of the films that have gone before it – the collective consciousness of how we ‘look’ at a film - and will have specific conventions that link it to others of its genre, its type. For your examination, an understanding of the film’s production and of events in the world at that time will offer perspectives on how to better view its narrative presentation and thematic concerns. More importantly, you will learn how its use of film language and film aesthetics will have been shaped (and in turn shaped) by the way that other films of its time were constructed.

Films are shaped by the contexts in which they are produced. They can therefore be understood in more depth by placing them within two important contextual frames. The first involves considering the broader contexts of a film at the time when it was produced – its social, cultural and political contexts, either current or historical. The second involves a consideration of a film’s institutional context, including the important contextual factors affecting production such as finance and available technology.

Social-Political Context

Every film is made by those workers in an industry who were part of the social world that the film is made in. the film-makers made films for audiences of their own time, not for a future time. They sought an audience for their film and did so by making films that reflect the values, beliefs and concerns of that time. The graphic violence of Bonnie and Clyde (dir. Penn) made in 1968 at a time of the emergence of a strong and active youth culture, in a rapidly changing and increasingly aggressive and pro-active political world could never have been made in the Classic Hollywood of 1930-1960 where films represented a more stable, traditional view of the world – strongly supportive of the police, of law and order, of social order and where films were subject to rigid censorship. Similarly, many of the style of films that had been so successful in the period of 1930-1960 – those such as the big musicals like Hello Dolly (1964 dir. Kelly) - flopped at the mid-sixties box office as they appeared dated and out of touch to these later audiences.

Whilst not a specific concern of the examination tasks, an understanding of each of the three of your chosen films will help you see how it is reflective of its time – which is crucial element of the comparative tasks.

In 1980, confidence in the American economy and government was at a low point. Looking for the promise of a better future, Americans voted to put Ronald Reagan, a former Hollywood actor, into the White House. Reagan felt it was time to stop feeling guilty about the war in Vietnam and the social injustices highlighted over the past two decades and to start feeling like proud Americans again. For him government was too big and too intrusive in people’s lives. He set about cutting taxes in the hopes of stimulating growth and investment, and boosted military spending to make America a great military power once again. To pay for this he wanted to reduce the money spent on government welfare programs that supported the most vulnerable. If the 60s and 70s can be seen broadly as decades that championed social justice and inner enlightenment, the 80s was the decade of capitalism and a return to the patriarchal values of the past (which Reagan, a grandfatherly figure of reassurance, clearly embodied). As the economy initially started to grow, many middle class (mostly white) Americans invested heavily in the bullish stock market, and revelled in flaunting their newly acquired wealth. Young Urban Professionals, or Yuppies, replaced the socially conscious hippie of the previous generation of youth.

Many popular Hollywood films of the 1980s openly championed the conservative values of patriarchy, militarism and capitalistic success, for instance, First Blood (1982), the initial entry in Sylvester Stallone’s Rambo series, or the Tom Cruise films Risky Business (1983) and Top Gun (1985). There were other films, particularly the fantasy blockbusters associated with George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, which critics saw as pure escapism with no real political ideology other than perhaps an infantilizing nostalgia for the filmmakers’ own childhoods, and which paled in comparison to the more politically conscious and thematically complex cinema of the 1970s. However, to discount Spielberg’s work during this period as simply apolitical or escapist is to ignore the ways in which the films were still clearly reflective of the social/political issues of the era.

There is a clear liberal ideology of empathy, tolerance and acceptance at work in E.T. If these liberal values had been seemingly banished from public life in the form of cuts to welfare and an overall promotion of greed by ‘Reaganomics’, then filmmakers like Spielberg sought to emphasize those values in the private sphere of the family and home. “The adult world of harshness and competition that so many conservative films celebrate is looked on from the children or E.T.’s perspective, through frequent point of view shots, in a way that portrays it as menacing. The real aliens in the film are all over thirty or over three feet tall” (Ryan and Kellner, 1990). The overwhelming popularity of the film suggests that perhaps its appeal to an audience was more than just simple, empty-minded escapism. Instead, the film’s emphasis on love and empathy, qualities downplayed in a public realm that promoted wealth and strength, arguably spoke to the country’s desire for something more humane. Of course, whatever gentle critique of conservative values one might find in the film, its fusion of fantasy and coming of age story resonated with audiences across the political divide. Two of the film’s biggest fans were none other than Ronald and Nancy Reagan, who were particularly moved by it after a screening at The White House on June the 27th, 1982.

Production Context

Each of your films will be the product of the then existing system of film production. From 1930 to 1960 the period often referred to as Classic Hollywood, a system of producing films had become established. It was based on all of those involved in the production process being tied to long contracts to one of the major studios. Whilst these contracts seemed to offer security, they evolved into a form of film-making that meant directors, technicians and actors had no say in the films they made and the studios controlled what films were shown in the cinema chains they either owned or indirectly controlled. As a result, audiences were offered cheap films with little thought to quality control. The emergence of television in the late 1950s offered alternatives, audiences drifted away from cinemas and studios lost control of contracts to challenges in courtrooms. This lead to the New Hollywood where films were made very differently – actors and directors selected their projects, younger film-makers broke through with challenging films and technical developments meant low cost location shooting was possible, giving films a greater realism for their new and challenging ideas.

