'E.T.': Steven Spielberg's Joyful Excursion, Back to Childhood, Forward to the Unknown

By Gary Arnold
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 6, 1982

THE SAME visionary impulse that produced Steven Spielberg's wonderstruck UFO movie, "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," has now inspired a fresh, delightful variation on the theme: "E.T." Both films are propelled by the need to reach Up There or Out There, to verify the existence of sentient beings beyond our earthly habitat and confirm a spiritual rapport across the cosmos. Spielberg does it masterfully.

Opening Friday at 13 area theaters, including an engagement in 70mm and six-track Dolby Stereo at the K-B Cinema, "E.T" is a science-fiction comedy-fantasy-suspense thriller which traces the development of a profound emotional bond between an ugly-beautiful little creature from outer space and a valiant, resourceful kid from the American suburbs.

A straggler, the creature is inadvertently left behind by a spaceship which has landed under cover of darkness in a dense forest, where several diminutive silhouettes can be seen gathering examples of the flora. Facing apprehension by a shadowy group of human hunters who have witnessed the sudden departure of the ship and detected his presence, the abandoned, terrified alien beats a desperate retreat through the woods, struggling to elude the beams of darting, pursuing searchlights. The thick, protective underbrush suddenly ends and the fugitive confronts the outskirts of civilization--a suburban community nestled in the foothills.

The creature seeks concealment in the back yard shed of a house that borders on a cornfield--a setting bathed in hazy, dreamily beautiful moonlight--but he's a little noisy. He attracts the curiosity of one of the residents, a 10-year-old boy named Elliott, the middle sibling in a family of five recently reduced to four. (The parents have separated, we discover, and the father is conspicuously missing. According to rumor, he's somewhere in Mexico with his girlfriend.) Investigating a strange rattling in the shed, Elliott cautiously stands outside and tosses his softball through the open door. An instant later the ball is tossed right back at him by an unseen hand.

Despite this unnerving experience, Elliott proves to be an ingenious investigator. Snooping around the property the following night, he meets his quarry face to face and the suddenness of the encounter scares them in opposite directions. However, Elliott knows that this "goblin" is not a figment of his imagination. He hits on an approach that works like a charm: a friendly, irresistible offering of M&Ms. Reassured, the creature reciprocates with an offering of his own and then enters the sanctuary of Elliott's bedroom, scooping up a trail of candies with two long, dexterous digits. And so begins one of the funniest, sweetest love stories in movie history.

E.T., short for "extra-terrestrial," is the nickname given by Elliott (Henry Smith, a juvenile actor who combines winning naturalness with an amazing expressive range) to his squat, inquisitive, exotic guest. The names of child and creature are intended to suggest affinities. Spielberg shows the process that leads from these tentative opening gestures of friendship to an abiding, supernatural attachment: E.T. reveals miraculous powers and his liking for Elliott imposes remarkable forms of closeness, like telepathy and interlocked metabolisms.

"E.T." is essentially a spiritual autobiography, a portrait of the filmmaker as a typical suburban kid set apart by an uncommonly fervent, mystical imagination. It comes out disarmingly funny, spontaneous, bighearted. "I wanted E.T. to become a kind of conscience and companion to kids growing up in the '80s," Spielberg said in a recent interview. "In the '50s I had Jiminy Cricket and Winnie-the-Pooh as imaginary sidekicks and preceptors. They were creatures who outlived their original contexts and I hope the same thing happens with E.T."

Elliott and E.T. may have begun as alter egos of the filmmaker, but they emerge as autonomous, fully imagined characters. The chronicle of their friendship is deftly contrived to generate a giddy succession of humorous episodes, sustain a melodramatic plot and inspire rich sentimental gratification.

The humor revolves around culture shock. E.T. finds it necessary to adapt to Elliott's strange environment. He's an adroit mimic and quick study, mentally far superior to the Earthlings. Nevertheless, he sometimes misinterprets the unfamiliar behavior surrounding him. For example, after Elliott decides to take his teen-age brother Mike (Robert MacNaughton) and their kid sister Gertie (Drew Barrymore, a 6-year-old granddaughter of the late great John, who reveals a delightfully impish presence and a stunning sense of timing) into his confidence, the immediate consequence is pandemonium. Gertie shrieks at the sight of E.T., who misconstrues her reaction as a conventional form of greeting and shrieks right back. Perhaps the wittiest single sight gag in the movie is the image of Gertie fleeing in panic with E.T. waddling along in her wake, still imitating her hysterical reaction out of sheer friendliness.

E.T.'s assimilation also suggests a subtler humorous purpose. E.T. seems to embody the process of childhood development and socialization at an accelerated rate. He's constantly outdistancing the siblings as they attempt to familiarize him with the local folkways. He keeps adding new dimensions, evolving from stray pet to playmate, copycat, alter ego, miracle worker, foster parent, mentor and ultimately divinity.

The new dimensions are physical as well. Brilliantly constructed by Carlo Rambaldi, the creature reveals a complex, poetically expressive anatomy. For example, the first and last feature that we're made aware of is his heart, an organ that burns with visible, red-hot intensity in moments of emotional urgency, since his chest cavity is covered by an alarmingly thin, transparent membrane. Later there are equally distinctive, stirring aspects connected with the way E.T. uses his digits, speaks, changes coloration, breathes and moves his eyes.

The screenwriter, Melissa Mathison, had contributed to the script of "The Black Stallion," a movie Spielberg greatly admired. The idyllic friendship between boy and alien in "E.T." clearly echoes the animistic union of boy and wild animal in "The Black Stallion." Even certain details are similar: The M&Ms that Elliott leaves for E.T. recall the sugar cubes Alec left for the stallion.


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