When planning for this week’s issue came up, the Screen section of the City Paper was met with a dilemma. None of our regular writers were able to offer reviews on Friends With Benefits or Captain America. Such a shame, I know. I bet you were all looking forward to hearing about Mila Kunis and Justin Timberlake’s sexual chemistry.
Luckily, the Terrace Theater, as part of their summertime Fisher-Price Family Film Series, is showing E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial on Wed. July 20 at 11 a.m., which made for a possible solution: Write a column on the classic.
Except I’d never seen E.T. Yeah, I know. How dare I call myself a film writer.
This statement is mostly true. I can remember watching vague bits of an edited-for-television version as a preschooler. The only part I vividly remember is of E.T. being white and dead and absolutely terrifying. And his dialogue, the strange, consumptive coos and purrs? The stuff of my five-year-old nightmares. (E.T. isn’t meant to have a gender, but for simplification purposes, I’m going to refer to him as a “he.”)
When I was in kindergarten, my family took a trip to Universal Studios, where I apprehensively waited in line for the E.T. Adventure. Here I was, in an inescapable situation, and E.T. was everywhere in a very physical form.
If you’ve never been on the ride, it essentially works like this (and keep in mind that my memories of 1993 are pretty hazy): Everyone gets to sit on their own “bicycle,” and then you all go off on an escapade with the extraterrestrial. One of the bicycles comes with E.T. in its basket, just like Elliott’s. And man, I did not want to get the bike with E.T. in it. Which, of course, meant that I got the bike with E.T. in it, and during the whole ride I tried my hardest to avoid looking at the blanket-covered animatronic thing in front of me.
As I grew up, my alien anxiety didn’t really fade away. By this point, I basically knew the entire plot of the movie. Lonely kid finds alien. Alien does a bunch of cute stuff. Alien phones home. Alien dies. Alien lives. A group of boys fly away with alien on bicycles. Drew Barrymore develops a coke habit. Alien’s finger glows. Alien goes home. E.T. is such a well-known film, and its clips are used so often in American Film Institute specials and Simpsons episodes that it’s almost unnecessary to watch the movie. But not quite.
The website Splitsider (splitsider.com) used to run a feature called “The Finally Screenings.” Contributor Alden Ford had never seen many comedic staples, regardless of their official release dates — Beetlejuice, Ghostbusters, and Animal House, for example. He decided to watch 30 of them, considering the films from his now-adult perspective. I decided, heck, I’ll be super derivative and share with you my experience of watching E.T. for the first time.
About 10 minutes into the film, I was willing to appreciate how cute and completely non-petrifying E.T. actually is, with his big doe eyes and that awkwardly proportioned body. He’s like a goofy-looking hairless cat baby, though I still would probably not want to touch him because it seems like he’d be a bit sticky. The only time I was disturbed was when the unnatural, CGI version of E.T. made it on the screen, a drawback to watching the 20th anniversary edition of the film.
As an adult, it was difficult to rein in my 21st-century cynicism. From a 2011 perspective, I see this movie and think, “Gee, Elliott is like a vegan diet away from joining the Animal Liberation Front.” This was until E.T. started to get sick and even the most bitter and skeptical part of me couldn’t stop me from weeping. Even if I had enjoyed the movie as a child, I couldn’t possibly have understood all the abandonment issues that Spielberg — the product of divorce, just like Elliott — was trying to work out. I was also never aware of the link that Elliott and E.T. shared, as they enjoy their drunken psychic connection and resulting sickness. They’re not just pals, they’re a part of each other, and E.T. eventually sacrifices a bit of himself to save his friend. Even though I knew that he would, in fact, go home (and then I would cry for entirely different reasons), I braced myself for the escape, the chase, and the farewell.
Interestingly, as an adult, the film has become scary in a completely new way. The government presence, which Spielberg sets up ominously in the background, is always there, watching and monitoring and waiting for the moment when it can storm Elliott’s house. While it seemed that Peter Coyote’s character was simpatico with Elliott, would it really be so hard to imagine that if he’d gotten ahold of E.T.’s body, a horrific alien autopsy would occur soon after? Even as the film concludes, we never really learn just what motives these officials had. All we know is that they were intent and swift.
Despite having never ever seen a full version of E.T., I had been inundated my entire life with the film’s most classic scenes to the point that they’d almost become ineffectual. Being treated to the entire narrative, instead of just random, popular clips, and after letting go of childhood fears, I’m ready to phone home.