Saturday, April 2, 2016

E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (Amblin/Universal, 1982)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Two nights ago Charles and I ran a DVD of the film E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, which as virtually all the world knows was made by Steven Spielberg, released in 1982 and quickly became the most popular film, at least in gross box-office receipts, to that time (though more recent researchers, attempting to neutralize the effects of inflation by counting how many people bought tickets to see a movie in a theatre, no matter how much they paid for it, insist that in terms of all-time paid admissions Gone With the Wind remains the most popular film of all time), surpassed only by Jurassic Park (another Spielberg movie) and then by James Cameron’s Titanic and Avatar. The print we were watching was marked as an “Anniversary Edition” — though which anniversary is unclear; apparently Spielberg recut the film slightly for its 2002 re-release, redoing some of the E.T. effects with CGI and including a couple of sequences originally deleted (which appear here not as part of the original film but in a “deleted scenes” section on the DVD, including one in which E.T. nearly drowns in a bathtub and one in which there’s a burning jack-o’lantern on Hallowe’en and Mary, Dee Wallace Stone’s character and the mother of the three children who are actually the central human characters, gets an egg thrown at her car), but given that the running time of the 1982 original is listed as 115 minutes and the 2002 version as 120 minutes, and our disc timed out at 115 minutes, I suspect what we got on this disc was the 1982 original. (One can see the difference between this and a modern movie in the rather “soft” visual quality, a problem with Eastmancolor in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s; Spielberg’s 1975 film Jaws had to be colorized for its first video release in 1985 because, even though it was in color originally, the colors had faded so badly in just 10 years they had to be tweaked in the lab.)

Neither Charles nor I had seen E.T. since the 1980’s; he’d seen it theatrically at the Loma Theatre in Point Loma (which closed a decade later and is now a Bookstar bookstore) and I’d watched it on VHS with John Gabrish (who was so moved by the movie he went out and bought the soundtrack CD) — and I was unprepared for what a great, breathtaking classic it really is. Ironically, Charles was considerably less blown away by it on this go-round than I was; he found it surprisingly slow through much of its running time, and he said he’s read too much science-fiction to find the story’s conceit that impressive. I can see his point but I wouldn’t really call E.T. science-fiction even though its title character is a being from another planet; it’s really far more of a modern-dress fairy tale, in some ways a clever reworking of Peter Pan — the alien from a never-never land who gets stranded on Earth and finds children far more sympathetic to him than adults (and Peter Pan is directly referenced in the dialogue; later Spielberg would do an even more blatantly Pan-derived film in Hook, far less successfully both artistically and commercially) — and also with hints of Bambi in its depiction of humanity (at least adult male humanity) as the sympathetic alien’s mortal enemy. The plot is probably incredibly familiar even to people who haven’t seen it in 30 years, but just in case, here goes: a spaceship from another planet lands on Earth (the online synopsis says it’s staffed by a crew of alien botanists surveying and taking samples of Earth’s plant life, but the only hint that E.T. has anything to do with botany is the potted plant in the central family’s home, which grows and withers depending on whether E.T. is doing well or poorly in earth’s environment) and takes off without one of its crew members. E.T. turns up at the home of an unnamed family in a suburban environment — one of Spielberg’s and screenwriter Melissa Mathison’s cleverest conceits is contrasting the exoticism of an alien from outer space to the almost depressingly ordinary human environment he’s trapped in — consisting of mother Mary (Dee Wallace, who hadn’t yet added “Stone” to her last name) and three kids, older son Michael (Robert MacNaughton, who should have had a bigger career than he did; lists only 12 acting credits for him, most recently in such things as Frankenstein vs. the Mummy and Laugh Killer Laugh, though he’s quite gorgeous in a Southern California surfer-boy way, he’s got a great ass and a disarming personality; also his character in E.T. is depicted as being a fan of Elvis Costello, which scores points with me right there; oddly at the time this movie was made Costello was frequently using his initials “E.C.” as a nickname!), middle daughter Gertie (Drew Barrymore) and younger son Elliott (Henry Thomas).

Elliott is the first family member to discover E.T. and the three ultimately take him into their home, befriend him, protect him from the adults who are trying to kidnap him so they can study him, and ultimately help him build an electronic gizmo with which he can contact his home planet so they can send another spaceship to pick him up. At the end E.T. and Elliott bid each other a sad farewell — E.T. invites Elliott to board the ship and go to his home planet but (unlike Richard Dreyfuss’s character in a previous Spielberg film about extraterrestrials, Close Encounters of the Third Kind) Elliott doesn’t take the invitation but instead chooses to remain on earth with his natural family. In case you’re wondering where dad is in all this, he abandoned the family and moved to Mexico with his girlfriend — when I first saw the film I assumed that Peter Coyote’s character (he’s part of the scientific crew who are trying to take E.T. and, when he nearly dies at their hands, their plan is to wait until he croaks and then dissect him, only he has a change of heart and helps the family revive E.T. and get him home) was the father of the family, having been called back as part of his work and ultimately reconciling with them, but there’s nothing that says that in the actual movie. E.T. seems to me (now) a masterpiece on every level, offering more proof that no living director can match Spielberg in his complete command of the grammar of film, his unerring instinct for when to hold the camera still and when to move it; when to hold a scene on the screen and when to cut; when to use dialogue and when to have the characters shut up so he can tell his story silent-film style with images, sound effects and music alone. It’s also blessed with a fascinating score by John Williams, who’s usually a functional rather than a truly great film composer but whose work here is far better than his norm; yes, the famous main theme is pretty sappy, but much of the music is surprisingly dissonant (apparently he was especially turned on by E.T.’s loneliness, his status as “a stranger in a strange land,” and the most powerful parts of his score are the ones accompanying E.T.’s scenes alone and his tentative outreach to the kids) and “advanced” for the score for a big commercial blockbuster.

E.T. is also helped by the fact that the title character is a real physical presence, not a bunch of pixels manipulated by a computer and blended with actors in front of a green screen; at least two people were in the E.T. suit (one a little person and one a Freaks-style “human torso”) but the person who got most of the credit for the performance was Italian puppeteer Carlo Rambaldi. E.T. himself is utterly convincing — in only one scene, in which E.T. is in the medical ward of the research facility and they’re attempting CPR on him, is it clear he’s an object and not a flesh-and-blood being. Incidentally I’m using the male pronoun for E.T. because early on in the film Elliott insists that “he’s a boy,” even though a genuine E.T.’s reproductive system would be so different from ours it would be hard even for a researcher, much less a 10-year-old kid, to tell. (The “trivia” page on the film quotes Spielberg as saying he thought of E.T. as an animate plant, neither male nor female, and the species didn’t have different sexes and reproduced itself by vegetation. He also said he thought of E.T. as being about 10,000 years old.) Nonetheless, E.T. strikes me here and now as a magical movie, as great as everyone at the time (or almost everyone) said it was, and while I’m afraid I took it for granted when it came out, today it seems a deathless masterpiece worthy of its legendary status in film history — and yet more indication of why I felt when I first read Henry Kuttner’s story “Mimsy Were the Borogoves” (also a tale about children transformed by an alien presence) that Spielberg — especially the young, relatively innocent Spielberg who made E.T. — should have filmed it.