Saturday, April 28, 2012

Film # 80: E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial

Director: Steven Spielberg

Initial Release Country: United States

Times Previously Seen: 5 or 6, probably (Last seen – around 25 years ago).

Teaser Summary (No spoilers)

Young boy meets kindly little stranded alien. They bond by helping each other and getting drunk, among other things.

Extended Summary (Lengthier plot synopsis, including spoilers. Fair warning.)

In a forest just outside a Californian suburb, a spacecraft is on the ground. Its crew, a short and hairless species of extra-terrestrial, is gathering plant samples. When a group of very curious men arrives nearby, the visitors quickly retreat to their ship. One of their members, though, is left behind due to the need to escape detection. His ship departs, but this lone, stranded alien evades capture by scuttling down to the nearby neighborhood.

In one of the homes near the woods, a young boy named Elliot (Henry Thomas) is sent out by his older brother Michael (Robert McNaughton) and his friends to get a pizza. In doing so, Elliot follows a strange noise to the nearby storage shed, where he tosses a softball in. When some unseen thing tosses it back, Elliot dashes inside and tries to convince his family of what he saw, but to no avail. They find nothing, discredit Elliot, and they all go to bed.

The alien, in the woods as he's about to be left behind by his crew.

Later that night, however, Elliot goes back out to the shed, where he stumbles across the alien from the woods. Both are terrified of each other, and the alien scampers back to the forest. The next day, Elliot’s friends and family still dismissing his tales of the creature, he bikes to the woods and scatters candy about in an attempt to lure the creature out. The plan does not initially seem to work. However, late that night, with Elliot sleeping in a chair outside their shed, the alien slowly emerges. Elliot wakes and the two quietly size each other up. Eventually, the alien leaves a handful of the candy that Elliot had left for him.

Elliot uses more of the candy to lure the alien up to his room. Once Elliot sees the creature in full, he sees that it is a short (shorter even than him), brown, almost reptilian creature with large eyes. The creature seems totally peaceful and willing to follow Elliot around.

The next day, Elliot fakes being sick to stay home. He shows the creature around the house and tries to explain as much as he can about the objects around them. That afternoon, Elliot shows the creature to his older brother and their younger sister, Gertie (Drew Barrymore). After the initial shock, the siblings accept the creature as a docile curiosity and swear not to tell anyone.

Later that night, while the children attempt to explain where they are on a globe, the creature levitates several balls of play-doh and communicates through this and gestures that his home is in the distant stars. Elliot and his siblings now understand that the creature is, in fact, an alien or “E.T.”, for “extra-terrestrial”. On top of this, the E.T. (which becomes Elliot’s de facto name for the creature), instantly revives a dying plant simply by touching it with a glowing finger. Apparently, E.T.’s powers are beyond human comprehension.

Gertie and E.T., holding one of the plants that he empathically brought back to life.

The next day, while Elliot is at school about to dissect frogs with his class, E.T. explores the house. He starts scavenging various electronic devices to assemble a make-shift communicator, intending to contact his home planet and ask for rescue. He also downs several beers, becoming drunk in the process. Amazingly, Elliot starts to show the same effects of intoxication in his class. Clearly, some kind of mental and physical bond has emerged between the human boy and the alien he is fostering.

Upon returning home, Elliot finds that Gertie has taught E.T. to talk in a rudimentary form of English. E.T. explains his plan to contact his home world with his cobbled transmitter, and Elliot is eager to help. This is growing ever more important, as both E.T. and Elliot start showing signs of illness. Unbeknownst to any of them, though, is that there are shadowy government agents searching the neighborhood, and they have just pinpointed the alien that they are searching for.

The following day is Halloween. Amid the revelry, Elliot takes E.T. to the forest, where the alien sets up his communicator and sends his S.O.S. into the stars. In the night, however, E.T. and Elliot get separated. Elliot wakes in the forest, but E.T. is nowhere in sight. Later that day, Michael goes back to the woods and finds E.T., face down near a storm drain, pale and barely alive. Michael brings the shallowly-breathing alien back home, where Elliot is also showing the effects of severe illness. Not knowing what else to do, Michael reveals E.T. to their mother. In shock, she grabs the weakened Elliot and tries to run out of the house, only to be met by an entire squad of government scientists and soldiers.

