ET the Extra-Terrestrial review – a masterclass in American culture

A brilliant film about the alienated and powerless experience of being a child forced to absorb the scalding ironies of divorce, as well as a superb sci-fi adventure

The digitally remastered re-release of Steven Spielberg’s sublime classic after 20 years is a devastating rebuke to anyone who has presumed to patronise this great film-maker. It is depressing to think of the bogus sophistication and phoney, counter-revolutionary posturing which over the past decade made it acceptable to take this film lightly. I have in the past found myself affecting to deride its alleged juvenilisation of American cinema, and even its supposed manipulative tendencies - for all the world as if the clarity and miraculous power of Spielberg’s emotional language was something anyone could do. I just wish I had put my hand in the fire, Cranmer-like, rather than write any of this.

Because ET the Extra Terrestrial - the story of the little boy from a broken home who befriends an extra-terrestrial creature stranded on Earth - really is a masterpiece. Watching it again is like getting a masterclass in American popular culture. Without ET there would be no Toy Stories, yet the Toy Stories with their hi-tech sheen can’t match the easy swing of Spielberg’s live-action storytelling. Without ET there would be no X Files, but Spielberg’s passionate idealism and faith in the power of love make the cramped, paranoid X Files look ridiculous. Without ET there would be no Harry Potter, but ET doesn’t have Harry’s glow of self-congratulation. In the strange and beautiful love story of ET lies the genesis of Douglas Coupland’s vision of Generation X: people in the west growing up in a secular, affectless society, yearning to feel rapture, and looking for love in the ruins of faith.

The strange, ugly little creature itself, with its great cow eyes, hydrocephalic head and Sistine Chapel fingers is orphaned by the departure of his spaceship, visiting earth on some kind of botanic expedition, and he is left stumbling around in the undergrowth. But a happy chance leads him to young Elliot (Henry Thomas) who, unknown to his mother or any grownups, takes him in, feeds him, witnesses ET’s healing gift, and finally in an ecstatic mind-melding process, experiences a merging of consciousness with ET and a strange and divine state of grace.

Spielberg’s “new” scenes reveal much earlier on what ET looks like (no need for suspense now) and he retrieves from the cutting-room floor some wacky moments in the bathroom. Henry Thomas gives a performance of remarkable and unadorned sincerity, though it is overshadowed in a way that the director could not have predicted, or indeed approved of, by the tiny moppet Drew Barrymore as his younger sister. Everything and everyone in this movie has become so iconic it’s difficult to remember how singular Spielberg’s films were then for having no stars - the movie was the star. But this certainly made Barrymore into a star, and was maybe her finest moment, the kind of knowing yet unpretentious child acting which was easily equal or superior to, say, Tatum O’Neal in Paper Moon or indeed Haley Joel Osment in the weirdly similarly-entitled AI. Uncannily adult, yet adorably innocent, it is a marvellous comic turn which never upstages anyone else.

So Elliot and ET become best friends, united in their loneliness and vulnerability, and composer John Williams shows his inspiration by unveiling his classic soundtrack theme first in muted, minor variations, a musical foreshadowing of its eventual glorious triumph when the famous phrases blossom in a major key. ET learns to communicate from a spelling toy and from watching TV, and ingeniously modifies various household implements into a device for signalling to his “mother-ship”: a seance-like activity of automatic writing. He even gets drunk on Coors beer from the fridge, and Elliot channels the sozzled creature’s anarchic chaos in his classroom, defiantly freeing the bunch of frogs from their horrible dissective fate: a tough, prototypical stand on animal rights, which Elliot will duplicate when it comes to freeing ET himself.

It is in the final act, when the pale and wizened ET is dying, that Spielberg produces some stunning cinematic coups. At the precise instant when ET’s existence can no longer plausibly be withheld from the adult world, the door is opened to reveal a spaceman - in full Nasa rig. It is an unforgettable image. The sinister “Keys” has been tracking ET’s presence here and preparing to enclose him in some clinical prison-bubble, yet the “spaceman” moment makes it look like the heartless and ignorant authorities are the real aliens.

Then there is Elliot’s final speech to ET, an inspired moment in Melissa Mathison’s script. You simply don’t have a pulse if you don’t feel your spine tingling and scalp prickling at these lines: “I don’t know how to feel; I can’t feel anything any more. I love you, ET.”

Spielberg and Mathison’s Christian imagery: the sacrifice, the ascension, the glowing heart - all this looks more emphatic than in 1982, but also somehow accidental, and doesn’t seem preachy in the CS Lewis manner. This is a brilliant film about the alienated and powerless experience of being a child, especially a child forced to absorb the scalding ironies of divorce; it works as a brilliant metaphor for this pain as well being a superb sci-fi adventure. It is a visionary romance - and there have never been many of those.


Peter Bradshaw

The GuardianTramp

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