Thursday, October 6, 2016

AFI Top 100: #24 "E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial"

Henry Thomas and E.T. in E.T the Extra-Terrestrial (1982)

As behind as I've gotten on my AFI Top 100 reviews, I'm trying to find the fire to get my thoughts down on everything before they slip away, out of my brain forever (or at least until I see these flicks again). Because let's face it. The next 24 films really are some of the best of the best, and one viewing just isn't going to cut it. Still, a fair few haven't been watched since I popped them into my VHS player two decades ago—and that describes #24, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, to a T. Frequent viewings as a child led to an "I've seen it a hundred times!" reaction whenever anyone suggested it, culminating into too many years away from Elliott and his admittedly unsettling-looking alien friend, not to mention another of director Steven Spielberg's masterpieces.

When a curious alien gets left behind on Earth after a quiet botany expedition, the gentle creature finds his way into suburbia and—more specifically—the backyard of an equally gentle boy named Elliott (Henry Thomas), who discovers the strange being late one night. Initially terrified, Elliott quickly befriends the alien, whom he names E.T., hiding it in his bedroom and enlisting his big brother, Michael (Robert MacNaughton) and little sister, Gertie (Drew Barrymore), to help him keep E.T.'s presence a secret from everyone, including their frazzled mom (Dee Wallace). As the siblings try desperately to learn more about where E.T. came from—and how to get him home—it starts to become clear that the small alien's connection to Elliott may run deeper than anyone could have predicted. It isn't until both spontaneously become sick that they learn the government is about to discover E.T.'s whereabouts, and it's up to them to protect their friend.

When I was a kid, I never thought about the symbiosis between Elliott and E.T. Never. Maybe it didn't make sense to me, that the health and emotions of one depended on the other, because I was a little kid and empathy was a weirdly foreign concept. But it makes sense now, and the impact nearly crippled me when I watched these two discover that bond this time around. The montage of feelings—physical and emotional—that overwhelm Elliott as he sits in his classroom has the benefit of being both hysterical and unexpectedly traumatic. What an incredible way to play to the audience. Children and adults can get so many different things from a scene like that, and it only lasts 5 minutes. But more than anything else in the story up to that point, it greatly informs the rest of the film.

The discovery of Thomas for the role of Elliott may just have been a gift from the movie gods. The tears, the vulnerability, the empathy... most adults can't bring that kind of performance on command, but Thomas, after only a couple TV movie roles by 1982, already had the makings of a seasoned pro. Elliott is a complicated character--he's actually jarringly relatable. Any kid who had a favorite pet and a creative spirit growing up could understand his eagerness and his plight, which is why Thomas doesn't appear to be faking anything. Whatever he's giving us, it is real down to his bones. And thankfully, he didn't have to ride this emotional roller coaster alone. Sure, MacNaughton's Michael transforms into the supportive and protective big brother every little kid should have, but he's a far steadier, less developed role. Little sister Gertie was probably supposed to be similarly 2-dimensional—but then they cast Drew Barrymore.

This isn't an expose, so I have little interest in discussing the rise and fall and rise again of Barrymore. But here? There's little doubt about the way she commands the screen, her noticeable lisp making her cheeks just that much more pinchable, her eyes just that much bigger and brighter. She probably didn't even need to be good at the 'emotions' part, but instead of riding on her cuteness alone, her range of feels knocks us over. She isn't given the meaty material that her onscreen brother is, but what she was given, she slays.

Paired with probably my favorite John Williams scores, Spielberg's vision for a film meant exploring a world (sort of Peanuts-style) from the point-of-view of the children, shooting from Elliott and E.T's eye-levels for what felt like 90% of the movie. Adults were there, but somehow more other-worldy than the titular friendly alien himself. The secrecy and tension and fear of discovery dictate the editing pace, and as the outside world closes in around the kids, their once small and quiet lives take on new meaning and importance. And the world—or rather, universe—gets so much bigger.

I'm one of those people that likes being an adult. It's rare, actually, that I ever wish to be a kid again. I know so much more now. I knew so little then. But then I watch E.T. and I realize what it is that's missing. The best parts of childhood when the world still let kids hop on their bikes at 9 AM with the only rule being they return by sundown—or dinner, whichever came first. Movies can't be about this anymore, because the world isn't like this anymore. It's why the Netflix series Stranger Things grips at the nostalgia that E.T. and its counterparts invented (Dungeons & Dragons sequences aside). A treasured part of our lives as kids we'll never be able to reclaim, and that desperate hope we all had that our make-believe would become tangible and real.

E.T. is a strong movie etched out of a silly premise, one that could easily have been forgettable had it not been for the sheer magnitude of effort put forth by Spielberg and the young actors, particularly Henry Thomas. It's hard not to think about Steven Spielberg's affinity for working with children, not to mention crafting a magical tale for young audiences, in particular (which is what infuriates me most about the stunning failure of this year's The BFG).

While there are directors who have created incredible, memorable films that root deeply into our childhoods (Chris Columbus comes to mind), there aren't many who do it with such unwavering confidence. This is cinema at its most hopeful—and magical.

Rating: ★★★★★ / 5 stars

[Watch the Trailer] | [Read More AFI Top 100 Reviews] | [images © Universal Pictures]

Check back next time for #23 on the list, The Grapes of Wrath — or better yet, have your own viewing party and watch along with us!
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