That Old Feeling: "E.T." Goes Home

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Elliott, played by Henry Thomas, tries to help E.T. phone home

In 1982 I had my brush with greatness. In April of that year, TIME staffers saw "E.T." and its Spielbergian companion piece "Poltergeist." Back then we favored movie personality covers, usually of actors with a long track record. This time, we said, "The pictures are terrific. Let's do it." Ray Cave, the magazinemaker in charge, said okay to a cover. And that's how I got to write the first published story on the movie phenomenon of the 80s.

The movie's rerelease last week — with some modest digital tinkering, a lavish ad campaign, an Entertainment Weekly cover story and a CBS special reuniting the principal players — sent me back to the original film and to the story that reporter Martha Smilgis and I did on "E.T." (and "Poltergeist"). Here are excerpts from the May 31, 1982 issue and some recent thoughts on one of the loveliest, more pristinely realized pictures I know.

1982: At 34, Spielberg has tapped directly into the power source of youthful fantasy and produced two remarkable works of popular art. "Poltergeist," which he supervised from original story to final cut, is a horror movie about malevolent spirits that infiltrate the home of an ordinary California family. "E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial," which he devised and directed, tells of a creature from outer space who is mistakenly abandoned on earth and befriended by three school-age children. "'Poltergeist' is a scream," Spielberg says. "'E.T.' is a whisper." The first film means to thrill, the second to enthrall. Both succeed beyond anyone's expectations, perhaps even those of their prodigious creator. They re-establish the movie screen as a magic lantern, where science plays tricks on the eye as an artist enters the heart and nervous system with images that bemuse and beguile.

2002: Gee, now there's a writer in love with paired phrases! Granted, I'm describing two films, so a certain two-handedness (on-the-one-hand-on-the-other-hand) is called for, but the prose style is almost maniacally Manichean, isn't it? Oh, well, I was 20 years younger then too.

Anyway, the two films do share a basic plot: creatures move into suburban California homes and take possession of the kids therein. Both movies are about a monster in the bedroom closet, but with "Poltergeist" told as a horror story, "E.T." as a love story. (The Pixar "Monsters, Inc." is, again, the same story, as told from the other side of the door.)

1982: ["E.T."] "is in a class all by its beautiful self... a miracle movie, and one that confirms Spielberg as a master storyteller of his medium. Not since the glory days of the Walt Disney Productions — 40 years and more ago, when "Fantasia" and "Pinocchio" and "Dumbo" first worked their seductive magic on moviegoers of every age — has a film so acutely evoked the twin sense of everyday wonder and otherworldly awe. With astonishing technical finesse and an emotional directness that lifts the heart, "E.T." spins its tale of a shy, lonely boy in desperate need of a friend — when suddenly one falls out of the sky.

2002: Speaking of his boyhood, the 1982 Spielberg said, "Walt Disney was my parental conscience." Disney might have been the "grown-up" Spielberg's model — a model he surpassed, because he was not the head of an assembly line of dedicated animators but a hands-on writer-director with a phenom's sense of storytelling through pictures and gestures. As if by osmosis, he learned the Walt's lessons of film artistry and audience manipulation. Like Walt, he made films for the whole family to enjoy, to be moved, amused or even scared by. (Remember that the early Disney cartoon features were, in their sweetly sadistic heart, primal-scream horror movies for toddlers.) Ron Miller, Disney's son-in-law, was running the Mouse House in the late 70s and early 80s; but Spielberg was Walt's true heir.

Many Spielberg movies, especially those from his early prime, play like hep remakes of Disneyana. "Jaws" was Monstro the "Pinocchio" whale turned into an even hungrier shark. "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" used "When You Wish upon a Star" (also from "Pinocchio") as a theme. That Disney film, with its parable of wooden boy becoming human by undergoing terrible, thrilling adventures, could apply to either the alien or his friend Elliott. (Spielberg applied a darker, more literal tone to the Pinocchio story in his last film, "Artificial Intelligence: AI.") And mightn't we see E.T., the herbologist foraging in hostile woods, as the Bambi from Another Planet?

