A stranded alien is taken in by a 10-year-old boy.
Directed by Steven Spielberg
Starring Henry Thomas, Robert MacNaughton, and Drew Barrymore
Initial Review by Jon Kissel
E.T.'s not the tightest script that Spielberg's worked with on a plot level, but I do think writer Melissa Mathison is getting the oft-more important emotion right. We're introduced to Elliot as he begs to be let into his big brother's game of Dungeons and Dragons, as succinct an exploration of their relationship and personalities as any. I expect this film to play very well with our members that come from parents who have been divorced, especially if they were kids when it happened. Spielberg himself is a child of divorce and I would imagine he and Mathison collaborated tightly on subtler scenes in this movie about an alien with a stretchy neck. The way the kids have to walk on eggshells around their mom, their capacity to really hurt her feelings, the way they step up without being told to, it all paints a picture of something that has been broken and E.T. functions as a uniting factor, or at worst, a distraction. The line between character and plot loses its tautness as the film goes on, as talk of the divorce effectively vanishes after E.T. falls ill, but as far as emotionally contextualizing the story, Spielberg and Mathison do effective work.
Spielberg's films contain dozens of iconic shots, and E.T. might contain some of the most memorable. Spielberg chose the image of E.T. and Elliot flying their bike across the moon as the symbol of Amblin Entertainment, his production studio, so every subsequent Spielberg film has been christened by this one. Away from the big moments, Spielberg and DP Allen Daviau aren't shirking their duties. The early shot of Elliot investigating his tool shed, with the dark house on the left and the bright shed on the right with a vast expanse of lawn separating the two is particularly striking, as is the later shot of a frail Elliot reflected in a biohazard mask. Spielberg's constant musical collaborator, John Williams, however, isn't doing his best work here. I would call E.T. overscored, even with its memorable theme. Movie music doesn't need to be playing, loudly, over every scene. I get what's happening, and don't need a harp to emotionally inform me.
On the acting front, Spielberg's giving himself a high degree of difficulty. He's placing most of the burden on child actors and that's always a tough proposition, but this is a mode he finds himself comfortable in. It's the rare, non-WWII related film of his that excludes children from the call sheet, and while young Christian Bale has probably given the best child performance in a Spielberg film, the young actors here are pretty good. The teen cronies mug a little bit at the end when they're flying, but the main trio of child actors each avoid that most unpardonable of sins, and they each communicate big emotions when they have to. The most important thing they have to sell is that I buy them as a unit, and I do.
E.T. has plenty of moments that work on me, and it holds up as a crowd-pleasing example of pop cinema from the burgeoning era of the blockbuster. I do wish E.T. acted more like the most advanced being on Earth that he is, but that would likely have been a very different movie. This is a pleasant, if disposable, film, and a B.