Monday, September 18, 2017

Zaki's Retro Review: E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial

We're now thirty-five years out from when Steven Spielberg's E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial first arrived in theaters, beginning a flight through the record books that would see it become not only the top-grossing release of the 1980s, but also displacing 1977’s Star Wars as the top domestic earner of all-time (a hallowed crown it would retain for the next fifteen years -- until it was itself dispatched by the 1997 Star Wars reissue). With the movie back in theaters this week for a limited run celebrating its anniversary and a newly remastered print, it's a perfect time to look back at Spielberg's ode to innocence and reflect on its road to becoming one of the most beloved classics of the modern era.

Before we even talk about E.T, it's helpful to remember who Steven Spielberg was in the run-up to its production. The director had first broken through in 1976 with the staggering, off the charts success of Jaws, which redefined the kind of blockbuster performance you could potentially get from exactly the right kind of crowd-pleaser. He quickly followed that up the next year with another smash, Close Encounters of the The Kind. And while 1979's 1941 ended up being a bit of a debacle, Spielberg nonetheless reclaimed his luster with 1981's Raiders of the Lost Ark (produced by George Lucas, which introduced the world to Harrison Ford as Indiana Jones).

And so, as we entered the Reagan era in earnest, Spielberg was in the very enviable position of being one of the few filmmakers who was a genuine marquee name -- and as close to a sure-thing as you could get. As he finished the first Indiana Jones and waited for Lucas to pull together the elements for the second, Spielberg returned to an idea for a project that he'd been nursemaiding for awhile. Actually, it was the culmination of several ideas for several different projects that were in various stages of development in his head, and which he finally pulled together into something concrete.


The movie that became E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial is ultimately a commingling of two divergent concepts he'd had been flirting with ever since his Jaws breakthrough. The first was Growing Up, a semi-autobiographical depiction of childhood based on the experiences of himself and his siblings while his parents separated and divorced. The second was a sci-fi/horror project entitled Night Skies, a thematic follow-up to Close Encounters that posited a cadre of malevolent aliens making things difficult for a rural farm family. Scheduling and production difficulties resulted in neither of those projects actuating, but their collapses would pave the way for one of Spielberg's biggest successes.

It was at the suggestion of writer Melissa Mathison that Spielberg ditched Night Skies and its horror setup in favor of something more uplifting. That uplift came by merging the alien encounter idea (albeit with a very different tone) with the "broken home" premise of Growing Up. From there, Mathison got to work on the script for what was initially titled E.T. and Me, and after Columbia (for whom he'd initially been developing Night Skies) passed, the helmer took the premise to Universal, where he'd had considerable success with Jaws (considerably less success with 1941, but let's just look past that), and when the studio eagerly gave the greenlight, production soon began in fall of '81 for release the next summer.

E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (shot under the false title A Boy’s Life to ward off the rampant speculation that its real name would surely have engendered) begins with the landing of a giant craft from outer space, exploring Earth plant life for reasons indeterminate. While the crew of diminutive aliens is out exploring, one is separated from the rest and left behind when the ship takes off. Making his way to a nearby suburban enclave, the alien makes contact with a young boy named Elliott (Henry Thomas), who lives with his mother Mary (Dee Wallace), older brother Michael (Robert McNaughton), and younger sister Gertie (Drew Barrymore).

Though initially terrified by the otherworldly creature (magnificently realized through designer Carlo Rambaldi's puppets and animatronics, and little people in costumes), Elliott eventually forms a bond and names him E.T. Eventually, Elliott tells his siblings of (leading to some fun moments with the alien and Barrymore), and attempts to navigate the strange empathic connection that has him experiencing the same emotions as his alien pal. Meanwhile, a group of government operatives is casing the town and trying to track down E.T. And so a race against the clock begins, with the boy working to help E.T. reach his friends ("Phone...home...") so they can come retrieve him before the feds get to him first.

What one realizes with the benefit of hindsight is how much of a masterpiece of restraint E.T. is. So much of its effectiveness comes from Spielberg gently tapping the gas as opposed to jamming his foot on the pedal. It’s not a special effects spectacle, it's an intimate story centering on a very small ensemble, with a few special effects sprinkled in. In fact, Spielberg harbored no illusions about its chances for success because he failed to realize how much audiences were hungry for a cinematic experience that wasn't cloying or overly sentimental, but that was nonetheless as much a modern day fairy tale as his pal George Lucas' Star Wars was five years earlier.

When you really think about it, the sci-fi elements in E.T. are almost incidental (similar to the Spielberg-produced Back to the Future three years later). Elliot's new pal could be a new pet or a leprechaun. What matters is that E.T. is a figure who, through his mere presence, brings together a broken home and fills the gap left by an absentee parent (a father, in this case). And while we understandably remember some of the big effects stuff like the flying bikes scene, or E.T.’s glowing red heart light, the reason we have positive associations with that stuff is because of little moments like Elliott showing E.T. how to play with toys, or E.T. fumbling with a Speak 'n' Spell. Moments that feel genuine and real.

