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article imageOp-Ed: Thirty years later, E.T. is still a masterwork, on many levels

By Jeff Cottrill     Jun 8, 2012 in Entertainment
Monday marks 30 years since the release of one of the most successful movies ever made (on June 11, 1982), and an upcoming, remastered Blu-ray release will introduce it to a new generation of kids – and grownups.
Universal Studios recently announced that Steven Spielberg's E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial is finally coming to Blu-ray on October 20, in a special, digitally remastered 30th-anniversary edition. And a lot of fans will be thrilled to know that it will definitely not be the 2002 re-release version, in which Spielberg digitally updated the special effects and – most controversially – replaced the police officers' guns with walkie-talkies in the climactic scene.
“I tried [changing a film] once and lived to regret it,” the director told a Los Angeles audience last September after a screening of Raiders of the Lost Ark, according to Slash Film. “I got overly sensitive to [some of the reaction] to E.T.... but I realized, what I had done was, I had robbed people who loved E.T. of their memories.”
Speaking of memories: many of us – especially those who grew up in the 1980s – have had the experience of revisiting a movie, TV show or album that we loved when we were kids or teenagers, only to find that it now falls flat, even embarrassingly so. “Jeez, did I really think Diff'rent Strokes was funny?” “Why does REO Speedwagon sound so lame now?” But for some, this timeless story about a friendship between a stranded alien and an ordinary California boy is a strong exception. Part of what makes it hold up so well is the way it works on multiple levels: it's a wondrous fantasy for children, but it's full of delights for adults too – at least, adults who are discriminating cinema lovers. Universal themes of love, loyalty, alienation, family, sacrifice and growing up abound, as does an arguably subversive view of the U.S. government and other authority figures. That's much more than you'll see in the typical Madagascar flick.
If you find yourself watching E.T. for the first time since you were a kid, you may be surprised to discover that it's a more personal, subtle and modest movie than it's reputed to be (especially if you think of it as nothing more than a kiddie sap-fest). Everybody remembers the story – boy meets alien, alien charms boy and his family, scientists discover alien, boy tries to get alien home – but not everybody remembers how well crafted it is as a film. Its blockbuster status and unabashed (but sincere) sentimentality usually get in the way.
E.T. was one of the key moviegoing experiences of my childhood. I was eight, and the only movies my parents had ever taken me out to see were Disney flicks and anything else similarly tame and G-rated (I didn't see the Star Wars series until later, on TV). I remember being scared during the early scenes, and I remember laughing and clapping with the audience later on. I remember how engaged the audience was with the story onscreen. But another thing I remember, although I may not have known how to articulate it back then, was how real it seemed. It was like a magical Disney fantasy, but in the real world: a world with kids who talked like real kids, swearing and bullying each other; a world where kids watched Tom & Jerry and Sesame Street and played with toys like Speak and Spell, Super Simon, Strawberry Shortcake figures and Raggedy Ann. And it was a world where parents got divorced, and where moms and dads and teachers often didn't have the answers.
That realism struck a chord with me again when I watched the movie in my twenties. That's when I realized that it's not a children's movie so much as a movie about childhood. Few other films I know – Truffaut's The 400 Blows, for one, and perhaps The Wizard of Oz – have so accurately captured what it really feels like to be a lonely and misunderstood child. Elliot (Henry Thomas) is never as innocent as Oliver Twist, nor as cynical as Bart Simpson; he's a real suburban kid dealing with a broken family, other kids who either pick on him or ignore him, and adults who won't take him seriously. His discovery of E.T. is wish-fulfillment in more than one way – he finally finds a true friend, as well as a purpose: to help the creature get home. It's his first real sense of being needed.
It helps the believability that the acting is terrific. Thomas, Drew Barrymore and Robert MacNaughton aren't mugging little brats spouting smartass one-liners in a bad sitcom. Their performances, as coaxed by Spielberg, are nuanced, honest, spontaneous and deeply emotional. This is refreshing to see, when so many child stars have made millions just by acting cute. (And we mustn't forget the versatile, convincing performance of Carlo Rambaldi's E.T. puppet, without which the entire movie would fall apart.)
Of course, E.T. has taken its share of criticism – it's been dismissed as manipulative, sentimental, commercial and so on. Coming as it did in the “Greed is good” decade, from a director who is often blamed (along with George Lucas) for killing the 1970s Golden Age of personal, independent filmmaking in Hollywood, it's understandable why some serious film critics and viewers might not want to distinguish E.T. from cheesy ripoffs like Short Circuit or Mac and Me.
It may come as a shock to such detractors to learn that E.T. was not developed as a standard prepackaged, high-concept blockbuster. It was a personal project for Spielberg, who wanted to tell a story inspired by his own childhood alienation and grief from his parents' divorce, and by the imaginary friend he'd created. “I didn’t think it would be a hit, because it was about kids and no films about kids under 18 were doing any business then,” he told Total Film in 2004. Columbia Studios was also unsure: it rejected Spielberg's initial pitch, which is unusual when you consider Spielberg's clout at the time. Even Mars, Inc. refused to permit M&Ms to be used in the movie, because it thought the title creature was too ugly and frightening. (Hence the Reese's Pieces.)
Watch E.T. again with an open mind, and you'll find that its early scenes draw you in with quiet character and story development. It doesn't start with a bang: it takes its time, absorbing you in a suspenseful, mysterious atmosphere of shadows, silhouettes and back-lighting, never trying to overpower you with flashy effects or cheap tricks. In some ways, it feels more like a recent indie flick than a noisy Hollywood blockbuster. Most of the emotion and spectacle come later, with help from John Williams' Oscar-winning score, which alternates between quiet, intimate moments and operatic, triumphant fanfares.
One of the most remarkable aspects is Spielberg's cinematic technique – the way he tells the story visually. Many of the key early sequences, in which Elliot and E.T. discover each other, go by with little or no dialogue; most impressively, Spielberg establishes the telepathic connection between E.T. and Elliot with no verbal exposition – just from sharp cross-cutting and editing. (Screenwriter Melissa Mathison also deserves a lot of credit for this.) As with the shark in Jaws, you never get a clear look at E.T. until later on, which helps to establish the creature's presence in your imagination and build suspense. And almost everything in the movie is shown from the point of view of either the children or E.T., often using low camera setups, in a way that's so natural that it feels almost subliminal. When Spielberg was at his peak, he knew how to rely on the audience's perception and intelligence to tell his story, and his technical skills were a near-flawless instinct.
“I understand that there are people who don’t respond to Spielberg’s movies,” former Salon film critic Charles Taylor wrote upon the movie's 2002 rerelease. “Much as I dislike dogmatic statements, though, I think that if you look at his work from [1974 to 1982] and don’t realize you’re seeing a master of framing, timing and rhythm, a born moviemaker, then in some essential way, you don’t understand movies.”
Bold words, perhaps, but heartfelt – like the movie itself, one of the few genuine film classics of the 1980s. In three decades, E.T. has not dated in any important way, and it's just as uplifting, funny and entertaining when you're thirty-eight as it was when you were eight. Maybe more so.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
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