The first scene of E.T. wouldn’t be the same in any other medium. Wordless, shadowy and purposefully obscure, there’s still a ton of information conveyed through visuals alone. Spielberg was (and maybe still is) a fan of this kind of opening, eschewing expository positioning in favor of details that might strike as somewhat disorienting at first. There are fifteen or so characters here, all of them faceless. But even though we don’t get an instance of “Spielberg Face” — his beloved reaction shot of a wonderstruck visage, eyes wide, mouth agape — there’s still plenty to gawk at in these few short minutes.
Here’s the opening scene (jump to 1:10 to skip the opening credits):
What’s remarkable for a scene with no words is that the aspects that grab the viewer can largely be attributed to Melissa Mathison as much as to Spielberg. The writer/director team were a match made in heaven after Mathison’s screenwriting debut The Black Stallion, which was comprised of a wondrous and ethereal first half and an exciting race-to-the-finish finale. E.T. leaned into that economy of storytelling, particularly in the opening. Let’s dive into the first pages of the script to see how Mathison more or less set up the entire film without a single line of dialogue:
Movies with non-human characters — monsters, aliens, whatever — mostly share a single trait: they hide the thing as much as possible. The technique draws you in, teasing you with shadowy glimpses and fuzzy reflections (and, typically, it lets the studio save a bundle on creature effects). It’s become a somewhat frustrating trope, though, giving rise to an entire Godzilla movie that contains about ten minutes of Godzilla. E.T. is the gold standard: we’re engaged from the jump in trying to see what these alien creatures look like in the “obscured” and “misty” environment, but it’s all in service of grabbing your attention for the film’s first scene.
Again, this forces us to focus on the action. We get a little tease of alien anatomy, but the focus isn’t actually on the hand. It’s on what lies beyond it.
Part of the efficacy of these opening stage directions lies in how quickly we’re on E.T.’s side as a sympathetic character. Even if it’s subconscious, the idea that these aliens are collecting vegetation as horticulturalists from outer space cues us in to the fact that they’re non-threatening and worthy of our sympathy.
More glimpses here, and we see that the aliens are diminutive and slow-moving, thus generating more sympathy from us. More importantly, another anatomical plot point is couched in this paragraph: the red lights in the alien chests, signifying danger and an ability to communicate with each other. When this happens later in the film, we already understand exactly how it works.
More sympathetic images in the careful treatment of nature, and the alien’s place within it. Empathy, too, comes from E.T.’s juxtaposition against the redwoods; we (humans) are just as dwarfed by those gigantic trees.
And, lastly, skipping ahead a bit:
This shoring up of our psychological bond with E.T. takes another step forward: we’re both watching these human figures together. And not to discredit what Spielberg does with this scene from page to screen: it’s significant that we don’t actually see the map as it’s laid out on the hood. We know it’s a map because the hood of a car is where people lay out maps in movies. But we’re further drawn into the scene by an ever-so-slight question as to what exactly these people are hunting.
Mathison gets a deserved amount of credit for penning one of the most memorable lines of dialogue in film history. But “E.T. phone home” isn’t why E.T. endures as a classic today, lending inspiration to everything from Stranger Things to a psuedo-sequel Xfinity commercial. While the film may not have been as impactful in the hands of a lesser director, the first scene alone attests to the fact that E.T.‘s power was there all along on the page.