Oscar Blindspots: E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial

It might be 40 years late, but I’ll be catching up on all the Oscar nominees and winners I have missed from the year 1982 through the month of July

Despite being a film critic, it took me far too long to watch Steven Spielberg’s E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. Despite forty years of technical advancements and a cynical outlook, the film transported me. It’s a masterpiece of the highest regard.

Henry Thomas stars as Elliott, a lonely boy living in the San Fernando Valley with his brother Michael (Robert MacNaughton), sister Gertie (Drew Barrymore), and mother Mary (Dee Taylor). One day, an alien botanist is stranded by his group in the forest and runs to Elliott’s backyard for shelter.

Elliott entices the alien in the house with candy and learns about him, naming him E.T. When Gertie and Michael discover him, the trio decide to contact his people and get him back home. All the while, E.T. is being pursued by a mysterious group led by Keys (Peter Coyote).

While the film doesn’t directly deal with divorce, Spielberg has alluded this being the chief inspiration for the film. Mary still wants to be her own person, while Elliott and his siblings are often on their own. That solitude leads to loneliness. Elliott’s connection (literal and figurative) is heartwarming just on the basis of giving a nice kid a friend.

Oftentimes, films that focus on children treat them like small adults. Spielberg gives Elliott, Gertie, and Michael emotional intelligence, but still treats them like the children they are. They are not overly precocious or hyper-intelligent. They are regular kids living their regular lives. They try to act as mature as possible, but the ignorance of the adults leads more to their success than their superior planning.

Thomas is a revelation. Much like an actual child in this situation, he is fluid. He goes from annoying, to stern, to sincere, to bewildered from scene to scene. This change allows natural growth but an earned reality. It’s one of the finest child acting performances in film history. Barrymore is utterly delightful as well. Even at this young age, it’s nice to see an established film actress with the ability and familiarity with the camera from all this time ago.

MacNaughton was my biggest surprise. I expected the older brother character to descend into cliche, but he is able to transcend this at every opportunity. Gertie is probably too young to truly understand her family situation, while Michael is more than aware of what it all means. We might not be getting his perspective, but he sees how important all this is to his brother. Coyote doesn’t have much to do, but he has a nice scene with Thomas. Wallace gets to be a brassy mom, which gives the film an added bit of levity at places.

Spielberg has such a clear understanding of what he wants to say and the best possible way to say it. This is a story from the perspective of children and he has little interest in the adults. The visuals are striking, despite most of the action taking place in a relatively insulated setting. Obviously, the iconic bike in front of the moon is the headliner, but his visual style adds so much to the narrative without feeling like it’s supposed to be more than what it is.

John Williams’ Oscar-winning score does a first-class job of assisting the drama. Every note is pitch perfect and so is Allan Daviau’s vivid cinematography. The Oscar-winning sound and visual effects hold up especially well 40 years later.

Every bit deserving of its iconic status, the film was the lasting blindspot in my movie going career. As much as I was transported and enjoyed it, I’m mad I didn’t catch it earlier.

Next week: A first-class performance gets to show off in a second-rate melodrama in Sophie’s Choice

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