Even forty years after its original release, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial still holds up as a special, emotional and heart-warming family film upon first viewing.
It’s been 40 years since a pudgy, long-fingered alien first uttered the immortal words “phone home”, but watching Steven Spielberg’s classic E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial for the first time four decades later still feels like a very special experience.
Elliot (Henry Thomas) knows there is something hiding in his garden shed and camps out all night in the hopes of figuring out what. When he comes across a gentle, slow-moving alien – left stranded on Earth when his spacecraft left without him – it’s a bit of a shock. Elliot moves the alien (dubbed E.T. for short) into his wardrobe, unbeknownst to his mother Mary (Dee Wallace), older brother Michael (Robert MacNaughton) and little sister Gertie (Drew Barrymore), and the pair soon become friends. But government agents are hot on their trail and when E.T. falls ill, it’s up to Elliot’s family and friends to help save them both and get E.T. home.
It’s not a controversial statement to say that Steven Spielberg might well be one of Hollywood’s greatest ever directors. There’s an artistry to his films, a warmth that comes from a man at the helm who has such a passion for movie-making. E.T., his eighth film as director, is a family film with the trappings of a sci-fi horror, and it’s a testament to Spielberg’s skill that it’s an effortless weave of the two.
Close Encounters of the Third Kind, released five years prior to E.T., was a long-held passion project that garnered widespread financial and critical acclaim, and it’s easy to see its influence on this film. The opening sequence of E.T. uses tropes of the sci-fi horror genre: the misty woods, quiet but for the hooting of owls, trilling of insects and snapping of twigs, the rousing score as the intimidating space craft is revealed through a gap in the trees, the aliens kept firmly in shadow as they scutter about, and then the looming lights of the city below, its future unknown as one alien gets left behind.
But this is where Spielberg works his magic, and creates a beautiful story about unlikely friendship and homesickness. E.T. is never shot in a way that incites fear, and is instead kept on a level with young Elliot and allowed to take an almost slap-stick comedy role – knocking things over, yelling and shaking in a manner reminiscent of R2D2 at his most unchill, bringing flowers back to life and dressing in a wig, hat and dress for Halloween. Spielberg is well aware of the target audience here, but doesn’t ever tip over the line into being too saccharine, too silly or too young. Because the relationship between E.T. and Elliot is also the heart of the film, their goodbye is one that is genuinely sad – ‘I’ll be right here’ will never sound the same again – and the film has earned that emotional pay off.
As someone definitively in their 30s, it’s easy to see how the film might have scared the Skittles out of an eight-year-old me, but it’s also easy to see how it would have won me round, made me smile and cry as this weird looking little alien gets to go home. It feels like a barbed word to describe something as ‘nice’, but that’s genuinely what E.T. is. It’s a film that’s still funny, still affecting and still clunky and weird in the way that the best kind of quote-unquote ‘kids’ films are. The practical effects hold up well enough – the benefits of using puppets – and it feels both of its time and still suitable for modern audiences. Perhaps the languid pacing – E.T. isn’t revealed properly for a good 20 minutes – might grate on some, and the run-time of 115 mins is pushing it a little for a family film, but these feel like trivial gripes. Because the film is so heart-warming, exciting and invites genuine emotional responses – fear, mirth, sadness, hopefulness – that, even forty years later, it still gets its first-timers right in the feels. (Or, at least, it did to this one.)
E.T. is one of many examples that show Spielberg at his best. Forty years on – sorry if that repetition makes you feel old – and it’s still as enchanting as ever. That sweeling musical cue as Elliot’s bike lifts into the sky and that pang in your chest when E.T. points to his own and says “ouch” still resonate in 2022, and truly capture a masterful director at work.
E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial was first released on June 10, 1982.