1982: The film opens on a night sky, Disney blue and full of twinkling stars. In the clearing of a forest that Bambi and Thumper might have been pleased to call home, a spaceship sits — not a high-tech marvel of the NASA future but a bell-shaped spinster of a ship, with old-fashioned street lamps appending and the unmistakable aura of Captain Nemo's Nautilus from "Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea." A misty crescent moon gives glimpses of child-size figures moving about in capes and cowls on a field expedition for earthly flora. One of these figures wanders off and encounters the threatening glare of headlights and the honking of car horns. Before the errant extraterrestrial can return to his comrades, the spaceship abruptly ascends and little E.T. is left, alone and friendless, in an alien climate, where he can never flourish and may not survive.

2002: How wonderfully elliptical the film is! A fairy-tale with the sure, unhurried pace of a master art film, "E.T." is a reminder of a movie era when directors didn't toady to their audiences, spoonfeeding emotional cues, setting all the essential story information in the center of the frame, bopping viewers over the head as if to say, "Here! Get it?" Today's typical director seems to think his audiences are before the TV set — ready to click the remote if there's a lull for even a second — rather than in a movie theater, where they've paid their money and are there for the whole ride.

In other words, "E.T." isn't pushy; it isn't constantly trying to explain or ingratiate itself. As Spielberg says, the movie is a whisper. Softly, it tells its audience: If you pay attention, boys and girls, and parents, you'll get it. That means listen and, for heaven's sake, look. Be a curious child on a scavenger hunt, open to every visual insinuation. The film is sure of itself, its tempo and techniques, and confident that the viewer will meet it halfway, like Elliott with the creature in his back yard. In 1982 Spielberg could count on that rapprochement. I wonder if he can today — if he would allow the so much of the film to proceed at its delicate, stately tempo. (Was he tempted to goose the pace by shaving microseconds off some of the shots?) At the screening I attended, I had the impression that the kids were restless; they've been raised on visual sensation. Will they ever learn to read real films?

Spielberg sets the mood through off-center compositions of misty landscapes and, courtesy of cinematographer Allen Daviau, an almost Impressionist diffusion of light in strong colors: planetarium-sky blue, a loamy brown and, everywhere, Nativity gold. (The film is its own Little Golden Book.) The opening sequence is a real challenge for viewers who expect every plot point to come with color commentary and instant replay. Spielberg and Mathison dramatize E.T.'s abandonment in the forest, and his near-discovery by the S.E.T.I. trackers, without showing anyone's face — just rustling behind branches and the rattling of a big man's keys; the movie is eight minutes old before an intelligible word is spoken.

I quite admire the camera's pensive watchfulness. On the first night of the film, Elliott goes outside to meet a pizza delivery car. He sticks his head through the window, pays the courier and, as the car backs out of the driveway, hears a strange rustle in the woods nearby. We observe all this, from across the street, in a single shot, like a cat too alert and careful to move. But the film's style is not always so European, so Bressonian. Then Elliott,a flashlight in hand, tiptoes into the woods to find the rustler. When he and E.T. surprise each other, the creature screams and so does the boy, in five fast shots from slightly different angles. Later, where another film would zoom or pan quickly into a reaction, there's a series of three shots, each one closer; that's a quote from the revelation of Jessica Tandy's corpse in Hitchcock's "The Birds." As for the ascending ending, it's also a quote — from Spielberg's own "CE3K."

1982: Together, the two new films compose a marvelously detailed diptych of suburban life. It is a life that Spielberg, who grew up in a series of bedroom communities, knows from the sheltered inside. ... Virtually every Spielberg film ["Jaws," "Close Encounters of the Third Kind"] has made room for the camaraderie and antagonisms that percolate across the Formica kitchen table. But until now, none of the films had been told from the child's point of view — where the prefab house seems unique and enveloping, where every utilitarian recess holds its own sly secret, where Mom can be the Queen Mother or a royal pain, and Dad is Santa Claus or the Big Bad Wolf. At the center of both "E.T." and "Poltergeist" is the suburban family, as normal and American as Pop-Tarts... Spielberg's heroes, whom he sees as extraordinary, are children. At the emotional center of each new film is a trio of siblings: a teenager, a nine- or ten-year-old boy, a fair-haired preschool girl...