E.T. began life as a script entitled Night Skies, which was about a farm family terrorized by gremlin like extra-terrestrials. However, after reading an early draft, Spielberg soon realised this was not a film he wanted to make, as it was too violent and did not reflect his optimistic belief that if aliens really did exist, they would not pose a threat to humanity. What he wanted to do instead was tell a story about the sort of benign aliens seen at the end of Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977). He also had another nascent idea, which was in part autobiographical, about a young boy struggling with the aftermath of his parents’ divorce. During the production of Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), he convinced writer Melissa Mathison, who was on set with then boyfriend Harrison Ford, to write a screenplay that would combine both storylines. Spielberg had already made a deal with Columbia Pictures to produce Night Skies, but when Spielberg informed Frank Price, the studio head, that he wanted to make what would become E.T. instead, the studio boss turned him down. At the time, children’s films (and that was what this new idea sounded like to Price) were considered to be financially risky. No other studio seemed that interested in Spielberg and Matheson’s suburban fantasy either, but Universal eventually agreed to finance it for $10 million, mostly to preserve a potentially lucrative relationship with the man who was bound to make another Jaws or Raiders of the Lost Ark sometime in the future (Baxter, 1997).

The shooting schedule for E.T. was sixty-five days and began on September 8, 1981. Much of the shooting took place at Laird Studios in Culver City, with location work completed in the suburbs of Tujunga and Northridge on the outskirts of Los Angeles, and in Crescent City in northern California. After a rapturous reception at the 1982 Cannes Film Festival and 450 special sneak previews across America, the film opened officially on June 11, 1982 and was an immediate success, grossing $11.8 million on its first weekend. The original domestic release went on to gross more than $359 million. Total worldwide box office for the initial release reached $619 million, which made it the highest grossing film of all time, a record it held until Spielberg’s own Jurassic Park toppled it in 1993. Including re-releases its current international box office total stands at $792.9 million. Reviews were almost universally positive, and the film earned nine Academy Award nominations, winning four for Sound, Visual Effects, Sound Effects Editing and Original Score. David Denby, critic for New York magazine called it “One of the most beautiful fantasy adventures ever made. The millions who see it will stay rooted in their seats, astonished at what movies can do.”


In a California forest, a group of alien botanists land in a spacecraft to collect various samples of plant life. Government agents appear on the scene and the aliens flee in their spaceship. However, in their haste, they leave one of their own behind.

At a suburban home, a ten-year-old boy named Elliott discovers the castaway alien in the vegetable garden in his backyard. They react to one another in mutual shock and terror, and the alien runs away. Despite his family’s disbelief, Elliott knows he saw something incredible and resolves to find it again. He leaves a trail Reese’s Pieces candy throughout the neighborhood and nearby forest hoping to lure the alien back to his house. This is successful and that night Elliott finds himself face to face again with the creature. After hiding the alien in his bedroom overnight, Elliott feigns illness the next morning so he can stay home from school and spend time with his new discovery. Later that day, he reveals the creature to Michael and their five-year-old sister, Gertie. They collectively decide to keep it hidden from their mother, Mary. When they ask the alien where it comes from, it levitates several balls into the air to represent its planetary system. Later on, it demonstrates even more powers by reviving a dead geranium that Gertie has given it.

Elliott goes to school the next day while the creature stays at home. Soon it becomes clear that they share some sort of psychic connection, as when the alien drinks several cans of beer, Elliott, sitting in his Biology lesson, becomes intoxicated. The alien also psychically inspires Elliott to free all the frogs that are about to be dissected and to kiss a pretty girl in the class.

Influenced by a Buck Rogers comic strip and a commercial for AT&T telephone services, the alien begins assembling a communication device, using many household items like a Speak and Spell toy and the blade from a circular saw, in order to contact its home. It also begins to learn English by repeating what Gertie says as she watches Sesame Street. With Elliott’s encouragement, the creature dubs itself “E.T.”

On Halloween, Michael, Elliott and Gertie enact a complicated plan, which involves dressing E.T. as a ghost and making Mary believe that it is in fact Gertie under the sheet, so they can sneak the alien out of the house. Elliott and E.T. then head to the forest, where they attempt to use the makeshift communicator to call E.T.’s home. The next day, Elliott wakes up in the forest, only to find E.T. gone. Elliott returns home to his distressed family. Michael searches for and finds E.T. dying next to a culvert. Michael takes E.T. home to Elliott, who is also now showing the exact same symptoms as E.T.

Michael leads Mary to the bedroom and reveals the truth to her. Shocked by the sight of both the alien and her very pale and gravely ill son, Mary carries Elliott out of the room and runs straight into a government agent in a space suit who has entered her house. Running around in hysterics, she soon realizes government agents and scientists have invaded her entire house. The scientists set up a makeshift hospital to treat Elliott and E.T., while agents question Michael, Mary and Gertie about the creature. The connection between boy and alien disappears and E.T. appears to ‘die’ while Elliott recovers. ‘Keys’, a sympathetic agent, gives a bereft Elliott a moment alone to say goodbye to E.T. Numb with pain, Elliott walks away but notices the dead geranium, the plant E.T. had previously revived, suddenly coming back to life. E.T. wakes up and reveals that it has made contact with its people (“E.T. phone home!”) and they are coming. Elliott and Michael steal a van that E.T. had been loaded into and a chase ensues. They meet up with Michael’s friends and attempt to outrun the authorities on their bicycles. At a police roadblock, E.T. uses telekinesis to lift them into the air and toward the forest.

