Although Steven Spielberg was the overall mastermind behind 1982’s E.T. The Extra Terrestrial, this filmmaker will not be the main focus of this review. Instead, music composing legend John Williams will be the central point of concentration. Having previously worked with Spielberg on multiple other projects such as Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and Raiders of the Lost Ark, these two prominent figures in the cinematic industry are quite familiar with one another.
The story of E.T. is another dramatic, mysterious, science fiction narrative involving aliens visiting Earth from distant celestial locations. Incidentally, a young alien is left behind by his family, stranding him alone in completely foreign territory. The film opens with this scene, and the incorporation of silence as well as John Williams’ music instantly connects with the audience. There is an eerie, mystical vibe as we see the alien spacecraft land in a wooded area, with strange background noise, but no music. Yet, a sudden sweeping melody materializes, creating a sense of wonder and amazement, and less of the strange, almost uneasy feelings that were formerly conveyed. This contrast communicates to the audience that while this story will indeed follow other-worldly visitors, it will not be a tale of malevolence or hostility. Rather, it will be one of charm, delight, and enchantment.
The castaway alien is only a child, and soon comes into contact with his human equivalent, Elliot (Henry Thomas). At first, Elliot’s family believes that he is lying to them about this strange creature. However, it is only a matter of time before Elliot’s older brother, Michael (Robert MacNaughton), and younger sister, Gertie (Drew Barrymore), discover the truth of this alien’s existence. He is dubbed “ET,” short for “extra-terrestrial.” This peculiar being is extraordinary in many aspects of his existence. He possesses abilities that seem to defy the laws of nature. Yet, his main goal is to return to his family, which proves to be a difficult endeavor. Although he is a far more advanced organism than humans, ET is still very young. This contradiction makes for a very compelling storyline, as we see the struggles of young children working to assist their young new friend who is highly evolved intellectually and physically, yet youthful and juvenile. A prominent character conflict depicted through this is Man vs. The Unknown, as the earthly youngsters interact with this exotic being. ET must acclimate himself to a new environment as well, which eventually causes some issues (Man vs. Nature Conflict). A Man vs. Society conflict also ensues, as more influential and powerful humans from the government become interested in ET. Naturally, they are incredibly fascinated with this alien. However, as has often been the case throughout human history, they are also intimidated by these bizarre developments. Their curiosity is mixed with feelings of superiority and condescension. Elliot’s crew along with ET seems to be in an unwinnable struggle, competing against far older, wiser, and experienced individuals.
As these conflicts are illustrated, the music of John Williams has a remarkable impact. During times of potential danger and adventure, the music takes a fast-paced turn, creating anticipation and anxiety in the viewer. Ominous tones accompany other scenes that are grim and threatening, especially as the government investigates ET. Still at other points, just as the tension is at its highest point, a majestic melody relieves the suspense as ET displays miraculous abilities to get out of a seemingly impossible situation. The film’s finale boasts a thrilling, resounding orchestral arrangement that brings a sense of completion. The dialogue in this film was almost secondary to the music. John Williams’ score advanced the story more than anything. The audience developed an emotional connection with the characters like Elliot and ET as they grew in their relationship, a link primarily created by the exquisitely crafted music. Had the young alien stumbled into a more spiteful human, then this story would have had a much darker tone. Yet, Elliot’s compassion and kindness ensured this film’s touching, compassionate mood. ET and Elliot are effectively reflections of one another. They are both children trying to learn how to fit in with their surroundings. Members of the audience can think back to their own childhood and remember similar struggles.
In looking at some iconic elements of Williams’ work, it is very important to point out the intertwinement of his career with Steven Spielberg’s. Spielberg has even gone so far as to say, “…without question, John Williams has been the single most significant contributor to my success as a filmmaker.” That is incredibly high praise from one of history’s best filmmakers. Yet, Spielberg says this honestly. Williams’ ability to tell Spielberg’s stories through music is uncanny. Williams has figured out a way to combine classic, harmonious musical elements with more modern, dissonant aspects. He does all of this with a full orchestra comprised of real instruments, which has become increasingly uncommon in recent years. Williams has evolved along with film and music, but has maintained solid, consistent foundations. It is fitting that the language of music, which serves as a bridge between various cultures and societies around the world, plays such an essential role in a narrative of relations between humans and aliens.
To wrap things up, it is probably no surprise that I would give E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial an “A” grade. In addition to Steven Spielberg’s outstanding directorial work, John Williams’ contributions further created a cinematic work of art.