2002: Spielberg is suburbia's film poet laureate. In picture after picture he tells of bright, lonely children who get separated from their parents and find their way back home.(I imagine the child Steven, at two or three, listening to "Hansel and Gretel" for the first time and having the holy crap scared out of him.) The movement is always a journey: going out innocent, coming back changed.

Spielberg has often spoken of his boyhood in Phoenix and L.A. suburbs: watching his parents argue, teasing his kid sisters, being the last kid chosen in a pickup baseball game, winning over the school athletes by asking them to star in his sophisticated home movies — his little war epics and adventure stories. "E.T." was originally called "A Boy's Life"; the movie is an early chapter in Spielberg's life, as he wants to remember, depict and avenge it. So Spielberg is Elliott, the lonely child, as well as E.T., the sweet alien.

The movie is also sensitive to the power vectors in any suburban family. Elliott — the forgotten 10-year-old middle child between a teenager with a lot of friends and a precocious golden girl — makes his older brother Michael swear, "You have absolute power!" before he is allowed to meet the creature Elliott has found. He tells Gertie that only little kids can see E.T.; "Give me a break," the six-year-old exasperatedly responds. But the coming of E.T. brings out the finest in the kids: Michael corrals his pals to help save the alien; Gertie teaches him to speak; Elliott becomes his best friend. E.T. unites the siblings, makes them a real family.

Before his arrival, they are a family in clenched domestic crisis. The father has just walked out, leaving Mom (Dee Wallace) to cope with raising her brood and adjusting to life as a rejectee. The kids know this, and know that referring to it is a sure way of hurting their mother. When Elliott excitedly informs the group that there's an alien in the garage, he is met with dismissal and disbelief. Mom says she wishes he could talk to his father, and the annoyed Elliott replies acidly, "He's in Mexico with Sally." As E.T. would say, "Ouch."

There's a subplot that gets hardly any dialogue in the film, yet has an emotional pain and elegance. Halloween is coming; for the kids, that means dressing up: Michael with a fake hatchet in his head, Elliott as a "terrorist" (implausibly changed to "hippie" in the new version) and E.T. impersonating Gertie under a bedsheet. And look, Mom's dressing up, in a fabulous cat-woman frock. She has a date (we've heard her talk on the phone in the background of one scene), perhaps her first as a newly-free woman. But her beau doesn't show. While her kids are having the adventure of their lives, she is quietly crushed. Though the film is quiet about it too, we feel her pain, share the poignance.

1982: E.T., a gentle space elf who at first glance seems as homely as a turtle without its shell yet eventually proves as beautiful as an enchanted frog, must find a rescuer. And the rescuer must be a child, whose Galahad strength only E.T. and the moviegoer can immediately discern. The child is Elliott (Henry Thomas), a thin, quiet, wise-faced lad of ten who makes initial contact in the time-honored American fashion: by playing catch with a softball. With the help of his older brother Michael (Robert MacNaughton) and younger sister Gertie (Drew Barrymore), Elliott must battle the elements and some prying adults in a children's crusade to win E.T. his freedom.

2002: Have you wondered about the movie's titles? Why not just "E.T."? Because the year before the movie came out, Paramount TV premiered a nightly showbiz gossip program called "Entertainment Tonight" — "E.T." for short. To avoid confusion, Spielberg added the subtitle. Fine. But why "Extra-Terrestrial"? The word has no hyphen. Perhaps Amblin committed the punctuation faux pas to make the word easier for children to pronounce; otherwise they might say "ex-trate-res-trial." I have another theory: when the creature is adopted by Elliott and his brothers and sister, the creature becomes an honorary earthling. They're all terrestrials, and E.T.'s the extra terrestrial.