E.T. and the boys arrive at the forest in time to see the spaceship descend. E.T. says “Home” and his heart light begins to shine. Mary, Gertie, and ‘Keys’ now show up as well. E.T. says goodbye to Michael and Gertie, as she presents him with the now fully blossomed geranium. Before boarding the spaceship, he tells Elliott “I’ll be right here”, pointing his glowing finger to Elliott’s forehead. He then picks up the geranium and boards the spaceship. It takes off, leaving a rainbow in the sky as everyone watches it leave.


The auteur is the idea borne in the late 1950s among French film critics that the director of a film could be regarded in the same role as the author of a novel – the driving force behind the creation of a cultural artefact that might aspire to be considered in the same light as great literature or painting. Auteur was a key concept in enabling academics and critics to give legitimacy to their investigation of mass audience films that had previously been dismissed as ‘populist genre film-making’ that was of little artistic value.

Auteurs are directors who put a strong personal stamp on their films, usually through the mise en scene. Auteur theory meant that distinctive Hollywood film-makers - Hitchcock; John Ford; Frank Capra - could be acknowledged as artists and their films given serious discussion in evaluations of modern cultures and thinking, that they could offer ideas worth serious consideration in discussions about how art informs us about the world we live in.

“At the heart of (Steven) Spielberg’s filmmaking are his overwhelming desire and exceptional ability to move audiences (that is, to provide them sensual thrills and emotional stimulation)”, (Kramer, 2006). In terms of box office, Spielberg is the most successful director of all time, and this popularity has made the critical establishment over the years suspicious of him, and reluctant to take much of his work seriously. This was particularly true during the first stage of his career from 1971’s Duel to 1984’s Indiana Jones and The Temple of Doom, where he produced films that were for the most part genre based and escapist in tone. In 1993, his critical reputation dramatically changed with the release of Schindler’s List, the story of the German industrialist Oskar Schindler, who used his munitions factory as a front to save more than a thousand Jews during the Holocaust. The film won seven Academy Awards including Best Director for Spielberg. Though it is not without its detractors, the consensus view of the film is that it is one the most important and profound films ever made. It seemed during the 90s that Spielberg was two filmmakers in one, alternating between popcorn films like the The Lost World and more serious minded works like Amistad (both 1997). After Saving Private Ryan (1999), which earned him another Oscar for Best Direction, Spielberg began to fuse the two sides of his directorial personality into films that could be both serious in intent and wildly exhilarating in execution such as Minority Report (2002) and Munich (2006). Interestingly, there is now a growing critical re-estimation of his earlier, more obviously commercial films, like Jaws (1976) and E.T. (1982), arguing they are as worthy of serious attention and analysis as his more ‘important’’ later work.

One of the defining characteristics of an auteur filmmaker is the repeated use and exploration of similar themes and ideas from film to film. Spielberg continually returns to the idea of the broken or disintegrating family, with a particular focus on absent or substitute father figures. Peter Kramer (2006) writes: “(His) films often trace the attempts of children and women to come to terms with the damage the fathers have done (as, for example, in E.T., The Color Purple and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade), or the attempts of paternal figures to redeem themselves (as, for example, in Jaws, Hook, Jurassic Park, Schindler’s List and Minority Report.) American history (particularly WWII), racism and politics have also become increasingly important themes for him. However, from his early films that dealt with the dreariness and limitations of suburban life (Close Encounters of the Third Kind, 1977) to his later historical and/or high-minded work (Empire of the Sun, 1987, A.I.: Artificial Intelligence (2001)), his preoccupation with the theme of family and its discontents, especially from a child’s point of view, has never left him.

Film Language & Mise-en-Scene


We explored cinematography in the lessons in Edusites Core Unit 1 Film Language (further details can be found in that units Student Workbook should you need to review this) where we referred to it as shot selection and framing. How a director selects how to frame a shot is a key part of cinematography, and thus of Film Aesthetics and Poetics. Cinematography constructs and shapes how audiences see the content of the shot – it shapes its meaning for audiences both in terms of moving the narrative (plot) forward and how we think and feel about what is shown to us. We should be aware that lighting – which we have looked at as an element of mise-en-scene - is included as part of cinematography by the OCR examination.

Technological developments in cinematography were huge in the period from The Silent Era to 1990, so we must keep in mind that earlier films may well have been at the cutting edge of their time – some, like Birth of a Nation, were ground-breaking, shaping every film since that time - but now appear dated and inferior.

