VINTAGE REVIEW: E.T.: the Extra-Terrestrial




Movies have always been considered magic on some level, to make fiction appear to come to life.  Some movies, though, just flat-out have more magic than others.  Steven Spielberg's E.T.: the Extra-Terrestrial is one of those movies.  The film has more heart, finesse, performance, and magic in single scenes than some movies have in their entire running time, and does it with an animatronic special effect as a main character.  As we've now seen for thirty years, E.T.: the Extra-Terrestrial is a triumph on a multitude of levels and rightfully earns its place as an American cinematic classic.

Hopefully, you know the story.  For those too young to remember, a single UFO of meek and curious aliens have landed in the tall forests of the California outside of suburbia.  They come to collect flora samples when their presence is interrupted by a group of government agents and scientists who seem to have discovered their arrival.  Leaving in haste, they leave one of their own behind.  The small alien eludes the agents and hides out among the houses nearby.

Hearing a clamor in the back shed, the alien is discovered by 10-year-old Elliot (Henry Thomas).  His bewilderment and discovery falls on deaf ears to his older brother Michael (Robert McNaughton), younger siser Gertie (Drew Barrymore), and their recently-separated mother Mary (Dee Wallace).  Scared at first, Elliot learns that the alien means no harm.  He skips school the next day to stay with it, introduces it to his siblings, and names him E.T., his acronym for extra-terrestrial.  Over the next few days, in the time they share together, the kids learn E.T.'s mission and dilemma, all while the ever-tracking government gets closer to discovering E.T.

While that's just the start of the story, E.T.: the Extra-Terrestrial delivers its narrative with incredibly poignant emotion and connection.  Those who have seen the movie know the indelible impression it makes for being Spielberg's so-called "little" movie between blockbusters.  Sometimes, it's the simple movies with small stories that grab us the most.  We don't always need the epic landscape of history, high theater, or blockbusters.  Even then, E.T.: the Extra-Terrestrial is a movie that belongs on the big screen.

Impressive to observe in retrospect is that Steven Spielberg primarily shot this film chronologically and almost entirely with a cast of inexperienced child actors.  Dee Wallace and Peter Coyote may have their names on the top of the credits, but they are minor additions to what Thomas, McNaughton, and Barrymore provide.  If then-10-year-old Tatum O'Neal could win an Oscar for Paper Moon nine years earlier, I don't know how you can overlook the performance of Henry Thomas at the same age.  With equal parts wonder, shock, mischief, and honesty, he's excellent as the child voice and heart of the movie.  Ask yourself, when the tear ducts get loosened in E.T.: the Extra-Terrestrial (as it did for many), is it Elliot that provokes the emotion or the alien?  I argue that it's Elliot.

E.T.: the Extra-Terrestrial was masterfully created with artful filmmaking style and skill.  Sure, today's CGI could probably do wonders with the E.T. character and, to some extent, it already has been served by them, thanks to the feather-rustling "touch-ups" and altered shots of the 2002 special edition.  That said, there's something more tangible and connective about the somewhat crude animatronic puppet Carlo Rambaldi created and its emotive eyes and expressions that the actors get to play their scenes against.  CGI or not, we can't see the puppeteer's strings and are enraptured by its presence.  For a while after the spaceship opening scene, you forget you're watching science fiction.

So often shooting from low angle closeups to wide vistas, bathed by grabbing household light matched with natural light, and utilizing both silhouette and shadow for depth, cinematographer Allen Daviau paints an amazing canvas for this "little" movie.  Spielberg's homages to his influences (like John Ford in that great The Quiet Man reference) show how respectful and talented he was as a then-35-year-old filmmaker.  What directors at 35 today can we say could make a movie as polished and well-conceived as this one?

If the perfect visuals didn't win you over, the music will seal the deal.  From the bassoon of Coyote's "keys" to the iconic shots of those biking scenes and all the way to the finale, master composer John Williams takes the imagery of Spielberg and gives a movie that cruises into a jolt into a classic that soars.  He was the best at giving movies their musical voice then as he is now.  From the story, the visuals, and the music, E.T.: the Extra-Terrestrial deserves to be remembered for generations.  To me, it's a right of passage film experience for pre-teens that adults who love the movie should be honored to share.

LESSON #1: SEEING THINGS FROM A CHILD'S POINT OF VIEW-- As I mentioned during the review with the low camera angles, Spielberg does a unique visual and intellectual job of showing this movie through a child's point of view.  The camera sees the world that they would.  The discussions and conversations, from sibling rivarly to divorce and ethics, take their stances over the adults.  This is one of those movies that doesn't go over a child's head.  It's goes straight to them.

LESSON #2: THE FAMILY EFFECTS OF DIVORCE-- This is a smaller lesson, but matches a bit of the point of view from Lesson #1.  The portrait of divorce shown with Mary and the kids leaves more things unspoken than spoken, but we get their troubles.  Spielberg himself experienced a divorced household and let his imagination fill the void.  Knowing that, he really channels that loss, confusion, and emotion through his characters in E.T.: the Extra-Terrestrial.  Just like novels, films are always a little autobiographical towards their creators.  You can't help but be personally connected to a creative job or task you are passionate about.

LESSON #3: THE STRONG DESIRE TO BE HOME AND HAVE A HOME-- Like the classic craft store sign in grandmother's house that reads "home is where the heart is," we get to experience different characters that long for that in this film.  Carrying over from Lesson #2, Elliot, Michael, Gertie, and Mary try to make a new home post-separation on the road to divorce, despite the little reminders of the past that crop up.  They are determined to make the best of things and still be a family despite feeling incomplete.  E.T., of course, is left behind and longs to return home.  Having an attachment to a home goes beyond the basic human need of shelter.  That sign in grandma's house is right.  It's not a home or a shelter unless you put your heart in it.

LESSON #4: THE BONDS OF SPECIAL FRIENDSHIP-- I am not the first writer or the last to endear this film as a timeless story of friendship.  E.T.: the Extra-Terrestrial deserves every superlative on this theme and lesson.  It doesn't matter that the friendship is between a human and an alien or that the story skews to fairy tale or science fiction.  Watch the connection between Elliot and E.T. and you'll see what's special.  Their bond, among other things, is about helping each other and putting away fears of differences.  Contrary to other child friendship scenarios and evil adult characters in other family films, the adults in this movie aren't evil and, by the end, respect Elliot's bond with E.T.  Even they see it and it's a beautiful thing.