There appear to be two main schools of thought on E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial.
One is that E.T. is a heap of over-rated sickly-sweet junk-culture tripe.
The other is that E.T. is a classic, an apogee of filmmaking, and anyone
who doesn't like it is a soulless cynical husk of a human being. My opinion
tends to fall somewhere in between, much to the dismay of the opposing camps.
On the one hand, there's my girlfriend, Alex, who asks, "What kind of review
are you going to give E.T.?" and then states: "You are going to give
it a good review." And on the other hand, we have some of the staff of
RevolutionSF, who treat the little brown wrinkled guy with the sort of venomous
disdain that's usually reserved for Barney or Pokemon. I offered said
staff members the chance to pour their disgust into a "Pick E.T. up by
his skinny little neck and use him to bludgeon Spielberg repeatedly in the crotch"
review, but there were no takers. Hence, you are stuck with my viewpoint. Which
E.T. can be considered to be a classic in the sense that it's a pretty
good movie which was so embraced by a generation of Americans that it's taken
on a life of its own.
To call E.T. a masterpiece (and many have) is stretching the truth just
a little. However, E.T. is an undeniably deft and well-crafted crowd-pleaser
(I'm not using crowd-pleaser in a disparaging sense) that, after 20 years, is
still very watchable.
One of the things that puts E.T. head-and-shoulders above most family-friendly
movies is that the family unit in E.T. feels like a real family. They're
not the sanitized and wacky families that we get in Disney and Nickelodeon movies.
There is an emotionally weight to their actions, and the funny lines (and there
are plenty of those) are funny because you can fully imagine your brother or
sister saying those things. It doesn't hurt that Henry Thomas (as Elliot) and
Drew Barrymore (as Gertie) have charisma to spare.
There are a few things that seem a little suspect about the movie. (SPOILERS)
1) What kind of alien is smart enough to build a powerful communication device
out of a sawblade, an umbrella and a Speak'N'Spell, but yet is so completely
and illogically ruled by his stomach? 2) If E.T. can levitate several children
and their bicycles, then why, at the beginning of the movie, when he's going
to miss his spaceship, doesn't he use the power to levitate himself? 3) What
causes E.T. to get sick and die, and what causes him to come back from the dead?
There may be some logical explanations for this stuff, but mostly, I think
the answer is that Spielberg is playing the audience like a cheap fiddle. But,
hey, at least Spielberg knows how to play the audience. Most films of this type
only think they're playing the audience.
I've never been all Dawson Leery about Spielberg, but the guy can make a fine
movie. Even the overly staged scenes in E.T. (Elliot's fog-soaked backyard
comes to mind) have a certain cinematic bite to them. He brings the film a definite
director's viewpoint. I particularly like the fact that Elliot's science teacher
is shown only from the torso down, as the adults were in the old Tom and
Jerry cartoons. Spielberg can orchestrate stunningly surreal moments of
anarchy, like when Elliot starts a frog-freeing revolution (also, catch the
few moments of dark and gleeful mayhem during the newly inserted Halloween night
As for the changes that have been made to the film for its re-release, I don't
think that they impact the film in any significant way, though it was wise of
Spielberg to tweak E.T. here and there when the original puppet didn't
seem convincing enough. Yes, the FBI sure hold their walky-talkies funny. Spielberg
digitally erased the guns that appeared in the original film, but thankfully,
he left Elliot's "penis breath" line… um… uncut. This scene
probably played out in countless matinee showings across America, as it did
in mine. Elliot says "penis breath." People in the theater laugh,
and then some rugrat in the front row, who knows it's funny but doesn't know
why, repeats the line at the top of his lungs, much to the dismay of his parents,
and receives audience giggles aplenty, thereby guaranteeing that, instead of
saying "E.T. phone home" for the next three weeks, he'll be joyously
spouting a much different catchphrase.
On another level, E.T. is fun to watch as a footnoted cultural artifact.
The 80s details are amusing, from Michael's Space Invaders t-shirt to
the massive eyeglasses the male doctors wear (And hey, isn't that one kid…
C. Thomas Howell?). Composer John Williams gives the government agent known
as Keys a theme song as distinctive and almost as sinister as his recurring
Darth Vader dirge in Star Wars. You also see a lot of Spielberg, from
his reference to Jaws to the elements foreshadowing Spielberg's unique take
on boyhood adventure (Goonies, which he received story credit for) and
his foray into Neverland (Hook).
Oh, and to clear up a little misconception… the whole Reese's Pieces thing
was not, as is so often assumed, a cynical product placement cooked up by marketing
sharks and money-grubbing movie executives. The Hershey's Company (which makes
Reese's Pieces) didn't pay one red cent to Universal Pictures. In fact, Hershey's
was a little reluctant to give Spielberg permission.
In the theater, Alex and I sat next to a trio of manly men, some with close-shorn
skulls. I pictured each guy with a Budweiser in one hand and the swimsuit issue
of Muscle Cars & Hot Rods in the other. The lights went down, and,
boy, those manly men just had the time of their lives watching E.T. Laughing
knowingly at the Star Wars in-jokes and bits of 80s ephemera embedded
in each scene, and at the antics of a cute waddling alien. Once, I even saw
one of them point at the screen, the way a seven-year-old does when he sees
something cool. When E.T. used his powers to lift Elliot and Michael and their
BMX bikes into the air, and the audience—mostly filled with parents and
their young'n's—applauded, you can bet that those manly men were clapping
As the credits rolled, the trio of manly men stood up, and filed past us to
the exit aisle. And just after the last guy—in a gray ARMY t-shirt—walked
out of hearing range, Alex chuckled and shook her head. I had a guess as to
what she was thinking, but I threw her a querying look. She said, "If I
had met those guys in a dark alley, I would have been scared of them. Yet I
just watched them ooh and ahh over E.T."
That, my friends, is the power of Spielberg's friendly little alien movie.
Not a masterpiece, but a classic nonetheless.