Old Friends

40 Years Later, E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial Remains Perfect For One Surprising Reason

We'll (still) be right here.

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Drew Barrymore on the set of "E.T.". (Photo by Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images)
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Far too many classic movies lose their luster over time. But that’s not the case with E.T. The Extraterrestrial. Even 40 years after its release in theaters, it’s not only as awe-inspiring, smile-worthy, and tear-inducing as ever, but it still looks great. In June, 1982, E.T. hit theaters for the first time. And if you’re of a certain age, this may have been one of your first “big kid movies.” As a family film to watch with your kids, the movie holds up. But the reason it has endured as a cultural classic might be because of the one thing we never talk about. Mild spoilers ahead.

Single mom Mary Taylor (Dee Wallace) is doing her best to raise her kids, Elliott (Henry Thomas), Michael (Robert MacNaughton), and Gertie (Drew Barrymore). There’s plenty of bickering and hijinks, some of it even just a bit mean-spirited, and no one believes Elliott when he says he encountered a creature in the tool shed just outside the house. Once everyone comes to meet E.T., however, they become something of a unit. And when the stakes are ramped-up for Elliott, their love shines through. All three child actors are remarkable, especially Thomas (who makes a palpable connection with E.T.) and Barrymore (whose innocence and wonder are priceless), but a re-watch of the movie as an adult reveals that Wallace anchors far more of the emotional proceedings than one might have initially thought… or even noticed. She makes Mary a doubting Thomas (no pun intended!), cheerleader, mama bear, and softie all rolled into one.

Spielberg and his special effects team performed wonders with Close Encounters of the Third Kind, even if the ethereal aliens in the final moments didn’t prove 100 percent convincing. The effects in E.T. deliver the goods. You buy the bicycle chase ending with the bikes gliding into the air. You believe that E.T.’s spaceship is ready to take him home. And, most of all, E.T. is alive, right? He’s as real as real gets. Only, he’s not. He’s an it; a creature created by Carlo Rambaldi and brought to life by a team of puppeteers, little people performers, voiceover artists, and more. That, friends, is old-school Hollywood magic.

Steven Spielberg in 1982 with, E.T.

Aaron Rapoport/Corbis Historical/Getty Images

There’s lots of action in E.T., notably the bike chase, and plenty of mystery, especially all the “What’s happening in that house?” business involving Peter Coyote’s very determined character, Keys. There’s also oodles of drama, too, including the pulse-pounding effort to save E.T. and Elliott after they both crash, and E.T.’s sob-inducing farewells to Gertie (“Beee… good”) and Elliott (“Ouch” and “I’ll be right here”). But the humor plays off that beautifully, whether it’s the amusing bits with the Reese’s Pieces or Elliott and E.T. getting tossing a few back, Gertie dressing up E.T., or the bravura sequence at Elliott’s school encompassing setting frogs free.

We can go on and on. John Williams’ Oscar-winning score is, in a word, majestic. And, bear in mind, that E.T. cost just over $10 million to produce. But, perhaps the secret and most important reason that E.T. endures. And it’s the one reason that may not be that obvious. While nearly every single wonderful ‘80s film has been mined for nostalgia and utterly turned inside out by sequels and reboots, E.T. remains pure. And that’s because Spielberg has wisely, thankfully, mercifully rejected any and all talk about a sequel. (Yes there was an idea for a sequel, but again, we’re very, very lucky it didn’t happen.)

Other than a (great?) five-minute Xfinity commercial known as “E.T.: A Holiday Reunion — which featured E.T. dropping in on an adult Elliott (a grown-up Thomas) and his family – E.T. The Extraterrestrial remains a singular sensation, as it should be. This, single fact might be the secret reason why this movie remains so perfect. There’s only one. Because, unlike so many beloved ‘80s films, while you’re watching E.T., you don’t have to think about anything else.

E.T. is currently streaming on Peacock.

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