BY LYNN LEE
When I told several friends that I was on my way to review a 20-year old movie, E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, most of them asked me why I bothered. After all, most of us probably remember the highlights.
The easy answer, of course, is that it isn’t quite the same movie. Some of the visual effects and sound have been touched up, a couple of scenes inserted that weren’t in the original release, and others have been digitally altered. But there is a better reason: if you have seen it before, it was probably part of your childhood, and it’s worth reliving. If you haven’t, it’s a classic that shouldn’t be missed.
Sure, the film is shamelessly manipulative; the tears and smiles it evokes are overdetermined. None, however, are cheaply earned. When it comes to touching your inner kid right where he or she lives, no one can do it quite like Spielberg. You are moved despite yourself, or forced at least to admire the sheer virtuosity with which he hits primal emotional chords. The opening sequence is a masterpiece: Without even seeing E.T. properly, we’re immediately drawn into his point of view. We share his curiosity about an odd plant that leads him astray; the sudden, transfixing wonder of the city lights stretching invitingly below him. And then, the panting terror of his flight, pursued by bobbing flashlights that slice up the quiet darkness, and the anguish of his inevitable abandonment.
Having felt this connection with the as-yet unseen visitor, we share in the thrill of empathy that reaches out to embrace the other hero of the movie, Elliott. Henry Thomas delivers an absolutely flawless performance as the boy who first befriends the lost alien. In fact, he doesn’t perform at all, but inhabits the character to marvelous effect. The two actors who play his siblings are also very good. In particular, Drew Barrymore, pre-rehab, pre-Charlie’s Angels, is unbelievably cute as little sister Gertie.
As other critics have observed, Spielberg tends to build his most emotive films around lost children, children seeking to recover a distant memory of a unified home, family, peace and emotional security. Here, in E.T., that memory becomes the unspoken kinship between the alien whose greatest desire is to rejoin his family and the children whose father has recently forsaken them – especially Elliott, who yearns to fill the void he’s just barely old enough to comprehend.
Just watch the scene when the two first meet, at the end of a trail of Reese’s Pieces, and the way E.T.’s motions and expressions mirror Elliott’s. As simply and as brilliantly as that, Spielberg sets the stage for the unearthly psychophysical bond between the two. I remember being deeply unsettled, when I saw the movie as a five-year-old, by the closeness of that bond. It still strikes me as a little creepy: after all, what is E.T. but a kind of vampire, or even a parasite, latching on for dear life to Elliott’s soul and body?
What redeems the relationship, of course, is E.T.’s gentleness, his wise-child benevolence, his wide-eyed, neck-craning expressiveness (slightly digitally enhanced in the new release). Also his endearing curiosity as he explores our world, or anyway, the world of suburban California, circa 1980 One of the smaller treats of the movie is the plethora of late ’70s/early ’80s cultural relics that become objects of wonder to the alien visitor. And, of course, his miraculous powers of healing and flight.
Again and again, these traits are starkly juxtaposed with the faceless, inhuman government agents that monitor E.T. and his equally vulnerable protectors. When these gathering forces finally pounce, their entry is almost absurdly theatrical – yet no less terrifying for all that. So, too, the seemingly endless pinching and probing, which made me cry as a child and which may still be too intense for very young children. In so doing, E.T. successfully captures, indeed magnifies the quality of a child’s nightmare, the menacing anonymity of those terrible figures – grown-ups who don’t listen and don’t understand. Luckily for Elliott and E.T., there are one or two authority figures who, eventually, do.
Maybe children today are too jaded to be affected by an appeal to their innocence. But I hope not. At a time when a genuine sense of wonder is in short supply, and the sense of lurking danger, on the other hand, all too painfully present, E.T. may help us, like Elliott, to see the world anew, through the eyes of a child – or an extraterrestrial.