A film review by Craig J. Koban

 
 

 

 

RANK: # 4

E.T.- THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL

25th Anniversary Retrospective Review  jjjj

1982, PG, 123 mins.

 

Mary: Dee Wallace / Elliott: Henry Thomas / Keys: Peter Coyote / Michael: Robert MacNaughton / Gertie: Drew Barrymore / Greg: K.C. Martel / Steve: Sean Frye / Tyler: Tom Howell

Directed By Steven Spielberg /  Written By Melissa Mathison

Steven Spielbergís E.T. - THE EXTRA TERRESTRIAL is the first film that I recall crying at as a child.  It's also the last film as an adult that I also recall weeping through. 

For a movie-going experience to have that sort of intangible, transcending power is a tribute to its legacy.  E.T. is the very epitome of a "classic" film: one that grows fresh with repeated viewings and very rarely, if ever, shows its age.

On some cursory levels, this 1982 film is science fiction.  It certainly has some clear cut characteristics of the genre.  It involves a staple element that has permeated many of Spielbergís films - alien visitation - but it never really concerns itself with focusing on visual effects and spectacle.  No, I think that the film works on more subtle and personal levels.

At its heart, E.T. is a story about suburban family life, friendship, love, the trials and tribulations of growing up, and learning to say good-bye to those you have grown to cherish the most.  In a way, Spielbergís film is one of the best coming of age dramas ever; the fact that it involves a young boy and his loving friendship with an alien from outer space is kind of redundant.  Their friendship spans the universe, which, in itself, is the most uplifting of messages.  If a tyke and an extra-terrestrial can learn to overcome differences and love one another, can humans in general not do the same?

It is the very universality of its themes that makes E.T. stand far apart from other tales of friendship.  It also, like all other great escapist fairy tales, works so well by working on us.  It lovingly understands that all of visual splendor that you can offer an audience is oftentimes no substitute for good simple storytelling.  The film also shows some decided similarities to the most memorable of fantasies.  THE WIZARD OF OZ comes clearly to mind, as that film concerned how one lone Kansas girl is whisked away to a strange and fantastical land and is eventually saved by three exotic friends that try to help her return home.  E.T.ís story rings with similar notes: It concerns a stranded alien that is left on a foreign planet - Earth - and shows how he is befriended by three caring souls, who all assist him with trying to get home.

There have also been some that have looked deep into the mythos of the film and are convinced that E.T. is a strong and evocative religious parable.  There is some credibility in these opinions, especially when one looks at the original advertising one-sheet poster for the film, which shows the finger of the boy outstretched and touching the alienís in a clear cut homage to Michelangeloís very famous CREATION OF ADAM.  There are also some parallels to the story of Christ.  The alien in the film arrives on Earth, dies, and is resurrected, not to mention that he has the power to heal.

Yet, most who see E.T. as a religious allegory fail to see that the film is ostensibly a clear-cut tale about the emotional complexity of childhood.  At the core of the story is a lonely boy that is the product of a divorced family, lacking a father figure for guidance and support.  The world of grown-ups, ironically, is a cruel and malevolent force as portrayed in the film (aside from the childís mother, most of the other adult faces are obscured and are filmed from the eye line of a child) and it's the alien that's seen as the benign and endearing force.  This is crucial for the audienceís buy-in to the boy's plight: He is presented as a figure that has been so jilted and emotional damaged by the adult figures in his life that itís no wonder that he grows instantly attached to a strange creature from the cosmos.  He yearns for friendship and for someone to care about.  When E.T. stumbles into his life - a character that too feels abandoned by his "family" - itís the kind of cathartic and emotional release that the child craves.  In a way, the two remedy each others wounds.

The film has been reported by Spielberg himself as his most deep felt and personal.  After a career that has seen him make such bold and solemn and heartfelt dramas like THE COLOR PURPLE, SCHINDLERíS LIST and MUNICH, this admission on his part seems interesting.  Yet, the director shares the personal afflictions of the filmís young hero.  Spielberg too was a child of divorce and often daydreamed of imaginary creatures to keep him company as he dealt with the pains of his situation.  As an adult he saw how this could see the light of day as a fantasy film.

