April 20, 2013

E.T. not as memorable as I remember

I watched E.T. last night for the first time in at least 20-25 years, and I was surprised how little I remembered of the plot and visuals. (I saw the original version, not the helicopter parent update.) Most of the main plot points had stuck, but not others -- I didn't remember that during the bicycle flight through the woods scene, E.T. set up his machine to phone home. Even more strangely, I didn't remember at all that E.T. dies near the end.

There were other small moments like that, too, where you think I would've remembered the plot point or at least the image. I had no memory of Elliott and E.T. having an interwoven psychic/emotional connection-at-a-distance, although maybe I was too young to appreciate that the last time I saw it.

I did recall some of the most iconic shots -- the bicycle flight and the shadow of E.T. and Elliott against the moon, Elliott's indignant face when no one believes his story ("It was nothing like that, penis breath!"), the warm-glow lighting of the closet where E.T. is holed up, and the sterilized white tunnel where Elliott makes his getaway at the end. However, I didn't remember the beginning or ending shots of E.T.'s spaceship, the strong dark-bright shots of the tool shed when Elliott and E.T. first "meet," or the entire hospital scene (although I did recall him indignantly ripping off the suction cups). Everyone remembers that E.T.'s fingertip glows, but I didn't remember his heart glowing, even though it's shown just as often.

Overall, it almost felt like I was seeing it for the first time. And '80s fan though I am, I have to say it was a good movie, but not at the level that its reputation would suggest. As in, Best This or Best That kind of movie. It succeeds as a movie that people of any age can enjoy, and without the tentpole pandering of '90s and 21st-century "family" movies. Still, it didn't do that much for me as a grown-up.

The same basic themes, plot, characterization, and visual style were light years beyond in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, which was aimed more at adults. I can't stress enough how striking movies look when they're shot with an anamorphic lens, which unfortunately E.T. was not. The strong lighting contrasts, use of contrasting colors, shot composition -- the cinematography just looks better overall.

I thought it also did a better job of getting adult viewers to feel for the little kid who makes contact with the alien group. That scene at the end where the boy cries while saying good-bye to his alien friends felt more poignant than when Elliott gives E.T. one last hug good-bye. Maybe babies tug at the heart-strings more than 10 year-olds, I don't know, but it did feel more effective. Ditto for the reaction shot of the parent when she feels her child slipping away -- much more visceral when he gets pulled away in a tug-of-war than when she merely thinks that he's run away from home.

As for what grabbed me most as a child, it was definitely The NeverEnding Story -- unlike E.T., which I may have rented or caught on TV once in awhile, I used to watch The NeverEnding Story at least once a week for a good while there in elementary school. I saw it again a few years ago, and I hadn't forgotten anything, verbal or visual. It also has a catchy new wave theme song by the former frontman of Kajagoogoo.

Labyrinth had that same effect on me. My dad picked up a copy when the local video rental store was liquidating all its Betamax tapes, and I used to watch that over and over. Like The NeverEnding Story and Close Encounters, it was shot with an anamorphic lens (they really used to splurge on visuals in children's movies). After seeing it again for the first time in a long while, I remembered all of the plot, characters, images, and music. Yeah man, talk about catchy synthpoppy soundtracks. I picked that one up on CD a couple years ago, and it's still a fun one to listen to.

I don't mean to dump on E.T. like this, because it is a good enjoyable movie, and even though it's overrated, it's not one of those terrible "critic's darling" kind of overrated movies, where taking it down a peg feels cathartic. But it is worth noting that all the enthusiasm the movie receives is perhaps more driven by its iconic status, one of those movies that everybody has to cherish. While it is a successful fun-for-the-whole-family movie, it stretches itself a bit too thin and doesn't feel as satisfying to the child or adult viewer as a more age-tailored movie would. I'd go with Close Encounters for grown-ups and The NeverEnding Story for kids.

11 comments:

  1. Ras Al Ghul4/20/13, 3:46 PM

    I know this is more about the visual appeal of the movies over all, but take a step back and consider the actual plots and behaviors of the alien(s) in Close Encounters versus E.T.

    Close Encounters may have been more of an adult film, but its off putting when you combine the supposed wonder we are supposed to feel about the encounter with the drive of all these people to abandon everything (even families and children) in pursuit of this contact where they were called (Just as all the artists and madmen were "invited" by the Call of Cthulhu which I think is apt) and then you think of the behavior of the aliens.

    They abducted people, (like the boy wrenched from his mom) some they returned several decades after kidnapping them (without a word I might add). And you can't even saying its willingly. The main character is suffering from a mind control compulsion.

    This isn't the behavior of some benign superintelligent race, its the opposite.

    So in terms of consistency of the plot and the message, E.T. is a far better crafted movie than Close Encounters.

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  2. Consistency between plot and message -- how does an alien race that's so technologically sophisticated and driven to explore other worlds, nevertheless have such a baby-like level of naivete about foreign species, and is pure peace-love-and-understanding in its behavior?

