Movies We Like
E.T: The Extra-Terrestrial
Despite one of the worst movie titles ever, E.T: The Extra-Terrestrial produced one of the most exceptional films about a child’s alienation from the adult world and the power of love, and is certainty on par with The Wizard Of Oz as an entertaining family film with much deeper meanings below the surface. Its massive success - at one time the highest grossing movie of all-time - brought on a wave of imitative clones (many produced by its director Steven Spielberg). But as the years and the hoopla have passed, it can now be enjoyed for what it is - irresistible.
An awkwardly adolescent suburban kid named Elliott (Henry Thomas), along with his younger sister and older bother (Drew Barrymore and Robert MacNaughton), are dealing with their preoccupied mother’s recent divorce from their father. She is played by Dee Wallace who went on to play the mother protecting her son from a psycho pooch in Cujo. Elliott comes upon a stranded space alien in his backyard whom he conveniently names E.T. (short for "Extra-Terrestrial," get it?). Employing his bro and sis they join the cute E.T on his quest to be reunited with his fellow spacemen, while having to hide him from their mom and the scary government officials who are searching for him. Oh, and earth's rotten atmosphere is slowly destroying him.
Elliott finds the friend he has always longed for, bonds with his family, and even kisses a girl (imitating John Wayne’s grab and kiss of Maureen O’Hara in The Quiet Man), getting the nerve because he and E.T. begin to feel the same things. So when E.T. gets drunk chugging beers, Elliott feels tipsy too. It’s complicated scientific stuff. Being forced to dissect frogs in school, Elliott realizes what government scientists will want to do to his dear bud (again, because he is now drunk, he courageously frees the frogs from the bondage of his classroom).
An interesting voice enters the story when the government does get their hands on the alien (before he is rescued by the kids and their dirt bike crew and is set free again). Peter Coyote pops-up as a G-Man who seems to have well-meaning intentions, but because he is a scientist and worse, an adult, he can’t quit grasp the child’s view of friendship over dissection.
Coming off the one, two, three punch of Jaws, Close Encounters Of The Third Kind, and Raiders Of The Lost Ark, Steven Spielberg hit another home run with E.T.. Though also hidden in the line-up was the less admired WWII comedy 1941 (I loved it as a kid, but unlike the other four legitimate classics, it now just feels a little loud). E.T. could almost be a mirror opposite companion piece to Close Encounters. Where E.T. is about a boy in search of a family, Close Encounters is about a man fleeing his (could you imagine a hit film as radical as that today, where you root for the hero to leave his obnoxious wife and kids?). In 1982 Spielberg also produced another mirror opposite companion piece to E.T., Poltergeist, which he also wrote and is rumored to have taken over most of the direction from credited director Tobe Hooper. If E.T. is the ultimate child’s dream, then perhaps Poltergeist is the ultimate child’s nightmare.
It would be over ten years until Spielberg created another exceptional film (Schindler’s List in 1993), although The Color Purple has its admirers and Empire Of The Sun is a rather underrated epic (with maybe the greatest "kid performance" of all-time from then wee Christian Bale - he’s definitely up there with that weird kid’s work in The Sixth Sense). Spielberg would mostly knock out big entertainment hokum like the not-as-good-as-the-original sequels to Raiders Of The Lost Ark. And even worse, downright junk like his "magical" Kick The Can segment in The Twilight Zone: The Movie, the lame remake of A Guy Named Joe (hideously retitled Always), and the worst piece of manipulative crap of his career, the Peter Pan reimagining Hook. But the worse abuse he may have caused was to the children of the world in trying to find that old E.T. magic producing such films as The Goonies, An American Tail, Harry And The Hendersons, and most unbearable of all *batteries not included (oh, and also all those lame TV shows like Amazing Stories and Tiny Toon Adventures).
Like Star Wars before it, in ’82 E.T: The Extra-Terrestrial was a phenomenon. E.T. was everywhere - toys, happy meals, tee shirts. Even Neil Diamond cashed in and had a hit with an E.T.-inspired song "Heartlight." "E.T. phone home" became a catchphrase. At the 1983 Oscar ceremony E.T. scored a bunch of nominations, winning a couple for its visual effects and John Williams' often over ripe score. It lost Best Picture to Gandhi (don’t get mad, two other terrific movies, The Verdict and Tootsie, also lost that year). Perhaps because of that enormous success there was the inevitable backlash; perhaps it was because of Spielberg’s money grab over the next decade (of course, since then he has redeemed himself with a number of high quality films including Saving Private Ryan and Munich).
One of the Spielberg trademarks in this period and onward is getting exceptional performances from children and the kids in E.T. don’t disappoint. The kids in Poltergeist may be living in the exact same looking subdivision, but they are nowhere near as likable as the E.T. kids. Little Henry Thomas gives a very complicated performance, although one place where E.T. differs from The Wizard Of Oz is the characters' arc. Dorothy wants to leave home and by the end appreciates her life and family back in Kansas, but I’m not sure if Elliott (or E.T. for that matter) has too strong an arc. Elliott maybe comes to appreciate his family a little more, but if at the start he was socially awkward, I’m not sure this experience is going to help him fit in any more. Also the mother, though obviously loving, spends much of the movie either being whiny or ditsy (under a Halloween ghost sheet she can't tell the difference between E.T. and her own daughter) and then she spends the last act of the movie just crying and smiling in awe of her neat son.
One major complaint and compliment to the film would be the last five minutes. After the boys and their friends have a great rescue of E.T. from the government scientists and the cops, when E.T. is finally reunited with his spaceship, the emotions are heavy. It’s very moving and earned. It’s nice to see the respect and genuine affection E.T. bestows on Elliott’s siblings. E.T.’s goodbye to Elliott is one for the ages - he asks Elliott to join him, they really are friends (like Dorothy and The Scarecrow). It is deeply moving stuff; unfortunately John Williams' score hits you over the head with a sledgehammer, letting you know that you are commanded to feel things. And then the spaceship takes off and leaves a rainbow behind, a wee heavy-handed, as the teary-eyed mother giggles.
Back when Spielberg did some tinkering for a re-release, updating the FX and I guess replacing the G-men’s guns with flashlights or something like that, if only he had replaced John Williams' score with something a little less evasive. Well, at least he never ruined the franchise with a sequel. Knock-on-wood, there will never be an E.T. Two. As much as I love the little guy, I’d rather remember him how he was back in ’82, not as a studio's new get rich scheme.
E.T: The Extra-Terrestrial won four Oscars: Best Sound Effects Editing, Best Visual Effects, Best Original Score, and Best Sound. It was nominated for an additional five Oscars: Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing, Best Original Screenplay, Best Director, and Best Picture.