For decades, Hollywood children were either-or caricatures: Boys were mischief, girls sugar and spice, and orphans ambassadors for the abused and dispossessed. Spielberg’s sweetly maudlin tale about lost extraterrestrial sheltered by a boy and his siblings overturned the formula: Kids were made the sole owners mind-bending secrets, their insight humbling adults who were cast instead as a fearful race spoiled by big brother maturity. Free of archetype, they became what they were in the late 20th century: the clever offspring of the affluent American suburbs, often lonely, with time on their hands, available to the magical.
The story: A boy named Eliott (Henry Thomas) finds and befriends stranded alien E.T., protectively keeping the monosyllabic visitor close to his vest, sharing its presence only with siblings and friends. Soon, the appreciative alien becomes one of his tribe. Gertie, Elliott’s five-year-old sister (played by then-child star Drew Barrymore) produces some memorably wide eyes.
It’s a child’s dream: A friend materializing out of thin air to cast a spell on the day-to-day (Spielberg had his own alien “companion” as a child and the film is lovingly autobiographical). Best sci-fi film ever? Nonsense. Saccharine trifle? Cynical. Consider it a period piece ode to life between ages five and 10 in the post “Leave it to Beaver” world, a fable in which the big bad wolf is nowhere to be found and the alien outsider (for decades an archetypal ray-gun enemy) is as scared as those who give it shelter. Applaud Spielberg for good-hearted nostalgia, for taking children seriously, for producing fantasy Americana played to the hilt.