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.