[26 October 2012]
The early ‘80s was a thrilling era for the sci-fi genre, with a series of great movies charming both mainstream viewers and devoted fans. Titles like The Empire Strikes Back, Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Khan, and many others remain highly regarded today.
One of the prime examples is E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, which still ranks as Steven Spielberg’s most successful film. It’s been released countless times on DVD and even re-appeared in theaters, yet it remains a favorite for many viewers. One of the main reasons for its success is the way Spielberg delivers a movie that’s charming for kids but draws in adults. He depicts the characters as real people dealing with an extraordinary situation. The family is struggling with the impact of a divorce, and the mom is barely holding everything together. This approach grounds the movie back on Earth, and keeps us engaged when the story enters sci-fi territory.
This 30th anniversary Blu-ray/DVD may induce yawns from some, but it was a revelation for me. This was my first viewing of E.T. in a long time and reminded me of its many charms. The big moments were expected, but it’s surprising to note how effectively Spielberg crafts the story. A prime example is the opening sequence, which shows the title character’s arrival on Earth. We never get a clear view of this entity or the humans chasing it, and there’s no dialogue for more than five minutes. It’s daring opening for such a mainstream film, but remains gripping because of the mystery.
The next step is cutting to the family, who feel believable due to the squabbling. Mary (Dee Walace) is taking charge of three kids after her husband has left, and the weight on her shoulders is clear. Even so, the kids seem to be doing well. Spielberg and writer Melissa Mathison (The Black Stallion) underplay the difficulties and just let us meet the three kids. Michael is a young teenager who enjoys ribbing Elliott (Henry Thomas) and Gertie (Drew Barrymore) but also cares for them. It’s a story about an alien, but what makes it such a convincing movie is the family bond.
The story’s main character is Elliott, who develops a strong bond with E.T. after it stumbles into his backyard. It’s a surprisingly believable connection for two outsiders who don’t really fit in this society. Spielberg also mines some comic potential when E.T.’s drunken antics at home cause Elliott to raise mischief at school. There are plenty of fun interludes like this one that keep the story light before the government descends. It’s an idealistic view of young life in the suburbs, but it feels close enough to reality that we connect to it.
The effects used to create E.T. are pretty simple, yet work because we’re invested in the story. Viewed 30 years later, they’re not as sophisticated as digital effects but actually work better than most examples. Spielberg generates remarkable emotion from a puppet, especially during the comic sequences. The reason it works so well is because the kids sell the fact they’re dealing with an actual extra-terrestrial being.
This release includes an impressive collection of extras with a majority coming from previous DVD incarnations. The exceptions are “Steven Spielberg & E.T.” and “The E.T. Journals”, which are new. The former is a 12-minute conversation with the director about the story’s origins. It’s interesting to hear him talk about spending months trying to develop a sequel but then deciding it didn’t work. The latter is an excellent collection of behind-the-scenes footage that follows the chronology of the narrative. This material should be very rewarding for fans of the movie because it lacks all the promotional fluff of many special features. It totals more than 50 minutes and has a loose feeling of being on the set with the cast and crew.
They may not be new, but the other features are still interesting and well-done. They include more than two hours of material that covers every aspect of production. The most comprehensive documentary is “The Evolution and Creation of E.T.”, a 50-minute piece created for the 20th anniversary. “A Look Back” is a bit shorter and covers some of the same material, but is still effective. Another exiting inclusion covers the 20th anniversary premiere. John Williams rehearses with and then leads an orchestra that played live along with the movie. The other extras include an interview with Williams, two deleted scenes, a cast reunion, marketing materials, and more.
E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial is well-known for its iconic sequences like the bike flying in front of the moon and the “E.T. phone home” scene. Those moments remain effective, but what struck me this time was the excellent way in which the entire story is structured. Spielberg doesn’t even show an adult face beyond Mary until the final act. Adults are simply a dangerous entity that’s encroaching on the pleasant life with E.T. It’s refreshing when Peter Coyote’s “Keys” turns out to be more than just a soulless bureaucrat. We aren’t sure whether to believe his claims to Elliott on their first meeting, but they’re confirmed in the end.
The mysterious government agents in their protective suits look imposing and a bit ridiculous when they arrive, but they create a suitable drive towards the conclusion. The final goodbye moves slowly, but it feels earned because Elliott’s built a true relationship with the alien. There are a few close calls in the race to reach the approaching spaceship, but the action isn’t the focus—the emotion is. This is an intricately crafted human tale that still works for a wide audience 30 years later.