What happens when you allow yourself to experience a film with innocent, childlike eyes?
Roger Ebert's website, in honor of the late film critic's birthday today, has republished a 1992 review of Steven Spielberg's 1982 classic E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. The review is written as a letter to his grandchildren, Raven and Emil, and discusses the movie as part of their experience.
Ebert had already seen the film by this time, including at Cannes. But during this screening with much younger viewers (ages 7 and 4 at the time), he comes to the realization that the entire film is presented from an extremely unique point of view—either Elliott's (Henry Thomas) or E.T.'s. And that perspective is one that immediately resonates with his grandkids, who understand when they're seeing "E.T.'s vision" or experiencing events as Elliott would.
At the finale, young Emil commented that E.T. is reuniting with his "mommy," which stunned Ebert. The critic states in his 1992 review:
And then I thought, the fact that you knew that was a sign of how well Steven Spielberg made his movie. At 4, you are a little young to understand "point of view,'' but you are old enough to react to one. For the whole movie, you'd been seeing almost everything through the eyes of E.T. or Elliott. By the last moments, you were identifying with E.T. And who did he miss the most? Who did he want to see standing in the spaceship door for him? His mommy.
The whole review is a tear-jerker, honestly—especially for someone like me, who not only happened to rewatch the original film this past weekend but also grew up as a fan of the movie.
I was one of those early, young viewers for whom the film was made. I was consistently terrified of the cornfield scene, and deeply affected whenever E.T. got sick and Elliott could do nothing to stop the adults controlling the situation. I still cry openly when Elliott has to say goodbye to E.T., I'll admit it.
It's obviously a film that carries a deep nostalgia for a lot of 30-somethings now and has guided a lot of our current TV and film creations (Stranger Things or Summer of 84, for example). But at the time, adult viewers and critics were a bit less forgiving.
Even in this review, Ebert mentioned that the now-famous bike sequence was not to his taste.
"I was thinking that the chase scene before the bikes fly was a little too long, as if Steven Spielberg (who made the film) was trying to build up too much unnecessary suspense," Ebert wrote.
The New York Times review from 1982 is a little bit snide, too.
"The most difficult problem is saving E.T.'s life, once the earth's polluted atmosphere has caught up with him, and just how this is accomplished, I'm not completely certain," wrote reviewer Vincent Canby. "There are some subtleties in the narrative toward the end that, I suspect, only a child will fully grasp."
I mean, I don't think it's that hard to understand, but maybe that's just me.
Film criticism remains a fraught field, where Rotten Tomatoes still has a lot of concentrated power and inclusivity is a problem. For some films, bad professional reviews prevail even as audience reactions are largely positive. Those critics are usually accused of being "disconnected" or "out of touch."
Just look at the Tomatometer for Venom. Critics hated it, but audiences loved it. In my opinion, this is because it was a hilarious mess of a film, one of those so-bad-it's-good movies where you have no idea what's going on but still manage to have a good time.
Maybe film critics need to be more open and considerate of a film's intended audience, as Ebert was in 1992 when he realized for the first time how E.T. connected with young viewers on multiple levels. Sometimes movies aren't made for the reviewers but for the diehard Eddie Brock fans, or lovers of really fast cars, or the 1980s kids experiencing the wonderment of alien life and a relatable perspective for the first time in film.
What are some films you love, but critics panned? Let us know down in the comments.