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E.T. the extra-terrestrial by Alan "Nordling" Cerny


In the summer of 1982 I was 14-years-old. Sometimes I wish I could go back and re-live seeing so many great movies for the first time. Here's a 2007 article by Alan "Nordling" Cerny originally published as part of an AIN'T IT COOL NEWS series on movies from the summer of 1982. It was a great series. All those years from the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s were great movie years. Alan was kind enough to grant permission for republication here. - Stephen Jared

"I've been wishing for this since I was ten years old." If you came here looking for a critical breakdown of Steven Spielberg's E.T. THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL, you're not going to get it. Sure, I'll talk about what works, and I may even rant a little bit about the 2002 re-release. But this film is too ingrained into my childhood. It's too much a part of me. Everyone has that sacrosanct film, that one movie that really nails him or her. E.T. is that for me. "We're in the middle, Elliott. You can't just join any universe in the middle."

  

Before I get into it, some background. I was 12 years old in 1982. I guess once you're not 12 anymore you stop officially being a child and become an adolescent or whatever. Maybe it was the last year of my childhood. I'll definitely say it was the purest. It was the greatest movie summer ever. POLTERGEIST. KHAN. BLADE RUNNER. THE THING. You know the drill. That summer helped make me into the movie geek I am today. These were the years after EMPIRE. It seemed a millennium since that film, and the Great Question was still unanswered. We had the figures, we had the toy lightsabers, and we played every possible scenario in our backyards. Do you remember that? Do you remember playing? The kids on my street - Scott, T-Boy, Little Kris, our token girl Tracy (who we would sneak kisses from time to time), Stevie Cook, and myself - were unabashed movie freaks. It was easy back then. Video hadn't really taken off yet, not in our neighborhood where VCRs were still a luxury item. The last summer, 1981, we went every single weekend to see RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK. That's just what you did. Talk to any thirty-something and remind them. You'll see. Instead of the Internet, we had a magazine called STARLOG. I read it religiously, probably like my dad's generation read Forry Ackerman's FAMOUS MONSTERS. I read it gleaning every piece of science fiction movie news I could.

And I remember in the fall of 1981 reading it and learning that Steven Spielberg was making another science fiction film. They didn't know the title, but the working title was A BOY'S LIFE. Spielberg was being very secretive about the film, not revealing many details. "Just swear the most excellent promise you can make." Now, even at 12, I knew who Spielberg was. JAWS, CLOSE ENCOUNTERS, RAIDERS, of course. I even liked 1941. I didn't understand what they meant by it being a flop except that it didn't make as much money as the others. JAWS, especially, was a major event for me. I was 5, and my family (and when I mean family, I mean parents, uncles, aunts, cousins, the works. We must have had 20+ people in the theater that day) saw it opening weekend, as my family loved to fish and JAWS is the ultimate fishing story. I remember asking my dad to let me know when the scary part came. It's to his credit he didn't. "Can't he just beam up?" "This is reality, Greg." Our weekends during that summer of 1982 consisted of either going to movies or begging our parents to drop us off at the movies. Back then, we saw movies in herds. Whole city blocks of kids would all go together as our parents' orchestrated minivans for the child migration. Back then, kids as young as 6 or 7 would be dropped off with the older 12 or 13 year-olds watching out for them. I was one of the older kids so I kept an eye out. We didn't go to the movies to hang out or to be out of our parents' hair, although I'm sure they appreciated the away time. We came to be enthralled, transported, entertained. Sure, we'd sneak into some of the R movies. I remember sneaking into THE THING just as the fat guy's chest opened up and ate the doctor's hands. I quickly turned around and didn't see the rest until a year later on cable. Chickenshit me. So, summer 1982. Steven Spielberg has a new movie out, and I would be damned if I was going to miss it, and certainly wasn't going without my friends. So we all got into Scott's dad's Suburban, and headed out to Northline Mall Cinemas. "We're here. We are here. Where are you from?" A starfield. A single flute. The pan down, and we realize we aren't on some alien world, or in outer outer outer space. We are home. And then we see the Ship, like a Christmas ornament, settled onto the green earth. Then we see them. The little creatures, lovingly tending to and wandering amongst the plants.

