Wednesday, June 17, 2020

Howie Balaban: Couch Critic: ET: The Extraterrestrial

This past weekend I had the chance to go see E.T. and Back to the Future at the Sunset Drive-In in Middleport. Alas, due to a variety of reasons, that didn’t happen on either Friday or Saturday, and on Sunday my wife and I determined that it wouldn’t be a good idea to keep our youngest out that late heading into a new week. Plus, with everyone needing to get up at a reasonable hour on Monday, it just made sense to stay home.
So, instead of going out to get my nostalgia on, at around 7 p.m. on Sunday evening, our youngest decided it would be “daddy time” and we popped some popcorn, plopped down on the couch, and we put on E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial. Rayna had never seen the whole thing, and I hadn’t seen it all from start to finish in a few years. I was simply excited to be sharing the movie with my daughter.

As the movie began, I was shocked at her observational skills, and equally shocked at how much they mirrored another critic’s kid from a “revisiting E.T.” story I’d read years ago. If you recall, the beginning of the movie shows a handful of aliens off their ship, on Earth, collecting vegetation (or at least, appearing to do that). We see the one left behind - E.T. - exploring in the nearby woods on his own. Like the other critic’s kid, my kid had the following thought that she expressed: “Daddy, is that E.T.’s mommy and daddy? Is that his family?”

I told her that yeah, it was probably his family. 

As the opening act comes to a close, and the ship begins to preparation for take-off, there’s an alien waiting at the door for E.T. Rayna told me it was E.T.’s mom or dad. 

I’ve seen this movie plenty of times. I’ve never, ever thought that going back to when I first saw it in theaters. Of course, it was the first movie I ever saw in theaters, and I was 2, so my in-depth thinking skills were lacking then. Still, the point remains that I’ve always thought of E.T. as a member of a species, who gets accidentally left behind and must “phone home” to get back to them. The whole familial aspect of it never really occurred to me until I read the one critique I alluded to earlier here, and it wasn’t driven home until I watched with my daughter on Sunday night.

Maybe, subconsciously, that is why I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for this movie. At its core, E.T. is about family, and my 6-year-old taught me that. It also is about the family we are brought up with and the family that chooses us. E.T. spends the whole second half of the movie trying to get back home. However, he spends most of the movie bonding with his adoptive family, especially Elliott.

Let’s talk about Elliott for a moment. 

Rewatching E.T. as an adult, it becomes quite obvious that the whole movie only works because Elliott is the personification of every kid who has ever dreamed of something cool happening in his own backyard. The government official (played by Peter Coyote) who tells Elliott near the end of the film how he was glad E.T. found Elliott first could arguably be all of us as adults realizing that only a child would have tried to help E.T. and teach him. The big bad government, in this case, would have made things much more difficult for E.T., and given the current political climate, it’s safe to assume that things wouldn’t go smoothly.

Before we get to the most iconic scenes in the film, a quick side note here: the Steven Spielberg giving a wink-wink to his buddy George Lucas with the Star Wars action figures and E.T. “chasing” after the kid in the Yoda costume during trick-or-treating is just excellent comedy. Not riotous, laugh-out-loud stuff, but the kind of subtle stuff that is just incredibly well done.

Now, for the most iconic scenes. Both involve flying. One involves a solo trip, the other involves a group of five kids. All involve bikes. And if you’re watching on mute, those scenes fall flat. 

First, when Elliott takes E.T. into the woods to build his communications array, E.T. takes control of the bike and that leads to the silhouette of the bike in front of the moon that has become an actual entertainment company logo. It is that well known. Second, during the climactic chase scene, E.T. takes control of five bikes and they also go airborne, riding off into the sunset.

Those scenes hold their magic today. They work. However, they only work to a point.

When one combines the incomparable music score provided by John Williams with those scenes? Chills. I even get chills writing about them. The reason is simple, really.

At one time a year or two ago I was flipping channels and saw E.T. was on, and it was almost over. So I put it on and told my older daughter, Teagan, that I couldn’t believe that this movie is almost as old as I am. She asked, “Is that bad? Does it make you feel old?”

As she asked the question, E.T. took control of the five bikes at the end, and I smiled.

“No,” I said. “It makes me feel young.”

Howie Balaban had originally planned on reviewing Close Encounters of the Third Kind for this Couch Critic review, but changed his plans. That is still on the list of movies to revisit, so no worries there. Opportunity simple presented itself with E.T., so he took it.