According to cinematographer Allen Daviau, Spielberg wanted E.T. to be a very shadowy, hardly seen figure, particularly during the first half of the film (Bouzereau, 2012). Their main concern was to ensure that this creature made from steel, polyurethane and rubber was believable on screen as a living, breathing, organic being. By initially shrouding E.T. in backlit silhouettes and only showing certain details and expressions of the creature in any given shot, the film establishes an air of mystery around the creature and allows our imaginations to fill in the gaps. Only as we become more immersed in the emotional journey of Elliott and his new friend, does the film allow us to see more of the alien, as by that time we are so invested in the drama we willingly suspend any inklings of disbelief. So in effect, a technical limitation centred on a mechanical/electric puppet gave birth to an aesthetic approach that greatly enhanced the film. Both day and night scenes, whether taking place in the majestic redwood forest where E.T.’s spaceship initially lands, or in Elliott’s back garden and bedroom, are lighted in a low-key style one might more associate with a film noir or horror rather than a family film that was once described as the greatest Disney film Disney never made. Daviau’s use of this low-key, heavily silhouetted approach imbues the suburban locations of the film with a tangible realism and even grittiness, which he and Spielberg felt important in a film that would incorporate so many fantastical elements. Whether from a stained glass lamp overhanging the kitchen table or the overhead light emanating from Elliott’s garden shed, the lighting often comes from a visible source on screen giving the film a naturalism and truthfulness. In Daviau’s words: “Everything had to be naturally motivated because the magic would happen only in the presence of E.T. When E.T. entered the house, the house would remain the same but the room or the closet would be transformed into this magical place” (Bouzereau, 2012). For example, when Elliott, Gertie and Michael stand in the voluminous closet gawping at E.T., the light pouring through the stained glass window basks everything in a warm reddish glow, signifying how E.T.’s presence has transformed a prosaic location into a place of magic.

Another key visual strategy in the film is the widespread use of POV shots that present the action from either Elliott’s or E.T.’s perspective. The film establishes this vantage point early on when the camera adopts E.T.’s point of view as he looks up at the awe-inspiring redwood trees towering above him. E.T.’s perspective continues to frame much of the action in the rest of the sequence as the creature gazes at the twinkling lights of the suburbs below, and then flees from the sudden and ominous arrival of Keys and his faceless silhouetted colleagues (Shmoop Editorial Team). This again serves a dual purpose of keeping the creature itself off screen, thus enhancing our curiosity about it, while also inviting us to identify with the alien and initiate our allegiance to this character’s wellbeing.

Audiences identify with the camera lens, substituting the camera’s gaze for their own. In a film that employs repeated POV shots, the spectator is naturally encouraged to identify himself or herself with the owner of that POV.

Other low angle shots that are not necessarily explicit POV shots are also used throughout to present the action from the eye level view of a child. With the exception of Elliott’s mother, Mary, the adults are rarely ever seen from the waist up, a framing device reminiscent of old Tex Avery cartoons, that serves to present adults as detached from the lives and feelings of the young child characters, and at times to make the adults a distinctly imposing and threatening presence. When the camera does go above the waist or elbows of an adult such as Keys or Elliott’s science teacher, their faces are still obscured either by low-key, shadowy lighting, or by having the character turned away from the camera so only the back of his head is visible. One repeated low angle shot deserves special attention as it represents a very important thematic idea in the film. Whenever Keys (the only name he is given in the screenplay) appears on screen, we are inevitably treated to a tightly framed shot of his torso, his jangling keys hanging from his belt loop serving as the main point of interest. Often when objects are presented to us in close ups or extreme close ups, they begin to take on a symbolic significance that outweighs their straightforward function in the narrative. This is even truer if the filmmaker chooses to show us that object repeatedly in detail throughout the film. Adults are, for the most part, the enemy in this film. We identify instead with the children and their world of imagination and ingenuity. The keys bouncing against Key’s legs are a symbol of the fearsome, authoritative, responsibility-laden existence that is the life of an adult. That Keys’ inner child proves still to be intact is a nice surprise for the spectator, since during the first half of the film, his lanky, silhouetted figure and rattling keys make him the prime object of our distrust in the adult world of technology and institutions.


This refers to what is in the scene and it includes setting, costume, make-up and how characters are positioned within the scene. How a filmmaker chooses to use these components of mise-en-scène can construct a variety of connotations for audiences, suggesting a range of possible interpretations that influence the reception of a film and its meaning.

The majority of the film’s action takes place in two significant settings: the suburban milieu of Elliott’s home and a seemingly enchanted forest that sits at the edge of the subdivision. The suburban world in the film, as A.O. Scott (2002) writes, is a place of “unsupervised children and unhappy parents” and a place littered with “broken toys and brand name junk food.” Despite Spielberg’s somewhat underserved reputation for producing sentimental schmaltz, the film’s depiction of suburbia and family life is far from idealized. This place of broken families, squabbling children, houses cluttered with junk, televisions blaring in the background, and phones ringing off the hook, is a mundane and instantly recognisable universe. Spielberg’s ability to create such a richly realised and yet very prosaic setting is key to making the more magical aspects of this fantasy film work so effectively.

Elliott’s bedroom is a key setting that encompasses this almost seamless combination of the magical and the mundane. This place is a refuge for Elliott, the headquarters for his imagination and sense of childhood wonder, and so is naturally the place where he brings E.T., a creature who is a wish come true for this lonely and imaginative boy. Elliott’s closet, the size of some children’s bedrooms one could imagine, with its dozens of stuffed animals, becomes a place of hushed secrecy (this is where Elliott and his siblings hide E.T.) and magical delight (E.T. watching through the slatted doors as Mary reads ‘Peter Pan’ to Gertie). It is also the space where Michael goes to hide his tears when he believes E.T. is dying. “Surrounded by the toys he’s outgrown, he’s a teenage boy trying to retreat into the emotional safety of childhood” (Taylor, 2002).