At first, Spielberg envisioned his story as a darker and bleaker film, with mean-spirited aliens terrorizing a suburban family.  He quickly abandoned this story (which would see the light of day in his future adaptation of WAR OF THE WORLDS). He enlisted the aid of screenwriter Melissa Mathison, who also penned another glorious family film, 1979's THE BLACK STALLION.  Her first draft for the film, then entitled E.T. AND ME and based on Spielbergís premise, was written in a scant eight weeks and Spielberg found it to be nearly flawless.  Filming commenced in 1981 on a very small budget of over $10 million.  To facilitate strong and convincing emotional performances from the filmís mostly young cast, Spielberg shot the film in chronological order.  Most crucially, he shot most of the film from a childís POV in order for the audience to relate to the youngsters.  Almost no adult faces are shown until the last half of the film: this is a boyís story.

As the film opens we see a strange and exotic alien vessel land in a Californian forest.  The small and amphibian-like creatures that exit the ship seem to be on a specimen seeking excursion (one of the few glimpse into their ship reveals that the aliens appear to be botanists).  However, human authorities arrive (filmed in ominous and threatening silhouettes right out of a film noir), which scares the scavenger party off.  The aliens quickly board up and abruptly leave Earth.  There's one problem: they have been forced to leave one of their kind behind who decided to engage in too much sight seeing.  For an alien that visits earth, it appears that curiosity is not a virtue.

The stranded alien (the title character) seems extraordinarily scared by the strange world around him.  Eventually, he crosses paths with a very young boy named Elliot (played in one of the most astonishing and believable child performances ever by Henry Thomas).  The first few meetings are met with frightened reactions from both parties, but slowly the two begin to forge a trust in one another.  Elliot does what just about any other boy would do: He gets attached to this stranger, leads him into his house by leaving a food trail (in this case, Reeseís Pieces), and shows the alien all the joys of his bedroom.  As the odd little creature looks on, Elliot explains to him the virtues of earthbound transportation, what humans eat for nourishment, why Coca-Cola is a great soft drink, and why Star Wars toys are so damn cool. 

Of course, Elliotís older brother, Michael (Robert MacNaughton, hitting all the right notes as a wise ass sibling) thinks that Elliot is making everything up, as does his mother, played by Dee Wallace.  Eventually, Elliot does reveal to his brother and little sister Gertie (played in a very early screen performance by Drew Barrymore) that he does, in fact, have an alien hiding in his bedroom closet.  He treats E.T. with the same sort of pride and compassion as one would a newly found pet ("Iím keeping him," he matter-of-factly tells Michael and Gertie).  The film then becomes a fun cat and mouse game of Elliot hiding E.T.ís existence from his mother, all while trying to teach the alien how to live an earthbound life.  Unfortunately, things start to turn south real fast for both the boy and his new friend.  It soon becomes clear the Earthís atmosphere is leisurely affecting E.Tís health and making him sick.  To make matters worse, it appears that E.T. is also psychically linked to Elliot, to the point where the boy starts to feel what it does (in one humorous sequence, E.T. learns that beer can be intoxicating, and Elliot, in turn, becomes drunk at school).

As the story progresses E.T.ís health falters even more and it soon becomes clear that he needs to contact his people to get a ride back home.  Using household items and ingenuity that would make MacGyver blush with envy, the alien crafts a communication device that contacts his race.  Unfortunately, E.T. is dying, as is Elliot.  When the alien canít be kept a secret any longer, government agents step in, surrounds the house and quarantines it.  It now becomes a race against the clock to get E.T. home before both he and his new human friend die.

The key to the film is the relationship between Elliot and E.T. and our willingness to believe in it is crucial.  Henry Thomas plays Elliot with such an amazing range of emotion.  Whatís incredible here is what a virtuoso job he did with playing the broad emotional spectrum and arc of his character: There is never a moment where he does not feel natural or real.  He acts and talks like a real child would, and his interactions with the alien have a plausibility to them.  E.T., even to this day, remains one of the most remarkable film creations, if not one of the best animatronic puppets ever conceived.  Carlo Rambaldi, who worked with Spielberg on CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND and created the ape models for 1976's KING KONG, was instrumental in creating the mechanical E.T..  Modeled strongly, on the directorís insistence, on poet Carl Sandburg, Albert Einstein, and a pug, the alien manages to embody wisdom, maturity, and a childlike cuteness all at the same time.  Four heads were made allowing for as many different facial expressions as possible.  A costume was also made allowing for both a dwarf and a boy with no legs to give E.T. a physicality.  At a cost of $1.5 million and a three months of prep, E.T. emerged as one of the cinemaís most lifelike and endearing artificial creations.  He is the filmís best and most long-standing special effect.

