1982, Best Summer Ever: “E.T. The Extraterrestrial”

August 17, 2012

And here we have come to the logical endpoint of our revisiting of the summer of 1982: E.T. The Extraterrestrial. Yep, this is the movie that would define that summer, and the sun in whose glow all those other movies would thrive (for the most part). It dominated the summer box office, established Steven Spielberg as something approaching a god in Hollywood and was the gold-standard for family entertainment until Pixar came along. It’s a little perplexing, then, to realize that pretty much all of E.T. is up there on the surface. Surely, the world couldn’t have fallen in love with this movie just because we got to see a cute alien getting drunk on cheap, American beer, could we? What else is there to E.T.?

So, if you don’t know the story of E.T., I can only assume you’re either A) an escapee from hell like Nicolas Cage in Drive Angry and they don’t show it on the giant viewscreens he says they have there; B) a replicant that was genetically-manufactured, like, last week, or C) not in possession of a human soul. Either way, the plot’s pretty simple: a bunch of aliens studying Earth get spooked when the government shows up, so they pop smoke, leaving one their number behind. Yeah, it’s kind of a douche move if you ask me–I mean, they have a spacecraft that can traverse the galaxy. You’d think this would be somewhat of a match for the G-men’s 4x4s.

Anyway, the little dude who gets left behind hooks up with a young boy named Elliott (Henry Thomas), who enlists the aid of his siblings to help the guy get back home. See? Nice and simple. Of course the first element that explains our love for E.T. is the masterful creature design by the late Carlo Rambaldi. The alien is cute without being cloying. It’s also expressive enough to be charismatic. You don’t mind spending two hours with the thing.

Look at that cute little bastard!

But, hey, a lot of movies features cute creatures as their protagonists—look at the aliens in Mac and Me (ha, no I’m kidding…those things are ripped from your nightmares). It was a bit more that made E.T. resonate with audiences. First off, I think, was Spielberg’s portrayal of family. Elliott’s father has split, and left a very palpable void. His mom, (Dee Wallace) is frazzled from working to support the family, and the latchkey lifestyle thrust upon him and his siblings (to include future-hottie Drew Barrymore) has opened the door to a state of controlled entropy: the house is a mess, older brother Michael’s friends (including a young C. Thomas Howell) regularly invade the kitchen to play Dungeons and Dragons, and dinner more often than not comes from a pizza-delivery man.

Single parent households (“broken homes” we called them during the good ol’ days of Family Values Republicanism) had been portrayed before on TV and movies, but E.T. is one of the first mainstream, family-oriented films portray one in all its messy glory. For the first time, many filmmakers actually saw a reflection of their own lives on screen, as opposed to an idealized one.

This is Drew about 20 years after the filming of this movie. I included this because…well, why not?

Spielberg also explores the notion of junk in this movie. He touched on this in Close Encounters, but truly makes it part of mise en scene here. The suburbs of this film is awash in an ocean of toys, stuffed animals, brand-name dirt-bikes, and junk food. More than any other filmmaker working at the time, Spielberg seemed to understand that the Boomers were, if nothing else, a generation of materialism, and they were handing that trait down to their children. The toys scattered throughout Elliott’s house aren’t the generic props that Hollywood typically uses as shorthand for “toys,” but the kind of action figures, models, and vehicles currently on sale at the local Toys ‘R Us and probably in the bedrooms of most of the audience. It’s a whimsical irony that the alien is able to alchemize a collection of this stuff into a communication device to contact his people.

Like Spielberg’s other movie of 1982, Poltergeist, E.T. trades heavily on family. And while Elliott’s is missing a father, the family itself is not fractured. They pull together in the final act to help rescue the alien from the government and get him to a landing pad—and it should be pointed out that “pulling together” just means “including mom.” This palpable sense of family helps explain why Elliott welcomes the alien, beyond the fact that it’s kind of cool.

Ha! Look at the cute little bastard play dress-up!

Finally, we have to acknowledge the awe factor. Spielberg gets a lot of crap for making movies in which someone at some point will be enraptured by something (hence the “Spielberg-face” video). It’s easy to be cynical, but let’s not forget what the guy’s job is: he makes spectacle. If that’s what you do for a living, why not make it as awe-inspiring as possible? And he does. Whether it’s the spooky, misty woods or the NASA scientists walking down Main Street at the golden hour, Spielberg is unabashed about putting on a show. It’s this good nature that helps you overlook such niggling questions like why does the alien need a communication device? Did his compatriots forget where they left him? Did they just assume he’d be eaten by wolves and write him off? Why are the NASA scientists bad guys? You’d think they’d be like, “Hell yeah, he can built a radio. Fuck it, if it’s gonna bring more of his kind, he can use the SETI array.” Stuff like that.

“Seriously, dude, the password is SPOCKFAN4EVA. Go nuts.”

Oh, and Spielberg kicked around the idea for a sequel in which evil versions of E.T. land on Earth, and capture and torture Elliott and his family in an attempt to hunt down the real E.T., whose name is Zreck. I can’t decide if we dodged a bullet or that would have crazy/awesome.

E.T. basically reminded us that going to the movies fun, and, hey, as long as you’re enjoying it why not check out Conan or Firefox or Poltergeist or that one where the guy gets sucked into a computer they made a videogame out of? (No one said, “Let’s go see Blade Runner, alas) It fertilized the ground for the rest of the movies that came out, got us into the theaters, and  helped make 1982 the most exciting movie summer ever.

And that wraps up “1982 Best Summer Ever.” We’ll be back to the regular releases next post.


  1. And then 20 years later they released it again in theaters (I think it was for the 4th time) with guns edited into walkie talkies. I miss 1982.

    Thanks for including the sweet sweet (adult) Drew Barrymore. Such a sweet little girl, had so many issues growing up, and she turned into such a hottie.

  2. Gotta give Spielberg credit, though, he walked back those changes and offered the 25th Anniversary DVD with both versions. I think the 30th Anniversary version will only be the 1982 version.

    Yeah, Drew turned out to be pretty put-together…

  3. Though the film was excellent in every technical respect (including my favorite, cinematography), the story was essentially motivated by that unfortunate POV — then ascendant but in minority, now majority and socially mandatory — that posits self-hatred as proof of one’s enlightenment. The first one of this sort was “The Day The Earth Stood Still”, likewise an exercise in America-sucks/Whitey-ain’t-sh**/Government-is-out-to-get-us/Adults-are-narrow-minded-tyrants nonsense. Too bad SS could not have made a SUPPORTIVE film of this one’s superb quality, instead of an “Iron Giant” self-hatred fest like “E.T.” turned out to be! And yes, by the way, I agree that 1982 was in fact the best of summers.

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