Re-Watchterpiece Theater is a series that explores the organic way that attitudes about films change after you watch them a second time, a third time, or more, further down the line than the original viewing. 2011 has been a very Spielbergy year. Super 8 earned big points with audiences this summer by duplicating the Spielberg style. Now, there are two Steven Spielberg films in theaters–The Adventures of Tintin and War Horse. It seems only right to wrap up the Re-Watchterpiece series for 2011 by re-visiting a Spielberg classic. Enter E.T. from 1982.
The First Viewing
The first time I saw E.T. was in theaters in 1982. I was six years old and it was one of the very first trips I took to a movie theater. I remember having a LOT of E.T. toys around our home. I remember discovering a love for Reese’s Pieces. I remember a few key scenes. But that’s just about all I remember from having seen it when I was six years old.
Fortunately, I’ve also re-watched E.T. two or three times since then. The last time would’ve been in the late 90s. It will always have a very special place in my heart purely for nostalgia reasons, and it was one of those rare movies that my entire family could rally around, even in the late 90’s when my brothers and I had reached adulthood. But frankly, I’d never watched it with any sort of critical eye. If you brought that movie up to me before yesterday, my likely response would’ve had a lot to do with Reese’s Pieces, lovability, and pure entertainment value. That’s a nice reply but it’s not very deep. What happened this time?
The most obvious difference in this viewing, compared to the other handful, is that Spielberg’s style all seems so obvious now. It really is the quintessential Spielberg movie. All of the tropes are there in buckets, all before they had really become tropes. If you want some examples of “The Spielberg Face”, there are probably 20 great ones in E.T. I’ve joked in the past that Spielberg’s movies are akin to lens flare porn, and lens flares are all over the place in E.T. (note: I do not joke about it in a derisive manner; it’s not an insult). Look at the list of trade marks on his IMDb page. These are all featured prominently in E.T.:
- powerful flashlights in dark scenes. The outline of the beam is often made visible through dust, mist, or fog.
- His films often show children in some sort of danger.
- Frequently uses music by John Williams
- He often uses images of the sun
- Frequent references to Disney films, music, or theme parks
- Frequently uses a piano as an element in key scenes
- Protagonists in his films often come from families with divorced parents, with fathers portrayed as reluctant, absent or irresponsible
- A common theme in many of his films is ordinary people who discover something extraordinary
The classic scenes, predictably, hit me hard because they are reminders to me of the initial magic and wonder that you feel at the theater when you’re a child. The nostalgia washed over me. What’s surprising is just how many of those classic scenes have become part of the zeitgeist by now. There’s E.T. dressed in drag by a little girl; magically transporting a bicycle (and bicycles, plural) across the face of the moon and sun; hiding amongst the stuffed toys; the Reese’s Pieces lure; the incessant incantations of “phone home”; the glowing finger; and on and on. Everyone knows these scenes by now. They’re a part of our Jungian collective unconscious film-watching experience.
It’s hard not to think about how uniquely American E.T. is as a film. It takes place in the boring, canned 1980s suburbs. Audiences took a lovable, innocuous alien and turned him into a Jesus allegory (Spielberg denies the allegory, and who would know better?). The film carries a healthy fear of big government, with government employees presented–thematically–as villains. It destroyed box office records, helping to cement the notion of the American blockbuster.
Last but not least, I noticed this time around that it really is an emotionally manipulative film. I never would’ve bothered noticing something like that 15 years ago. Having said that, it’s clearly forgivable, and it’s done in as perfect a way as you can imagine. It gives the film more punch with audiences without taking away from the story or the wonder and magic of the whole experience. You’ll never catch me holding the emotionally manipulative tag against the movie for those reasons.