E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982)
What I remember about the debut of E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial was the lines to get into see it. I was 10, I hadn't really seen much advertising, and I really didn't pay attention to who directed things. I certainly had no idea who was in it. In all honesty, I don't think I ever asked to see it, or even knew it existed until my parents asked me if I wanted to go. However, I knew what an extra-terrestrial was, so there was no argument from me. Luckily, since I grew up in Phoenix, we saw it at the United Artists in Christown Mall - which means we waited inside the mall instead of out in the heat. It was June, after all.
The movie stayed in theaters for a little over a year. The only other film I can remember from around the same time that did so was The Gods Must Be Crazy, but it generally only played at one or two theaters. E.T. stuck around in the first-run cinemas, crushing movies like The Thing and Blade Runner which are now, in a lot of ways, more studied and renowned than E.T. is. I honestly understand why; they are more adult films, with more depth in the storytelling and, honestly, more long-term influence on directors and screenwriters down through the years. Despite that, both failed at the box office in 1982, while E.T. sored, and if one was alive in 1982 then it is easy to see why. A light, uplifting fantasy movie was something that was needed at a time where there had been nearly a decade of our economy crumbling and all the dreams our parents had fading away with the jobs that, a generation earlier, would have been there for the rest of their lives.
It's not that E.T. doesn't address this. The toll divorce was taking on our nation was just making itself known. While Boomers certainly had their share of fathers that took a wrong turn and just kept going, Generation X was one of the first that experienced being brought up by one parent (usually a single mom) to such an extent. Of many of the people I went to school with I am one of the few that grew up in a two-parent household, and even I still had the key around my neck since, in the economy that Nixon and Carter left us, one person bringing home the bacon just didn't cut it. Mary (Dee Wallace), the mother of Elliott (Henry Thomas), Michael (Robert MacNaughton) and Gerdie (Drew Barrymore), is left with a new house she probably can barely afford and three kids to raise while her ex-husband, who is never seen, is off in Mexico with his new girlfriend.
Into this family comes an unexpected visitor. Left behind by its comrades when their landing site is discovered, it hides out in the family's shed and is soon discovered by Elliott. No one believes him at first, but soon Elliott coaxes the alien into his home, where it meets Mike and Gerdie. Not only is it friendly, but it shares a psychic link with Elliott, and is soon able to express its desire for Elliott to help it contact its ship so the alien can be with its people, since being separated from them is slowly killing it. Unfortunately, a shadowy U.S. government agency is also interested in the alien.
Although I saw it in the theaters and on cable, E.T. did not become available on VHS until 1988. In all honesty, until recently viewing it again, that was the last time I had seen it, since as a teenager I realized that the story really was for younger children and that it seemed like there was a concerted effort to sell Reese's Pieces, which of course offended my teenage idea of integrity. I didn't know at the time that it was simply because Mars, the company behind M&M's, wanted nothing to do with the movie, and Reese's had to give permission rather than buying advertising time. There were also so many better movies by Spielberg to watch. It had seemed I had outgrown the movie.
Which, in all truth watching it this many years later, I had. Steven Spielberg purposely filmed E.T. from a child's height, which not only gave us the alien's perspective as well but kept things on a kid's level. In fact, other than Mary and people on the television, not an adult face is seen in the film until the government agents show up and quarantine the family's home. We never see the teachers in Elliott's school, nor do we see any of the other parents until they are start getting curious about what is going on. At that point it's as if the last bit of innocence in Elliott's life has been stolen right as his best friend may be on the verge of dying. The very first adult we see a full face of other than Mary is a guy simply nicknamed Keys (Peter Coyote), because of his unique key ring, who has been the one in charge of the government operation.
It isn't something one notices as a child watching this, as all the attention is on the main characters and the alien. Because it is filmed at such a level certain things remain; E.T. itself appears scary at first, running around making strange noises and flapping its arms. The appearance of doctors dressed in space suits, invading what is supposed to be one's sanctuary - something held sacred in the United States, even more so during the Cold War as one of the lines that separated us from the Soviets - seemed more alien and disturbing than an extra-terrestrial ever could be. At the same time it is subverting themes from older alien invasion films. For instance, in Invaders from Mars, it is the kid that first tries to raise the alert, and no one believes him, and in some cases it was the kids that saved the day against the invaders. In this case the invaders are the adults around them, and one that needs saving is the alien.
The acting from the children is pretty good all around, even if Henry Thomas gets a bit screechy at times. The animatronics for E.T. are still some of the most believable from the time, and even at this point one doesn't watch E.T. thinking they are rooting for a complicated puppet, but for a real being that needs to be reunited with its own kind to survive. The bicycle scenes still stand up, although the second time through with lifting the whole group gets a bit on the cheesy side, as is the fact that his ship shoots rainbows out the back. That is where Spielberg stumbles, and his tendency to push the "childlike wonder" thing too far becomes a bit too much to bear. I do like the fact that he decided to undo his biggest mistake - adding CGI to E.T. and digitally erasing the government agents' guns - and gave us back the movie we remember from 1982. It's something his buddy George Lucas should take to heart.
Although I went through a period of thinking this as being one of the lesser of Spielberg's films, kind of filing it away with Always and Hook, I have to say that as a movie, and certainly one for a particular age group, it has stood the test of time. It is still wonderfully entertaining, and E.T. getting hammered (which results in Elliott involuntarily doing the same) is one of my favorite scenes from any of Spielberg's movies. It will still have an emotional impact on younger audiences, and for the age it is aimed at there is enough going on that the truly dated parts of the movie won't become apparent until they're older, or they realize there is no telephone in the house. As an adult it's largely a point of nostalgia and remembering the experience of first seeing it, whether it was in the theater when it first ran or parents putting in the VHS or DVD for the first time.
E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982)
Time: 115 minutes
Starring: Henry Thomas, Robert MacNaughton, Drew Barrymore, Dee Wallace, Peter Coyote
Director: Steven Spielberg