Review by C.J. Bunce
I can’t hazard a guess as to how many times I have watched E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. Probably a handful of times in 1982 and 1983, and at least once during a return to theaters in the past 35 years, plus a few times on VHS. What stood out today, watching the film as part of the Fathom Events and Turner Classic Movies 35th anniversary re-release screenings, is how ageless the film is. A teenager sitting behind me caught every single joke. In a time when parents don’t think to take their kids to classic film opportunities like this, the kids are truly missing a great experience. The film is a giant adventure story set in the backyard of a boy and his brother and sister. It’s relatable. Just check out Elliott’s room. There’s a toy Star Destroyer on the table. A TIE Fighter across the room. He carefully explains who Greedo, Hammerhead, Walrus Man, Snaggletooth, Lando, and Boba Fett are to E.T. And that advance LEGO builder set on the shelf. How many kids’ homes today, after all these years, still look so similar? And someone nearby is getting ready to dress up as Yoda, or a character from his neighborhood, in only a few weeks, much like the kid E.T. tries to run off with on Halloween.
It’s not only relatable, it’s about that subject that sci-fi does best when done right: Communication. Last year’s acclaimed sci-fi film Arrival was all about it, but does it reach into each of us like E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial has? We celebrated one of the best episodes of television this year here at borg.com, discussing the 25th anniversary of one of the greatest of all Star Trek episodes, Darmok from The Next Generation, a story entirely about the practical, real-world difficulty of communication. Elliott, played so well by Henry Thomas, and later Gertie, played equally well by the younger Drew Barrymore, each use what knowledge a little kid has to try to relate to an outsider. And we immediately see the problems–the barriers–that get in the way. Elliott tries to convey to the very curious new alien visitor so willing to learn that this giant object is a peanut. “You eat them, only you can’t eat this one because it’s not real.” He’s describing a bank that was made to look like a peanut. He then puts money in it. And the result: E.T. next tries to eat a toy car. Just as Dathon and Picard found, communication isn’t all that easy. Only when Gertie gets her only one-on-one opportunity, of the three kids she is the one who helps E.T. gain his vocabulary. The innocent and the youngest and the most awestruck. And she’s also the first to understand he is trying to phone home. Communication is difficult sometimes, but if kids can figure this out, what can adults do?
This week’s release was the original cut, as seen in theaters in 1982, not with any modifications. This is the first time the film has screened in theaters since the death of writer Melissa Mathison in 2015 (you might not have seen the laserdisc version of E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, the only version ever released to feature Mathison’s then kinda-sorta well-known boyfriend Harrison Ford in the shadows as Elliott’s principal, meeting Elliott’s mom Mary (Dee Wallace) after his frog rescue–a bad scene, justifiably deleted). I did not recall how much we see E.T. in the film’s first scene as he and other botanists search out samples. E.T. carefully digs up what appears to be a Redwood sapling. But I now understand what Spielberg was thinking in his later re-cut version. As a kid I thought the humans were the enemy and yet this time I found no evidence of the humans trying to do anything other than learn about E.T.–much like the humans in Close Encounters of the Third Kind were scientists attempting to communicate. In Close Encounters, the presence of weapons are to scare the public from the faked quarantine area. Maybe that was the purpose of the weapons in the original E.T. cut. But somehow the rifles seemed out-of-place when the kids were escaping on bikes, after E.T. dies, after showing all the adults desperately try to help, to save E.T, some even in tears. This was the differentiator of Spielberg’s alien films from those that came before–the same spirit that only a few years earlier guided scientists to launch a couple of records into space hoping to communicate with someone out there. So swapping out car phones or walkie talkies for rifles actually is consistent with the actions of the adults in the rest of the film. I also can understand why so many little kids look back on the film as scary. There’s plenty to scare little kids–those same things that scare E.T. throughout the film, as well as what might be many kids’ first introduction to death. But the scene is gracefully done, and three decades later it’s great to hear that the adults are clearly heard attempting all those real-world, life-saving techniques to save our new alien friend. Mathison masterfully blended a science fiction, a fantasy adventure, and a coming-of-age story all in one package.
Who doesn’t love John Williams and his epic scores–Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back, Superman, Jaws, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Lost in Space, Harry Potter, and more–and he won his five Oscars for Fiddler on the Roof, Jaws, Star Wars, Schindler’s List, and E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. Having played the lead trumpet part in a large band I can say that nothing gives you goosebumps like hearing his scores’ sweeping themes used in just the right places, except for actually playing those epic themes in concert. E.T. still stands out among so many great scores, especially the uplifting, triumphant “Chase” segment (the soundtrack is being released next week in a remastered 35th anniversary edition, available here at Amazon).
We’ve looked at Steven Spielberg’s impact on the world in strange ways, most recently in our look back at Close Encounters of the Third Kind (look how one movie set the course for a national landmark) and Jaws (did Jaws prompt underwater archaeologists to seek out and discover the USS Indianapolis?). Here is another admittedly odd thought–the kind you only have after watching a film a lot. Many kids had seen the E.T. storybook, the one you could buy from Scholastic book orders, in advance of seeing the movie, and the novelization that followed. You won’t find mention of Reese’s Pieces there, but you will find M&Ms. In one of marketing’s epic business blunders, Mars, Inc., owner of M&Ms, passed up the product placement opportunity, and Hershey jumped in, agreeing to spend $1 million on advertising in exchange for E.T.’s appearance in the candy ads. E.T. propelled to the #1 all-time top box office seat, where it stayed until being bumped by Jurassic Park eleven years later. And Reese’s Pieces became a household product in a snap. But how many little kids left Reese’s Pieces in their yards trying to lure in their own alien? At least that was my question as I chomped away at my own box, watching Elliott leave Reese’s all over the Northern California woods. Probably a good thing for the neighbor dogs Spielberg didn’t secure chocolate M&Ms instead.
It’s as heart-warming, exciting, and fun a combination of science fiction with a fantasy movie feel, all bundled in a coming of age movie with Spielberg’s signature charm and Williams’ spectacular music. If you missed this week’s Fathom Events screenings, check out the Fathom Events calendar at their website here. Next up: Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan was extended through tonight nationwide, and Hayao Miyazaki’s Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind begins this weekend. You can also pick up the E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial 35th Anniversary movie and soundtrack bundle complete with 4K, Blu-ray, Digital HD, and soundtrack on CD currently for less than $25 here at Amazon.