As mentioned earlier, when Elliott, Gertie, Michael and E.T. all come together in the closet, the frame is awash with red light. The colour red here links directly to another example of its use in the film: E.T.’s glowing heart light. Whether lighting the way when E.T. is fleeing from ‘Keys’ and trying to race back to the mothership, or when it is glowing through the cryogenic coffin that is encapsulating his supposedly dead body, or shining when he must say his final farewell to Elliott, E.T.’s heart light is a signifier of his capacity for emotion and empathy. In short, some of the very things we use to define our own humanity.

A significant prop that takes on a weighty symbolic importance is the rather wilted geranium that Gertie presents to E.T. early in the film. When E.T. is alone reading a child’s ABC book, he casually brings the dead flowers back to life, foreshadowing E.T’s own death and resurrection depicted later in the film. Spielberg rather unambiguously pushes this metaphor to its limit when we see the flowers wilt again as E.T. is supposedly dying and bloom once more when Elliott discovers his friend is in fact alive and well. What the flowers also signify is E.T.’s intrinsic affinity for the natural world. At the start of the film, E.T. is on a mission is to collect examples of plant and tree life throughout the galaxy. Despite whatever advanced technology E.T.’s race of aliens possess, it is clear their true reverence is for the world of nature and organic life, as can be seen in E.T.’s awed reaction to the towering trees of the forest, which, as mentioned earlier, is the other crucial setting for the film.

If the suburban setting of the film combines elements of both quotidian reality and childlike wonder, then the forest is all wonder. It is a place of adventure where a boy goes in search of a strange creature he believes is hiding there, hoping to lure it home with a trail chocolate sweets. A place where this same boy and creature, using a Speak and Spell and a coat hanger, hope to send a message out across the galaxy. A place to which a group of children and an alien from another world flee on their bikes when being pursued by scary, gun toting, figures of adult authority. A place where benign, plant-loving aliens in a colossal spaceship arrive and depart. A place that “represents the best parts of being a kid: discovery, openness, enchantment, and awe” (Shmoop Editorial Team).


Editing is the placing of one shot in relation to the preceding and following shot. The most basic is the ‘cut’. Editing has a very influential role both in the pace and rhythm of a film or scene. The shot movement from one shot to another shot can be used to create meaning and generate response for the spectator. Often this is very subtle and we have become so adept at ‘reading’ these that we hardly notice they are occurring. The key selections here are paradigmatic – which shots to select - and syntagmatic - the order they will be placed. The transitions then determine pace and rhythm.

Spielberg and Editor Carol Littlejohn use a range of different continuity editing techniques to convey one of the key ideas in the film, which is the mystical bond that develops between E.T. and Elliott. When Elliott first brings E.T. up to his bedroom, a shot/reverse shot pattern presents their actions in a way that makes their growing connection immediately clear. After Elliott covers E.T. in a blanket, we see the boy in a medium close up involuntarily rub his lips while thinking what he should do next about his new friend. Spielberg cuts to an over-the-shoulder (OTS) of E.T. mimicking Elliott’s gesture. As Elliott continues to think of different behaviors for E.T. to copy, this pattern of action (MCU on Elliott) and mimicking reaction (OTS of E.T.) repeats several times, with the use of eye-line match cutting helping to establish the sense of awe and wonder in which they regard one another. This shot/reverse shot pattern also draws the spectator into the space between the two characters, absorbing the spectator fully in that aforementioned sense of mutual awe our two characters feel. Soon these two will be doing more than merely behaving the same way; they will be simultaneously thinking the same thoughts and experiencing the same emotions, even when separated spatially, which again the editing will make clear.

Spielberg and Littlejohn use Parallel Editing for humorous effect when E.T., home alone, drinks several cans of Coors beer and we see Elliott, in the middle of a Biology lesson, become consequently completely drunk. The connection between them grows more profound as the sequence continues. When E.T. discovers, via a Buck Rogers comic strip and a commercial for the AT&T telephone company, a way to communicate to the home planet, back at school Elliott becomes inspired to release the frogs his teacher has instructed the class to euthanize for dissection. Here the crosscutting between the two events establishes a parallel between E.T. and the frogs, as both are organic species potentially under threat from scientifically minded adults who would gladly vivisect them in the name of knowledge. Therefore, when Elliott decides he must ‘save’ the frogs from dissection, he is also declaring his intention to save E.T. from a similar fate. The symbiotic bond between the two of them is unequivocally solidified by what we see next in the sequence. As E.T. watches engrossed on the television a romantic scene from John Ford’s The Quiet Man (1952), Elliott becomes inspired to kiss the pretty girl in his class in exactly the same manner as John Wayne embraces Maureen O’Hara. The juxtaposed images of Wayne/O’Hara and Elliott/Pretty Girl in matching embraces neatly encapsulates E.T.’s profound influence and effect on Elliott’s life. E.T. in many ways acts a substitute father figure for Elliott, helping him to grow up, including, as we see here, inspiring him towards a key moment in any adolescent’s life: a first kiss.


