E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982)
Release Date: June 11th, 1982 MPAA Rating: PG
Director: Steven Spielberg Actors: Dee Wallace, Henry Thomas, Peter Coyote, Drew Barrymore, Tom Howell, Erika Eleniak
he opening title sequence warns of a ghastly horror film, but instead gives way to John Williams’ quirky, trumpet-heavy score (which would go on to win an Oscar), the emanating lights of a peculiar alien spaceship, and the scrambling, waddling movements of its diminutive inhabitants. It quickly becomes a family-friendly, heartwarming science-fiction adventure, full of iconic sequences that would inspire numerous parodies while influencing countless other fans, filmmakers, and storytellers. It’s a strikingly singular film, also honored for its effects (taking home the Academy Awards for Best Visual Effects and Best Sound Effects Editing) and pathos, winning the Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture – Drama and receiving a rare Best Picture Oscar nomination for a predominantly sci-fi themed flick.
When a curious extraterrestrial explorer is accidentally marooned on Earth, it holes up in a tool shed in little Elliott’s (Henry Thomas) backyard. Although initially frightened by the creature’s presence, when Elliott discovers that the miniature monster is a peaceful, equally scared planetary traveler (particularly fond of chocolate candies), he decides to help it return home. Also keeping the secret are his older brother Michael (Robert Macnaughton), young sister Gertie (Drew Barrymore), and eventually their mother Mary (Dee Wallace), who are being spied on by government researchers anxious to snag the new species for experimentation.
Like most of Steven Spielberg’s films, following the successful formula he essentially made standard for thrillers, “E.T.” begins with sudden action in a darkened environment to foreshadow future plights. He also uses youthful characters in lead positions and comedic jump scares to fuel suspenseful misadventures that many younger viewers interpret as horror. Adults are the villains and disbelieving supervisory personas take plenty of convincing before finally admitting to the existence of otherworldly critters. With separated parents, a mother upset about her ex-husband’s affair in Mexico, a touch of familial dysfunction, and a lack of mature role models, the kids must grow up prematurely to come to the aid of an outsider in desperate need of an ally. The action is decidedly more harrowing when the heroes are of a naturally disadvantaged status – here, being both smaller and of significantly fewer resources.
The E.T. character design, like Yoda, Gizmo, and the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man, ingeniously uses the right amount of cuteness and awkwardness to create an unforgettable, visually appealing alien. His funny agreeableness is a quality that would become increasingly rarer in science-fiction films as the ‘80s progressed, giving way to evil invaders and nightmarish killers like the antagonists of “The Terminator,” “Re-Animator,” “The Fly,” and “Predator.” Here, E.T. represents the most ideal ethereal visitor, intent on inspiration over annihilation.
The pacing is quick but many notions seem rushed. The interaction of the children is somewhat dated, with dialogue that marks the time period; a frog dissection scene for an unbelievably young age group seems contrived (10-year-olds who are not only expected to utilize scalpels but also chloroform while overseeing the killing of the live amphibian beforehand – which correlates to the general ugliness and destructiveness of E.T.’s pursuers); plenty of homages to recently influential movies pop up; and NASA ludicrously quarantines Elliott’s home after literally barging through the windows in astronaut gear (hazmat suits weren’t enough?) like a SWAT team. The enemy vehicles are actually marked on the side with a label that says “United States Government.” However, the elements of magical fantasy, including lonely Elliott’s discovery of a compatible friend (in the wake of his parent’s divorce), the exhilarating bicycle escape from persecution and boundless authority, and, of course, dreamily flying through the air past the moon as if empowered by pixie dust – all narrated by Williams’ sensationally recognizable orchestration – are of the utmost entertainment value.
– Mike Massie