However, the film's best legacy is how powerful of a dramatic experience it is.  The film is manipulative, but gloriously so and never resorts to shameless exhibitionism.  Spielberg is a master of teasing audience sensibilities, and E.T. is no exception.  There are so many moments that are both rousing and sad.  Scenes that stand out are some of the filmís now iconic images, such as  when Elliot and E.T. fly, on his bicycle over the backdrop of a full moon and the moment where E.T. miraculously heals Elliotís wounded finger.  Then there are scenes of real anguish, as when scientists prod and probe the dying E.T. to Elliotís anguishing cries, not to mention a tear inducing moment where Elliot thinks that his companion has passed on.  Then, of course, is the exciting finale with Elliot, his friends, and E.T. eluding government authorities and escape the quarantined house to return E.T to the forest to rendezvous with his ship.  This leads to the final moment of the film where the boy and creature say good-bye to one another, which is still one of the most heart-wrenching scenes of the movies.  Only cinematic grouches will not be moved.

E.T. was initially previewed in Houston in 1982 and then was released wide where it became a surprise box office smash.  As it opened in June of 1982 the film grossed $11 million on its opening weekend and stayed number one for six straight weeks.  By June of 1983 the film achieved the seemingly improbable by dethroning the 1977 STAR WARS as the highest grossing domestic film of all-time (Spielberg, it has been said, earned nearly $500,000 per day at the time from his share of the profits).  The film became a cultural icon, with some of its dialogue becoming a part of the lexicon of the time, with the phrase "E.T. phone home" becoming socially ubiquitous.  The film was one of those very rare blockbusters that was also critically loved.  It went on to be nominated for nine Oscars, including Best Picture.  It would win four, but lost out in the Best Picture category to GHANDI.  Time has not hurt the picture, as the American Film Institute earlier this decade voted E.T. the 24th Greatest Film of All-Time and the 6th Most Inspiring.

The film became such a landmark work that sequel talk was inevitable.  Spielberg and writer Mathison once envisioned a follow-up film to be called NOCTURNAL FEARS that would involve Elliot and friends being kidnapped by aliens and E.T. and his race coming to their assistance (a treatment even saw the light of day).  Thankfully, no sequel to the film was made, which has proven, in hindsight, to be a the right move.  Sequelizing E.T. would have eroded the filmís uniqueness and stature as a classic.  Some films simple donít require a sequel because they work so overwhelming well the first time.  Spielberg did revisit E.T. for its recent 2002 theatrical re-release in celebration of its 20th Anniversary.  Taking a page out of George Lucasí playbook - and a controversial one at that - Spielberg decided to upgrade the film with new CGI alterations, some minor, some large and glaring, while also adding in new scenes.  The CGI upgrades to E.T. - mostly in his facial expressions - only help to reinforce how good the original animatronic puppet was (the CG changes are decent, but kind of unnecessary).  The extra footage added neither contributed nor took away from the original theatrical release.

Perhaps Spielbergís only stylistic blunder was his digital removal of firearms off of the FBI agents that chased Elliot and E.T. in the filmís conclusion.  This alteration borders on "Greedo shooting first" incredulity.  Without the notion of a tangible and dangerous presence, there does not seem to be much opposition to E.T.'s safe return home.  Having agents run around with walkie-talkies instead of guns ruins that element of danger.  Thankfully, Spielberg did the right thing by making both the 1982 cut and the restored 2002 Special Edition available to the public in its 2002 DVD release, something his buddy George failed to do when the STAR WARS Trilogy first appeared on DVD in 2004.

The period from 1975 to 1982 marked one of the cinema's greatest creative periods for Steven Spielberg, who systematically directed some of the medium's grandest and most popular escapist films (1975's JAWS, 1977's CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND, 1981's RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, and finally E.T.).  Ultimately, E.T. - THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL did the impossible.  It made us care for and sympathize with an alien creature that was stranded on Earth and allowed for us to be moved by his friendship with a earthbound child.  On paper, the filmís premise seems almost ghoulish in conception, but one of the simple pleasures of E.T. is that it takes an  extraordinary and fantastical tale and tells it with simple storytelling conventions and themes, which, in turn, makes it all the more believable.  At face value, the film is about yearning to be understood and loved and hidden within that are smaller themes of tolerance.  Itís one of those fairy tales that seems to never lose its freshness and vitality.  Whether viewed during its initial 1982 run, or on DVD today, or on a future format 50 years from now, E.T. irrevocably remains a moving and timeless film-going experience.

And...yes...it still can make the 32-year-old cynic in me teary-eyed.   No easy task.

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