When I was growing up, a birthday had a lot of privileges: aside from the party, presents, and cake, you also got to pick what the family ate for dinner and what movie everyone watched that night. My wife and I decided to reinstitute this tradition seven years ago with the stipulation that (at least most of the time) the movie had to be one I loved as a kid. Previous selections have included Aliens, Predator, and The Karate Kid. This year, although there are movies I am more fond of, I picked E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial. I’ve been thinking about rewatching it for a while, as I suspected it would be a very different movie for a 37 year-old than it had been for an 8 year-old. I was not disappointed.
Technically, I see E.T. as an interesting transition point between the pre- and post-CGI era. The special effects available at the time – largely chroma key (blue or green screen) and matte painting – were used mostly when necessary. In other words, if Superman had to fly, then special effects were used; if the sky behind the Daily Planet building didn’t look cloudy enough, then . . . Richard Donner either dealt with it or shot that scene another time. But in E.T., Spielberg uses matte paintings for two striking but largely inconsequential shots: the ridge above town where E.T. lands, and the shed where E.T. hides. While I think that, given the technological limitations of the time, the shot looks how Spielberg wanted it to, I wonder if it’s necessary to take the audience out of the movie by showing an obvious effect in a scene that doesn’t require it. Perhaps this is because current CGI is so good, and thus it’s not always clear if a shot has been digitally altered. Interestingly, Spielberg stated that he still likes to see obvious effects, as it makes it clear to the audience that they’re watching a movie. Regardless of my quibbles with these scenes, the flying bicycle – special effect or not – is as iconic as I remembered it and still gave me goosebumps.
That said, the first 40 minutes of E.T. were harder to get into than I anticipated. I was unprepared for how fully the movie commits to telling its story from a 10 year-old’s perspective, with all adults save Elliot’s mom reduced to waist-down shots. The special effects looked a little tired to my cynical, CGI-accustomed eye. And there’s quite a bit of slapstick, especially when E.T. trashes the kitchen and Elliot gets drunk in biology class. There is a moment, though, that reveals an adult world just out of sight in this kids’ world. When Elliot calls his brother “penis breath,” Elliot’s mom laughs out loud as she scolds him. I laughed here too, but it was in the way Elliot’s mom laughs (I can’t believe that’s what my child just said) than the way my 8 year-old self laughed (he said penis breath!). I’m not sure if this was the moment that pulled me in, or if E.T.‘s charm finally wore down my cynicism. Either way, I was hooked.
By the end, my wife and I were both in tears. I think E.T.‘s beauty is that its plot and themes are simple enough to appeal to children, but have an emotional depth that adults easily connect with. This is largely what I expected, and I found it interesting that the one (!) negative contemporary review gets it so wrong. George Will (yes, that George Will) lamented that E.T. presents a dangerous world where ever child is a hero, every adult is a villain, and every scientist is evil. I agree, but only if you take the movie’s perspective – that of a 10 year-old boy – literally. When you’re 10, there are plenty of things that, while not overtly sinister to adults, terrify you because you don’t understand them: the men who chase E.T. in the first scene are obviously the bad guys, because they’re chasing E.T. and he’s the good guy. At least that’s what Elliot (and my 8 year-old self) would think. But to adults in the audience, it’s clear that things are more complicated. I was struck that, despite the film’s perspective, there are no bad guys per se in it. “Keys,” the lead alien hunter, has waited his whole life to meet – not kill, capture, or even euphemistically “study” – something like E.T. The doctors don’t save E.T., but not for lack of trying. The scientists and cops are trying to protect the kids, not hurt them. It’s just hard for kids (and apparently George Will) to understand this.