starring Dee Wallace, Henry Thomas, Peter Coyote, Robert MacNaughton
screenplay by Melissa Mathison
directed by Steven Spielberg
by Walter Chaw Young Elliot (Henry Thomas) discovers an alien castaway in his garden shed and lures it into his closet with a trail of candy. He introduces it to his little sister, Gertie (Drew Barrymore), and his older brother, Michael (Robert MacNaughton), pledging them to the "most excellent" promise of secrecy to prevent his siblings from sharing the creature's existence with their frazzled mother (Dee Wallace), recently divorced. Soon, government scientists, led by the starry-eyed Keys (Peter Coyote), catch the scent of Elliot's discovery, necessitating a desperate race to return it to its kind.
Perhaps Steven Spielberg's most beloved film, certainly his most popular, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial is a gentle, occasionally disturbing fable about a neuro-parasitic alien left behind by his spaceship that binds itself for survival to a child in suburban America. Though the film is read with profit as a Holocaust parable (thus finding itself reflected in the structure of Spielberg's Schindler's List, explaining that film's fictionalized tearful farewell)--from an early appearance of a train announcing a time of persecution, the hiding of the refugee by a member of the ruling class, the pursuit of the refugee by an inscrutable government force, and a final emancipation by a liberating army after much suffering and the threat of medical experimentation--E.T. is best remembered as a wholesome family entertainment revolving around a boy and his Christ-like space monkey. But E.T. is more than a golden showcase for Spielberg's unerring grasp of the cult of childhood: it is also the film (along with Jaws) that he has arguably been trying to remake to some degree with each of his subsequent works.
In other words, E.T. is one of the most influential films in recent popular culture, and suffers from its own success upon watching it anew. The film has simply lost its freshness: Viewing it after twenty years of imitative blockbusters has made one almost violently jaded towards product placement (however plot-driven), story conveniences that damage the picture's internal logic, and even Spielberg's instinct to proselytize married eternally to John Williams's mawkish scores. What E.T. has retained, however, is Spielberg's mastery over the texture and perspective of childhood in all its frustrations, terror, and magic. He understands how hard it is to be a younger sibling trying to fit in with the big kids, how hard it is when no one takes you seriously because you're too little, and how there is a devious art to playing hooky involving heating pads, light bulbs, and thermometers. In one of the film's most touching sequences, a dying Elliot asks his big brother to find E.T. simply because big brothers are miraculous sources of both torment and benevolence. In its signature sequences, E.T. understands how much we wanted our bikes to fly--and how we used to believe they could if we wished hard enough.
At its heart of hearts, E.T. is about a kind of faith that dies with childhood--no accident that Elliot's mother was deserted before the events of the movie. Perhaps E.T. represents a Freudian fort/da that Elliot, Gertie, and Michael construct to compensate for the loss of their father and, with him, the loss of a child's faith in the sanctity of the parental bond. The revelation that the children's father is in Mexico is met with aggression by the older Michael and confusion by the youngest (Gertie asks, "Where's Mexico?"); after E.T. incubates itself within the family (literally, through a psychic and physiological union with Elliot), the loss of the father seems less grave and mysterious (Gertie solemnly informs a police officer that "Daddy's in Mexico"). In this way, E.T. functions almost as an apologia for the Richard Dreyfuss character's abandonment of his family in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. What Spielberg took away from the institutions of kinship in that film he restores with a kindly anthropomorphic imp in this one.
E.T. finds itself reissued on its twentieth anniversary with digitally-animated eyes for E.T., digitally-erased rifles for the evil feds, remastered image and audio, and the inclusion of two largely superfluous scenes previously deleted that extend the prologue and further establish the burgeoning symbiosis of Elliot and E.T.. Surviving intact despite rumors to the contrary are all of the film's cuss words (two "shit"s, a "douche bag," a very funny "penis breath," and a "son of a bitch") that earned it the PG rating, and all of the darkness and drunkenness one suspects would never find their way into a "children's" entertainment made today. E.T., whether viewed as a Holocaust parable, a Christian allegory, a look at how a child deals with a loss of stability within the family unit, or simply the story of a boy and his hyper-intelligent, faith-healing leather-dog, remains one of the finest films of the great vacuum of Eighties cinema. A landmark entertainment that still entertains, E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial isn't nearly so novel as it once was, but it remains an uncomfortable reminder of how children's entertainment doesn't need to leave its brain at the door, and of Spielberg's gift for turning the audience into kids again while watching his best films without requiring that we be young to enjoy them. Originally published: March 22, 2002.