Out in rural California one night, in a forest near Los Angeles, a group of botanists are investigating the local flora, collecting samples to take back to their lab for further examination. Except these botanists are not from California, nor even from Planet Earth, they are from a distant planet and have merely stopped off here for a brief spell in an excursion to other worlds for scientific purposes. One of their number ventures a little too far away from their spacecraft when suddenly he hears the sound of approaching vehicles and his colleagues must take off without him lest they be discovered: the scientist panics and runs for it, abandoned by his comrades...
What's E.T. short for? Because he has little legs. Now that's out the way, how does director Steven Spielberg's science fiction movie hold up after decades of being lauded as one of the finest of its type, if not the finest of all time? The thing about this blockbuster was, way back when it was released it was notable for two reasons, one was the massive advertising blitz accompanying it which basically told potential audiences that if you did not take your kids to see it then you were bad parents, so drop plenty of hints, children, that this was what you wanted to see as a replacement for your ubiquitous Star Wars merchandise, dolls, stickers, green and orange biscuits and all.
The other reason was the effect it was supposed to have on you. To cut a long story short, if this movie left you dry-eyed by the finale then you were obviously the possessor of a heart of ice, not much better than a soulless automaton because Spielberg and his screenwriter Melissa Mathison truly pulled out all the stops to get the tears flowing. Some found this cynical manipulation, while others opted for it being presumptuous that the viewer would find the movie as personal and overwhelming as the creators did themselves, but all credit to them, for the most part audiences responded warmly to the concept and the ingenious, Carlo Rambaldi-designed puppet that was our lead character.
On the other hand, there was a curiously persistent feeling among some that this was no heartwarming fable for modern times but actually one of the scariest works you could see as a child: reminscences of E.T. are littered with people who grew up suffering terrifying nightmares about him, even if they had not seen the movie, so maybe it's fitting a celebrated sequence takes place at Halloween. Part of that appears to be purposeful, as Spielberg was well known for adding scary scenes in many of his most family-friendly efforts, apparently recognising how well that went down in his first megahit Jaws, so there are certain sequences here which court the fear mechanism, though mainly to have us sympathise with the powerful sensations the alien and his new friend Elliott (Henry Thomas) are going through.
That said, for some the notion of a space visitor showing up in such mundane, recognisable surroundings as a suburb, even one which was by no means universally existed in, was enough to turn up the terror, since this decade's insistence on setting many of its science fiction and horror movies there made it somewhere filmgoers the world over could adopt as their own, if only for a couple of hours or so. Of course small town or suburban America wasn't the sole province of those genres, as plenty of comedies were set there too, but with Spielberg you genuinely had the impression this was his most comfortable domain, precisely because he could do so much with it. Elliott's location should be the most stable one in the world, but somehow it hasn't worked out that way.
Indeed, everywhere the boy goes there is chaos threatening to erupt at any moment, from his single mother (Dee Wallace in a definitive performance) who gets tearful every time her separation is mentioned, to his bedroom which is a perfect mess of toys, to the more obvious introduction of the alien to his life. E.T.'s arrival, and subsequent psychic connection to his new pal, offers a stability defined by its sense of danger: mostly the peril that they will be discovered, but also the worry that they will be torn apart now they have found a soulmate. The alien does bring this on himself, constructing a communications device to "phone home" (and presumably bitterly complain about getting left behind), but just as some delicately observed business of childhood is playing out - Thomas' screen siblings Robert MacNaughton and Drew Barrymore have performances to treasure coaxed out of them as well - the tone grows oppressively sentimental, exactly what Spielberg was always accused of. It doesn't ruin the experience, though John Williams takes the same cue for his score, but it does weigh it down, however skillful.
His best films combine thrills with a childlike sense of wonder, but when he turns this to serious films like The Color Purple, Schindler's List, Saving Private Ryan, Munich and Bridge of Spies these efforts are, perhaps, less effective than the out-and-out popcorn movies which suit him best. Of his other films, 1941 was his biggest flop, The Terminal fell between two stools of drama and comedy and one-time Kubrick project A.I. divided audiences; Hook saw him at his most juvenile - the downside of the approach that has served him so well. Also a powerful producer.