‘E.T.': Steven Spielberg’s spaceman still glows 30 years later

June 15, 2012 | 1:13 p.m.
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Henry Thomas, left, and Steven Spielberg on the set of "E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial." (Universal Pictures / Los Angeles Times Archive)

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Steven Spielberg, left, and Drew Barrymore on the set of "E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial." (Universal Pictures / Los Angeles Times Archive)

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Drew Barrymore rides on Steven Spielberg's shoulders on the set of "E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial." (Universal Pictures / Los Angeles Times Archive)

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Drew Barrymore rides on Steven Spielberg's shoulders on the set of "E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial." (Universal Pictures / Los Angeles Times Archive)

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Steven Spielberg, left, and Dee Wallace on the set of "E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial." (Universal Pictures / Los Angeles Times Archive)

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Henry Thomas, left, and Steven Spielberg on the set of "E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial." (Universal Pictures / Los Angeles Times Archive)

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Steven Spielberg, left, and Henry Thomas on the set of "E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial." (Universal Pictures / Los Angeles Times Archive)

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Steven Spielberg, left, and Henry Thomas on the set of "E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial." (Universal Pictures / Los Angeles Times Archive)

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Steven Spielberg, left, Henry Thomas and Robert MacNaughton on the set of "E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial." (Universal Pictures / Los Angeles Times Archive)

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Robert MacNaughton, left, Henry Thomas and Steven Spielberg on the set of "E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial." (Universal Pictures / Los Angeles Times Archive)

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Steven Spielberg, left, and Henry Thomas on the set of "E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial." (Universal Pictures / Los Angeles Times Archive)

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Steven Spielberg, left, embraces Drew Barrymore on the set of "E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial." (Universal Pictures / Los Angeles Times Archive)

E.T., Elliott and a gang of kids on bicycles first flew across the silver screen 30 years ago this week in “E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial,” which is showing tonight as part of the Los Angeles Film Festival.

Steven Spielberg’s 1982 film is a touchstone for children of the 1970s and ’80s, who watched in theaters and on worn VHS tapes, letting John Williams’ otherworldly score envelope them as the strange spaceman with the glowing heart discovered Reese’s Pieces, beer and the best and worst in humanity.

“E.T.” took the classic children’s adventure story (think “Huckleberry Finn” and “Peter Pan”) and relocated it to the American suburb. The film’s hero is lonely, alienated, 10-year-old Elliott (Henry Thomas), who musters the courage to help a stranded visitor find his way home. Its villains are faceless adults with guns and flashlights. It was the first in a string of movies — “The Goonies,” “Stand By Me,” “Monster Squad” — that put children center stage in fantastic adventures.

For Spielberg, “E.T.” was intensely personal and, in many ways, autobiographical. Like his boy character Elliott, Spielberg was a child of divorce who found comfort in an alien friend, though his was imaginary. And working on “E.T.” (originally titled “A Boy’s Life”) allowed a then-34 Spielberg to build relationships with his three child stars — Thomas, Drew Barrymore and Robert MacNaughton.

“When I went home from production of ‘E.T.,’ I didn’t want to go home,” Spielberg told his Hall H audience at San Diego’s Comic-Con International last year. “I realized for the first time in my life that I wanted to have children. I have seven now, thanks to ‘E.T.'”

Spielberg’s love for his child actors is evident in set photos from the film, unearthed from the Los Angeles Times’ archives (check out the gallery above). And audiences’ love for “E.T.” is evident in a new generation of directors — “Super 8‘s” J.J. Abrams and “Attack the Block‘s” Joe Cornish — who cite the alien film as a major influence. It received glowing reviews back in 1982; here’s an excerpt from one such review, by Los Angeles Times critic Sheila Benson.

Steven Spielberg’s “E.T.” is so full of love and wonder, of pure invention and the best kind of screen magic, that it’s not only the film of the summer, it may be the film of the decade and possibly the double decade. … The inner stuff of “E.T.” is durable and timeless and as real as tears; as my friend, the film curmudgeon, growled, “Anybody who doesn’t like this film, I don’t want to know about his problems.”

… Elliott is probably the best boy-hero since Kipling, or, more obscurely but more to the point, the great E. Nesbit. His curiosity and intrepidity are almost equally matched. He knows that his edge-of-civilization backyard, misty and glowing under a crescent moon, is being visited by something pretty strange. But to wait for a glimpse of this creature, alone, at night, tucked in a lawn chair, is fearlessness itself. …

It’s interesting to notice how quickly we believe absolutely in E.T. In a moment of danger, one of Michael’s friends asks why E.T. can’t just beam up out of danger. “This is reality,” is the answer. And so it has become. E.T., with his 10 words, his wonderful gurgling, chittering sound and the delicate play of expressions across his whole little body, seems as alive as any of the children. And his poignant yearning for home will be understood by every child. …

The great news is that you don’t need to bring a child to love it. You need only to have been one and have a tiny spark of memory left. “E.T.” will fan it into a glow to warm your days.

“E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial” screens at the FIGat7th Plaza tonight at 8:30 p.m. Read the complete 1982 review here. And check out the set photos in the gallery above.

[Updated June 15, 2:45 p.m.: In honor of the 30th anniversary Blu-ray release of the film, coming in October, fans and members of the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition are riding bicycles to tonight's open-air screening. Fans who ride their bicycle will receive free bike "valet" and a screening voucher for the Los Angeles Film Festival. Also, several fans will receive red sweatshirts, à la Elliott.]

– Noelene Clark

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