Thursday, March 1, 2018

Blast from the Past Movie Review: E.T. The Extraterrestrial (1982)

The movie E.T. The Extraterrestrial came out before I was born, but I have two older cousins. I remember them coming to visit when I was a little kid (preschooler or very early elementary schooler) and us watching E.T. on VHS back when that was new. I remember quite frankly being terrified of the events in the third act and not being comfortable watching the movie again for years. I never saw the film in its entirety again until possibly after graduating college.

Well, our friends in Myopia: Defend Your Childhood wanted to watch the movie and so we did. Here's the podcast. And here's the review:

The Plot

A group of alien botanists are taking samples in northern California when they're accosted by a group of government officials. The aliens flee, accidentally leaving one of them behind. The alien hides out in the backyard of young Elliott (Henry Thomas), a lonely child whose parents are separated and whose teenage older brother Michael (Robert MacNaughton) and his friends won't include him in their activities. Elliott befriends the alien, whom he dubs "E.T." (for "extraterrestrial"), and introduces him to Michael and his sister Gertie (the young Drew Barrymore). The three of them soon learn that he wants to "phone home" and try to gather the equipment he needs, but E.T. soon begins to sicken in the strange Earth environment and the government agents are closing in...

The Good

*Henry Thomas does a phenomenal job as Elliott, generating genuine pathos in his relationship with E.T. and his siblings and when E.T. gets sick. Seriously, this movie had so many people, including some of my Myopia crew, in straight-up tears, and so much of that is owed to Thomas's performance. As an adult I'm not nearly as emotionally-sensitive as I was as a child and I still found it poignant. MacNaughton as Michael does pretty well too, and his character has an actual arc from disdaining Elliott as a tag-along to enthusiastically helping with E.T. Drew Barrymore, who was seven years old when the film was made, does a great job as well.

*The scenes where E.T. becomes sick and when government agents in spacesuits invade the house--the scenes that frightened me as a child--are very well-done.

*There's some good comedic bits in the film, like when Gertie tries to tell her mother about E.T. and her mother is too harried to notice there's an alien in her kitchen and when E.T. encounters a child dressed in an alien costume on Halloween.

*The government investigators are depicted in a very interesting fashion. Rather than the all-powerful Men In Black who cover up alien activity on Earth by any means necessary, they seem to be operating on a shoestring. They drive pickup trucks and big vans with era-appropriate snooping equipment and a lot of their equipment seems to be borrowed from NASA. Their security is provided by local cops, not the military or black-ops types. In the climax of the film, they rush around on foot or in not-exactly-high-end "company cars." In discussions on the alternate history forum (I'm guessing about what would happen if the events of the film really took place), some people theorized they're part of an agency nobody really took seriously and had a budget reflecting that--until all of a sudden they actually did find aliens and everybody panicked.

*The investigators aren't even scary or bad people when viewed from an adult perspective. One them describes how E.T.'s arrival is a "miracle" and they're glad it was Elliott who found him, they do their absolute damnedest to care for E.T. and Elliott, they aren't particularly pushy or aggressive, and it's not unreasonable for them to quarantine Elliott's family. All it took to fatally weaken the Aztec Empire was one member of Cortez's crew having contracted smallpox and the greatest killer of Native Americans was European diseases. And with Elliott, the boy who had the most contact with E.T., in poor health, that the authorities would seal off their house and surround it with police isn't exactly unreasonable. E.T. could be purely benign (unlike Cortez) and still be dangerous.

*And the fact E.T. is a friendly, decent person (of a different sort) was probably a bigger deal when the movie was made than today. Most movies featuring aliens would have depicted them as dangerous invaders--the film The Thing, which is in turn based on an older film, came out that same weekend. Between the government agents who TVTropes describes as "Hero Antagonists" for the reasons I described above and the fact the aliens are friendly, there is no "bad guy" in this film at all.

*E.T. is not CGI at all--he's a puppet or an actor in a suit. The practical effects are very, VERY well-done. And we don't even see E.T. much at all until around 15 to 20 minutes into the movie, providing a good sense of mystery. Think Jaws, where you don't really see the shark much at all until the end, or Gremlins where the evil gremlins are kept mysterious for quite awhile. The special effects in general, even when they're done using "early CGI" like E.T. demonstrating telekinetic abilities, still hold up very well.

The Bad

*The movie is oftentimes rather slow-moving. Although Elliott meets E.T. relatively quickly in the film, not a whole lot happens until the mission to "phone home" gets going. I understand the need to have E.T. learn enough English to communicate with the humans (thanks to Sesame Street), but maybe it could have been done a little faster?

The Verdict

The movie was pretty darn good, even though I historically didn't like it and in any event had already seen it. If you haven't seen it before or haven't seen it in a very long time, go see it right away. Owing to my history with the movie I never got the same magic and emotional impact from it that so many others did, but it still a very well-made film. 9.0 out of 10.

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