  

And the story begins. I am not a child of divorce. At the time, my home was, as far as I could tell, a happy one. Elliott's one-parent world was as alien to me as E.T. was. Only one of my close friends had even grew up with it, which has to be some sort of statistical anomaly, but there it is. I did understand Elliott's sense of loneliness. I had my friends, and I knew how much I loved them, and what it would mean for me to lose them. The kids played D & D. That endeared me to the movie right away. Those kids were us. Me and my friends, hanging out at each other's houses, eating pizza, drinking Dr. Pepper, and killing goblins and orcs and dragons. I make no apologies for being a geek. It's who I am. In fact, it's sort of a litmus test of mine. You probably won't get into my inner circle if you can't identify with me in that respect. To make that connection, to be with people who truly get you, who truly have your back, that's a rare thing, no matter what the movies say. And so Elliott goes out to pick up the pizza, and makes that connection. Even if the connection comes from several million lightyears away. "Because, um, grownups can't see him. Only little kids can see him." "Give me a break."

Here's something about E.T., and only a few, few other movies ... it gets childhood intrinsically, so completely RIGHT. High praise indeed for Melissa Mathison's script, which has the cadence and the smart-assery that is inherent in every kid. Childhood is messy and joyful, dangerous and crude. Everything is truly an adventure, and nothing is certain. The kids cuss, like I certainly did. They ride their bikes recklessly, just one skid or sharp turn away from slamming into the pavement and serious injury. There is a sense of danger every day. And when you're a kid, you LOVE it. There's nothing, absolutely nothing, like waking up a summer's day and having no idea what the day will bring. Spielberg nailed that. When he replaced the guns with walkie-talkies in 2002's re-release, I wasn't so upset about the fact that he altered his classic movie so much as I was that he completely took out the sense of danger that as children we thrived upon, and enjoyed, and ultimately learned from. Are the guns inappropriate? Of course they are. That's why it works. Those kids were afraid for their lives. Wasn't it glorious? To be the hero? To genuinely risk something? Kids understand that, better than people realize. And, so we watched, and so we were thrilled. We weren't talked down to, or patronized. And we loved it. You can show me the wires, the models, the clay, the drawings, the CGI, and I still think E.T. is real.

  

It's interesting to me how the kids were surrounded by all of the tech every day and still absolutely believed that he was real. The set was almost like playtime, and E.T. reaches an intimacy that none of Spielberg's later films ever quite reached. The relationships felt real and lived in, and the home life was genuine. Later, when the government tarps the house, it feels like a violation of everything we held dear. "Here he is!" "Here's who?" "The man from the moon, but I think you killed him already." It's fascinating to me now how Spielberg got such great performances out of the children. I watched the making-of doc on the DVD set and saw how Steven and Henry communicated, and how open everyone was to not just saying the lines but genuinely feeling them. Watching Spielberg give direction to Thomas as he said goodbye to E.T. was a little like seeing the wizard behind the curtain, but instead of decreasing my admiration for his work it increased it.

He showed and still shows a great affinity for actors and it impressed me that he's not just a technical director but a very humanistic one as well. And what can be said about John Williams' score? It's simply beautiful, written at the height of his powers. The last 15 minutes of the film are practically an opera. E.T. wouldn't have nearly the same effect without it. Another minor rant - the CGI in the 2002 version. Okay, they made the face more expressive. I'm cool with that. But some of the CGI is used to fill in the places where our imaginations did just fine. I didn't need to see E.T. running in the forest - the light did that just fine. And I wondered what, exactly, I was seeing. The sense of wonderment at E.T., not being able to see what he was clearly, sparked the imagination, and too many films today insist on showing rather than being subtle and clever and letting our minds fill in the blanks. Sure, it looks great. But it stopped being mysterious. The added scenes in the film were nice, but again, they fill in the blanks that my mind didn't need filled.

