As someone who was born in the late ’90s, I always had this sense of envy for those who experienced the summer of 1982. Particularly in June, every week was a release of a sci-fi movie that became more popular decades later for geeks, including Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Poltergeist, Blade Runner, and The Thing. But there’s only one that was the most-talked-about and became another instant classic from the brilliant mind of Steven Spielberg: E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial.
What’s the Story: 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, Michael (Robert MacNaughton), and his little sister, Gertie (Drew Barrymore), and the children decide to keep its existence a secret.
Believe it or not, the first time I’ve ever heard of E.T. was back in 2002 when Universal Pictures re-released it for its 20th anniversary and the commercials always played during shows on Cartoon Network. I might’ve thought it looked exciting, as a kid does, but I never saw it. I thought we had a VHS copy, though it was probably Jurassic Park. It wasn’t until I was a little older and decided to finally watch it after checking it out from the library, and this quietly showed this is the type of family film everyone will fall in love with, as E.T. is cinema at its finest.
Spielberg was hot of the heels of the amazing Raiders of the Lost Ark and thought it would be best to direct another alien movie following Close Encounters of the Third Kind, where it was an idea that’s closer to being a more scary film about aliens invading a family’s home called “Night Skies” or wonders if an alien never went into space and stayed on Earth instead? The concept is interesting when Spielberg’s parents were getting a divorce when he was young and thought about doing a movie about that, so he had that thought and how he had an imaginary alien friend into a solid story. That’s when late screenwriter Melissa Mathison wrote a draft in how to tell this story and he loved it.
You can see this was a personal film for him to make, and it’s not just your typical alien movie, but comes with this important theme of family and friendship any person of age will gradually understand. Spielberg as a filmmaker can create the simplest story and make magic come to life the same effect as reading a storybook filled with imagination in practically every moment captured. I think why the flow of this meets expectations is because he shot this in chronological order of the script to show the actors are living in real-time, which isn’t often used anymore. The combination of his direction and Mathison’s writing ensues a lot of heart and adventure one shouldn’t look down upon when it’s easy to believe this unlikely between a boy and his alien.
Speaking of which, Elliot and E.T. as a pair work in so many ways in any kid who has been lonely and needs a friend to fill that empty void he must’ve needed. They didn’t even make the alien a threat but is seen as an intelligent and lovable creature. At no moment do you ever think it would’ve delved into being creepy when you also thought about befriending a good-hearted alien found in the backyard. Would I want to watch another two hours with them? That won’t be a problem with me.
Sometimes watching child actors in movies doesn’t seem the most convincing, depending on who they’re working with. When working with children, this has always been one of Spielberg’s greatest strengths, and these are some of the most memorable performances in his filmography since they’re featured prominently. Henry Thomas as Elliot was brilliant in a performance most boys growing up saw themselves in and it’s a special thing to care about a protagonist who’s a kid, feeling what he’s feeling and it’s a wonderful role for him. Drew Barrymore as Gertie was too adorably clever and this was also her big breakout role that launched her career. And I don’t think people give Robert MacNaughton enough credit as older brother Michael, who surprisingly grows as a character with his responsibilities. I felt Spielberg tried his hardest to convey certain emotions to his actors while also becoming a father figure behind the camera.
The character of E.T. still astounds me to this day when I keep forgetting it’s just a Carlo Rambaldi-designed puppet or actors inside a suit when I’ve always seen him as an actual alien; that’s how my mind works. This is also not an alien to be afraid of and if I saw this when I was six years old, I honestly don’t think he would’ve scared me off from watching the film. If they made this today, they would’ve used CGI and wouldn’t have the same emotional impact. E.T. looks real to me and a ton of creative points for pulling the design work 100% fully.
Nostalgia is an enormous factor in why it plays a huge part in adults’ childhoods and will have you noticing things that were probably picked up later on. The entire story is told from the perspective of a kid’s mind, which is why the adults (minus Dee Wallace’s Mary), are shot in silhouettes at night or from the waist until the people from the government show up in the latter half. Remember when Elliot left trails of Reese’s Pieces to lure E.T. into his home? It was supposed to be M&M’s, but the Mars, Inc. refused to do so because it looked scary, and that’s why sales increased for Reese’s Pieces. The best use of product placement, indeed.
It’s strange how the cinematography is beautiful compared to what we get now since I love the looks this gave off. There is some iconic imagery presented here, including the famous flying bike with the moon against the backdrop shot that’s breathtaking and truly magical. A shot so great it became the official logo for Amblin Entertainment. Even though a few visual effect shots look a bit dated now, they must’ve been impressive back then. Yet, you can’t talk about E.T. without mentioning John Williams’ incredibly uplifting musical score that fits so well with what tone it’s aiming for. From its quiet moments followed with excitement from the bike chase sequence when they’re escaping the government, this has got to be one of the most flawless film scores that can’t be heard anywhere else but this.
Some might say this leans into sentimentally more so than other films of that period, but if you don’t feel the same connection to the characters, then that’s on you. If there was anything negative to associate with this is that it spawned one of the worst Atari video games ever made. Besides that, I can’t pinpoint a major flaw while watching.
Considering how this is a timeless classic, I honestly don’t know how an individual could hate this; unless they’re dead inside to not find a moment that allows them pure joy into their mind after it’s over. But if there’s one thing that’s always possible while watching is making me cry. I have no shame in saying movies make me cry, but E.T. is one of the saddest movies ever made, and I think those who grew up watching this will agree. The ending is probably my favorite of all time that’s both emotionally overwhelming and ultimately touching since it’s what we wanted to happen, but sad at the same time. It’s a film everybody has to love; no exceptions.
Luckily, this wasn’t a flop nor have any relation with similar words since this received critical praise from critics and became the highest-grossing film of the year, making over $435 million (with re-releases) and ranks among one of Spielberg’s biggest box office successes. And besides being bailed as one of the greatest films ever made, it received nine Oscar nominations, including Best Picture and Director, and won four: Best Visual Effects, Sound, Sound Effects Editing, and John Williams for Original Score. It should win over Gandhi if we’re being real since which of the two still has people talking decades later?
In the end, E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial is not only one of the greatest films of the ’80s, but it’s one of my favorite films ever and has always held a special place in my heart. In a time where not a lot of attention wasn’t on family films, this is one to captivate all in an experience only a director like Spielberg could’ve handled in bringing his vision to life. An original piece of work that didn’t need to follow up with a sequel, this one is a required watch before you die.
Final Thoughts: E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial continues why Steven Spielberg can craft a beautiful and magical fantasy never forgettable, thanks to its child performances, effects, and genuine heart never forced. Truly the greatest family film made to be entertained by as a cinematic masterpiece.