E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982)

15 Jan

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Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

There are so many things that “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial” pull off greatly that it’s going to be difficult to name them all. This is one of those movies that just strike me as perfect. Everything this movie throws at you, you buy, you believe, you care, you admire, and in the end, you love. It comes from the idea that if an alien (or many aliens, for that matter) came to visit Earth with no plans of destruction or annihilation of mankind whatsoever, then it could be a friend to us if we let it. This is a movie about a lonely little boy who comes across a stranded alien and forms his own friendship with it. It’s the idea that could have been a tamed throwaway family picture, but it’s instead structured as something that becomes an instant family classic. It’s a wonderful, wonderful movie.

“E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial” begins in a forest as an alien ship lands and these pudgy, ugly little alien botanists come to bring back a couple of plants that they come across. But a group of people arrives with flashlights and chase down one of the little creatures. They miss it, but it misses its ride home. So the thing is stranded on Earth and makes its way to the nearest suburb, where it comes across a ten-year-old lonely, friendless boy named Elliott (Henry Thomas). Elliott is at first scared at first sight of this creature, but becomes more curious and leads it to his house and bedroom (with Reese’s Pieces), where he decides to keep it and take care of it. He lets his teenage brother Michael (Robert MacNaughton) and his five-year-old sister Gertie (Drew Barrymore) in on the secret, as they give it the name “E.T.” (it’s short for extra-terrestrial, get it?), decide to keep it hidden from the authorities and their mother (Dee Wallace), and eventually come up with a plan to help it get back home.

That’s the storyline and unless you feel sympathy for the creature when its life is in jeopardy, the whole movie could fall apart. But E.T. is one of the most convincing special effects creatures I’ve ever seen. It’s so convincing that I constantly had to remind myself that it was an effect. On screen, E.T. has a distinct look, a curious personality, imitation of human speech, and is completely lovable. It’s a triumph of special effects done right.

Steven Spielberg is the director (and co-producer) of this movie and it’s reportedly his most personal work. He pays attention to detail. He tells a story. He makes us care. He originally got this idea from looking back on his childhood and remembering to have imagined an alien companion during his parents’ divorce as a child. During delays of making his film “1941,” Spielberg wondered what would happen if he brought that little creature to the screen. He expressed the idea to screenwriter Melissa Matheson, who wrote the script for “E.T.”

Spielberg’s direction and Matheson’s writing really bring the story to life and keep to every little detail. Where do I even start? First, there’s the idea of keeping the adults’ faces obscure until they take over in the third act of the movie keeps the focus on the kids—Elliott, Michael, Gertie, and their friends. (The mother of the three kids is the only adult fully seen until later.) The adults are mainly government agents who know there’s an alien somewhere in the area and constantly spy on the neighborhood to track it down. They want to study it, while the kids simply want to help it. They make for effective villains, though they may not be villains in some people’s eyes. Even one of these adults—not given a name, but is dubbed “Keys” because of his jangling keys attached to his belt—isn’t a bad guy. He’s just very interested in this incredible discovery. Who wouldn’t be?

The movie gets the family life just right. Elliott, Michael, and Gertie are the children of a failed marriage and while Michael has his buddies to fool around with and Gertie is too innocent to worry about not having a father figure around, Elliott has nothing to fall back on, until E.T. comes along and Elliott feels a friendship, as well as a need and responsibility to keep it safe. Also, the way the house is lit at dinnertime, the consistent mess of Elliott’s bedroom, and the relationship between these kids and their mother has a natural feel.

Also, the way these kids talk is absolutely right. When we first see Elliott, he’s constantly yelling for the attention of Michael and his three friends while they’re playing a dungeons-and-dragons game in the kitchen—they talk over one another, sometimes argue, and mock each other, just like how any group of teenage boys would act. The little sister Gertie also constantly says things that any kid of that age would say if she saw an alien (“I don’t like his feet,” “Is he a boy or a girl,” etc.).

The chase scene, in which the adults chase the kids on their bicycles, that leads to the final emotional moment as E.T. must return with his own family is thrilling and it succeeds in fulfilling childhood dreams—haven’t you ever daydreamed about your own bicycle flying? That’s right—E.T. makes the kids fly on their bikes and it’s a wonderfully pleasing moment. It’s one of the most magical moments I’ve ever seen in a movie.

Oh, and of course in that sequence, there has to be at least one kid who’s scared of heights—“Tell me when it’s over!”

All of the young actors are spot-on. Henry Thomas as Elliott possibly delivers one of the best child performances seen in a movie. He’s perfectly natural, always convincing, has a real energy to himself, and when all is said and done, he’s still a kid. He’ll get greedy, he’ll get whiny, he’ll get touched, he’ll get excited, etc. Robert MacNaughton and Drew Barrymore are good, and the other three young actors playing the friends—K.C. Martel, C. Thomas Howell, and Sean Frye—are appealing.

What have I left out? The memorable music score by John Williams, sequences involving Elliott showing E.T. some random things in his bedroom, Elliott’s emotional (and telepathic) connection with E.T., the moment where we fear the worst for poor E.T. and we actually feel something because of that, and the excellent final moment when E.T. bids farewell to his human friends and finally to his best friend Elliott. “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial” mixes innocence, charm, adventure, joyfulness, and suspense, and the result is what reminded me of why I love movies.

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