One more question: How many days does the film's action span? Just three or four, it seems. Yet the first night we see that crescent moon, and by Halloween there's a full, Hunter's moon for Elliott to bicycle past. (The image became the logo for Spielberg's Amblin Films.) That suggests a passage of almost two weeks. Can any film scholars or astronomers explain the seeming discrepancy?

1982: To Elliott, E.T. is everything a boy could want: a toy, a pet, a jolly Space Invader of a video game — most of all, a friend whose feelings become his own. To Gertie, E.T. is a youngest sibling's most welcome addition: someone even smaller than she, an infant brother she can dress up as a bag lady and even teach to speak. E.T. is remarkably adaptable and wonderfully funny in his adventure on earth. Left alone in the house, he toddles around like a middle-aged ironworker on a weekend without the wife, his potbelly peeking out of a bathrobe as he watches TV and gets drunk on Coors beer. Later still, he is a holy sage, a whiz-kid Yoda, constructing a transmitter out of spare parts to signal his spaceship. And he has an extra gift for children. If the moment is propitious, E.T. can make them fly away from danger and into the full-moon sky.

2002: A toy — Mom comes into the large closet, searching for the sources of a strange noise; she scans the lineup of Gertie's dolls, not noticing that E.T., anxious and still, is in the middle of them. A pet: "I'm keeping him," Elliot says, as if the alien is a stray pooch; "Stay!" he commands E.T., with a lovely mixture of authority and apprehension — who knows, it might work. Friend: "You could be happy here," Elliott tells E.T. "I could take care of you. I wouldn't let anybody hurt you. We could grow up together, E.T."

That won't happen — E.T. must get home, or die trying — but the boy and the creature develop a powerful empathy. The two are one, virtually destined by their names; E.T. is ELLIOTT (E-----T) with the heart carved out. Elliott gets tipsy at his school desk when E.T. gets the D.T.s back home, and then stricken when E.T.'s life signs ebb under the scrutiny of an E.R. staff. A NASA man says, "Elliott thinks its thoughts," Michael corrects him, "No. Elliott feels his feelings." (Notice "his," not "its." E.T. is not an animal; he's a human being.) "We're dying," Elliott says as the alien's life ebbs away. Standing over his death tank, Elliott whispers, "I love you" — and E.T.'s heart suddenly glows; love has brought him back to life. Actually, no: E.T. has revived because his phone-home device finally connected with the mother ship. But I like the first explanation. Can't a cynic find life-giving power in sentiment?

1982: The movie is a perfectly poised mixture of sweet comedy and ten-speed melodrama, of death and resurrection, of a friendship so pure and powerful it seems like an idealized love. None of this can be the result of computerized calculation; instead it stems from a seamless blend of writing, direction, casting and celestial good luck. Even its creator seems pleased. "I put myself on the line with this film, and it wasn't easy. But I'm proud of it. It's been a long time since any movie gave me an 'up' cry."

2002: Steven Spielberg had big long-time hopes for his favorite little guy. When "E.T." opened, it captured the world's heart and quickly became the all-time top-grossing movie, outstripping the previous champ, "Star Wars." Including a rerelease in 1985, the film brought in $400 million. No picture topped it until 1997, when a "Star Wars" 20th-anniversary edition earned the film an extra $138 million and leapfrogged it $60 million ahead of "E.T."

That spring I spoke with Spielberg, who showed a spirit of friendly competition with his friend and occasional partner George Lucas. Like a home-team fan expecting a bottom-of-the-ninth rally, Spielberg said he was looking forward to the 20th anniversary of his own sci-fi fairy tale. "E.T." needed to earn just $60 million to regain the top spot. It wasn't about the money (Steven has enough to get by), it was about the rivalry: George's top gun against his. Spielberg was confident that his space turtle could pull it off.

