This movie, Steven Spielberg’s third, was released in 1982 after Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Its first-year sales were greater than those for the first Star Wars film, a result that gobsmacked Hollywood and established Spielberg as the pre-eminent filmmaker of his generation.
Most of us have seen it before, but let’s recap the story. A being from another planet is left behind on earth when his spaceship leaves in the middle of the night to avoid humans investigating their presence in a forest.
The being, eventually named E.T., wanders into the garden shed behind a suburban family house. Elliott, a 10-year-old boy who lives in the house with his mother, younger sister and older brother discovers E.T. and offers acceptance, friendship and Reese’s Pieces candies to the puzzled alien.
There is tension in the house because the dad is gone. The mom learns that he is off in Mexico with a girlfriend. One of the boys calls the other “penis breath,” which, given how square moviegoers were at the time, caused critics to warn parents not to take children under the age of eight to see the film.
Effectively, E.T. becomes Elliott’s imaginary friend — such are not uncommon comforts for children — and then, as the two other siblings inevitably encounter E.T., he becomes a family member to be protected from the still-menacing adult men searching the neighborhood and tracking the strange footprints they have found.
E.T.’s physical form also was designed with children in mind. He does not look at all like a human, but he is about Elliott’s height, has two arms, two legs and great big eyes that reflect emotion.
In addition, E.T. is a quick study. He learns English by watching television and applies what he learns to voice the film’s memorable line, “E.T. phone home”, that expresses his dearest wish. E.T. also applies what he already knows (unexplainable, but it works) to contact fellow extra-terrestrials on his home planet. In the process, he identifies so completely with Elliott that, when E.T.’s health declines in an unfamiliar environment, Elliott gets sick too.
The goal becomes to help E.T. return to his home. This effort knits his adoptive family and neighborhood children into a magical effort that leads to the expected conclusion.
The film retains its interest because the children and their world don’t seem so different from that of today — except for those bikes with small wheels and banana seats — and because it gratifies the sincerity of all children and their wishes to do good. Adults who have happy memories of the story might want to share this movie with younger persons of their acquaintance.
A caveat: In the movie, 10-year-old Elliott’s class (presumably fifth grade), is assigned a science activity that may not be familiar to students of this generation: the dissection of live frogs that students have narcotized but that still have beating hearts. This apparently was a middle school project in some locations, but in my city, it was only a high school biology exercise. My impression is that it since has been eliminated and replaced, occasionally by “dissection” of frog-shaped silicone material. E.T. casts the project as painful for big-hearted Elliott and gives him a chance to display his honorable and humane nature; but even the set-up may be more stressful for today’s young viewers than the occasional “shit” bombs sprinkled through the script.