Like Hitchock, the genius of Steven Spielberg is often overlooked. In his formative years Spielberg’s name became so synonymous with a consistently high level of quality that gradually the movie industry and his fans simply became blasé about it. It was expected rather than anticipated. For decades, Spielberg did not disappoint us at the movies. Thus, when our interpretations of his work occasionally fell short of those expectations, the criticism of that work in particular – and critical backlash to some of his previous works in general – became fodder for the grist mill. But re-reviewing E.T. The Extra Terrestrial (1982) illustrates a fundamental about Spielberg’s movie-making in totem that cannot be disputed. His work, even at its most perceivably flawed, is never anything less than utterly fascinating, captivating, thought-provoking – and, in E.T.’s case – magically enduring beyond all expectation.
Spielberg has always suggested that the concept for E.T. derived from his own imaginary playmate he concocted after his parent’s divorce in 1960. From here, the idea continued to fester even as the boy grew into manhood and the man eventually began to hone his craft in film-making on other sci-fi adventures; each building his reputation as a craftsman with a distinctive vision. While shooting Raiders of the Lost Ark, Spielberg shared his preliminary concept for the project with screenwriter, Melissa Mathison who began ironing out the details to help crystalize Spielberg’s many fanciful concepts for what eventually became E.T. Conceiving the project was one thing. Executing it proved an entirely different matter.
After several false starts, the character of E.T. evolved into a patchwork of puppetry, mechanical and rubber appliances, some operated by midgets, others by invisible wires and hydraulics; all in an attempt to breathe life into this whimsical visitor from another world. Spielberg tapped into the imagination of all ages with his clever use of all of these pre-digital tools but instinctively knew that unless his cast was exactly bang on in conveying their own believability towards the character, his film would utterly fail.
Like all great works of art, Spielberg aimed the strength of his story at a diverse cultural cross section. Thus, when E.T. had its premiere it became endlessly critiqued as everything from a ‘spiritual autobiography’ and ‘self portrait of its film maker’ to a social commentary on pre-teen alienation in America with frequent references to its theme of ‘home’ compared to such cinematic touchstones as Peter Pan and The Wizard of Oz.
Yet the film does not represent ‘home’ – at least in its earthly form - as some idealized realm that no child would ever wish to leave, given half the chance and more than an ounce of opportunity. Elliot’s home life is hardly dysfunctional beyond normal feelings of inadequacy and the usual bits of humiliation from his older brother and potential annoyances of a younger sister. But it isn’t perfect either. And like Spielberg’s own, it is without a father figure; a void that the alien child left behind by his own intergalactic species will strangely come to fill for Elliot before the final reel.
As scripted by Melissa Mathison, the film begins deep in a California forest with a group of alien botanists collecting flora samples to take back to their planet. The youngest from this expedition, E.T. has strayed too far from the mother ship. Hence, when government agents descend upon the forest, having been called in to investigate mysterious lights coming from the forest, E.T. is left behind by his family. To escape capture this alien child flees the forest into middle-class suburbia, taking refuge inside a tool shed behind a family’s home.
Inside the main house, Elliot (Henry Thomas) and his brother Michael (Robert MacNaughton) are entertaining some friends who decide to order a pizza. When the delivery truck arrives, Michael sends Elliot to pay for their food. However, upon his return up the walk, Elliot notices that someone – or something – is hiding in the shed. Tossing a baseball into the shed, Elliot is startled when the ball comes back to him. No one really believes Elliot and after the party disbands, he sneaks back out to the shed, luring E.T. up to his bedroom by laying a track of Reese’s Pieces for him to follow. A strange bond develops between Elliot and E.T. who begins to mimic his movements before Elliot goes to sleep.
The next morning Elliot feigns illness to stay home and play with E.T. Elliot attempts to teach E.T. about the human world, introducing him to television and human food and drink. These firsts will later have hilarious repercussions for both Elliot and E.T. But that afternoon, Elliot introduces Michael to his new playmate. The two agree that Gertie (Drew Barrymore) must not find out about E.T. Predictably, she does. In one of the best loved and most fondly remembered scenes from the film, Gertie bursts into Elliot’s bedroom, discovers E.T. in her midst and is momentarily terrorized by the sight of him. However, her screams frighten E.T. as well, and Gertie suddenly realizes that she and the alien have at least that much in common.
All are fascinated when E.T. levitates several balls representing the solar system, and further demonstrates his powers by reviving a dead house plant. But the life force evolving between Elliot and E.T. develops unexpected psychic connections after E.T., left to his own accord, consumes an entire six pack of beer and begins to flip channels on the TV. The programming he sees becomes part of Elliot’s thoughts, with Elliot liberating a bunch of frogs from the school’s science lab before copying John Wayne’s kiss in The Quiet Man with an unsuspecting girl he likes from his class.