In the five intervening years, a couple of seismic events occurred: an iceberg and a death star. "Titanic," which opened at the end of 1997, earned a phenomenal $600 million in North America and another billion dollars at the foreign wickets. (That figure may never be overtaken, unless U.S. currency becomes as valueless as Argentina's.) In 1999, the new "Star Wars" episode, "The Phantom Menace," grossed $430 million, also topping "E.T." But Spielberg was still aiming to edge ahead of the original "Star Wars" when his film hit the theaters again.

He has to be disappointed. In its first weekend, "E.T." redux grossed just $14 million, far less than "Ice Age" and "Blade 2." ("Star Wars" had copped $36 million on the opening weekend of its return.) Again, it's not the money. I think he wanted families to see the film and get that big-screen awe and awwww. But the communal-cathedral experience of moviegoing disappeared even before "E.T." opened the first time. Now we see even the biggest films in little boxes — at the mall or, in an even tinier jewel case, at home on TV.

1982: And fermenting in his busy brain is a plot line is "E.T. II."

2002: Spielberg soon renounced that notion, realizing that "E.T." was pretty close to perfect as it was. The film had a beginning, middle and enthralling end; to extend the story would be to dilute it. But the man is a tinkerer. Three years after the release of "Close Encounters," he issued a Special Edition with new material. He was not oblivious to the attention paid the retooled "Star Wars" and Francis Coppola's extension last year of "Apocalypse Now."

So he and his tech staff restored the deteriorated original negative and threw in some filigree work. With digital magic they gave a bit more personality to E.T.'s slightly jerky movements, and put some invisible hills and gullies in the sky ride the boys take on their bikes at the climax. He airbrushed the guns the cops don't use on the fleeing kids. He added a scene of E.T. in the bathtub; it didn't work when the creature was just a puppet but did, Spielberg thought, now that he was pixels.

I know the makeover was done out of love, and yet... The charm of "E.T." was essentially not high-tech but retro. I would have cleaned up the negative; everything else I'd leave alone. You shouldn't mess with a miracle.

1982: "E.T." stands securely in the company of some classic children's stories, from "Peter Pan" to "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz." With the crucial help of Screenwriter Melissa Mathison... Spielberg has infused comic and dramatic tension into a story in which, one comes to realize, there are no villains. Everyone is nice, and the conflict comes from a taffy-pull between good and greater good. The conflict is achingly strong, its resolution euphoric.

2002: "E.T." was the closing night film at the Cannes festival that year, and Spielberg came to town with Mathison, her beau Harrison Ford (did you know he plays the biology teacher?) and producer Kathleen Kennedy. He seemed delighted with the TIME story, though at the last minute a photo of Steven and E.T. staring at each other was pulled from the cover because Margaret Thatcher had invaded the Falklands. At the end of the year, when E.T. was a runner-up for TIME's Man of the Year, I asked Ray Cave if, in retrospect, the movie wasn't more important than the war. He smiled grimly. (Mathison in EW: "I say this with all modesty: Which do you really remember, the Falkland war, or 'E.T.'?)

That night, the film played in the Palais du Festival — the last movie to be shown there before it was torn down, to be replaced by a giant slab down the Croisette. That old Palais was a cathedral of cinema, and, that night, the 2,300 film professionals and town dignitaries became a community, in shared love of a little film by the kid from the American suburbs.

At the end, E.T. stands inside the spaceship door, his heart pulsing red as the door irises into a close. The heart of the audience must have been glowing too, for at that moment, the audience began to applaud as one. The clapping continued, ever more warmly, through the reaction shots of the family, through the ascension of that Victorian Christmas-ornament spacecraft and the rainbow it makes (one last crescent) as it zips into the night. By now the Palais and all in it were levitating with the mother ship. A final shot of Elliott, staring into the camera with love, pride and loss — and cut to black. With this, the applause exploded into cheers. Spielberg and Co. stood up in the first row of the balcony to accept and share the rapture. I have the feeling, still in my heart, that it went on all night.

Once we were young, and films were beautiful.