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.
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.
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.
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)