What is there to say about a film that for many years was the highest grossing film ever? A film that is universally beloved? A film that has been covered and studied and dissected endlessly?
Well I saw E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial this week in IMAX so I’m going to try. But I’m not going to add much new to the discussion of a film that’s exactly correctly rated in our culture. It’s a timeless classic. And I have no issue with it.
The plot is simple. An alien botanist gets left behind. He hides from shadowy figures near a house. Elliot (Henry Thomas) finds him and shelters him. His sister Gertie (Drew Barrymore) helps. Eventually the alien, given the name E.T., finds a way to make a beacon to reach his people. But the government is tracking him. And so much of this is oblique because the film is fully from Elliot’s POV.
Like I said I should have nothing new to say. And I probably don’t. So before I get into points made let me talk the IMAX treatment. The movie was shot originally in 1:85:1 which meant that this was the first movie I’ve seen to use every bit of the “liemax” screen in every shot. The film uses a 2017 remaster and it looks great. It sounds pristine. Sadly it’ll likely be a limited run but it was a breathtaking time.
Which is wild because with a few exceptions this is not an action packed film. Oh when it is such it’s quite good. But this is a small subtle film. It’s a film where quiet moments carry immense power. It’s so small scale it exists in a few blocks. And you realize watching it in IMAX that that’s what the format is best for. It’s an immersive film for an immersive format.
Director Steven Spielberg is notorious for feeling about his films how the public does. But I feel like even if the public rejected E.T. it would still be one of his favorites. This is a direct reaction to the end of Close Encounters of the Third Kind. It’s a film about the grief children of divorce feel. The movie is profoundly personal in that way. The dad isn’t just absent. He left for Mexico with his new fling. There’s anger there.
The film is also heavily about the feeling of not understanding anything that’s so universal to childhood. Melissa Mathison’s script, which somehow didn’t win the Oscar, is fascinating in how little it reveals. We know nothing about E.T., his species, and how his powers work. We don’t really know anything about the agency tracking him. We don’t know exactly where the film is set beyond Eastern California. We don’t even know the family’s last name! There is almost no exposition in the film and it serves to highlight that alienated energy.
The film is of course Spielberg just showcasing everything in his arsenal. It’s funny. It’s moving. It’s exciting. But what really blows me away is how experimental it is. There are shot choices that might not be the clearest way to capture the story but are definitely the right ones for it. There’s a lot of oblique work that’s breathtaking. There’s fascinating ways sequences play out. Dinner is as gripping as the bike chase because the scene is so calibrated. It’s so telling Richard Attenborough crossed the room in 1983 to tell Spielberg he should have won at the DGA ceremony. It’s simply as masterful as the art of direction gets.
And so much of that is on how he directs the actors. This is widely considered the best child acting ever got. I’m not arguing. Henry Thomas is just incredible at the core. Elliot is completely real and it’s no shock Thomas is still very active, recently doing fine work in Midnight Mass. Drew Barrymore might be even better. She’s such a natural comic actress it’s no shock as an adult that was where she’s shone. Robert MacNaughton is perfect as the older brother. Dee Wallace Stone delivers astounding work, conveying ca. Also, brief as he is, must give love to Peter Coyote as the face of the government operation. He’s a beam of warmth at a scary moment.
The movie’s score has to get special discussion. John Williams won the Oscar for it and it’s impossible to imagine him losing. In a career of the greatest scores ever composed, this is top tier, maybe his best full score. It’s an immensely subtle work with only a few recognizable beats but it’s one of a kind. The whole score is steeped in wonder and mystery. Suburbia has never felt so surreal as here.
Is there an area the film is deficient in? It’s an unlikely one but the effects just barely work aside from the flight scenes. E.T. is a rather ramshackle creation and while I admire Carlo Rambaldi’s work here, he’s not exactly convincing. The way he’s shot and reacted to does so much more work than the effects. He’s just a bit stiff is all. William Kotzwinkle in the novelization really did a lot of world building to make him make sense, making him an old man.
There’s another area that requires discussion. See I’ve grown up with this film as a cultural gold standard. But to a younger generation? It’s not as much. Jurassic Park holds more weight as does Jaws. Back to the Future too. And it’s because this is an achingly sincere film. There is no ironic distance in E.T. The occasional vulgarity aside, this is a very raw film about a miracle and what it would do to someone without hope. I can see how to an audience used to feeling jaded this would be a hard sit.
But this is the power of E.T. There’s nothing but the blunt force power of emotion. The movie is relentless in its pulling at your soul. And it’s impeccable. E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial is as good as mainstream cinema will ever get.
Watch the trailer right here.
All images via Universal.
Directed by Steven Spielberg
Screenplay by Melissa Mathison
Produced by Kathleen Kennedy, Steven Spielberg
Starring Dee Wallace, Henry Thomas, Peter Coyote, Robert MacNaughton, Drew Barrymore
Release Date: June 11, 1982
Running Time: 114 minutes