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Review: E.T. the Extra Terrestrial (1982)

E.T. the Extra Terrestrial (1982)
Directed by: Steven Spielberg

Premise: A lonely boy (Henry Thomas) befriends a space alien that is stranded on earth. The boy helps the alien communicate with his home world so he can escape before government officials capture him.

What Works: E.T. the Extra Terrestrial is essentially a fairytale with science fiction trappings and like Star Wars it melds many of the best aspects of sci-fi and fantasy together. Although the movie is named after its alien character this film is really the story of Elliot, played by Henry Thomas, and of director Steven Spielberg’s frequent focus on children this is easily his best work. In E.T., Spielberg does not sentimentalize childhood and the filmmakers respect the boy’s intelligence while also grasping the limitations and naiveté of youth. That earnestness and optimism are why this film works for multigenerational audiences; it resonates with our sense of hope and Elliot’s love and heroism represent the world that we wish could be reality. That yearning for a better world is presented in E.T. through the domestic drama early in the film. Much of the best science fiction and fantasy is grounded in reality; its characters must face recognizable challenges and desires in order to connect with the audience. Elliot faces this in his complicated family life. The family has recently been through a divorce and Elliot, as the middle child, finds himself marginalized. The appearance of the stranded extra-terrestrial is like the appearance of a stray dog; it provides Elliot an opportunity for kindness and a relationship that is his alone. However, the story takes smart turns throughout that force Elliot to grow up and acknowledge his responsibilities for this being he has taken in. E.T. has a reputation for being soppy and while the conclusion certainly pours on the sentimentality, the bulk of the movie is about weighty subject matter. The film deals with love, responsibility, and letting go and those are very serious underlying themes that make the sentimentality earned. The relationship between Elliot and E.T. is central to the film and this highlights just how impressive its special effects are. The success of E.T. depends upon viewers seeing the title character not as a special effect but as a character with intelligence and a soul. The illusion works and E.T. stands with the original King Kong, Yoda of The Empire Strikes Back, and Gollum of The Lord of the Rings among the great non-human characters in the movies. Something that further distinguishes E.T. from similar characters in other movies is that the filmmakers made the decision to make E.T. an unattractive creature. Unlike the Na’vi race of Avatar which were specifically designed to elicit a sympathetic response from the audience, E.T. has a more ambiguous look which requires Elliot and the audience to invest some effort into caring about him. By requiring effort by the audience, viewers make an emotional investment in the story that makes the film engaging.

What Doesn’t: Even though Steven Spielberg has made better films than E.T. this is one of the director’s most essential films for both greater and lesser reasons. It is a masterpiece of childhood fantasy but it also showcases Spielberg’s tendency for overstating the obvious. This film is designed to press all the emotional buttons in the viewer to get the desired response. Of course, that is exactly what all art is supposed to do—to make the viewer feel something through the techniques of the medium—and Spielberg is a master of manipulating the audience to achieve the desired reaction. But there are moments in E.T., especially in the climax, in which Spielberg and his crew go from leading the audience to shoving them. By the time the film gets to its ending all stops on sentimentality are abandoned but since the film builds so well to this moment the sentimentality feels earned and Spielberg gets away with it.

DVD extras: In 2002 a special edition of E.T. was released to theaters and on home video. This new edition had updated special effects and softened the film in some respects, most notably removing firearms from the hands of authorities during the climactic chase scene. Spielberg has since disowned the special edition and the release of E.T. on Blu-ray only includes the original 1982 version. The Blu-ray release also includes featurettes, deleted scenes, image galleries, and a trailer.

Bottom Line: E.T. the Extra Terrestrial is an important entry in Steven Spielberg’s filmography and its influence can be observed in films that followed shortly thereafter like Starman and Cocoon but also in later films such as WALL-E, The Iron Giant, and Spielberg’s 2001 film A.I. Artificial Intelligence. But beyond its cinematic influence, E.T. remains a draw because its optimism and love will reduce even the most stoic viewer to mush.

Episode: #408 (October 7, 2012)