Joe Cornish on E.T.

imageThe director of Attack the Block and co-writer of the forthcoming Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn explains his devotion to Steven Spielberg’s science-fiction classic.

I saw ET for the first time in New York when I was 12. I had never been to America before, and I basically got off the plane, got on the subway and went straight to the cinema to watch it. I knew who Spielberg was because I’d seen Jaws: it had been given an A certificate [the equivalent of today’s PG], so lots of kids had.

The build-up to when you first see the alien in ET is done so beautifully – it’s just suggested by a light in the tall grass; you see its hand; you hear a noise or a shudder. Spielberg’s brilliant at the slow build, and it was both scary and entrancing. When I was a teenager, it seemed like the best thing that could ever happen – a little, friendly alien jumping out of your garden shed.

One of the things that really struck me was the scene in which Elliott [the boy who befriends it] knows that the creature is out there but he hasn’t made proper contact with it, so he spends the night on a lawn chair under a blanket with a torch, just waiting. Then he wakes up, sees it and tries to shout for his mum, but the words don’t come out because he’s so scared. I remember having that feeling when I was a kid.

The film featured a lot of very relatable reality. The combination of high fantasy and a kind of Mike Leigh/Ken Loach/Robert Altman evocation of a child’s life on a small domestic level is very powerful.

The performances are brilliant. The conversation around the dinner table when they talk about the absent dad is a great example of naturalistic filmmaking.

Because this was all pre-CGI, the ET itself is an actual physical prop with puppeteers. It has an expressiveness, a simplicity and a presence that is difficult to get now.

There’s only one alien in the film, and today we seem to think we need to have whole worlds and millions of creatures, but Spielberg does more with one spacecraft and one alien than many other movies do with massive battle scenes and alternative universes.

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