The government scientists quarantine the entire house and begin to study E.T. and Elliot, attempting to save both of them. One of the men who was first looking for the aliens in the forest arrives and explains that they want to help. Eventually, despite their efforts, the bond between E.T. and Elliot dissipates, and E.T.’s health declines further. All of his vital signs stop, and he is declared dead.

Before the scientists take E.T. away, the lead scientist allows Elliot a private moment to say goodbye to the alien. As he is doing so, Elliot tells the dead E.T. that he loves him. Immediately after, E.T. regains consciousness and explains to Elliot that his fellow crew members are returning to rescue him. Quickly pulling a ruse, Elliot and Michael manage to get E.T. out of the house and into an ambulance, escaping the government agents.

After being revived, E.T. assists in his own escape, about to levitate his rescuers into the air.

Several of Michael’s friends quickly catch up to the fleeing trio, and they manage to further evade the government agents. The ultimate moment is when E.T. levitates all five of his rescuers and their bicycles high into the air and into the forest. When night falls, E.T.’s ship returns to the spot where they first had to leave him. E.T. is now rescued.

Upon their farewells, E.T. finally points to Elliot’s heart and tells him that “I’ll be right here.” E.T. then boards his mother ship and the craft returns to the skies.

Take 1: My Gut Reaction (Done upon this recent viewing, before any further research.)

This one has lost quite a bit of luster, in my eyes. This is probably for a few reasons.

First, let me lay out the things that I still like about E.T. For a PG-rated family flick, there is still a great amount of wonder to be found in the movie. Since there are certain things that are never fully explained, mostly about E.T.’s race and powers, the viewer is left with a very healthy amount of curiosity. Because I hadn’t seen the movie since I was about 10 years old, I noticed things like the fact that E.T.’s crew all seem to be intergalactic botanists. This is an interesting, pacifist portrait to paint of a group of aliens, and one that you wouldn’t expect in a massive-budget Hollywood movie.

More than E.T’s seeming job as an interstellar sample gatherer, though, are his strange powers and abilities. What can the viewers make of the clear psychic bond between E.T. and not only his own species, but with seemingly all living things around him? Despite the fact that they appear to be a stunted and physically handicapped, the species is clearly possessed of abilities far beyond human reach. You can have a field day thinking of the ramifications or imagining just what E.T’s home-world and civilization must be like. The fact that these questions are never answered is probably the most indelible piece of magic in the movie, to me.

E.T's ability to communicate and empathize with other living organisms, signaled by his glowing chest and finger, are left for us to puzzle and wonder over.

The other clear strength is more general and about Spielberg himself. While I often have my gripes about his films (I’ll get to those in a paragraph or two), no one can fault the man’s technical skill as a director. From his earliest movies in the 1970s, Spielberg showed himself able to set up crisp, clean shots that told a story through pictures as much as dialogue. Let’s face it – his films are almost always pleasurable to look at and take in. This is because his framing of shots and choreographing of action is virtually flawless. It may not always be creative or interesting, but he always knows how to use film technique effectively. E.T. is no exception.

So why doesn’t E.T. hold the same spot in my heart that it did 30 years ago, when at six years old I had my parents take me to see it three times in the theater? Well, the easy answer is that I’m not a kid anymore. But this doesn’t tell the whole story. Number one is that in the succeeding three decades, I have grown into a more sophisticated fan of science fiction. Rather than a heart-warming story about a boy and his alien, I now usually go to science fiction novels and movies to find interesting speculations about the very real ramifications of scientific discoveries. E.T. doesn’t offer any of this, giving us something that is more a blend of fantasy and sci-fi, rather than pure sci-fi.

More to the point, as a better-versed fan of science-fiction, E.T. raises a few too many “techy” questions that I can’t let go. How, exactly, does E.T.’s spacecraft even sniff the ground in California without getting blown to bits by the Air Force? Why did E.T.’s species not wear any type of insulator suits to prevent transmission or contraction of diseases, as the title character seemed to? These are the kinds of questions that I couldn’t have even thought of as a kind, but I can now. And when I do, the lack of answers lets the balloon out of my disbelief’s suspension.

