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E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982)

by on 2012/01/13

“She says she thinks she could get well again if children believed in fairies. Do you believe in fairies?”

* * * *

I always sort of hated E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (the movie, not the extra-terrestrial per se). As a kid in 1982 — a “double-digit” kid, no less — it made me weep in public, in a theatre, in front of my folks, for what felt like hours afterward.

Of course, hating it didn’t stop me from seeing it again at summer camp, reading the novelization, William Kotzwinkle’s sequel, wearing a glowing prosthetic finger, owning the Michael Jackson album, and croaking “Eh-lli-ott!” at any given moment.

My theory is Steven Spielberg’s tale strikes a primal chord, exploiting the childhood fantasy suggested by the words, “Can I keep it?”

The “it” in question is an alien botanist, accidentally abandoned on Earth. Finding — or found by — a young human boy, he struggles with the means to “phone home”. The boy, Elliott (Legends of the Fall’s Henry Thomas) initially regards “E.T.” as a kind of novelty. In time, however, the visitor manifests powers greater than his initial endearing ugliness. He can levitate, learn, speak, heal, and share emotional states.

Although the video I saw recently was the CGI-retouched version, I appreciated how director Spielberg used “less is more” to enhance the puppet’s realism. We hear sounds, see shadows and silhouettes, and are usually shown small portions of the whole: a reaching hand, or a single large eye peering out. Not only does this gradual introduction “sell” us on the special effect, but it allows our minds to fill in a convincing remainder.

A similar approach is used to distinguish adults from the core cast of children. With the notable exception of Elliott’s mother (played by Dee Wallace), most grownups are kept inaccessibly faceless for much of the running time, through lighting, framing, or donning obscuring headgear. They are shot from looming, menacing angles, dehumanized in their hazmat enclosures, men-in-black suits, law-enforcement uniforms, and med-sci smocks and gowns.

And while I recognized the techniques used to drive a wedge between generations, I finally found I sympathized with or, at any rate, understood the adults. Originally, I was nearly traumatized by their pursuit of the alien quarry. Now I understand some were trying to help him.

Likewise, I didn’t find Elliott’s siblings as unlikable as I once had. His older brother (Robert MacNaughton) was a prototypical geek — disparaging use of the word notwithstanding — with an interest in role-playing games, yet refreshingly un-nerdy. His younger sister Gertie . . . well, she’s Drew-bloody-Barrymore (Everybody’s Fine), and more winning here than she’d ever seemed in my youth.

I shouldn’t finish off without acknowledging the great wealth of references to other genre classics. E.T. himself looks like an odd cross between Alien’s Xenomorph and Star Wars Hammerhead. Speaking of Star Wars, the script manages to work in lip service to other characters, including Walrus Man, Snaggletooth, Yoda, and Boba Fett. Someone does a Bela Lugosi (Dracula) imitation, both Asteroids and Space Invaders appear, as do Star Trek and The Twilight Zone, and Spielberg himself employs a Vertigo pull (or dolly zoom).

However, even with all these elements pulled from many familiar sources, and having seen E.T. at least three times in the past, I nonetheless reacted as if watching it all for the first time. Maybe there were fewer tears to obscure my line of sight. Perhaps I was intellectualizing, cataloguing its grist for the Donnie Darko mill. Whatever the reason, I was appropriately impressed. It’s a charming “little” picture that could, and did, and still does. Except for the rainbow at the end. That was a bit too much.

But, I forgive you Mr. Spielberg . . . for the rainbow and for making me cry.

* * * *

Rated PG

121 minutes

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