E.T. continues his education through Gertie’s appreciation of Sesame Street. However, after reading one of Elliot’s old Buck Rogers comics, E.T. figures out a way to communicate his desire to Elliot to return home. Reluctantly, Elliot realizes that E.T. cannot stay and be his friend on earth. He must return to his own kind and soon, before his own life force grows dim and falters. Tearing apart his Speak and Spell and a few other toys, Elliot and Michael construct a communication device to signal E.T.’s mother ship.
On Halloween Elliot, Gertie and Michael disguise E.T. as a ghost so that they can smuggle him out of the house. Elliot and E.T. go into the forest where Elliot uses his makeshift communication apparatus to signal E.T.’s mother ship. Elliot falls asleep in the forest, awakening the next morning to discover E.T. quite ill. Government agents, who monitored Elliot’s signal, invade the family home and Elliot suddenly realizes that he too has begun to suffer malignant effects from his relationship with E.T.
The government scientists set up a quarantine unit where they proceed to probe E.T. who appears to die. Grief-stricken, Elliot mourns the loss of his one true friend, only to suddenly realize that E.T. is very much alive. Elliot and Michael smuggle E.T. out of harm’s way and E.T. uses his telekinetic powers to levitate them into the forest. There, Elliot, Michael and Gertie, still clutching the resurrected houseplant, discover the mother ship docked and patiently awaiting E.T.’s return. Gertie gives E.T. a kiss and the plant as her parting gift. As E.T.’s life force begins to glow, Elliot says his own tearful goodbye. E.T. then points to Elliot’s forehead, saying “I’ll be right here.” He board the mother ship as the agents and scientists arrive, too late to stop him from returning home.
At its core E.T. The Extra Terrestrial is an enchanted fable – a peerless example of the fantasy film infused with equal portions of optimism and sentiment without ever becoming overtly sentimental. The film’s central theme of tolerance despite our differences speaks to us all without ever becoming preachy or self-serving. E.T. is not a message picture per say, and yet it has become an interpretive text with many socio-political critiques (some implied, some foisted upon its narrative unintentionally); all of them speaking to the verisimilitude in Spielberg’s craftsmanship as a film maker.
Reportedly, Drew Barrymore, then 7, thought that E.T. was a real creature and not a puppet. There is little to hint otherwise, as the pint size actress’ emotions are never anything but entirely sincere. And yet it is the relationship between Henry Thomas and E.T. that remains most endearing of all. Thomas, who was to become sadly underrated and all but forgotten in his acting career later on, gives one of the most tender, understated performances of any child star then or now, filled with sublime humility and an understanding that makes, what is essentially his solo performance utterly believable as a relationship between two…uh…people.
Surpassing the meteoric success of Lucas’ Star Wars (1977), E.T. broke all box office records and would remain the undisputed record holder in worldwide box office grosses until James Cameron’s Titanic (1997). Despite its earnings, and a whopping 9 Oscar nominations, E.T. won only 4 Oscars – virtually all of them in minor categories; outclassed by Gandhi. At least Spielberg could take minor comfort in his $500,000 weekly paycheck under his profit sharing agreement with Universal.
For the film’s 20th Anniversary Universal unveiled a deluxe 2 disc DVD. This edition included the original 1982 version and a re-envisioned ‘digitally enhanced’ edition that attempted to modernize the story with more contemporary visual SFX. This sort of tampering outraged purists and fans alike, though Spielberg was quick to point out that – unlike George Lucas’ tampering with Star Wars, he had included both versions for audience’s consideration. Now, for E.T.’s 30th Anniversary we get the movie as we truly deserve it.
Universal’s Blu-ray is a feast for the eyes, ears and heart in 1080p. Allen Daviau’s low light cinematography is perfectly preserved. The hi-def image yields a magnificent amount of fine detail evident throughout and film grain that has been lovingly rendered. Prepare to be amazed because this 1:85.1 transfer exhibits superior color fidelity. The palette is warm and consistent with good solid black levels. E.T.’s audio has also been given a superior upgrade in 5.1 DTS, allowing John Williams’ memorable flying theme to really soar. A direct comparison between the old DVD and Blu-ray tracks also reveals a complete repurposing of the surround channels, designed to create a more immersive, though hardly obtrusive, listening experience during chase sequences.
Most, but not all of the supplements from the DVD have been ported over on Blu-ray. Gone is Spielberg’s intro and the live performance by Williams. What we do get is the 38 minute retrospective, the extensive backlog charting the creation of E.T., an 18 minute cast reunion, 10 minutes on the score, a look at the 20th anniversary re-release, two deleted scenes, and a bunch of junkets on concept art and design, plus trailers and TV spots. Exclusive to the Blu-ray is a new 13 min. interview with Spielberg and The E.T. Journals. At 54 min. it is by far the most comprehensive look inside the making of the film.
Bottom line: E.T. The Extra Terrestrial is iconic film making. The Blu-ray delivers a reference quality transfer that is sure to delight young and old alike. Few movies from the last 30 years are as beloved or treasured as this. In time for Christmas, E.T. is sure to be a popular stocking stuffer. But the film’s appeal goes well beyond the holidays. It offers a perennial state of joy and viewing pleasure.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)