Appreciating… gives a writer the freedom of choice to write about any facet of any score they want. No rules, just words.
By Paul Bullock
If I were to mention E.T. to you, chances are you’d do one of two things. 1) Prod out your finger and say in a croaky voice: “Phone home!”. 2) Start humming John Williams’s beloved theme. Both acceptable reactions, of course, (as indeed is ‘Sod off, weirdo, do you ever talk about anything but Steven Spielberg?’), but a little predictable. The thing with E.T., both film and score, is that their fame has flattened their nuances. The film is just a feelgood kids classic, a perennial ITV schedule filler that’ll always pull in the ratings; its score nothing more than Williams’s swirling strings and operatic brass, an easy win for classical stations looking to appeal to younger audiences. Watch and listen more closely though, and what emerge are a film and score of unheralded and sometimes overwhelming darkness.
This shouldn’t really come as a surprise. If Spielberg has a ‘horror period’, it’s most certainly the first half of the 1980s. Sandwiched between the occasionally horrific Raiders of the Lost Ark and the downright nasty Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Spielberg directed a segment of the ill-fated Twilight Zone: The Movie and produced Poltergeist, both of which focus on the strange and supernatural. E.T. does likewise, emphasising through Spielberg’s smart direction and Allen Daviau’s otherworldly cinematography the essential weirdness of the alien who waddles his way into the back garden of lonely Elliot one enchanted evening. It’s a film of stunning visuals, one whose central arc is conveyed through rhyming imagery (those glorious moon and sun shots), but it also relies heavily, perhaps more heavily than any other Spielberg film, on its music, and the freedom Spielberg affords Williams really brings the best out of the composer.
Despite the main theme’s hummable brilliance, E.T. is one of the most purely atmospheric scores Williams has ever written. As with Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Jurassic Park, our first impression of the film is foreboding and mysterious. Spielberg’s frame is black and Williams’ musical palate dark and undistinguished. We hear a sort of metallic wail echoing with slight feedback through the speakers. It’s the wind. Nah, couldn’t be. Some kind of animal? Don’t be stupid! What kind of animal sounds like that?! What is it then?! A ghost, a monster, a demon…? Whatever it is, it sounds like its going to seep in through the speakers and slowly drag us to a miserable death. This can’t be E.T., can it?! Isn’t that all sweeping strings and lovely flying bikes?!
When the film itself gets underway, things hardly become any clearer. We’re in a forest, Daviau’s rich blue-blacks enveloping us in a disquieting embrace that Spielberg plays on by shooting these familiar surroundings at low angles so we always feel small; this is a dream world that forever teeters on the edge of the nightmarish. Williams’s music adds further depth to the experience. We begin with a single flute playing the E.T. theme against a starry sky. Like the eponymous alien, we’re alone in the emptiness. A few seconds later, a sweep of harp, brass and strings comes in as Spielberg slowly pans down into the trees. Finally, Williams plunges headfirst into the strange. A gothic organ is introduced as we see a spaceship sitting in a clearing. As the cue continues, Williams tinkers gently before erupting into a grand, tragic swell to accompany Spielberg’s glorious wide shots of E.T. heading into the forest alone. Strings utterly dominate, but the gothic remains. There’s innocence, there’s danger; and E.T. is, above everything else, a delicate balance of those two polar emotions.
Indeed, in the film’s first act, Spielberg wants us to feel the danger more than the innocence. For E.T. to work, we have to initially fear E.T., or at least the otherness he represents, because the film questions our assumptions of what we don’t understand (as indeed did Close Encounters). Everything in these early scenes is warped, be it the visuals (dominated by extreme distance and endless fog) or the sound. Listen, for example, to background strings in ‘Bait for E.T.’, quietly humming like a mini-theramin – graceful, but just a little otherworldly. Williams achieves a similar, though barely noticeable, effect in the gorgeous ‘Toys’ later in the film, underlining the strange marriage of the familiar and the bizarre as Elliott introduces his new friend to his Star Wars figures. Back in ‘Bait for E.T.’ we hear a rendition of the main flying theme that brings to mind the pulsing, razor edge urgency of Bernard Herrmann’s score for Psycho. What later will come to represent freedom and fantasy here manifests as oppression and danger. What exactly is this thing hiding in the forest?
The government feds who pursue him are determined to find out, and to accompany Spielberg’s dehumanised approach to shooting these characters (all headless bodies and shadows), Williams crafts a menacingly simple motif. A world away from E.T.’s theme, the villain theme comprises just a handful of notes, slow, but domineering. It’s very much its own theme, but it draws very cleverly on two more well known Williams themes – the one from Jaws, and the Imperial March. Borrowing the raw, “swim and eat and make little sharks” primalism of Jaws and mixing it with some of The Imperial March’s national anthem-style melody, the villain theme emerges as more intimidating than both. This is an simple evil that nonetheless has enough sentience about it to reason and think. Even worse, it’s not in some far away, long ago galaxy or buried deep in the ocean. It’s here and now. It’s on your doorstep, it’s in your parks, and it has one thing on its mind: taking your only friend away from you.
Indeed, that feeling of childhood loss is what the villain theme, in conjunction with E.T.’s theme, conveys so perfectly. While E.T.’s theme echoes hope, dreams and possibility, the villain theme presents us with pessimism, claustrophobia, and a very oppressive sense of reality. It’s used sparingly but effectively throughout the film, perhaps most impressively in ‘Invading Elliott’s House’, when the gothic organ and otherworldy strings re-appear, accompanied by those brooding, nasty notes. Brilliantly, Williams draws the fairy tale otherness of the forest into the suburban normality of the home. It really is a nightmare world come to life, and as they so often have during their careers, Spielberg and Williams combine beautifully to make it all seem tangible and real.
The lasting impression of E.T. comes, of course, from that gorgeous final reel as Spielberg drops dialogue almost entirely and turns his masterpiece into a silent film, the music acting as its voice. But the immense flood of delight that accompanies the film’s conclusion wouldn’t have been possible without the sense of dread and danger that comes before it. Be it through the Rex attack on Tim and Lex in Jurassic Park or the women in the ‘gas chamber’ in Schindler’s List, Spielberg has made a career out of forcing his audience onto the back foot, making us weak and vulnerable, so we can feel elated when we eventually become strong and powerful. With its haunting mix of visuals and sound, E.T. represents that better than any other film in the director’s long and illustrious career. And for that, in part, he has John Williams to thank.