He’s short, he waddles, he wants to call home - and he’s back.
Marking the 35th anniversary of the release of the Steven Spielberg hit film, “E.T.: The Extraterrestrial” is being shown in movie theaters for two screenings only, this Sunday and Wednesday. For generations of young folks, thirty and under, it will mark the first time they see the film the way the rest of us old-timers saw it in June of 1982 – on the big screen. It’s been fiddled with since then – Spielberg has reportedly added some special effects and digitally turned police-officers’ guns into walkie-talkies to make one famous chase scene more acceptable to modern sensibilities – but the movie’s return the theaters will surely trigger the kind of nostalgia that will have dads and grandmoms hauling their family’s youngsters to the movies for another look at everybody’s favorite shipwrecked alien.
The story has become so familiar that even those who’ve somehow never seen it know the basics: a gentle, plant-loving alien is accidentally left behind by his crew, and is befriended by a lonely boy named Elliot, and his brother and sister. Eventually, as the rubbery, Reese’s Pieces-addicted stranger attempts to rig a way to let his fellow space creatures know where he is, government alien-catchers descend on Elliot’s home, leading to one of the best flying-bicycle chase sequences every put on film. The sailing-across-the-moon shot has, in fact, gone on to become one of the most recognizable and frequently counterfeited images in movie-making history.
When initially released, the bittersweet science-fiction fantasy quickly became the highest grossing film of all time, taking the title of box office champ from 1977’s “Star Wars,” which had taken the honor from Spielberg’s 1976 “Jaws.” Critics tied their typewriters in knots trying to capture in words the film’s unexpected collision of humanity, horror, heartbreak and wonder. Todd McCarthy, of Variety, wrote, “It’s been said that the only people who don’t like Disneyland are late adolescents who feel too hip to enjoy the pleasures of their earlier years, and the same will probably hold true for “E.T.”” Martin Kent, of the Hollywood Reporter, said, “Amid the wonder, excitement and joy that virtually every frame of this picture elicits — swept along by John Williams’ playful and uplifting score — one really does fall in love with the delightful little alien, and indeed, finds oneself reaching for the handkerchief (and realizing it, but not minding, upon later reflection) right on cue.” And Michael Sragow, writing for the Rolling Stone, enthused ecstatically, “We are invited into a magical hall of mirrors, as we watch E.T. watch the children watching him.”
In the years since, numerous films have attempted to capture the same troubled-kid-meets-lost-alien magic of “E.T.”, but only a few – Disney’s “Lilo and Stitch,” Brad Bird’s “The Iron Giant,” Joe Dante’s “Gremlins” – have succeeded.
Interestingly enough, “E.T.: The Extraterrestrial” stands as one of Spielberg’s only major hits to have never spawned a sequel. Not that it wasn’t seriously considered. In fact, not long after the original release of “E.T.,” screenwriter Melissa Mathison and Spielberg collaborated on a treatment for an “E.T.” spinoff, with the unpromising title of “E.T. II: Nocturnal Fears.” The treatment – a brief outline of the story, which has been much disseminated on the internet over the years – couldn’t be more different than the sweet, magical storytelling of the first film. In the sequel, a band of carnivorous mutant aliens — a twisted, cruel version of the species E.T. represents – land on Earth and commit cattle mutilations. Eventually, Elliot – whose mom is now dating “Keys,” the scientist played by Peter Coyote in the first film — and his brother and sister (and bicycle-riding friends), are kidnapped and tortured by the aliens, until E.T., who still seems to be keeping his mind-meld connection with Elliot, answers the boy’s cries for help, and comes to the rescue.