by PJ Yerman
E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, released in 1982 and directed by Steven Spielberg, is about a young boy named Elliott (Henry Thomas) who discovers a friendly alien who has been left behind on earth by its spaceship. Elliott, along with his older brother Michael (Robert MacNaughton) and little sister Gertie (Drew Barrymore), help E.T. find its way back home in this thrilling adventure of childhood, aliens, and finding friendship in unlikely places. But, you should know this already because, if you haven’t seen E.T., you’re probably from outer space.
Thirty-five years out from its release, this film holds up better than I could’ve expected. Watching it now, it still fills me with the same magical sense of wonder I felt when my parents first popped the tape in the VHS when I was five. The epic culmination of Spielberg at his prime, an all-time great Oscar-winning score by John Williams, the child acting revelation that was Henry Thomas, and creature effects that look better today than most CGI from five years ago does, results in the highest grossing film of all time from 1982-1997 and the closest thing we have to a modern classic.
This is undoubtedly a product of one of the greatest directors of all time at the very top of his game. Spielberg was chasing the heels of Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and Raiders of the Lost Ark, all three of which were considered some of the best Hollywood has to offer, when E.T. hit the big screen. For one director to be on such a hot streak and then follow his greatest hits up with a movie that would come to define pop culture of the decade, is as impressive as a resume can get. It isn’t for no reason, either; this is a brilliantly directed film. For the entire running time, Spielberg places the audience in the shoes of the kids. Every single shot is from a child’s point of view, always low to the ground, showing no adult faces except for Elliott’s mother, played by Dee Wallace, until they interact with the kids directly. It’s an incredible feat to pull off, but one that makes all the difference when getting an audience to emotionally connect to the kids’ perspective and invest in a relationship between a boy and an alien.
Along with genius directorial choices like these, E.T. is also home to some of the most iconic images in film history. E.T.’s head hidden amongst dolls and stuffed animals, E.T.’s outstretched finger illuminating Elliott’s tear-streaked face, and Elliott and E.T. pedaling a flying bicycle past the moon (which later became the logo for Amblin Entertainment, Spielberg’s production company) are as awe-inspiring now as they were when I saw them years ago on my little bubble TV. Not to mention the endlessly quotable lines like “E.T. phone home,” “Be good,” and “I’ll be right here.” This movie is nothing more than iconic moment after iconic moment. It’s kind of crazy to think about.
Accompanying these staggeringly beautiful images and classic lines is the musical stylings of one John Williams, a national treasure and a god amongst men. His compositions are chill-inducing and never fail to remind of what it’s like to be ten years old again. His melodies release chemicals in my brain that make me want to go on an adventure. His score is endlessly hummable. His music is like Disneyland for my ears. I love him. That’s all I have to say about that.
What is arguably most remarkable here is the absolute standout performance by Henry Thomas. After Thomas’ audition, where he tearfully pleads for the government men to let E.T. stay and live with him, Spielberg famously said “okay kid, you got the job,” right there on the spot, later admitting the young boy’s performance made him tear up. To this date, I believe it’s one of the best performances by a child in any movie. Without Thomas’ unabashed sincerity and apparent ability to cry on cue, the emotional scenes couldn’t have landed nearly as well. Little Barrymore shines too as Gertie, the cutesy comic-relief who never fails to get an aw-shucks from the audience (“Is he a boy or girl? Was he wearing any clothes?”) and MacNaughton might have the best “holy shit” face ever put on film. I remember, as a kid, seeing the scene when Elliott shows Mike and Gertie E.T. for the first time in the closet. The shot where all three of them stare at the gentle alien with their mouths agape really made me feel like I was in on a secret that only kids were allowed to be in on.
Not to be overlooked is the incredible creature design work that went into creating the ever-adorable and seamlessly empathetic E.T. puppet. Its animatronic head with elongated neck and big blue eyes, its squashy brown body with three taffy-pulled digits to a hand, and its big glowing red heart make E.T. as believable a character as any of the humans. Watching it scoop up Elliott’s Reese’s Pieces or precociously play with his Star Wars action figures (Spielberg’s nod to his friend George Lucas) is as adorable today as I’m sure it was to every kid in the ‘80s who wanted an E.T. of their own. Most importantly, though, it’s the relationship between E.T. and Elliott that carries the film on its shoulders. If the audience doesn’t believe this boy and this alien love each other and are somehow connected, everything falls apart. Luckily, it becomes the heart and soul of the entire film.
I mean, let’s not beat around the bush any longer; E.T. is a masterpiece. It sounds cliché but it’s got anything you could ever want in a movie.It’ll make you laugh, cry, and cheer; it’ll make the hairs on your arm stand up and it’ll make you want to be a kid again. As shrouded in nostalgia as it is for me, by breaking down all of its fundamental elements, it’s clear that E.T. the Extra Terrestrial inspired and delighted generations of children and is one of the greatest modern films ever made.
5 out of 5 stars