Another one of my little bugaboos is related to one of the movie’s strengths – Spielberg’s direction. I praise Spielberg’s direction for being very crisp and clean, but in E.T., this is a mild detriment when it comes to plot, themes, and characterization. By now, it’s easy to figure the Spielberg story blueprint for family films: amazing, supernatural events + sympathetic child(ren) + a mild dash of humorously crass dialogue + sentimentality. Voila! Summer blockbuster!! Sure, E.T. shows much more imagination, heart, and production value than the endless copycats that followed, but it’s all a tad too adorable for me now.

Honestly, who could resist those big ol' baby blues?

Speaking of adorable, E.T. might be the single best example of Spielberg’s mastery at emotional manipulation, and it all comes down to one, simple decision about the way the E.T. looked – his eyes. What better way to ensure that everyone and their brother can empathize with a creature that otherwise looks like some mashed up reptile? Give it massive, blue, human eyes. Hey, it’s worked in Japanese anime and manga for all these decades, so why wouldn’t it work for Steven Spielberg?

One final note of distaste. This is the first film that I’ve done for this blog that features something that has become standard is a lot of commercial movies – product placement. Anyone who was alive when E.T. came out remembers how sales of Reese’s Pieces spiked. This, no doubt, helped push the rock of marketing even further towards the cliff.

This is another film from the “All-TIME” list that does have me wondering why it was included on their list. Sure, it was a massive hit, and it was a different take on the tale of the alien visitor. Is this enough to consider it one of the “all time great” films and rank it with the likes of Citizen Kane, Ikiru, Persona, and the like? My hunch is no, but I’ll do some more research for my “Take 2” (below).

So, as it stands, I don’t see myself watching E.T. again for a long time, if ever. I would certainly watch it with a young child who had never seen it before, and I suppose that a young would really enjoy it, just as I did long ago. But on my own, I wouldn’t waste my time.

Take 2: Why Film Geeks Love This Movie (Done after some further research on film.)

Apparently, I’ve become a bit of a jaded cynic.

In digging into E.T.’s original reception, I have rediscovered the insanely positive reactions that the film inspired. As we all know, it was massively popular, setting box office records that stood for many years. More than this, though, is what I learned about critical responses. E.T. was nominated for NINE Academy Awards, including “Best Picture”. The capper for me was that Richard Attenborough, the director who beat out E.T. with his remarkable biopic Gandhi, said that he not only thought E.T. would win, but that it should win Best Picture. Over Gandhi, for Pete’s sake!!

It doesn’t stop there. The E.T. character was nominated for TIME Magazine’s “person of the year”, the first time a film character had ever been nominated. In late 1982, the film was screened at the United Nations, and Steven Spielberg was given a U.N Peace Medal.

Sheesh! That little brown dude seriously stirred up some love!

Many were stunned when Gandhi beat out E.T. for Best Picture. Maybe the Academy people just got confused by the physical similarities between Ben Kingsly and the cute, bronzed little alien.

Lest anyone think that this was simply a “right place, right time” kind of movie, it was re-released on big screens in 2002, and it raked in another $60 million. From my own personal experience as an English as a Second Language teacher, I have seen the ubiquity of E.T. Nearly all of my students, from the farthest reaches of the globe and many of them born long after E.T. first came out, have seen and know the movie. Clearly, this film story has some serious staying power.

Despite all of this evidence to its “greatness”, I still can’t sign off on it. I suppose that I can agree that it is “great” in that the film makes an enduring connection with young people all over the world. In this sense, it transcends so may of the boundaries that prevent our different cultures from appreciating each others’ art forms. From a personal perspective, though, I can’t place E.T. anywhere near the level of bolder, more imaginative films, either within or outside of the science fiction genre.

Here endeth my mild skewering of the world’s most beloved, dumpy, glowing alien.

That’s a wrap. 80 shows down. 25 to go.

Coming Soon: Blade Runner (1982):

 I follow up family-friendly science fiction in the form of E.T. with a trip to the dark, twisted side of science fiction. This one, an adaptation from a story by the brilliant, paranoid writer Philip K. Dick, is all high-concept and sleek style.

Please be sure to pick up all empties on the way out.