E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982): United States – directed by Steven Spielberg
Rated PG by the MPAA – contains mild language
E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial is one of several films I rarely watched growing up. For many people it seems to be a movie that is ingrained in their upbringing, whereas I may have seen it once before I was twenty, and if so I don’t remember. Therefore, there is no nostalgia factor weighing into my criticism of the film.
Fortunately, it is still a quality motion picture. The story and characters are touching, brought alive by the technical skill of director Steven Spielberg. It may be unabashedly commercial in its appeal, but that does not make it any less of a movie.
The story is fairly straightforward. An alien spacecraft lands just outside the suburbs, and after their presence becomes known to some humans they are forced to take off quickly. Unfortunately, one of their crew members is left behind. This little guy wanders around before being found by a kid named Elliott (Henry Thomas).
They are both frightened, at first, by meeting a creature from another planet. Soon, though, they forge a friendship alongside a stronger emotional bond that can’t be explained in human terms. Elliott shares E.T. only with his older brother, Michael (Robert MacNaughton) and younger sister, Gertie (Drew Barrymore). Their struggle to keep E.T. secret from their mother (Dee Wallace) and the people that initially saw E.T.’s ship consumes over half of the film.
The second part of the film moves into a more serious realm, as the government agents finally uncover E.T.’s whereabouts and invade the family’s home. The movie also gets more exciting as Elliott tries desperately to help E.T. phone home and reconnect with his own alien family. I think, for many people, the emotional connection between Elliott and E.T. is a stronger draw than any of the exciting scenes Spielberg constructs. Their relationship is more than friendship; they share a primal emotional bond that bridges distance, allowing Elliott, at school, to feel what E.T., at home, discovers in the family fridge. This can have amusing results, such as when E.T. has his first go at a can of beer.
Drew Barrymore is quite wonderful in the film. One forgets, with all her recent success, how adorable she was at the age of six. Her acting is surprisingly effective, too. All the child actors in the film are remarkable. Thomas in particular is fantastic. Without his precocious efforts the film would fall flat. He plays Elliott straight, without a hint of amateur cheesiness. The rest of the production is spotless, as one would expect from Spielberg.
I found it interesting that during the first hour and a quarter no adult male faces are seen. Even Elliott’s teacher is shown from the chest down. The humans pursuing E.T. are shown sparingly, almost as one would show a strange, scary creature or a giant shark. They are much more alien than E.T. himself, and when they finally show themselves and take over Elliott’s home it’s like stepping into an alien planet. It’s interesting to note that, even though they are portrayed as the bad guys, they have multiple motives that aren’t easy to discern at first.
Even though I have no fond memories of watching and re-watching E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial growing up, I’m glad I can still appreciate the film now that I’m older. It is solidly crafted, with emotional performances and complex themes. There’s a little more underneath the surface than one might suspect or uncover at a younger age, and this makes it an enjoyable film to watch as an adult. It’s also an exciting story, full of adventure and friendship, and one that I shall look forward to watching with my kids someday.