Of the films that have ever been the all-time box office champ, ET is my favorite because it's the most lyrical. As much as Spielberg's sentimentality was criticized, think of how pleased we'd be today to see a smash that had no stars, a judicious use of FX, an intimate scale, and no pre-existing media franchise. Spielberg can be problematic, but his domain is children vs. disenchantment, and this is its masterpiece.
It nearly defies belief that the highest grossing film of the 1980's could feel this intimate, this personal. While it's now a cliche to compare a movie to a roller coaster ride, the screenplay oscillates between a sense of hope and sadness in a way that mirrors the journey of our own lives. Clearly an autobiographical endeavor for Spielberg, at its core "E.T." is one of the greatest films ever made about loneliness.
"Back to the river! Back to the forest!" Sublime hokum from the golden age of science fiction, otherwise known as my own childhood (maybe yours, too), E.T. overwhelms the wonder receptors in the brain, turning susceptible viewers into weeping, grinning, dopey miracles of the human spirit. Want a Coke? Don't ruin it.
The usual themes, childhood isolation and the collapse of the nuclear family, explored through the relationship between human and extraterrestrial. Spielberg uses this idea to craft a moving, intimate, often claustrophobic film (about the clash between 'belief' and cynicism) that is also genuinely surreal; the apocalyptic imagery contrasting against the suburban American setting to create a sense of real danger.
Well, I do like the scene when the house is covered (contained) with plastic, or whatever that is. All the other stuff, when I was a kid, the finger, the fact that the alien looked like a sick old man all the time, made out of rubber made me not like the film. But I did like the other alien movie that Spielberg did, way cooler: Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
I understand that how you react to this film is very much dependent on how old you were when you first watched it. When I first saw it, I was the same age as Elliott, and no matter how much I would've disregarded it if I encountered it now for the first time, and no matter how much I agree with Robin Wood's critique of the film and the E.T. phenomenon, I still like it and I still cry with E.T.'s death/departure.