E.T. arrived early enough in Spielberg's filmography that it still represented something fresh and new for contemporary audiences. His very name itself had become a signal to audiences of something fresh and interesting. Nevertheless, this was also deep enough into his career that you could start to see some patterns emerge as to the kinds of thematic and narrative tropes the he tended to gravitate towards. With Close Encounters half a decade earlier, he actually trod some very similar turf, juxtaposing an alien encounter with a typical middle class family splitting up. The difference there was our focus: Richard Dreyfuss as blue collar everyman Roy Neary.

Neary is so traumatized by the "encounter" of the title that his desire to seek out the truth about otherworldly life eventually leads to dissolution of his family, with his wife piling into the station wagon with the kids and driving right out of the movie. Close Encounters culminates with Neary embarking on an alien spaceship and leaving Earth behind. It's a curious decision for a parent to make, but seeing as how the kids are little more than ciphers during their brief screentime, it doesn't pause long enough for Roy (or us) to weigh the ramifications of his decision. For E.T., however, this script is almost entirely flipped.

For the director, this project was very deliberately about children having their own agency, and making decisons completely separate from adults. The director drives home this point with a fascinating creative conceit that leaves all adults characters in the first two acts as essentially faceless ciphers who we only hear but never see -- rendering them not only slightly ominous, but emotionally unavailable as well. (The one exception here is Dee Wallace as mother Mary. We see and engage with her from early on, signaling her implicit inclusion in the kids' -- and by extension our -- circle of trust.)

When we do finally see an adult's face, it's deep into the third act, and it's the character played by Peter Coyote known as “Keys” (because of the prominent keyring around his belt loop), one of those aforementioned government agents who've been on the trail of poor E.T. from the very beginning. Now, here again something interesting happens. We expect Keys to have some kind of evil intent, but when we finally see him and hear him, we realize he's actually not a bad guy at all. In fact, we’re so conditioned by modern cinema shorthand both before and since E.T. that we keep expecting the other shoe to drop and Keys to make his heel turn, but he never does.

He doesn't want E.T. for dissection or capture, and when it looks like E.T. is dying from illness (leading to one of the most effective -- and affecting -- moments in the film as the three young leads react to the tragedy), it’s Keys and his fellow scientists who work hardest to save him. In fact, he's not altogether different from who we can imagine Elliot himself becoming a few decades down the line. But although Keys himself emerges as a sympathetic figure, the larger specter of government's involvement remains a sinister one. One scene (which Spielberg famously changed and then un-changed for the 20th anniversary re-release in '02) even has several federal agents brandishing shotguns to prevent Elliott and his friends from spiriting E.T. away.

Still, even with the encroaching dread represented by the government, the overall contours of the story are still ultimately about the willingness to let go of your suspicions and trust those around you. The storytellers are thus commenting on how difficult that can be when a parental figure unexpectedly leaves. But the message here is that trust begets trust. Elliott trusts his siblings with E.T.'s existence, and that trust is rewarded. Michael in trusts Mary with that knowledge, and she becomes an ally. The group of neighbor kids (including a pre-Pony Boy -- and Soul Man -- C. Thomas Howell) are foils to Elliott for much of the runtime, but end up as his allies by the end.

One can easily imagine a version of this movie where the older brother, or maybe one of the friends, is secretly scheming against Elliott to turn in E.T., but that doesn’t happen here. Instead, the circle of trust gets wider. Not just because Elliott is willing to let them in, but because the others are willing to take that trust seriously. By the time the boys’ bikes glide into the air -- with John Williams’ luxurious theme music crescendoing in the background -- it’s a genuine moment of (emotional and literal) uplift that feels as earned by the audience as it is by the characters.

When you think about it, it's not hard to see how a message as fundamentally decent as this found a resonant chord with 1982 audiences, and also why it remains so timeless today, nearly four decades out. Of course, there was more to E.T.’s success than the rich thematic soil they were tilling. There was also Spielberg’s skillful hand at pacing and dramatic construction, which allowed the story to build gradually to its climactic chase sequence with a practiced, preternatural ease. When E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial finally finished its initial theatrical run, it left a small flotilla of box office records demolished in its wake.

Following its record-breaking run, E.T. was darn near ubiquitous. There was all kinds of merchandising and paraphernalia for awhile there. I had a plush E.T. doll I slept with. My brother dressed up in a (truly hideous) vinyl E.T. costume for Halloween in '83. There were storybooks, sticker books, and coloring books. "Phone home" became a regular catchphrase. The flick inspired a Neil Diamond song called "Heartlight," and even a legendarily ill-fated Atari video game. But the one thing that never happened, amazingly enough, is a sequel. I mentioned Spielberg’s restraint a few paragraphs up, and this is probably the best example of that I can think of.

After all, it would have been the easiest thing in the world to crank something out that capitalized on the considerable goodwill he’d already generated. I don't think audiences would even have blamed Spielberg for doing it, but that simply wasn't his way. (And yes, there was actual talk of a sequel, with he and Mathison batting around a couple of -- bad -- ideas before ultimately putting the kibosh on the notion.) Instead, Spielberg made the right call in realizing E.T. isn't a saga, it's a finite tale about one extraordinary event in a boy's life. The universal appeal of that idea -- a special friend who loves us unconditionally and knows us better than anyone else can -- is why, no matter how much time passes, E.T. will always be right here.

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