Notes on Watching “E.T.” Again on the Big Screen There’s no time like the 80s to phone home

Hold on there, buddy. It’s been 35 years, you say? Wait, let me do the math. I was 14 when E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial came out; I am now 49; whoa. Thirty-five it is.

Last week I attended an anniver­sary screening of E.T. at my local cinema. I’d revis­ited the film many times over the past three and a half decades, first on TV and then in various home cinema formats—DVD, Blu-Ray, HD streaming—but this was my first time after 1982 seeing the film back on the big screen again.

What follows are some thoughts prompted by the expe­ri­ence.

Vintage Pleasures

I’ve heard fellow 80s-teendom alumni complain that E.T. hasn’t aged well and feels “slow” now, but I cannot agree. I enjoyed every minute of it. The chills of the opening forest chase, the endear­ment of Elliott teaching E.T., the thrill of the moonlit bicycle flight, mourning the death of E.T., the excite­ment of the final group bike chase through suburbia, the sorrow at the final goodbyes—it’s all there and it works like a charm. Top it off with John Williams’s classic score and you’ve got me hook, line and sinker.

For me, E.T. sits smack in the middle of the magic zone where the movies, music and books you absorb as a teenager become not only time­less, but the bench­mark for every­thing to come. My own teenage sons, mean­while, had declined my invi­ta­tion to come along. For them, E.T. is, in their words, “a nice movie an all, but not that special.”

Well boys, for me it is.

To be fair, I know what they mean. I had only just moved out of that same magic zone myself when bands like Nirvana and Oasis were all the rage. I’m sure that there are people for whom Kurt Cobain, the Gallagher brothers et al. made the very best music evah—but I’m sorry, I just don’t feel it. So… I guess I don’t blame my lads for not giving E.T. much love. Every gener­a­tion has its clas­sics; to each their own vintage.

Which E.T.?

In 2002 a special 20th anniver­sary version was released that made substan­tial changes to the film. A new CGI version of E.T. was added in certain shots and, perhaps most contro­ver­sially, the guns carried by govern­ment agents in the final chase sequence were digi­tally replaced by walkie-talkies. These “improve­ments” did not go over well with fans, and in a subse­quent home cinema release on DVD, the orig­inal 1982 version was also included.

The film I saw last week had the guns, so it wasn’t the sani­tized edition. Or at least, not entirely. There were shots in the opening scenes where you can clearly see E.T. walking through the forest, and I think those were only intro­duced after 1982. One of my two compan­ions on this trip down memory lane, who is a gaffer and a film buff, pointed out that the orig­inal edit is famed among movie connois­seurs precisely because it did not show any clear shots of E.T. in the opening scenes.

Maybe the 35th anniver­sary version we were shown was a hybrid. Whatever changes there were vis-à-vis the orig­inal edit, they didn’t diminish my enjoy­ment of the film. And maybe some of those “new” shots were already there in 1982 after all. Our memo­ries are noto­ri­ously unre­li­able. And Steven Spielberg has publicly stated that he regrets having tampered with the film, endorsing only the orig­inal version from now on.

Still, this is food for thought. When you fall in love with a film, what exactly it is that steals your affec­tion? Is it the overall expe­ri­ence, certain indi­vidual shots or sequences, the perfor­mance of one of the actors; the context and atmos­phere of the cinema; all of the above? Does every frame of the film have to be as it was back then? Is an E.T. with walkie-talkies instead of guns not “really” E.T. anymore? Whatever the answers to these ques­tions are, this E.T. was “orig­inal” enough for me.

No Place Like Home

I don’t know exactly how many times I’ve seen E.T. now, but it must be a dozen at least. I skipped the VHS era and back in 2002, I missed the 20th anniver­sary edition of E.T. at the movies, so I was delighted to revisit the story on DVD. But still… There are movies and then there are movies.

It doesn’t make much differ­ence whether you watch Sleepless in Seattle at the multi­plex or at home. I don’t mean to belittle that film (or any other romantic comedy) at all. It’s just that it is not the kind of enter­tain­ment that wants to squeeze every last bit of cine­matic juice out of that giant screen at the cinema. That’s some­thing for films like Gone with the Wind, The Bridge on the River Kwai, Star Wars, The Fellowship of the Ring—and yes, E.T.

The story of E.T.’s adven­ture on Earth, however, differs from those other exam­ples in its scope and its emotional prox­imity. The former four films were all made to be enjoyed in their full eye-popping, widescreen, anamor­phic, cine­mas­cope glory. But not E.T. Its aspect ratio is not the panoramic 2.39:1, but a humble 1.85:1. That’s roughly the same as your HDTV at home. E.T. is not an epic, and that’s the whole point. It’s a story about family, parenting, divorce, attach­ment, friend­ship and growing up.

Spielberg chose the more inti­mate 1.85:1 aspect ratio on purpose, but he fuels it with the pacing, energy and visual rich­ness of a sweeping adven­ture tale. That’s what makes seeing E.T. at the movies a completely different expe­ri­ence from watching it at home. The story of E.T. is all about life at home (Elliott) and phoning home (E.T.), but the movie itself feels at home on the big screen.

Where’s CNN?

Finally, re-watching this film in this age of networked tele­vi­sion and internet commu­ni­ca­tion, one thing stood out for me more than all—the total absence of the media from the story. If a similar story were being told today, it would have cell phones all over the place, TV screens in public places showing flashy news reports on the hunt for the elusive alien, heroes commu­ni­cating via instant messaging, and so forth.

But in 1982, the world wide web did not exist. Cell phones were at best an awkward novelty for the rich and boastful. CNN was already around but far from ubiq­ui­tous; it wouldn’t rise to promi­nence for another decade or so. In general, the idea that infor­ma­tion was avail­able anywhere to anyone, and could be shared instantly from anywhere, is entirely absent from the narra­tive.

This reminded me of a thought I had while watching The X-Files in the early 1990s. For me, that was the first major TV show in which cell phones played an indis­pens­able role. The X-Files stories could not have been told without Mulder and Scully commu­ni­cating all the time via their cell phones. In the pre-mobile era, the heroes would have had to be rushing to phone booths all the time to call their coun­ter­part, who would have to be bound to a single place, where their land-line phone was located. The X-Files changed the narra­tive rules of play, opening up an itin­erant mode of story­telling that has now become the norm.

E.T. predates this era, and I think it’s all the better for it. Thank good­ness that Elliott didn’t have the option to simply say, “Hey Siri, call E.T.’s home.”

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Images credit: IMDb (adapted from source)

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