E.T. is a frustrating movie to write about because its difficult to nail down the specific grammar and punctuation just right. You have E.T. with two periods, then the colon, then the next three words capitalized, with Extra-Terrestrial hyphenated. That’s a lot of stuff to remember and a lot of stuff that can be screwed up!
Additionally, writing about E.T. is difficult since the general consensus is that it’s a breathtaking, masterful film celebrating sci-fi and aliens the magic of childhood and the unmalleable bonds between loved ones. And that general consensus is totally true. It’s questionable if E.T. is Steven Spielberg’s best film (Schindler’s List or Jaws are really the only ones that could top it.) However, E.T. is Spielberg’s most Spielberg-y film, the one that serves as strongest testament to him being the director who can make us feel things better and more strongly than any other.
E.T. is sentimental about childhood but not to the point of hokey nostalgia. It points out that being a kid, while fun, also sucks immensely. Siblings, school and parents are a pain and you never get quite the respect you deserve. It shows just how crucial bikes are to childhood, how two rickety wheels, some poorly-crafted steel and a rusty chain could truly transport kids to new worlds. While it probably wasn’t a goal of the film, E.T. is unequivocally the best portrayal of childhood on film.
BUT! E.T. is also seminal as a sci-fi film since it portrays an alien not only as friendly (which Spielberg also did in Close Encounters,) but goofy. E.T. isn’t motivated by bloodthirsty conquest or a desire to enslave/eradicate humankind from the earth. He isn’t an over-intelligent super-creature or a primal, non-thinking alien. E.T. but actually has a personality, he actually acts and reacts to things in a way that create a genuine perception of who he is as a person (er, alien), that if we were to have E.T. lined up with two or three of his alien cohorts, we could tell who he was beyond just his appearance.
It’s something that very few sci-fi movies, if any, have ever done, being able to make an alien feel human. And that is Spielberg’s greatest gift with this film and his talent as a director. Filmmakers have a responsibility to make us care about fictional characters and stories we are unfamiliar with. That’s especially difficult with characters who are puppets or CGI-animated. Still, Spielberg manages to pour enough humanity into E.T. that he feels like a childhood friend, a weird kid who moved to school for a semester before his parents had to pick up and go again. He’s only here for a short time, but he lives in our hearts forever.