Sunday, November 6, 2011

E.T.: the Extra-Terrestrial

AFI Top 100 Ranking: 24
Year: 1982
Writer: Melissa Mathison
Director: Steven Spielberg
Star: Henry Thomas, Dee Wallace, Drew Barrymore

Note: As with all other films in this series, I’ve gone back to the original theatrical version for this article, not the re-release version.

“E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial” believes in humanity, and that’s what makes it a masterpiece. The kids who find E.T. don’t fear him, they try to help him. They form a friendship with him and sacrifice things for him. Heck, even the man we think is supposed to be the antagonist turns out to be one of the good guys, who just wants to help the little alien. In any other studio movie, E.T. would be captured, killed and dissected before the first reel ends and, by the end of the first act, mommy and daddy alien would be returning for vengeance. So, in many ways, this PG-rated film with no sex or violence or language stronger than “Penis breath!” is actually ballsier than all its contemporary counterparts.

The story is so simple and straightforward that you know it kept the film’s writer, Melissa Mathison, up nights struggling to make it seem as effortless as it does. When a young alien is accidentally abandoned on earth, he’s taken in by a boy named Elliott (Henry Thomas) and his friends. Elliott names him E.T. and begins a mission to get E.T. back home with his family. Like I said, the story is simple, but Mathison injects her script with much subtlety. She doesn’t spell everything out, and as a result you notice things on repeat viewings you haven’t seen before.

Take the almost telepathic connection between E.T. and Elliott. Where does it come from? Watching the film again, it seems like E.T. has a telepathic connection with his mother at the beginning of the film, and when he loses it with her, he creates one with the first boy he encounters: Elliott. Later, the connection is severed because E.T. is dying, but his family comes for him just in time, recreating their own connection when E.T. needs it the most.

Thomas is immediately likeable and sympathetic as Elliott. He’s too young to hang with his older brother’s friends and doesn’t appear to have any close friends of his own. When he first realizes E.T. can understand him, Elliott jumps around his room, showing the little alien anything and everything that is so important to his world (“and this, this is Lando Calirissian!”), and the moment feels so real. Of course this is how a young boy would introduce an alien to our world.

And then there are the flying bikes. I’m not going to even hypothesize why Elliott and, later, his brother and friends have to keep pedaling while flying if E.T. is pulling the strings, but it doesn’t matter. Seeing Elliott flying across the moon is, quite simply put, one of the best, most memorable moments in the history of film. Goosebumps. Lots of ‘em. And the scene where E.T. “dies” while Elliott screams for his friend remains like a fist to the viewer’s stomach, even when you know E.T. isn’t really dead.

Spielberg stages the scenes so that we rarely see adult faces (with the exception of Elliott’s mother, played by Dee Wallace). There’s a man (Peter Coyote) who has a lot of keys hanging from his belt who is looking for E.T. We expect he is the villain of the movie, and for the first two acts he does indeed seem to be, but once his face is shown, we realize that he’s not a villain. He’s a good man who wants to help Elliott and help E.T. I was surprised to see Mathison allowed Coyote’s character to be present for the finale to see E.T. off, but feel like it works.

The kids in the movie act like kids. They aren’t spouting off dialogue obviously written by someone much older trying to seem hip or cool. Let’s face it, kids (especially the ones in this movie) aren’t hip or cool when they are hanging out with their family. The interactions between the children feels very improvised in the best way possible; they talk over one another and argue even when they aren’t the focus of the scene. This is incredibly difficult to pull off and make feel natural, but Mathison does just that.

The first act of the movie is shot overdramatically. I’m not sure if “overdramatically” is a word, but if not, I’m creating it now. It’s not that we don’t see adult faces and that E.T. is mostly hidden for the first half hour of the film—those choices were wise and helped create atmosphere. I’m talking about the overuse of smoke, steam, dirt and dust in just about every scene. It’s great in the moment where Elliott has his first encounter with E.T. in the barn, but then the haze is in just about every other scene for no particular reason. There’s even a beat where Elliott puts a plate in the sink and turns on the water, only to have so much steam billow out you’d think you were walking over a subway grate in December. I know, I know. It’s not a huge complaint, but this movie has few flaws, and the haze’s incessant presence really did take me out of the movie.

There are so many things I love about “E.T.: the Extra-Terrestrial.” It doesn’t age. The effects still work as well as they did when the film was first released. The acting. The direction. More than anything, it’s one of those very special movies that can put a smile on the face of the most cynical among us. It gives us “hope,” which is a word almost all Hollywood writers have long forgotten.

My Score (out of 5): *****

Addendum: As always, I avoided looking up awards, the film’s development history or critical reaction before writing the article. After posting, however, everything is fair game. I discovered that, for the 1983 Oscars, “E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial” lost the Best Picture Oscar to “Gandhi.” Also nominated that year were “The Verdict” and “Tootsie.” To this I must say, “Really, Academy voters? I mean, REALLY?”

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