Sunday, August 04, 2002

E.T.: THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL, directed by Steven Spielberg

It has been 20 years since Steven Spielberg made film-history with the release of ET. I had not seen it until now, when a special re-issue version has been released in theatres.

ET is a classic. It is artful; it has things to say – about childhood, about innocence, about home, about love. The technical wizardry involved in making a believable character of the alien creature is impressive. More so is the remarkable performance of young Henry Thomas in the role of Elliot, the boy who befriends the lost creature. The film is interspersed with moments of wonder and magic. And there are scenes which remain indelible on the collective memory of movie-goers around the world.

ET is the film that proved that Spielberg had a special touch, an unprecedented ability to use the medium of popular cinema to reach out to the audience on a mass scale. Though Spielberg made excellent films right from the start, it was not until Schindler’s List that he was to be recognized by the mainstream critical community as an ‘artistic’ filmmaker. Was it because his films made lots of money? That may be true, but only partly. There is another important factor. Cyril Connolly once wrote:

‘It is closing time in the gardens of the West, and from now on an artist will be judged only by the resonance of his solitude or the quality of his despair.’

Spielberg’s most commercially successful films, the ones that came to be identified as typically ‘Spielbergian’, were never tinged with despair. Spielberg always served up a brand of optimism – some would say na├»ve optimism. Thus, ET is light-years away from the brooding world of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner or the cerebral one of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.


Which brings us to the last Spielberg film I saw: A.I. Artificial Intelligence – a disturbing, truly thought-provoking science-fiction epic. It cannot be called a masterpiece, because, as a film, it fails. But the result is a magnificent ruin. Its ambition is huge and perhaps could have been realized only by the man who originally conceived the project – Stanley Kubrick. If Kubrick had made this film, I would have thought it a safe bet that it would have been one of the greatest pieces of cinematic art, one to stand alongside his 2001. But Kubrick did not make it. It was left to Spielberg. And his effort is praiseworthy. His script is brilliant, if only for the sheer weight of the ideas he plays with. However, he fails to make one unified whole of it all.

As with Henry Thomas in E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (There is similarity in more than just the title), Spielberg draws an impressive performance from a child actor – in this case, the remarkable Haley Joel Osment. Osment here plays a robot, designed and programmed to emulate a human child, right down to his emotional attachments. From his predicament, and that of the people who interact with him, Spielberg gets a chance to explore what it means to be human. What results is very interesting indeed, and it goes off in totally unexpected directions.

But different parts of the film feel like they do not belong together. The last third is worlds away from the first, and it feels like a totally different film. However, though AI is at times maddening, it is also mesmerizing.slfr