It’s easy to forget what a big deal E.T. was in its day. The highest grossing film of the Eighties (http://www.boxofficemojo.com/alltime/world/), its original theatrical run lasted longer than a year (http://www.slashfilm.com/what-is-the-longest-theatrical-run-in-the-history-of-cinema/). It was the Thriller of movies—in fact, Michael Jackson appeared with E.T. on the cover of Ebony (http://www.grayflannelsuit.net/blog/pop-culture-capsule-michael-jackson-1982-ebony-magazine-spotlight). Having seen it only once back when it was current, I approached a recent screening with curiosity and trepidation. I wondered whether it held up; after all, Steven Spielberg is pretty schmaltzy, and I was Elliott’s age in 1982.
I’m happy to report that aside from outdated special effects and other superficial giveaways—hairstyles, clothes, technology, cars—E.T. has worn quite well. The reason is obvious: the story is simple, universal, and so well told it transcends its time. An alien on a mission gathering plant samples on Earth is accidentally left behind when his ship takes off in a panic. Keeping a low profile as one would on a foreign planet, the alien stumbles upon a boy named Elliott (Henry Thomas), who takes him in (more as a curiosity or a pet than anything) and names him “E.T.” After establishing trust—not so much with words as Reese’s Pieces—the two form a bond. Elliott ultimately helps E.T. find his way home in the midst of some serious danger brewing for both of them.
Although it involves an alien, anyone can relate to this story because it speaks directly to basic human emotions, particularly fear and love. The acting and character development are superb. The child actors—including a baby Drew Barrymore—are natural; even a line with the term “penis breath” doesn’t sound forced. Elliott and his mother (Dee Wallace) capture the dolefulness of the single parent home, a relatively uncommon occurrence then. A young and ugly C. Thomas Howell has a small role as Tyler, one of the neighborhood kids.
Some of the plot straddles the line, but overall the story is believable even if it tugs at the heartstrings. I didn’t cry this time, but seeing E.T. with adult eyes didn’t diminish its impact. I say it’s Spielberg’s best film.
In 1994, the United States Library of Congress deemed E.T.: the Extra-Terrestrial “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” and selected it for preservation in the National Film Registry (https://www.loc.gov/programs/national-film-preservation-board/film-registry/complete-national-film-registry-listing/).
(Gene Siskel Film Center) A
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