Film sound includes: diegetic sound – the type of sound that the characters within the film world can hear and react to - and non-diegetic sound – the type of sound that is added afterwards to generate a response within the audience. It includes the idea of contrapuntal and parallel sound. Contrapuntal sound is sound which contrasts with the mood, image and even genre of the sequence and parallel sound fits the spectators’ expectations for the sequence in terms of mood, image and genre.  Sound may act as a motif – a repetitive theme linked to specific characters - used when they appear or are close by and is often effective in narrative development. The most obvious is probably the shark in Jaws (1975 dir. Spielberg).

The opening sequence in the redwood forest serves as good example of the various ways in which Spielberg and his supervising sound editor, Charles L. Campbell, and composer, John Williams, mix diegetic and non-diegetic sound to create a sense of wonder and mystery in the film. Here the soundtrack is full of ambient and Foley sounds associated with the natural world that work in conjunction with the low-key lighting and use of POV shots to establish the forest as an awe inspiring and Edenic place. Suddenly the amplified sounds of the roaring engines of the cars and trucks belonging to the government scientists/UFO hunters spoil the tranquility of the woods and immediately create a sense of threat and danger. This collision of natural and manmade sounds introduces what will be a key theme in the film: man (and their technology) versus the natural world, which E.T., despite being an extra-terrestrial, very much represents. This threat is at first best personified by Keys, and here sound plays a crucial role in shaping a spectator’s response to him. The sound of his keys jangling, along with the close framings of them, draw our attention to the character and help us single him out as the most important, and perhaps most dangerous, of the men chasing E.T. down. Whenever Keys and the other government agents appear on screen, Williams employs a sinister sounding musical motif, heavy on bass woodwinds, that in many ways resembles the menacing ‘Imperial March’ theme he composed for The Empire Strikes Back (1980).

Williams’ music has a profound effect on the film as a whole, and it is difficult to imagine the film without it. The string dominated ‘Flying’ theme, which we hear during the ‘across the moon’ sequence and again near the end of the film, when E.T and the whole gang of kids are flying on their bikes to meet the mothership, is perhaps the film’s most recognizable and emotionally affecting piece of music. Described by one music critic as ‘the heart and soul’ of the film, the ‘flying’ theme ‘serve(s) to represent the powers that the alien creature uses to both heal and fly (while) also conveying the broader sense of magic that prevails in the story” (Clemmensen 1996). The score, with its eight separate and distinctive themes, which Williams then mixes in various overlapping arrangements, underpins virtually every scene in the film, embellishing the drama in a multitude of ways and guiding the spectator on how to feel and think. Not only can music shape a spectator’s judgment of a character or situation, it can also express what those characters are thinking and feeling in a non-verbal way. This is very important in a film like E.T., which avoids using dialogue as a primary method of communicating its themes and ideas. For Williams, the film starts as a mystery and turns into ‘a love story’, and so the music very much had to express the unique bond between this young boy and his gentle friend from another world (Bouzereau, 2012).

Another crucial aspect of the sound design was in the creation of E.T.’s voice. Pat Welsh, a chain-smoking woman in her 60s, with a few uncredited roles in films from the 1940s, was the principal voice of E.T. Though Welsh, with her raspy voice, made the most significant contribution, voice designer, Ben Burtt, in total used about eighteen different voices to create the finished product, including those of many animals. For instance, when E.T. screams, what we are hearing are the amplified shrieks of an otter. This choice of using animal sounds is just another way in which E.T. as a character is associated with some aspect of the natural non-human world.


Almost inseparable from character, this relates to the performance of the cast and how meanings and responses are generated through their individual and collective performance. For OCR, this involves a consideration of the staging of a scene - how the cast are positioned within a set up as well as the performance being given. This would include the use of acting approaches such as method (a deep involvement in character to bring a deep reality and truth to the performance – Marlon Brando and Al Pacino are seen as good examples of this approach) or improvisation (the minimal use of script that permits ideas to flow freely from the situation the actors/character is placed in – Rutger Hauer’s famous speech at the climax of Blade Runner).

The child actors deliver, for the most part, wonderfully natural performances that ground the film in a clearly recognizable, everyday reality. Part of this is down to the fact that Spielberg encouraged his actors to change lines of dialogue or improvise in order to find a more truthful way of expressing a scene. For instance, all of the dialogue in the scene where Elliott shows off his toys to E.T. was ad-libbed, giving Elliot’s words an unpolished authenticity they may have otherwise lacked. Actors Henry Thomas and Robert MacNaughton also invented much of the dialogue in the scene where Elliott and Michael rummage around the garage and reminisce about their absent father. Their words, which have the natural rhythms of every day speech, imbue the intimate scene, which is both hopeful and sad, with a quiet realism. Though Spielberg is often accused of sentimentality, the scenes where one might think he would try to maximize the tears are actually quite restrained. As Charles Taylor (2002) writes: “A hack might have squeezed tears out of the scene where Elliott, believing E.T. is dead, says goodbye to his friend. Spielberg shoots it dry-eyed and that’s how Thomas plays it. ‘I must be dead,’ he says, ‘because I don’t know how to feel.’ Spielberg lets the line, and Thomas’ unfussy delivery, speak for itself, for the confusion of a little boy first encountering adult feelings.”

