Wednesday, January 25, 2006

E.T. The Extraterrestrial (1982)

Dir. Steven Spielberg
Writ. Melissa Mathison
w/ Henry Thomas, Robert MacNaughton, Drew Barrymore, Dee Wallace, Peter Coyote

There was a huge debate in my family as to whether or not this was actually a children's movie when I was a little girl. It scared the hell out of my three-year-old brother who, like Henry Thomas's "Elliott" character seemed to have an empathic connection to all of the alien's heart palpitations, but I liked it a lot at the time. About two months after seeing it, however, I had this elaborate nightmare in which a Girl Scout meeting was being hosted in our home and E.T. showed up and started turning unsuspecting Girl Scouts into dry and dusty Girl Scout skeletons, starting with my poor little girlfriend who had just excused herself to use the bathroom. Suffice to say, it was a less than glamorous way to go. He then commenced to dehydrate the rest of the town as I followed along and discovered that he had a sort of dehydrational death ray emanating from his solar plexus. Oh, and he moved like he was on a treadmill, which made it even scarier.
I wasn't the only one.
Spielberg's immortal alien, a friend to neglected flowers and disenchanted boys alike, connected immediately with the psyche of both the young target audience and their parents, who may have pretended that they were just there to lug the kids around but could be found at nearly any given moment of this emotional piece to be stifling a teardrop or silently cheering the events on. The Reagan years were rife with opportunities for the common man to feel like he had a voice of some kind -- the more emotional the better. That seemed to be the theme, and I'm almost shocked that Nancy Reagan didn't send out buttons while I was still in grade school that read: "You can't change the world! Just cry."

Mathison's script doesn't mention apartheid, though. Instead it contains a fragmented family that has been threatened by gray circumstances and is on the verge of disintegrating altogether and maybe causing a few nervous breakdowns along the way. Certainly years of therapy. So when E.T. finds his way into the heart of Elliott, he becomes the bond that links the siblings in a unique and indivisible way. They suddenly care more about each other. They need each other. At the very least they recognize that they need each other and they let the rest just slide away.

Spielberg's unique storytelling style doesn't suffer from any dumbing-down [1] of the script or cheap photography tricks. He's up to the same game as he was in Close Encounters, which isn't hard to imagine as there's something infinitely childlike about Dreyfuss's character in that movie as well, but this time the main character also looks like a child. He plays with cool, new toys and when he gets vicariously drunk -- thanks to E.T. -- he grabs a girl in biology class and kisses her like the guy in the movie, a move that nearly any child would imitate. [2] But the story is still told through layers of sound and intercutting between school and home so that we can grasp early on what Peter Coyote's character has trouble with later when he asks, "Elliott thinks E.T.'s thoughts?"
"Elliott feels his feelings," Michael corrects.
In a movie where one half of the lead would like to just go home while the other finds that nearly impossible, there are certainly a lot of feelings going on.
[1] If anything, the way the older boys talk to each other is kind of dumb, but then, those were pretty dumb times. But there are tidbits here and there that elevate Michael's character from the rest of the gang. He's a cool brother who helps out, imitates Yoda, and sings Elvis Costello.
[2] Suggesting, perhaps, that in order to get any really easy action, it's best if you've a drunk alien on your side.

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