“That fucking movie,” Bruce Boxleitner said with a wink and a smile during the press conference for TRON: Legacy. He spoke with obvious affection, but the sentiment underscored a serious problem every movie had in 1982. As rich a bounty as they produced, all of them suffered for the cardinal sin of not being E.T. They all had their own thing to say, separate and distinct from Steven Spielberg’s celebrated fantasy. No one wanted to hear it then, even those that found their audience over time. None of them captured the zeitgeist of the moment – or remained so appealing to so many people – like the adorably ugly little alien perched at the top of the heap.
The film holds up in part because of its universal appeal. It speaks to many different people in many different walks of life. So as we grow away from Elliott (Henry Thomas), whose magical discovery of a stranded alien sets the film in motion, we move towards his brother Michael (Robert MacNaughton) – forced to grow up too soon by his parents’ divorce – and their mother (Dee Wallace) holding it all together by the skin of her teeth. The movie never changes, but because Spielberg’s family dynamic is so truthful and the emotions they touch on so clear, we see new things in them every time we watch.
It also taps into the inner child, and no matter what our age, Elliot’s adventures remind us what it was like to be that age. Who among us didn’t dream of finding something wonderful and special in the woods behind our home, something no one else could see, but that needed our help to find its way to safety? Who among us didn’t see the world of grown-ups as scary and menacing, as much for what they had lost as the power they held over us? And who didn’t climb on top of their bicycles at age nine or ten and pretend they were flying as they zipped down the street? Spielberg found all of that (with a little help from his cast and crew), then conjured them before our disbelieving eyes in perfect clarity.
And in the early days of the Reagan era, it spoke to what we all thought we needed: stability in a changing world, an underdog facing tough odds, and enduring optimism even in the face of death. We’ve become too cynical to believe in that now, but thirty years ago, it felt just right. Spielberg drew upon deep wells of emotion, broadly articulated but heartfelt in ways no contemporary film could duplicate. That only further enhanced its status as a standard bearer for our formative years, as iconic in its own way as Walt Disney or A.A. Milne. And for such an innocent story, its hero ultimately gains a surprising level of maturity. Elliott ultimately stays on Earth after all – facing his responsibilities to his family – while Spielberg's earlier protagonist in Close Encounters ditches everyone to go cruising among the stars.
In a strange way, that contrast illustrates the distinction between Spielberg and his friend George Lucas. The latter may never be forgiven… not so much for the changes he made to Star Wars as his steadfast refusal to release the film in its unaltered state. Spielberg made a similar mistake with E.T. in 2002, but rather than dig in his heels, he copped to the error and returned the film to its original condition. Beyond the respect it showed for the fans, the gesture also acknowledged that E.T. belongs in the 1980s, where its heart and sensibilities feel the most at home. CG has no place within it, nor does the cynical marketing that sought to “improve” it by exploiting a trend.
With that in mind, does it hold up in the 21st century? Of course it does, all the more for its nostalgic qualities. I confess that I prefer a number of movies from that summer over it, and I suspect I’m not alone. Many of those movies were excoriated at the time thanks to this one, and found their audience only gradually. It’s perhaps fitting that they aged more gracefully and spoke to us in a more timeless fashion. But as brilliant as they are, none of them could match the special innocence of E.T.: the way it makes us believe in magic again even as grizzled, cynical adults. It works best as a time capsule, both of the era in which it was made and the age at which we saw it. We grow and change, but E.T. still speaks to us: an indelible connection to who we were and a promise to stay with us no matter how many years may pass.