“E.T., the Extra Terrestrial” may be the best Disney film Disney never made. Captivating, endearingly optimistic and magical at times, Steven Spielberg’s fantasy about a stranded alien from outer space protected by three kids until it can arrange for passage home is certain to capture the imagination of the world’s youth in the manner of most of his earlier pics, as well as those of George Lucas. Result will be a summer time bonanza for distrib Universal. In short, “E.T.” equals b.o.
At their best, both Spielberg and Lucas make idealized versions of the kinds of films they loved as kids, in the process furnishing this generation’s filmgoers with visual treats of unprecedented skill and sophistication. Despite the continual presence of the little Yoda-like creature, “E.T.” is not first and foremost an effects picture, but rather a charming “Twilight Zone”-like fable which reminds by turns of “The Wizard of Oz,” “Mary Poppins,” a benign switch on “King Kong” and a variation of Spielberg’s own “Close Encounters.”
Opening sequence actually comes off like a repeat of “Close Encounters”‘ final frames, as a sizeable spaceship takes off just before some earthly authorities are able to close in on it. One of its occupants gets left behind, however, and the viewer is instantly sympathetic with its plight in the threateningly different environment of a modern California subdivision.
E.T. is highly fortunate to be found by young Henry Thomas who, after some understandable initial fright, takes the ‘goblin’ in, first as a sort of pet and then as a friend he must guard against the more preying elements of human society. Over time, Thomas teaches E.T. how to talk and includes his older brother (Robert MacNaughton) and younger sister (Drew Barrymore) in on the secret, even as he manages to hide his discovery from his mother (Dee Wallace).
Ultimately, of course, the official representatives of society locate E.T., which seems to occasion a rapid decline in its health until it appears to die. When it revives, Thomas marshals his friends into a kids’ commando squad to spirit E.T. back to the spaceship which is on its way to a rescue rendezvous.
First element which had to work to insure film’s success was E.T. itself. As superlatively created by Carlo Rambaldi, the creature manages to project both a wondrous childlike quality and a sense of superior powers. Cutely awkward in its movements, the being has rubbery brown skin, an extendable neck and possesses eyes which dilate on cue. It even gets to play a drunk scene, perhaps a first for screen aliens. Assuredly not lost on those involved with the film are the opportunities for E.T.-related toys and dolls, which are enormous.
An amusing sidelight to the tale is that the action takes place in a suburban household almost identical to that in the Spielberg-produced “Poltergeist,” which leads to the thought that the two, distinctly different stories could be unfolding in neighboring homes simultaneously. In fact, many of the motifs in the early going are similar to those in “Poltergeist”–the middle-class family, the blonde dog, goldfish, people glaring into bright lights in awe and disbelief.
But “E.T.” will surely prove an embraceable film by the general public. Rarely has a picture so completely evinced a kid’s p.o.v. and shown the complicity of youngsters against adults. It’s been said that the only people who don’t like Disneyland are late adolescents who feel too hip to enjoy the pleasures of their earlier years, and the same will probably hold true for “E.T.”
As can be expected for Spielberg and the Industrial Light & Magic shop, the technical effects are state-of-the-art superb. Enough cannot be said for John Williams’ score, which stands as a model of film composing–although it is almost continually present it’s also practically unnoticeable, so well does it both complement and further the events onscreen.
As far as the performances go, the key was finding three kids who could respond with both innocence and gumption to the arrival of E.T. All fulfill the requirements, and Thomas is perfect in the lead, playing the childhood equivalent of Spielberg’s everyman heroes of his previous pics.
There are some unsatisfactory elements–slow spots occur during the middle stretch, the mild anti-establishment stance is getting to be a bit cliche and one never knows whether E.T.’s mortal illness is physical or psychological in nature, or both. But, as with “Close Encounters,” the truly lovely and moving ending more than makes up for everything. Chalk up another smash for Spielberg.
1982: Best Sound, Original Score, Sound Effects Editing, Visual Effects
Nominations: Best Picture, Director, Original Screenplay, Cinematography, Editing