E.T.: The Extraterrestrial (1982) / Sci Fi-Adventure
MPAA Rated: PG for some language and violence
Running time: 115 min.
Cast: Henry Thomas, Dee Wallace, Robert MacNaughton, Drew Barrymore, Peter Coyote, C. Thomas Howell, Pat Welsh (voice)
Cameo: Erika Eleniak, Anne Lockhart
Director: Steven Spielberg
Screenplay: Melissa Mathison
Review published February 27, 2009
E.T. starts off in the dense woods not far outside of a suburban area in central California, where an alien spacecraft has landed, and several extraterrestrial creatures are roaming, ostensibly to gather samples of Earth flora. When some dangerous humans come to the scene in the hope of capturing one of these creatures, the aliens hightail it out of there, though they leave one of their own behind. The alien hides for a spell in the shed behind one of the suburban homes, where he is soon discovered by a 10-year-old boy named Elliott (Thomas, Cloak & Dagger), and though both are startled and scared, they form a nearly instant empathic bond that goes beyond just being friends. Elliott hides the creature, whom he has dubbed "E.T." (short for "extraterrestrial"), in his room, and only his brother and sister are allowed to see him.
E.T. is a quick study of the environs around him, and soon determines that he can find his way home if he can gather the materials necessary to "phone home" by building a transmitter to message his kin to come back and get him -- especially important, as he appears to be getting weaker the longer he stays on Earth. However, the government isn't going to let such an extraordinary creature get away so easily, and they soon learn his whereabouts.
One of the many classics by director Steven Spielberg (Raiders of the Lost Ark, 1941), E.T. was a major commercial and critical success at the time of its release, breaking the all-time box office record and garnering nine Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture. It would win four of them, three technical Oscars and one for the very memorable John Williams score.
Spielberg sets the mood throughout as a work of fantasy much more so than science fiction, with the mythical wooded areas, thick fog effects and human adversaries whose faces are rarely shown and whose shadows cast an ominous level of darkness around the sunny California neighborhood. "Peter Pan" elements are injected, to no surprise, as the story is paid homage to early in the film, as it is the young children that do believe in extraterrestrials.
E.T. is benefitted by excellent casting, with an especially terrific performance by Henry Thomas in his first starring role. Though many of Spielberg's films with children tend to go for cloyingly cute (indeed, Drew Barrymore's (Firestarter, Cat's Eye) precocious younger sister is a prime example of this), he does give Elliott the level of complexity required to make him seem like a real kid, with the sense of wonderment and imagination many young boys have at that age. The scenes of the young boys playing "Dungeons and Dragons" and the interplay among the siblings is also spot on, almost feeling at times as if they are unscripted, though they are. Dee Wallace is also superb as the mother who hasn't gotten her act together after the departure of her husband to Mexico, not quite able to handle the idea of single motherhood in a way she is comfortable with, especially with two growing boys to keep up with.
There are many who would champion, without hesitation, E.T. as a masterpiece, and think it deserves the highest rating possible. I am not one of those people. I do think it a classic family film, especially appealing for younger children, with its very cute, touching moments and imaginative effects. And yet, ultimately, I consider E.T. as a whole to be an uneven film with some very memorable moments of greatness within. There isn't a great deal of story to follow; it's more a tale of friendship between a young boy and a homesick alien. Favorably, it is told with care, and Spielberg allows the friendship to develop without rushing things too quickly.
Some might say such things as the bike rides through the sky capture the beauty and imagination of the piece, and while there is a kind of exhilaration aspect involved at seeing a boy fly in the air, it seems a bit unrealistic in the boy's reaction to being that high in the sky without knowing he is safe. An entire sequence that has E.T. getting drunk and Elliott in class about to dissect a frog. Elliott, having formed an emotional bond with E.T. (one presumes that when E.T, uses his healing powers on anything, they are connected with him thereafter) appears to be sloshed, goes berserk by freeing the frogs, and even starts making out with a fellow classmate in a scene that recreates one from John Wayne's classic, The Quiet Man.
Then there are the moments that are practically hyperbolic in their level of intensity, such as a scene when the government agency invades the family home wearing what appear to be astronaut space suits, busting through windows and doors Night of the Living Dead style. Scenes are built with a child's point of view in mind, offering up what would be the most fun to see in one instance, and alternately, what might be the most frightening. It's a movie that runs more on emotions than logic, but if you don't mind a little sweetness (or even a lot), all can easily be forgiven for the sake of the overall entertainment.
I've always struggled with my feelings toward E.T. This includes the time I saw it as a kid, so I know it's just not the feelings of a jaded adult talking now. I love certain aspects of the film -- the bits of humor, the friendship parable, the semi-religious subtexts, the masterful puppetry (though full body shots often look pretty silly), and the rousing John Williams (The Empire Strikes Back, Superman) score. Yet, the artistic liberties taken by Spielberg in certain instances tend to seem out of place in a movie that builds itself up as delicately as it does initially. Your reaction largely depends on how willing you are to give yourself up to the emotional pull of Spielberg's vision. Seeing it as a work of serious science fiction, it is flowed, sometimes manipulative, and other times just plain nonsensical. Seeing it as an adventure-filled fairy tale aimed at children, especially ones who've ever felt alienated from their family or peers, there are enough finer qualities that make E.T. a heartfelt experience that is as wondrously enriching and tenderly rewarding as there has been in the history of family-oriented cinema.
- The 20th Anniversary Edition, released in theaters in 2002, digitally remasters the film, adds some new CGI, sanitizes some of the less politically correct elements, and adds five minutes of footage not shown in its original release.
©2009 Vince Leo