Another strategy that makes the performances feel so genuine is Spielberg’s use of overlapping dialogue, seen particularly in the early scene with all of the boys playing a Dungeons and Dragons like game. The scene is a flurry of competing voices all vying for the spectator’s attention: Michael, Greg and Steve arguing over game strategy; Tyler on the telephone to the local radio station; and Elliott pleading to be allowed into the game. It feels completely unrehearsed and authentic and serves as an excellent example of how sound and performance work together to create the mood and milieu of a scene.

One performance deserves special mention, even though it goes beyond our normal understanding of the term, and that is E.T.’s. Designed by Carlo Rambaldi, E.T. is a complex creation of polyurethane and rubber that in a world before CGI somehow seems completely believable to the spectator. There were actually three different types of E.T. used in the film: a mechanical model (operated by twelve men connected to the model by twenty-foot cables), a radio controlled electric model, and then suits inhabited by three different actors including Matthew De Merritt, a boy without legs who performed in the costume standing on his hands. Because Spielberg kept the technicians operating the mechanical and electronic versions of E.T. well out of sight from the cast, the child actors found themselves treating the E.T. creature as if it were real. This must go some way in explaining the genuine sense of wonder one can detect in the scenes between E.T. and the children. In fact, with its leathery, tactile body, its carefully detailed gestures and intricate voice design, E.T.’s ‘performance’ feels as nuanced and three dimensional as any of those given by the actual cast.


Aesthetics is focused on the interaction between a film’s subject matter and its style and how this can create and generate a response for a spectator. The movement known as film noir takes a simple detective or crime story and wraps it in dark shadows, dim lighting, urban locations, neon lights and heavy rain (the mise-en-scene) to construct a sense of the main character’s isolation from the world around them. This style was widely adapted to films such as Blade Runner (1982 dir. Scott) or Sev7en (1995 dir. Fincher) where a deeply alienated or troubled character was required to convey the meaning of these films of world’s in decay, the fragility of morality and values, and where violence and terrible events happen in an apparently meaningless and random manner.

Early in the writing process, Spielberg and his screenwriter Melissa Mathison set out some ground rules that would guide them aesthetically throughout the filmmaking process. 

They were:

  • All adults in the movie are shot from the waist down, except for mom
  • Adults are the villains
  • E.T. is a plant, neither male or female
  • Aliens aren’t here to destroy, they come to observe and make contact
  • Elliott has a psychic connection with E.T.
  • E.T. has healing powers but they are limited (i.e. he can’t cure cancer)
  • Science is the threat
  • Every time E.T. says a word, he has to say it twice

(Bouzereau, 2012)

Going through this list of rules, one can see how many of them had a direct impact on the stylistic approach Spielberg took when making the film. For example, Spielberg’s decision to frame all of the adults, aside from Mary, in a way that obscured their faces, effectively presents them as a threat to, or otherwise emotionally detached from, E.T. and the children. It also firmly aligns the spectator with a child’s point of view, which is vital for the blend of realism and magic to work in the film. Spielberg pushes his ‘adults as villains’ theme even further in the last third of the film when we see the black booted men in hooded hazmat suits marching in backlit silhouette down the suburban road ready to invade Elliott’s home. They look precisely like the Storm troopers of George Lucas’s Star Wars films or the Android Police from his earlier film THX-1138 (1971).

Daviau dramatically shifts his lighting design once the scientists have invaded the home and placed E.T. and Elliott under close monitoring, the low key shadows now replaced with blindingly bright high key lighting to denote how the home has been transformed into a clinical/hospital like environment. The doctors, as they watch E.T. ‘die’, speak in a clinical, dispassionate manner (in his bid for realism Spielberg cast real doctors); while Elliott, all emotion and love, screams that they are killing his friend. Here we see a clear portrayal of the threat and lack of understanding that both the scientific and adult world in general represent for Spielberg.

However, the character of Keys does turn out to be different, poignantly encapsulated in the shot of him looking down at Elliott with the small, frightened boy’s tiny reflection visible in the clear visor of Key’s helmet. Here we see the man reminded of the boy he once was, a lonely boy full of the dreams and imaginative wishes that adults, as they grow older, too soon forget.

The concept that E.T. is a representative of the natural world, and so in binary opposition with the technological world inhabited by the adults, is evident throughout the films’ mise en scene, from the setting of the redwood forest to E.T.’s own interior design, which, visible during the moments E.T.’s heart light shines, resembles the vascular structure of a plant.

Because of his clearly defined aesthetic vision for the story, Spielberg’s stylistic choices thoroughly and imaginatively express the film’s various themes and ideas, and mark the film as the work of a true auteur.

Film Poetics

Pretty much ‘all of the above’ – exploring the overall impact of each element on the whole meaning and reception of the film and its ideas.

