Steven Spielberg has been creating moving, memorable pictures since the early 1970s.
Responsible for classics like Raiders of the Lost Ark, Jaws, Jurassic Park, Saving Private Ryan, and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, he’s one of the most acclaimed and successful filmmakers in Hollywood history.
But of all the many beautiful, striking images Spielberg’s had a hand in creating over the past half-century, few can match the power and wonder of a little boy’s silhouette streaking across a full moon as he soars on his bike through the sky.
First released in 1982, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial is one of the most beloved and successful science fiction films of its kind; its influence still can be felt across films and series like Bumblebee and Stranger Things. And yet, none of E.T.’s imitators have managed to match it in terms of whimsy and dramatic depth. Fortunately, E.T. remains as well-realized and moving today as when it first hit theaters nearly 40 years ago.
Now that E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial is available to stream on Amazon Prime, here’s why it’s worth rewatching (or finally seeing for the first time).
In 1980s America, an alien is left behind in a California suburb with no clear way of getting home. However, a chance encounter with a young boy, Elliott (Henry Thomas), opens the door for him to contact his family in the stars and possibly return to his home planet — but only if he and his new friend can keep the alien’s presence secret from government agents hot on his trail.
That’s the basic premise of E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, and it’s such a compelling one that countless other films have ripped it off across the past four decades. But the magic of E.T. doesn’t come from its kid-meets-friendly-alien conceit, nor its still-impressive special effects and enduring, playful visual style. Instead, the film’s staying power stems from how elegantly Spielberg and screenwriter Melissa Mathison build out the emotional foundation of its central duo’s relationship — and, most notably, in the way that they tie everything in the film back into the lingering, unresolved feelings Elliott has surrounding his parents’ divorce.
The film uses the arrival of an alien stranded on Earth and away from the rest of his family to create an unspoken kinship between its titular extra-terrestrial and his young human protector. Spielberg and Mathison keep the film’s themes about divorce largely unspoken. Because they do so, they’re able to tell a story about a very adult topic through a winningly innocent, childlike lens.
The quality of E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial’s story, of course, wouldn’t have mattered had everything else about it fallen short. Fortunately, the film remains one of the most well-made American blockbusters of the 1980s — even more impressively, it’s one of the more cohesive and vividly constructed films Spielberg has made.
The director has always imbued his films with a sense of innocence and wonder, and he calls upon that strength to fully immerse viewers in the perspective of E.T.’s young human protagonist. Additionally, just as in Raiders of the Lost Ark, Jaws, and Saving Private Ryan, Spielberg’s ability to build legible and gripping action set pieces is on full display in E.T. — and perhaps never more so than in its climactic bike chase and flight. It doesn’t hurt that Spielberg worked with some incredibly talented collaborators on E.T., including Henry Thomas, who gives a performance for the ages as Elliott.
All of this is to say E.T. isn’t just one of the most influential and beloved American films of the 1980s — it’s one of the best, period. This is not simply a film about a little boy who befriends a weird, lovable alien or how their relationship helps both to evolve and mature. It’s about growing up and learning to let go — even when that means making peace with the end of eras (and relationships) you wish could last forever.
E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial is available to stream now on Amazon Prime.