This movie was a surprise. When it was released it was an instant classic, and growing up in the 80s and early 90s it was impossible to miss all the spoofs and parodies that abounded afterwards. Over time, the cultural kruft starts to collect on your memory instead of the movie itself. I remember it being a little hokey, an example of Spielberg’s worst sentimental excesses that worked at the time but probably didn’t age too well.
I’m quite happy I was so wrong. E.T. is sentimental, sure, and it plays a few of its scenes with an inflated sense of how cute it’s being. But it’s also a really great movie about what it was like to be a child in the 80s, where it was becoming increasingly common for your parents to have checked out on your upbringing for a bit. What’s most impressive to me is how Spielberg and writer Melissa Mathison present a broken home without any accusations; each of its characters, from Elliot’s mom (Wallace) to his sister (Barrymore) to his brother and his friends, are treated compassionately. You understand what it’s like to be each of them, and why they react the way they do.
Elliot is the middle child in a recently-broken home. His mother is working hard to keep the family afloat and mourning the death of her marriage. His older brother is being a bratty teenager, while his younger sister is…well, she’s his younger sister. Elliot himself doesn’t have many friends, and he tags along with his brother’s friends, taking mild abuse just to be a part of some sort of social order. He’s lonely, but there’s not much to be done about it. He is where he is, until he discovers the alien hiding in the tool shed of his backyard.
The friendship that’s forged is painstaking; Elliot and the alien (dubbed E.T.) have to overcome vast language and cultural barriers. But, through patience and persistence, it happens. All the while, E.T. is trying to find his way back to his home planet and he’s being tracked by government agents. Along the way, sister Gertie and brother Michael (Robert MacNaughton) are let in on the secret, and the experience of befriending and helping this visitor brings them closer as a family.
It sounds hokey, and maybe it is; but it’s also surprisingly effective. The performances by the mostly young cast are so natural you completely forget that these are children acting in a movie. Even the modern-day wunderkinds on screen these days carry a bit of artifice with them; they’re just little adults playing a role. The establishing scenes in E.T. — of Elliot and Michael playing and fighting during a game of Dungeons and Dragons — are loud, chaotic, effortless. When I stop to think about it, it blows me away how quickly I identify with the world and these characters.
What’s interesting about the movie to me is how it takes Elliot and makes him such an unlikely hero; in so many ways he’s just a regular kid, but his ability to befriend (and even love) a creature as ugly and formless as this alien propels him to defy just about everyone he comes across to do what he believes is right. The stakes are small here, even though we’re dealing with history-making stuff; this is the story of first contact with another sentient species, framed as a children’s buddy movie, where the ultimate conflict is how far someone would go to save someone they care for.
E.T. takes this fantastic premise and rather quietly turns it into a very relatable story, infusing the movie with wonder and mundanity that works really well together. The score by John Williams captures the tone of every scene quite well, and Spielberg’s direction is warm and unobtrusive. Given the demands of making sure the puppetry and special effects work as well as they do here, it’s a small miracle that everything looks as smooth as it does. Spielberg works almost exclusively with the most finicky things you could in a movie, and pulls it off almost flawlessly.
He made his name on this, and for very good reason. This is a director’s movie, to be sure, but you can’t discount the great work here by Henry Thomas as Elliot or Drew Barrymore as Gertie. Thomas is unassuming but kind, curious, likable, and Barrymore is disarmingly cute without being cloying about it. If it’s been a while, I’d recommend seeing E.T. again; even though there are a few things that date it, it’s a welcome surprise to see just how well it holds up.