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E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (Universal Pictures, PG)

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film ET_75The film is a celebration of kid culture from a time when fun meant riding your bike and playing D&D with your friends.

 

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If you’re up for a nostalgia buzz, I can make no better recommendation than Steven Spielberg’s E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, showing September 28–30 as part of the Webster University Film Series. It doesn’t matter if you were around for its initial release or not; E.T. is such a perfect distillation of America in the 1980s (as portrayed on the big screen, anyway) and of the lonely-boy-and-his-X movie trope that you’ll feel right at home, even if your birth certificate is dated somewhat later than 1982.

An alien task force comes to California to collect botanical samples. When the spaceship makes a hasty departure, chased by faceless law enforcement agents, they leave one of their number behind. That would be the title character, who finds his way to the shed behind a suburban home inhabited by 10-year-old Elliott (Henry Thomas), his 16-year-old brother Michael (Robert MacNaughton) and 5-year-old sister Gertie (Drew Barrymore), and their overworked single mother Mary (Dee Wallace).

Elliott is a lonely kid, getting the usual big-brother harassment from Michael (face it: how many 16-year-olds want to hang out with 10-year-olds?). He doesn’t seem to fare much better with his own age group, and his mom is really too busy to bestow the kind of attention he craves. The central story of the film is how he bonds with the left-behind alien, to the point where they seem to share the same physical sensations (e.g., when E.T. drinks beer, Elliott gets drunk). However, E.T.’s chief desire is to return to his own kind, and that’s the story in a nutshell.

I’m hesitant to say more, because even though the plot is probably better known than Romeo and Juliet (spoiler alert: they both die at the end!) or Hamlet (spoiler alert: practically everyone dies at the end!), it’s still best experienced as if it were your first time. If you are of a more cynical bent, you can spend your time cataloging the sources of the major elements in the story (from Peter Pan to The Wizard of Oz and beyond), but you’ll probably still find yourself admiring how skillfully those elements are combined.

For those of us who were around the first time, E.T. is a catalogue of an America that is no more. No helicopter parents here; a key plot point involves letting a grade schooler stay home alone from school all day. Kids are left on their own to explore their half-finished subdivision and the woods beyond, and they apparently get to riot every day on the school bus. In fact, the film is basically a celebration of kid culture from a time when fun meant riding your bike and playing D&D with your friends. You don’t even see the face of an adult, other than Mary, until the final third of the film.

E.T. won four Oscars, none of which were for Melissa Mathison’s taut screenplay—she lost out to the juggernaut that was Gandhi. Still, it’s worth taking notice of just how economically Mathison works in everything that is important for the story, and nothing that isn’t, and how she blends realistic depictions of family life with the stuff of science fiction. (For the record, the Oscars E.T. did win (all highly deserved) were for Original Score (John Williams), Sound Effects Editing (Charles L. Campbell and Ben Burtt), Visual Effects (Carlo Rambaldi, Dennis Muren, and Kenneth Smith), and Best Sound (Robert Knudson, Robert Glass, Don Digirolamo, and Gene S. Cantamessa).) | Sarah Boslaugh

E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial will be screened in the Winifred Moore Auditorium on Sept. 28, 29, and 30 at 7:30 p.m. as part of the Webster University Film Series. Tickets are $6 for the general public; $5 for seniors, Webster alumni, and students from other schools; $4 for Webster University staff and faculty; and free for Webster students with proper ID.

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