ET the Extra-Terrestrial at 40: Spielberg’s sci-fi smash remains a wonder

There’s a crucial domestic scene early in ET the Extra-Terrestrial where 10-year-old Elliott (Henry Thomas) is trying desperately to convince his mother (Dee Wallace), his older brother Michael (Robert MacNaughton) and his little sister Gertie (Drew) Barrymore) that he’s found an alien in the back yard of their suburban home. Nobody believes him. So he lashes out, like many children would in that situation. He claims his absent father would have believed him. And he tells his harried mother, who’s still raw from the divorce, that his dad and a woman named Sally are vacationing in Mexico. It hurts her feelings.

Michael snaps at Elliott. “Why don’t you grow up? Think about other people for a change.”

Thinking about others is what ET is about. And that’s why it’s been extracting tears from audiences so effectively for 40 years. A child of divorce himself, Spielberg is uniquely perceptive about how kids are sensitive, vulnerable, innocent creatures who feel the world intensely, but are also naturally solipsistic. They understand how events affect them, but empathy is a learned trait, part of the same slow developmental process that teaches them to walk and read and fend for themselves. (Many adults fail to learn it.) Spielberg conceived a science-fiction fantasy where a boy literally feels what another being feels, and the bond between them is overwhelmingly powerful. Elliott grows up at a breathlessly accelerated rate.

The storybook simplicity of the film is key. For that, Spielberg commissioned Melissa Mathison, who’d previously written The Black Stallion, another spare children’s drama about the connection between a little boy and an orphaned creature. Mathison’s script is a model of economy and clarity, pared down to serve a story that really has no big twists and turns: Elliott meets ET, an alien lost in the woods after his spaceship leaves without him. Elliott and his siblings then shelter the alien and help it get back home again. Outside of the scary, faceless adults who eventually intervene, that’s all there is to it. Even the dialogue, though whimsical at times, puts a premium on directness. A few of the most quotable lines: “Beeeeee good.” “ET phone home.” “Ouch.” “Stay.”

Spielberg had already defined the expectation of a hostile alien invasion earlier with Close Encounters of the Third Kind, which expressed hope that such interspecies contact might bring out the best in humankind. The squat, murmuring, doe-eyed being in ET is much more of a device, serving to illuminate the loneliness and stress of a latchkey kid who hasn’t settled into his new situation. Though the film never says how long Elliott’s dad has been out of the house, it seems recent enough for everyone to feel unsettled by it. The alien brings Elliott closer to his siblings, as they work together to shelter it and figure out what it needs, but they’re both trying to get back to their families. As Elliott helps ET go home, he learns to accept a newly reconstituted version of what home means to him, too.

Working at the height of his powers, Spielberg gives ET a sentimental pull that would feel more manipulative if he wasn’t so strategically withholding. The John Williams score is one of his most famous and sore, but Spielberg treats it like the shark in Jaws, doling it out in bits and pieces before allowing the audience to experience the whole thing. It’s not until the sequence where ET lifts Elliott’s bike to the sky that the orchestration hits in full, and the effect is like a dam bursting, this transcendent moment when a supernatural event is tied to a huge emotional crescendo. It’s like the kid-movie equivalent of a night at the opera.

Spielberg and Mathison also back into the synchronized emotions between boy and alien, approaching it as comedy first before attacking the tear ducts. In one of the film’s most justly celebrated sequences, Spielberg harmonizes the mornings of Elliott and ET as the boy is asked to dissect a frog in science class and his new friend raids the refrigerator, passing up the potato salad in favor of guzzling a six pack . Elliott liberating the frogs foreshadows his efforts to free ET from scientists later on – again, because he’s learning to care about things other than himself – but the image of this curious, weird little creature drunkenly bumping into cabinets and channel-surfing is a comic treat in itself, as if he’s taking a crash course in becoming an American.

Behind the scenes on ET
Spielberg behind the scenes on ET. Photograph: Universal/Rex/Shutterstock

ET is the touchstone for Spielberg’s vaunted reputation for working with child actors, who under his watch are neither too precociously adult nor gratingly obnoxious. Barrymore gets the biggest laughs as Gertie, but her reaction to a near-death moment when the alien is being defibrillated may be the most piercingly real in the film. At the same time, the adults have an important role in play in ET, too, and they’re not all men with hazmat suits and probes. Wallace needs little time to establish herself as a working mother who cares immensely about her children, but often can only do her best to keep the chaos at bay. And Peter Coyote has a crucial late appearance as a scientist who validates the boy’s feeling when he needs it the most.

There’s no irony to ET, and no sense that it’s trying to reproduce the magic of a predecessor the way that future films would labor to imitate it. Spielberg approaches the material with the sincerity and openness that his characters bring to their kindness with the alien, and it still feels timeless and pure as few films do. ET is a plea for emotional growth, for people to summon their best selves when it really matters. Children can do it, and adults can relearn if necessary.

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