E.T. THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL (1982)

  • Director: Steven Spielberg
  • Writer: Melissa Mathison
  • Starring: Henry Thomas, Dee Wallace, Peter Coyote, Robert MacNaughton, and Drew Barrymore
  • Accolades: 2007 AFI Top 100 list (#24), 4 Oscars (Best Original Score, Best Visual Effects, Best Sound, Best Sound Effects Editing), 5 additional Oscar nominations (Best Picture, Best Director – Steven Spielberg, Best Original Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing)
  • Where to Watch: Free streaming (with ads) on Peacock, stream with cable subscription on USA app, buy or rent on Amazon Video, YouTube, or Apple TV

E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial came out two years before I was born, which should either make you feel very old or me feel very old, depending on the context. What that means is that I completely missed this movie when it came out and never saw it as a kid. I knew the line “E.T. phone home” and that there was probably a scene where a bunch of kids can fly on bicycles and go past the moon. That was kind of it. Then I came to it as an adult and, yeah, this movie did not connect with me. I think, if my extremely limited understanding of children is at all on point, that kids probably would still connect with it. It is very much on the level of maybe of a 7-year-old. For my part, I was left wondering why in the world I should root for these whiny children over the scientists who are genuinely trying to help and follow actual protocols for an alien coming to Earth. These children are not the ones who should be in charge of this. I do not lack whimsy, but whatever this movie’s version of that is, it passes me by.

Steven Spielberg apparently thought up an alien imaginary friend in the 1960s after his parents got a divorce (this explains a lot about a lot of his movies, actually), and thought it would make a good movie after making Close Encounters of the Third Kind. He had trouble convincing people that his alien would actually be cute, cuddly, and lovable for kids. M&Ms, for example, wouldn’t let their candy be used in the movie because they thought the alien would scare children. Hence the scene in question was re-written to involve Reese’s Pieces, which had its sales increase exponentially following the movie’s release. It’s easy to forget today, perhaps, but this was, at one point, the highest-grossing film ever at the American box office. Its record wouldn’t be broken until another Spielberg movie, Jurassic Park, about a decade later.

E.T. is about a small, cute alien (a very strong animatronic puppet designed to look like “a combination of Carl Sandburg, Albert Einstein, and Ernest Hemingway”) who is left behind by his ship after he gets separated from a mission to collect plants and ends up meeting a suburban kid with divorced parents named Elliott (Henry Thomas). Soon after, Elliott has to let both his precocious younger sister (a very small Drew Barrymore) and his older brother (Robert MacNaughton) in on the secret as he tries to “protect” his new alien friend from evil government scientists led by Peter Coyote. In the third act, astronaut-looking dudes climb through the window and E.T. almost dies for reasons the movie is not clear on, and also Henry almost dies because they are “connected now.” In the end the kids escape and E.T. gets to his parents and leaves on a big flying saucer.

Perhaps some of my disconnect here is that kids’ point of view. The kids act throughout as if the adults are evil and must prevented from interfering with E.T. at all costs, but I don’t really think any of the adults are evil at all. Their hazmat equipment and suits (which, to be clear, Elliott is very lucky he did not start an alien plague with his lack of precautions) look scary to a kid. Mr. Rogers needs to come in at that point and explain that there is a man inside the suit and he wants to help and then tell the man to take the kids’ feelings seriously. That is what I want instead of the third act of this movie. Dee Wallace, best known prior to this for appearing in a series of fun horror movies, plays their mom, and there are several hijinks-y comedy bits where E.T. is right behind her and she doesn’t realize it. None of the kids ever really seem to trust her, maybe because she divorced their dad, even though the movie goes out of its way to make the Dad seem like a skeeze-ball (not only is he now with his secretary, he’s now with his secretary in Mexico). 

The movie is very well-made and thought through from both a visual and auditory standpoint. Spielberg is very disciplined in keeping the movie from a kids’ point of view. No adult except for the mom is shown from the waist up for the first half of the movie. E.T.’s voice is a combination of voices of about a dozen different animals, along with the voice of Debra Winger, Spielberg’s wife at the time, when she had a cold. He looks totally different from anything in the movies up until then. And for me, that John Williams score is probably the best thing in the movie. He went through a period of like twenty years where everything he did was memorable and great and no one, not even Williams himself, has really come close since.

E.T. was such a mega-hit that it was the front-runner at that year’s Oscars, and though it lost for Best Picture and Best Director to Gandhi, even the director of that movie, Richard Attenborough, said afterwards he thought E.T. should have won. There were plans for a sequel, but nothing ever materialized. Spielberg went on to make even bigger movies, and I never really came back around to be that 7-year-old kid who would have loved this movie. Honestly I’m not sure I was that kid at the time, I was busy reading extremely detailed scientific books about dinosaurs and baseball statistics. More than basically any other movie that can call itself Science Fiction, E.T. is solely interested in operating on a purely emotional level. It is not even interested in the fact that its title is clearly redundant and always makes me want to put a colon in it that’s not there. Clearly it has connected with a lot of people over the years. Just not me.

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