Directed by Steven Spielberg
Written by Melissa Matheson
Starring Dee Wallace, Henry Thomas, Peter Coyote, Robert McNaughton, Drew Barrymore
There are a few perfect films out there, not just for me, but for most of cinema-goers. Taxi Driver. Raiders of the Lost Ark. Star Wars. It’s a Wonderful Life. Blade Runner. These films are cherished and revered, often imitated but never fully copied. Steven Spielberg, probably the most recognized filmmaker in history, has had the fortune of making not one, but several perfect films in his career, with E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial probably being the best of the best.
After a gentle alien becomes stranded on Earth, the being is discovered and befriended by a young boy named Elliott (Henry Thomas). Bringing the extraterrestrial into his suburban California house, Elliott introduces E.T., as the alien is dubbed, to his brother (Robert McNaughton) and his little sister, Gertie (Drew Barrymore), and the children decide to keep its existence a secret. Soon, however, E.T. falls ill, resulting in government intervention and a dire situation for both Elliott and the alien.
Right away, from the strangely ominous drones over the black-screen credits, you know you’re in for something memorable. As the opening titles give way to the familiar sight of a shooting star against a calm night sky, we are treated the arrival of an alien spaceship in the woods. But unlike the at-times frightening appearance of the visitors in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, these creatures are decidedly more benevolent; they waddle under the handicap of their comically-undersized legs, their hearts glow brightly to signal startlement, and their childlike curiosity of the new world before them is charming. And then the humans show up. Dark, silhouetted figures of meddling humanity who give chase to one of the visitors in particular, who misses his ride home and begins a trek down the wooded hill to find shelter on an unfamiliar planet.
So begins Spielberg’s E.T., a film that I discovered I am still absolutely in love with to this day. Like his immediately previous efforts in Jaws, Close Encounters, and Raiders, E.T. is a technical and storytelling marvel, with little-to-no faults to be had. Everything about this movie is just perfect. Tired of that word yet? Perfect, perfect, PERFECT!!!
Spielberg has longed dismissed the film’s ostensible genre as science fiction, and prefers to think of it as a family drama, with Elliott’s family straining under the still-fresh injury of their father leaving. It’s a theme that Spielberg often comes back to, a real part of his life that he finds therapeutic release in portraying on screen, either as part of the background or as the main focus, such as right here in E.T. Together with Close Encounters, this film is his most personal, presenting the children, Elliott, Mike, and Gertie, as struggling with the hurt of divorce and finding comfort in this diminutive creature from the stars who needs their help.
In any film involving child actors, there’s the risk of the whole endeavor falling apart because of their inability to understand the work. That simply doesn’t happen here. Henry Thomas as Elliott is one of the greatest child performances around, as he exudes incredible chemistry with his on-screen siblings and mother as well as convincingly acting alongside the E.T. puppets. While McNaughton isn’t as large a factor, his role as the older brother Mike is still a source of much of the film’s comic relief and is such a valued member of the trio. Rounding them out is young Drew Barrymore, who doesn’t so much as act as she does truly converse with E.T. as a real being. Reportedly, at several points in production, she became convinced of E.T.’s reality, which isn’t too hard to believe considering how young she was and how good the on-set effects were.
Portrayed with a combination of various suits and animatronic puppets, E.T. is a fine example of the life a piece of latex can take on with the right design, execution, and tender love and care. From the design, evoking the old, wisened eyes of Albert Einstein, to the performance of the various instruments belaying a younger sense of wonder, E.T. is one of the best non-human characters ever realized. Such is his authenticity that, like the Yoda puppet from The Empire Strikes Back, never once do I look upon the old botanist’s face and see a high-tech gadget, but a living alien deserving of friendship.
But E.T. isn’t the only technical marvel of the film. In what I assume was an attempt to create an ethereal, dreamlike atmosphere to the idealized suburbia of Elliott’s neighborhood, many scenes are filled with whisps of vapor, allowing the light in the nighttime scenes to really pop as well as shrouding E.T. with an air of mystique, as any alien being should have. This mist of the unknown also percolates around the adult characters, who in Spielberg fashion, are concealed in silhouette until the final act, further slamming home that this story is of children, told from their point of view. (This also places a lot of the slack onto Dee Wallace, who as the children’s mother is the only adult consistently portrayed in full.)
And let’s not forget another rousing score from the master, John Williams. Alternating between quietly beautiful themes for E.T. and Elliot, and grandiose, adventurous pieces that elevate the small town setting into a mythical quest, Williams’ has delivered another score for the ages. This is how film scores are meant to be.
In 2002, for the film’s 20th Anniversary, Steven Spielberg decided to re-release the film in cinemas for a limited exhibition. Unfortunately, a little golem named George Lucas must have been sitting on his shoulder, because Spielberg decided to emulate the Star Wars Special Editions and significantly alter E.T., replacing almost all of the on-set puppetry with CGI, adding two unnecessary deleted scenes back into the film, and in the most asinine change, digitally alter the guns of the government agents chasing the children into walkie-talkies. This version was also released onto a special DVD set along with the original version.
Luckily, Spielberg has changed his tune over the years. He admits that these alterations were a mistake, and in each subsequent re-release onto home video, he has left the Special Edition in the dust and focused solely on the original cut. If you still wish to view it however, track down the 2-disc DVD from 2002. I trust that’ll be the only viewing you have of it before you come to the same conclusion as Spielberg did.
This review only came about because I finally had the pleasure of reintroducing E.T. to my video collection after it being absent for a decade. I’d almost forgotten how good of a film it is, how touching, how funny, how relatable. Even the “evil” government agent played by Peter Coyote seems to revel in the magic of E.T.’s presence on Earth during his talk with Elliott in the emergency tent. He displays a kind of childlike wonder and gratefulness to having this experience, even though he has tainted it with his government alignment. Needless to say, I was filled with that same wonder, even fistpumping the air as the kids made their escape on bicycles, with John Williams’ excellent track blaring in my living room. So many wonderful memories, so many happy tears. Thank you Steven Spielberg. It’s always nice to live that again.