I still remember the line of people, stretching from the box office out into the mall parking lot, as I arrived on a balmy May evening in 1982 to attend a sneak preview of Steven Spielberg’s E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial. After ”Jaws,” ”Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” and ”Raiders of the Lost Ark,” a new Spielberg film certainly qualified as an event, but the vibe this time was unusually heightened. You could feel it. The title already told you what ”E.T.” was about, and the people on that line weren’t just there to see a movie. They had made a pilgrimage. Without any advance word, they knew.
At the beginning, a spaceship shaped like a Christmas-tree ornament hovered benignly in the woods, and its arrival only confirmed the audience’s unadulterated wish — that ”E.T.” would turn out to be a spiritual sequel to ”Close Encounters.” The movie may have taken place in suburban California, a world of duplicate tract houses and concrete-ribbon cul-de-sacs, but from its opening frames, it set you down in Spielberg Land: the mysterious foggy bright light that glowed through thickets of foliage, the shots composed for eerie View-Master suspense in the director’s playful, boy-wonder-Hitchcock manner; the sensation of night that felt just as clear-eyed as day; the sweetness that was nearly supernatural in its purity. A Spielberg believer myself, I watched ”E.T.” in a trance, dazzled and moved and transported.
I loved the movie, yet something about it bothered me that I couldn’t quite put into words. Was it that ”E.T.” was sentimental and starry-eyed and manipulative? Maybe so, but the same could be said of ”Close Encounters,” which remains, to me, the most incandescent work of Spielberg’s youthful prime. Now, 20 years later, having seen the newly restored version of ”E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial,” I think I understand what the rub was.
”E.T.” is a sublime modern fairy tale, a movie that, if anything, looks subtler, darker, and more intimate now than it did when originally released. The slow-budding companionship between Elliott (Henry Thomas), a boy not just lonely but aching for a dream he doesn’t know he’s been missing, and the waddly, mischievous little cuddly-ugly space munchkin he names E.T. is one of the touching and timeless bonds of movie history. Yet on the most primal level of sensory magic, it is something else as well: a vision of a boy who spends an entire film becoming best friends with a special effect. In essence, that’s what all of us did. E.T., a ticklish and yearning poem of wonder, is a great movie, but the paradox — and perhaps the legacy — of Spielberg’s genius is that in bringing to life an otherworldly creature more profound and expressive in feeling than most actors, the director presaged an entire movie era in which the artificial would begin to trump the human.
”E.T.” is being rereleased in a digitally enhanced version that includes a couple of newly added sequences (it’s fun to see ”E.T.” do battle with a tube of toothpaste; we could probably have lived without Elliott faking barf sounds into the telephone), yet there’s no denying that the film’s visual marvels have aged. The spaceship no longer looks as tactile, and there’s a kids-flying-on-bikes matte shot that’s phony enough to be out of the ’50s. The face of E.T., with its puckered old man’s tiny mouth and star child’s widening eyes, remains miraculously expressive, but the creature’s skin is synthetic in a way that makes him look, at times, like an oversize action-figure version of himself. That said, if the predigital technology has dated, the love with which Spielberg wielded it has not.
The movie, then and now, is ultimately about love, and that, in its way, is its most daring aspect. In 1982, much was made of Spielberg’s unironic affection for the suburban setting, and also of the fact that Elliott was nursing the wounds of a fatherless home. All of that remains, yet there is also a fierce, heartstruck, possessive quality to Elliott’s friendship with E.T. that goes beyond the replacement of broken bonds — that hinges, indeed, on something more enduring.
Elliott’s devotion to E.T. starts out as a funny, prankish secret, especially during the frogs-on-the-loose school sequence in which the two do a kind of Vulcan mind meld. But as the picture goes on, their camaraderie comes to seem intensely private in a way that looks more audacious today, in an age of corporate feel-good entertainment, than it did then. The two are like Huck and Jim, alienated lost souls who withdraw from the world as they draw closer to each other. When was the last time you saw a child performance as fervent in its emotion as the one given by Henry Thomas? He is by turns shy, joyous, willful, saddened, and, in the end, heroically vulnerable in his expression of (interplanetary) brotherly love. When, in the film’s most memorable image, E.T. lifts Elliott up on his bike into the air, where he soars on the wings of John Williams’ theme music, it’s a cathartic leap into pure feeling — for Elliott, and for the audience. In ”E.T.,” Spielberg proved a herald of the age when moviegoers would make full-time friends with fantasy, but his most special effect was taking us into ourselves.