E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982)

E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982) movie poster

director Steven Spielberg
viewed: 04/26/2013 

In 1982, I was all about E.T.  I sat through it twice the first time I saw it.  I read the novelization of it.  I even got the Michael Jackson record thing with E.T.  I was 13, but I was totally into it.  I thought that Drew Barrymore was the cutest kid in the world.

That said, I don’t know that I ever actually saw the movie again.  At least after 1982.  I might have gone to see it again in the theater.  That was the old fashioned way of seeing movies multiple times.  Not necessarily pre-VHS or pre-Beta but certainly before we had them.  And when things didn’t go to pay cable right after the fact.

Anyways, I hadn’t seen E.T. in a long, long time.  The kids had seen it some years before, not with me.  Long enough ago that Clara didn’t remember it at all and Felix probably couldn’t remember it too well.  But after watching A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001) the week before, certain parallel notions arose in my mind, though maybe it was just the style of the title, with two initials followed by the longer words for which they stood.  That and some crazy adventure for an alien being of great good and innocence.  Frankly, the parallels stopped seeming parallels after re-watching E.T.

E.T. is a good, probably not great movie.  It’s greatest strengths are the child actors Henry Thomas as Elliott, Drew Barrymore as Gertie, and Robert McNaughton as older brother Michael.  Director Steven Spielberg has always had a way with child actors, and E.T. was one of the films that really solidify that truth.

It’s also quite the snapshot of early 1980’s Southern California (as Everytown, USA).  I’ve always seen some parallels between the landscape of Poltergeist (1982) and E.T.  It’s almost as if they used the same landscape shots of suburbia.  Spielberg was producing Poltergeist at the same time and the film certainly feels a lot like a Spielberg movie in many places.

The nuclear family in E.T. is a broken one.  Dad is in Mexico with another woman.  The wounds on the family, particularly on Elliott and his mom (Dee Wallace) are still open and painful.  E.T. carries that other very Spielbergian sensibility of child endangerment and dissociation from the family.  Adults are almost entirely shot from the perspective of someone of either E.T. or Gertie’s height, simply waists and feet, no faces.  The mysterious government agents are just body parts, not men, until the very end when Peter Coyote shows up and has a face and a voice.

The magic that I felt in 1982 (in which I was far from alone) really doesn’t resound as powerfully today.  Felix and Clara enjoyed the film’s more comic aspects, like when E.T. gets drunk or gets dressed in drag, or simply gets knocked around.  As surprised by E.T.’s death and resurrection, neither of the kids seemed very overwhelmed by the emotion of the story.  I remember tearing up when I saw the film back in the day.  Again, I don’t think I was exactly alone in that.

I asked them what they thought about E.T. vis-a-vis A.I. Artificial Intelligence, which was sort of the notion of pulling E.T. out at this point.  Clara preferred the movie about the robot boy to the friendly alien invader.  And interestingly, I think that I too think it’s a better film.  While it’s certainly had less cultural impact, less commercial success, less notoriety, I think it’s a better film.

E.T. is as much a time capsule of a film as anything, so it seems.  While it was one of the films that really embedded product placement in its evil corporate form in earnest, it also maintains some image of a kid’s California life of the time, surrounded as one is with the cultural effluvia of one’s period: Star Wars toys, Hulk posters, Speak’n’Spells.  For me, it’s particularly evocative, as I stayed that summer in California with my grandparents and still vividly remember that time.  But that is the uniqueness of my experience, not the least objective.

It’s also sentimental and soppy and silly cutesy.  Some of the cutesy is still effectively cute (Drew Barrymore is still a doll as Gertie), some a little more groan-inducing.  And some of the “magical” images, such as Elliott riding his bike across the giant moon, flying in air, with the John Williams score grabbing at the heartstrings (heartlights?), it’s not necessarily ham-fisted but still most obvious.

Iconic, yes.  Masterful, maybe not.