    Sure, we don't have much to fear from the race that E.T. comes from, since they're so trusting, naive, and baby-like (not even child-like, as children are bratty and selfish). But then such a race would never be able to invent that stuff and coordinate their behavior to get all the way over here.

    Anything with that level of smarts and cohesion / team spirit will look on the out-groups as any in-group does. Not out of malice, and not necessarily acting destructively -- just treating the out-groups as beneath them, and not deserving the same high level of treatment the in-group members enjoy.

    That makes Close Encounters more consistent in plot and message. The best we can hope for is that alien visitors won't be like the Comanches. They did us wrong, but not out of malice, vindictiveness, etc.

    Once we showed we were closer to their level, they stopped viewing us the way a kid with a magnifying glass views a bunch of ants, and changed their behavior accordingly.

    That's closer to reality -- alien visitors would be like an encounter with some Sublime force of nature that could ruin us, not out of malice again. But that wouldn't stop us from feeling a sense of wonder and awe before it, and trying if possible to commune with it.

    Close Encounters didn't have that hunky-dory message, so the more disturbing elements of the plot fit well with the attempt to convey the Sublime to the audience.

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  3. I found Close Encounters completely underwhelming, but I'm pretty sure I saw it before I was an adult. I also didn't care for the characters abandoning their families for no good reason.

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  4. Spielberg once contrasted E.T. with Independence Day, and says he couldn't make E.T. in the 90s, since people were more paranoid. Fits in with what you've said, and also shows(as you said in one of the old posts) that moviemakers are influenced by the zeitgeist(for instance, why the original Stars were good, but the prequels sucked)

    -Curtis

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  5. "Sure, we don't have much to fear from the race that E.T. comes from, since they're so trusting, naive, and baby-like"

    I thought that E.T. was supposed to be a child of his species...

    -Curtis

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  6. In E.T. and Close Encounters, two groups almost come to a misunderstanding, but eventually can communicate with each other. The movie Starman, with Jeff Bridges, also goes in this category(its from the 80s). So are a few other "bunch of kids meet goofy aliens" from the 80s.

    In Independence DAy, the aliens are out to get us from the very beginning. It was made in '96...

    -Curtis

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  7. Y'know just last night I ordered Starman through the used record store. I'm really looking forward to it.

    My dad used to watch that a lot (also on Beta), and I remember a fair amount of it... at least the emotional gist, basic plot, and some images. I'm sure it'll be an even more enjoyable watch all these years later. It's really touching without being sentimental, I remember that much.

    And starring Kevin Flynn and Marion Ravenwood -- you can't go wrong.

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  8. "I thought that E.T. was supposed to be a child of his species..."

    Well except that he's not only knowledgeable enough to recreate the hi tech necessary to re-establish contact with his ship, but ingenious enough to do it with parts from an alien race's household gizmos.

    At the beginning they show a whole bunch of his group before they're discovered, and they all look like he does.

    That would actually be a cooler story, though -- if an alien child got left behind in the scramble and made friends with an earth child who's left behind by his family and peers.

    That would provide better motivation for why E.T. is so eager to reach out to Elliott. The way it is, it seems like it's just part of his nature, almost as though Elliott has adopted a naive stray animal as a pet.

    That's one of the main reasons why I think The NeverEnding Story works better for kids -- the protagonist's partner is also a 10-12 year-old boy, so it doesn't feel odd or forced that they'd want to join the same team and achieve a shared goal.

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  9. "Spielberg once contrasted E.T. with Independence Day, and says he couldn't make E.T. in the 90s, since people were more paranoid"

    Right, the early-mid-'90s were the height of paranoia. It kinda calmed down in the late '90s. It was like a divorce period, where you have to overshoot how anti-social you feel, just to be sure you'll make a clean break. After that's done, you can mellow out a little bit, while still not wanting to re-connect with your former group members.

    One of the great things about E.T. is seeing how trusting people were, and as one consequence, how independent young people used to be. And how close siblings used to be -- which made for greater trust and cooperation, but also more fighting when one thought another was violating the social norms.

    Nowadays siblings are pretty distant from each other, aren't partners in crime around the house, and fight with each other for purely selfish reasons -- the age-old "my toy!" kind of stuff, not a dispute over whether or not one of them had violated the sacred code that kept them on the same team against mom and dad.

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  10. "I found Close Encounters completely underwhelming, but I'm pretty sure I saw it before I was an adult. I also didn't care for the characters abandoning their families for no good reason."

    I probably saw it sometime as a kid, and I don't think it did much for me then either. But movies for adults are such a different experience when you're grown up.

    The characters alienate and leave their families because they're driven to make an encounter with something Sublime and mysterious. They're convinced that it's a once in a lifetime shot, a date with destiny.

    Whether you'd do the same, you can't say that it's "no good reason." C'mon, live a little, man.

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  11. Consistency between plot and message -- how does an alien race that's so technologically sophisticated and driven to explore other worlds, nevertheless have such a baby-like level of naivete about foreign species, and is pure peace-love-and-understanding in its behavior?

    There were a couple Chechens, down to just one now, who might've wondered the same thing about us.

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