  

The original film is a lean, perfect thing. No offense, Mr. Spielberg, but I really don't watch the 2002 version very much. I watch the original, and I keep that sense of wonder. "Is he dead, momma?" "I think so, sweetheart." "Can we wish for him to come back?" "Uh-huh." "I wish." "I wish too." And so, as E.T. sickens and dies, for the first time ever in a movie (but certainly not the last), I cried. And I'm not talking about squinting out a couple of tears from the sides of my eyes. I flat-out bawled. It was probably the first time I was ever hit with any kind of loss, even if it was just a movie. Behind me, two girls started laughing, presumably at me. I was pretty loud. And that's when my friend Scott turned around and calmly said, "Shut up, or we'll all beat the living shit out of you." He gave them a pretty hard stare. And they clammed up. Not a peep. And then Scott turned to me, smiled, and handed me a Kleenex. And when the film ended, and E.T. home, the six of us walked out into the afternoon sun, where Scott's dad was waiting. It was a beautiful, perfect day, and I loved my friends so, so much. I've lost track of them over the years, but I still remember that day, and how it really made a difference in my life. And you know what? That's not even the best time I saw E.T. "I'll believe in you all my life. Every day." A couple of weeks after, my mom throws a Tupperware party at the house. My sister's in high school at the time, it's a Friday night, so she's out and about. So, promptly, she kicks my dad and I out of the house.

  

Now, it's funny - I get my love of movies from my parents, but in different ways. My mom just loves the whole movie-going process. She loves going out to dinner, and seeing a great movie. My dad, however, loved movies differently. He loved great character studies, and a lot of the films of the 1970s. His favorite movie at the time was ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST. He loved ALIEN, and he wasn't a sci-fi kind of guy. "Truck drivers in space!" He loved the real people aspect of it. So I feel like I got some of his sensibilities from him when it came to movies. That night, we go to get some burgers at my uncle's hamburger joint, Roznovsky's, and decide to go to a movie. "E.T.!" I exclaim. "Haven't you seen that?" he asks. "Yeah, but you haven't! I wanna see it again." So we go. And as E.T. sickens and dies, the flood starts again. Can't help it. Even now, play E.T. in front of me, and I'll cry. It's damn near Pavlovian. And then I turn to my dad, and I see something amazing. "You must be dead, because ... I don't know how to feel. I can't feel anything anymore. Have you gone someplace else now?"

You have to understand something about my dad. He was a big man. He worked in oil fields as a draftsman. In my world, he was John Charlie Steve McQueen Bronson Wayne. Toughest guy in the world. When he came to school for report card day the other kids would do a double-take and ask me later, "THAT'S your dad?" I'd nod and say, "Yeah. Tough, ain't he?" And so it came as something of a shock to see him sobbing, tear-tracks on each side of his face, as he watches this little rubber suit die on screen. He was profoundly moved by this children's film. And my dad, at that moment, ceased to be The Great Impenetrable in my life, and became a living, breathing person. It was a major paradigm shift for me, and it radically changed my relationship with him. We talked more. I wasn't so afraid of him. I found I had so such more in common with him than I thought. It was wonderful. In 1983, my father was diagnosed with colon cancer, which four years later spread to his bones. He died July 15th, 1987. E.T. was the last movie I saw with him, just him and me, by ourselves. Sure, the family went to other movies, but it was the last time my dad and I went together. It might have been the last time we did anything together, just him and me. I can't really remember. But when you're 12, and the whole world is ahead of you, you just can't recognize those times when they happen. "Come." "Stay." "Ouch."

  

It's really difficult for me to judge Steven Spielberg too harshly. A lot of people talk down on him as a filmmaker, saying he's too sentimental, his films have easy answers, that he's too populist. They say that like it's a bad thing. But in 1982, he brought me closer to my friends and family in a way that really hasn't happened since, not with a movie. Not like that. I chase that feeling every time I sit down to a movie, in my darkened church, waiting, hoping for the emotions to come. Sitting there in the dark, with the people I love, knowing that they got your back, that they get you, that you have so much in common with them, even if it's just watching a little alien creature leave his friend to go home. Knowing that it may be the last time. When it comes to E.T. THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL, I can't be critical. It is an integral part of who I am and why I am that way. And I am very proud to have been chosen by Ain't It Cool News to write this for their ongoing 10th Anniversary celebration. Thanks so much, Harry and Drew. E.T. is the most important film to have ever happened to me, and I will cherish it and share it with my family for years to come.

"I'll be right here."

  

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