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The Essential Geek #16: E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial

The Essential Geek #16: E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial

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When I was a kid, "E.T." scared the crap out of me.

I first saw it when I was six, back in the halcyon days of 1982. It blew my fragile little mind. I remember wanting "E.T." toys, so like any dutiful brat, I clamored until I got one-a replica of the plant people's spaceship with a little E.T. inside. I think it zoomed around or something, and the spaceship popped open, and E.T. popped out.

And I remember laying in my bed at home, wide awake, thinking that E.T.'s parents were gonna want revenge for what happened to their kid, and that they were gonna seek that revenge-with me. They would come in that spaceship that zoomed around or something and steal me from Earth, just like Elliot's family had stolen E.T., and terrible things would happen. I was convinced of all this because to the imagination of a six year old, E.T. and his people were absolutely real.

(Actually, I could never imagine the punishments they'd have in mind, but I knew they'd be freaky. You ever consider what a little guy with an extendo neck and huge-ass fingers could do to a human if he wanted to hurt him? A whole hell of a lot, that's what he could do.)

There's no denying it. "E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial" had an impact on me. It still does. I'm not gonna get all Sensitive Man on you and say it makes me blubber like a baby, but...okay, it does.

I teared up last time I watched it. There, I said it. "E.T." makes me cry.

It also makes me think, makes me feel, makes me dream. I believe it did all that to me over twenty years ago, just as it did the last time I watched it, on a crappy 19-inch TV while I was distracted by wrapping Christmas presents. It's one of those seminal movies that implants itself into your brain and influences everything you will ever see. Like no other film, "E.T." works.

It's the movie that defined director Steven Spielberg's career. There were some blockbusters before, and plenty of blockbusters after, but "E.T." is his most passionate and ebullient film, as well as his most personal statement as an artist. In the yearnings of Elliot and the wish fulfillment of E.T.'s arrival, there's echoes of Spielberg's own childhood in a home split by divorce.

I happen to believe "E.T." is Spielberg's best movie; he's a master at directing action and suspense, but to create an action/suspense family film that also tugs at your heartstrings is still a towering achievement. "E.T." is churning with mystery and wonder and light. There's fog and smoke everywhere, so it's like you're watching a dream, and by the end, you want to climb through the screen and beg E.T. to stay with Elliot, because you can feel how much it hurts him to let E.T. go.

Let us also celebrate one of the great invisible achievements in film art: E.T. himself. It's invisible because once you're hooked into the story, you don't notice how he might have been brought to life-E.T. is absolutely real. When I watch "E.T." with the eyes of an adult, I'm more and more amazed by the sheer awesome fact of the creature's existence on the screen. Between Carlo Rambaldi, the artist who conceptualized E.T.'s look; countless technicians and puppet builders from Industrial Light & Magic; Spielberg's direction; and a midget in a costume, magic was made. E.T. was born.

(What of the "new," "enhanced" version of "E.T." released to theaters in 2002, where all those invisible effects were exposed by computer-generated wankery? It certainly doesn't destroy the film...but it doesn't really help matters much, either. The effects are now just that: Special effects, not magic. The movie still works, no question, but just to be safe, stick with the original.)

You can't deny John Williams' greatest score of all time, either. The soaring "E.T." flying theme is enormously catchy, and yet it also hits just the right emotional note of awe and excitement. Even without the visuals, hearing it is enough to put you on that bicycle with E.T. as you soar over the forest and toward the moon.

Unlike his cinematic soulmate George Lucas, Spielberg hasn't denied the original 1982 version of "E.T." in favor of the 2002 CG-drenched version. Thus, you can pick up both the '82 and the '02 releases in one handy DVD package for about $25. Not bad at all, and the set includes some excellent extras too. Just be sure to act quickly, as the set is allegedly "out of print" and will only be sold as long as the current stock remains. (Amazon.Com still had copies available as of this writing...why not pick one up below and throw a couple bucks into Jim Hill Media's mighty coffers?)

But really, appreciating "E.T." isn't about our adult babblings on filmmaking, or film scoring, or the merits of a DVD special edition. It's about childhood-being a kid, at least mentally, and appreciating it as a child would.

I'll never forget seeing "E.T." on opening night in its 2002 re-release. That night, the film belonged to that army of kids, and the other kids in other theaters across the country-everybody who met E.T. for the first time. Or those kids who saw him for the first time on the big screen, but who had met him first on video, like the boy next to me, who whispered many of the lines before the characters could spit them out. Even before the movie started, I could hear tiny voices whispering about E.T., so the movie has clearly thrived on home video as much as any Disney animated flick.

There were moments that night when the ever-present murmur of noise that you hear when you see a movie with a bunch of kids was completely gone. No fidgeting, no pouting for snacks, no asking loud questions to their parents-they were completely involved in the picture.

They cared about E.T., just like we did when we were six or ten or fifteen and we saw E.T. for the first time. They laughed, they cried, they felt. They created their own indelible memories of what the movies can do. And ultimately, that's maybe the greatest tribute that can be paid to Spielberg and his film--that no matter how much time passes, or how many CG improvements you add to the film, "E.T." defies time itself, and remains as unforgettable as it was when I was six, and this gentle lonely stranded soul scared the crap out of me.

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