E.T. - THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL
Rated PG - Running Time: 2:00 - Re-released 3/22/02
It's difficult to know how to review a classic film when it is re-released 20 years after its debut, especially a film so influential and pervasive as Steven Spielberg's E.T. There almost seems no point in writing my lame little commentary when so much has been said about it and so many films and TV shows have copied, spoofed, or referenced it. But I decided I'll give it my best in order to satisfy my faithful, beloved fans (both of you).
This film was first released in 1982, late in the early period
of Spielberg's now legendary directing career, after Jaws,
Close Encounters, and Raiders Of The Lost Ark, but
before Jurassic Park, Schindler's List, or Saving Private Ryan. He
has said that before E.T. he did not intend to have children,
but working with Henry Thomas, Robert MacNaughton, and Drew Barrymore
(with whom he has remained a close paternal friend) changed his
mind. He now has 6 children. When I first saw E.T. I was
a college sophomore, and I didn't think I wanted any kids either.
I now have three children, the youngest of whom sat on my lap
during much of our screening of the film's 20th anniversary re-release.
It's interesting how differently I react to the film upon this
E.T. isn't my favorite movie; it's not even my favorite
Spielberg movie, but no one can deny the powerful effect it had
on the film industry, our attitude toward extraterrestrial life,
and our culture. It (and to a lesser extent its Spielbergian precursor,
Close Encounters Of The Third Kind) was the first major
"creatures from space" story to treat extraterrestrial
visitors as benign, vulnerable, and lovable to humans. Close
Encounters left the issue open, but E.T. drove home
the point with unmistakable clarity, even drawing parallels between
its title character and Christ himself. The message of E.T.
is Love Thy Neighbor, even if he comes from another planet.
Written by Melissa Mathison (a.k.a. Mrs. Harrison Ford), E.T.
begins with a dark, eerie scene of a spacecraft landing and strange,
short, half-seen creatures waddling out and exploring the planet
Earth, at least the area of Los Angeles where they landed. Wrinkly,
three-fingered hands reach out and pull up plants, strange, gurgly
sounds are made, and small naked chests glow with red-orange internal
organs. Then the tranquility is broken when Earthbound vehicles
(mostly Ford trucks) lurch to a halt and several flashlight-wielding
figures get out. The creatures scurry to their ship in a panic,
but one is too far away to make it back. As it runs screaming
toward its ship, it sees the craft lift off and disappear into
the stars. The creature is left behind.
Next we see a family playing a noisy game, and a 10-year-old
boy named Elliot (Thomas) goes outside into the dark and discovers
something in the backyard shed. It turns out to be the creature,
lost, scared, and alone. After a face-to-face meeting and several
mutual screams, Elliot sees the importance of having an extra-terrestrial
friend. He hides the alien in his room and shows it to his siblings,
teenager Michael (MacNaughton), and 6-year-old Gertie (Barrymore),
who have similar reactions of fear turning to fascination. Harboring
the creature (whom he dubs "E.T.") in his closet without
the knowledge of his single mother (Dee Wallace), Elliot teaches
E.T. about earthly things, and the creature learns very quickly
how to speak rudimentary English. As they grow closer, Elliot
and E.T. begin to share a sort of symbiotic relationship, simultaneously
experienceing various physical and emotional symptoms, a fact
that proves to have graver consequences than it first seems.
Beyond the well-known excellence of this film, its effects,
and the amazingly real performances of the starring children and
the animatronic/puppet creature (whose voice was performed, uncredited,
by Pat Welsh and Debra Winger), it is interesting to consider
the ways in which watching the film itself, the original document,
if you will, is different, given all that we know now.
For example, seeing little Drew Barrymore in one of her first
major motion picture roles, acting and reacting and doing her
famous family proud at the tender age of 6, and being truly affected
by the experience, is astounding. Given what we know now about
her difficult and tumultuous life after this film was over, the
drug problems, the years of B-movies and rehab, before she came
into her own as a young woman and regained her life, how differently
we view her innocent and angelic and beautiful E.T. performance.
Mentioning Barrymore, of course, reminds us of the genius of Steven
Speilberg, the director who was able to draw that performance
out of her and the talented young actors who played her older
brothers. When you see the performances of those children, you
imagine what must have occurred offscreen, what kind of relationships
were built and what boundaries were broken.
Before all the E.T.-related merchandising and theme park rides, TV commercials and T-shirts, there was E.T., the film, the character, the idea. The fact that this version has a few more scenes or a newly digitized soundtrack doesn't make that much difference to me, but it's important to see it again on the big screen, and offers an opportunity tell your kids, or your grandkids, how different things were when it first came out. *****