Welcome to a new feature, in which we review classics that we’d inexplicably never seen. It’s a bit like the Radio 4 show I’ve Never Seen Star Wars, except completely different and original because we’ve both seen Star Wars loads. I had, however, never seen E.T. until now. I’d always assumed it was a prequel to the TV show E.R.
E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial is a Steven Spielberg movie from 1982, about – well you know what it’s about, what are you, me yesterday? To borrow my co-goblin Alex’s description, it’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind with a plot. And though I’d never seen E.T., I felt as though I had, so iconic is every single scene – from the frog-freedom sequence to the bicycle silhouetted against the moon. It’s a film that’s been referenced in everything from Father Ted to Shrek 2, not to mention the direct homage paid by movies as recent as Super 8, which Spielberg produced, and Attack the Block, which he didn’t.
It’s easy to see why it’s such a beloved family film – the Spielbergian sense of wonder is quite magical, heightened by John Williams’ iconic score, which has a classic-movie quality typical of his finest work. The relationship between E.T. and Elliott (deliberately similar names) feels special – the funny little alien is isolated and lonely, just like his new best friend. But the film is also very funny, thanks to Melissa Mathison’s screenplay, Drew Barrymore’s performance as Elliot’s lisping sister and of course Matthew DeMeritt, the 12-year-old boy without legs in the E.T. costume who walked on his hands for the hilarious moments when the squat space-man bonks his head and falls down.
The impressive puppetry makes it easy to fall in love with E.T., in spite of his refreshingly odd appearance. Quite why Spielberg chose to make CGI modifications in the 20th anniversary version, only he (and George Lucas) knows. The violent reaction of the film’s authorities, smartly shot as faceless silhouettes and masked spacemen, offers an insight into the way the powerful treat the Other, while Spielberg’s focus on children comes with a healthy suspicion of authority.
Any sense of subversion, however, is undermined by the film’s sentimentality, which often feels overwhelming. The film has a nauseating obsession with Family to rival that of the Conservative party, and Spielberg is to daddy issues as Norman Bates is to mommy issues – incidentally, Henry Thomas AKA Elliott played the young Norman Bates in Psycho IV: The Beginning, but I digress. Despite the heartwarming affection between E.T. and Elliott, the sight of them croaking platitudes at each other gets pretty annoying pretty quickly, and then it’s just a crying child and his dying space-dog.
So yes it’s schmaltz, but it’s grade-A schmaltz. One can forgive E.T.‘s over-sentimentality and predictability, so masterful is Spielberg’s ability to capture pure childlike awe and to elicit great performances from children – until War of the Worlds, obviously. This is a modern-ish classic with well-realised affection between its iconic characters, human and otherwise. It’s a big hug of a movie, but one of those hugs where the other person squeezes slightly too hard.