Some critics and other filmmakers have cited Spielberg’s films of the 1970s and 80s as partially responsible for reviving the public’s taste for big budgeted escapist entertainment and consequently killing the industry’s desire to make smaller-scale personal films, which were in fashion for a brief period in Hollywood during the first half of the 1970s. However, for A.O. Scott (2002) what makes E.T. so extraordinary is that it “effortlessly combines two approaches to filmmaking within a single story. It partakes equally of the fantasy-adventure tradition of the ‘Star Wars’ pictures and of the gritty, somber realism of the New Hollywood.” We have discussed in detail the various ways Spielberg visualizes the ‘gritty’ reality of the lonely suburbs, but what also demands our attention is how Spielberg utilizes cutting edge (for the time) special effects technology to create the more fantastical elements of the film. The film contains a mixture of miniature models, matte paintings, and blue screen photography for various scenes in the film. All of this was work was created by the special effects gurus of George Lucas’s Industrial Light and Magic. However, despite this intensive use of special effects and trick photography, someone watching the film today might find the film’s low-key intimacy quite surprising and refreshing, especially when compared with the swirling CGI grandeur of our latest Marvel or Transformers’ movies. The film is full of scenes of wonder, none more enchanting than the moment Elliott’s bike, powered by E.T.’s telekinetic magic, lifts off the ground and flies through the air, giving the spectator what has become film’s most iconic shot of the two of them floating across a planet sized moon. Just as memorable though is the scene where Elliott (in a rush of ad-libbed words from actor Henry Thomas) shows off his toys to E.T. Watching a kid excitedly babble as he introduces the important things in his world to his new friend is a moment many parents will recognize as completely truthful. Spielberg never forgets to ground his fantasy in an emotional reality that makes us care about the characters, making those magical scenes all the more emotionally affective.

Spielberg’s initial ideas for the film focused on a lonely, disenfranchised boy who is enduring the after effects of his parents’ divorce. This was always the primary idea, the central one before anything else. This focus on the child and his harried mother and siblings remained at the heart of the script even as the fairy tale/fantasy aspects of the story developed. Which explains how the film is able to feel so truthful while still indulging in the heights of fantasy. Therefore, even though critics have cited this mammoth box office hit, which inspired countless poorer imitations, as an example of the sort apolitical escapism that has ruined the Hollywood film, watching it now the film seems, as Molly Haskell (2017) wrote in her biography of Spielberg when describing another of his early films, “a humanist masterpiece”.


Whilst narrative - as a macro-element of film form - in itself is not part of our required study for Section A, it does impact on some of the comparative tasks where you may be asked to consider issues such as aesthetics vs narrative. Many of the films of the Classic Hollywood era of 1930-1960 were dominated by narrative and the perceived need to satisfy the audience desire for both narrative resolution and for realistic cause and effect plotting. That life is not so simple was of little consequence or consideration as the films were offered as escapism and as long as certain narrative rules were followed audiences accepted these. This narrative dominance lead to the view that it was the screenwriter who was the main creative force in film-making. The rise of the auteur movement in the late 1950s moved the thinking to the role of the director and a resurgence of film as aesthetic spectacle rather than a vehicle for narrative plotting.

E.T. structures its narrative around a series of binary oppositions that establish not only the main conflicts in the story, but also help to articulate its various themes and ideas.

Binary Oppositions:

  • Reality vs Magic
  • Children vs Adult
  • Nature/Spirituality vs Science
  • Friendship vs Loneliness
  • Broken family vs Repaired family

Throughout the story, we see the triumph of the ‘positive’ concepts over their theoretical opposites. Magic trumps reality. Children’s wonderment defeats the cold-hearted logic of adulthood. The spirit world of nature saves E.T. when science cannot. Elliott finds a true friend and his family bonds seem permanently mended.

The film follows the classic three-act structure used in most mainstream Hollywood films.

Act 1:

Set-Up – E.T. is left behind. We meet Elliott and his family.

Inciting Incident – Elliott hears mysterious noises in the backyard shed, and then later comes face to face with E.T. in the vegetable garden, though no one believes him.

Later E.T. appears in the backyard, returning the Reese’s Pieces Elliott had used to lure the creature out of hiding. Elliott hides E.T. away in his room.

Act 2:

Rising Action and Stakes: Elliott, Michael and Gertie attempt to keep E.T. a secret from Mary, and everyone else for that matter. While Elliott is in school, E.T. explores the house and discovers a possible way to make contact with home. Meanwhile government agents (our antagonists) surveil the neighborhood looking for clues to the extra-terrestrial’s whereabouts. As the psychic bond between Elliott and E.T. deepens, it becomes clear that E.T. cannot survive on earth. On Halloween night, Elliott sneaks E.T. out to the forest where they can build a communicator that will hopefully make contact with E.T.’s family. The government scientists identify Elliott’s house as the place where E.T. is hiding and prepare to invade it. After a tense episode where Mary fears Elliott has gone missing, the children finally reveal to her the existence of E.T., who is now very sick. Eventually the scientists ambush the house and place both E.T. and Elliott, who is now sick too, under their care, converting the house into a makeshift hospital/laboratory.

Crisis: The psychic bond between Elliott and E.T. dissipates as E.T. ‘dies’. The creature is placed in a cryogenic capsule and Keys gives Elliott a private moment to say goodbye to his now lost friend.

Act 3:

Climax: E.T. is alive! He phones home! Elliott, Michael and the rest of the bike riding gang manage to escape with E.T. and race on their bikes to the mothership, which is waiting in the forest to collect the alien. Keys, Mary and Gertie follow behind them.

Resolution: Elliott and E.T. bid a bittersweet farewell and E.T. boards the spaceship. Elliott, his family supportively close by, is left with a newfound sense of maturity and knowledge about the true extent and power of friendship.

E.T. the Extra Terrestrial Single Film Study: Part 2

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