Even though I am a child of the 1980s, I didn’t grow up with this movie. I’d seen it a few times, but not a lot. My mom didn’t approve of some of the language the kids used, which is fair. (For some reason, people in the ‘80s thought it was really funny for kids to use bad language. I’m so glad that phase of our society is mostly over.) It was interesting to go back and watch it as an adult with a different understanding. I felt like even though E.T. is about kids, that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s only for kids.
So what’s the story? A bunch of aliens come to Earth to collect plants. They are interrupted by a group of alien-hunters, who cut one alien off from being able to return to the ship. He is left behind when the ship takes off. He makes his way to the suburbs, where he is found by Elliott, an unhappy young boy. Elliott and the alien, whom he christens E.T., form an unshakable bond as Elliott tries to keep E.T. a secret from adults and help E.T. return home.
The Good: It’s scary to make a movie about children. Child actors can make or break a movie. The children in E.T. were breathtakingly good. Henry Thomas is completely convincing as Elliott. Little sister Gertie is played by Drew Barrymore; this is the only role of hers that I think she does a good job in. Robert MacNaughton is big brother Mike. He has a couple of rough patches acting-wise, but nothing terrible. The three kids truly act like a family. They squabble, they call each other names, the little sister can’t be trusted with secrets, and they pull together when they need to. They know they can depend on each other when it’s important. That’s what a family is.
Of course, this isn’t only due to the acting; the screenwriter, Melissa Mathison, had a lot to do with that. Her screenplay is fantastic, even if she does occasionally have the kids say things that I don’t think they would say in real life. The story could have been bogged down in cheesiness, but the screenwriter managed to keep the movie balanced on the fine line between heartfelt and ridiculous. She also manages to give a sense of backstory without bogging down the movie, which can be another hard thing to balance.
John Williams’s musical score is glorious. I can’t get it out of my head, but I don’t mind too much because it’s so beautiful. Not only is it beautiful, it fits the movie perfectly. It doesn’t overwhelm the movie at all. Williams is a master at using the orchestra, too. The instruments he uses are always the right ones for his themes.
This movie is thirty-three years old, but the special effects hold up. My brother would say that that’s because they don’t use CGI, and I think that’s a good explanation. As CGI gets better and better, the older CGI things end up looking fake, where a well-done robot alien or the overlay of one shot over another to change the background will always look real. I was impressed.
The cinematography was exceptional, also. Part of the reason the adults are so threatening is that no adults (with the exception of Henry’s mother) have faces until close to the end of the movie. The first scene is especially effective because of this. It’s shown from E.T.’s point of view, and we see that he is an intelligent, but frightened, being trying to reunite with his people. It’s heartbreaking and scary all at the same time.
The Bad: Everything worked well, but it can be stressful to see these kids trying to keep E.T. a secret from the adult world. Kids in danger movies are hard for me sometimes, and in this case, while I completely understood the reasoning behind their actions, that didn’t stop me from wanting to step in and help them. I know that won’t bother everyone, though.
The aforementioned children-swearing thing did bug me. I was glad to know that Henry Thomas actually objected to some stronger language and pointed out that he would never say that, so his character shouldn’t, either. And it’s not so much the language I object to, although it’s not my favorite. I hear worse than that every day at work. It’s just that it makes everything feel less realistic for words like that to be coming out of a nine-year-old’s mouth.
The Ugly: I have to go with “nothing” for this one. E.T. is an incredibly well-made movie.
Oscars Won: Best sound; best effects, visual effects; best effects, sound effects editing; best music, original score.
Other Oscar Nominations: Best picture; best director; best writing, screenplay written directly for the screen; best cinematography; best film editing.