On Friday, March 11, Disney is releasing 'Mars Needs Moms,' a film which, while perhaps unfortunately titled, is actually a terrific piece of family-friendly science fiction. More than just being fun and thrilling and sentimental in all the right places, the film recalls the heyday of Amblin Entertainment, when Steven Spielberg and his colleagues were firing on all pistons creating entertainment that had not just populist appeal or technical precision but real sophistication – a level of intelligence and intensity that flirts at the edge of being too mature, but never quite goes too far.
As such, it seemed appropriate to pick a title for this week's column that connected 'Mars Needs Moms' with the kinds of movies that it's clearly trying to evoke, if not outright emulate. And even though movies like Joe Dante's 'The Explorers' or Randall Kleiser's 'Flight of the Navigator' share a lot more immediate conceptual similarities to Simon Wells' forthcoming film, it was unavoidable that 'E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial,' Spielberg's watershed family film, be this week's choice.
The Facts: Released June 11, 1982, 'E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial' was an immediate commercial and critical success, earning more money than any other film in history at the time of its initial theatrical run and amassing a cumulative total of $792 million. The film was nominated for nine Academy Awards, including Best Picture, and won four, for Best Score (by John Williams), Best Sound, Best Sound Effects, and Best Visual Effects. It was also nominated for 12 BAFTA awards and five Golden Globes, and won Best Picture honors from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, the Kansas City Film Critics Circle, and the Boston Society of Film Critics. Additionally, the film enjoys a 98 percent fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
What Still Works: Having last seen the film when it was re-released in 2002, not only is it still entertaining, it's just as emotionally powerful as ever. Spielberg, drawing upon his own experiences as a child of divorce, creates a resonant tale of a kid looking for someone or some thing to take the place of his absent father, and finds it in a creature that not only can he take care of and help, but when it's necessary, can take care of him. There's a certain kind of brilliance to the very design of E.T., which both resembles a small child and an old man, conveying parental wisdom and youthful optimism that Elliot needs in equal measures.
The opening scenes ring with a certain kind of suburban authenticity that few other filmmakers successfully communicate; they tend either to whitewash childhood and adolescence or exploit its traumas, but Spielberg creates a recognizable world that is populated by people and relationships that seem familiar, but at the same time have a kind of stylization that elevates the story's dramatic intensity. (One can only imagine what the smoke budget must have been on the film.) The rooms in Eliot's house are cluttered and unclean, lived-in and believably blue-collar, and carry the imprint of a family that clearly loves one another but can't quite come together.
On top of the look and design of the family and their environment, Spielberg finds countless opportunities to imprint little flourishes that create an emotional veracity and define character in ways that are almost subliminal. Elliot's introduction, his first line of dialogue, is a whimper of a comment about wanting to join his brother and his brother's friends in the board game they're playing; the tone and tenor of his offer perfectly reflects his status as an aspiring member of his brother's inner circle, and at the same time a middle child hanger-on who is too old to play with his sister but not mature enough to play with Michael.
Similarly, Mary's response to Elliot's "penis breath" comment is one more of bemusement than anger, and it hints at her fragile emotional state in the wake of her husband leaving or her own lack of maturity and/or offers a springboard for the rest of her behavior in the film. Meanwhile, one of my favorite shots is of the morning after Elliot introduced Michael to E.T. and he sits pondering the discovery as he rides on a school bus that is otherwise filled with playing students, throwing paper and carrying on obliviously in a world that to them doesn't yet possess larger, unseen forces. It's the duality of this sort of need to grow up, to mature, and yet the shock and excitement of discovering something that isn't taken seriously by adults, which gives the film its power.
This is the film which painted (however fairly or unfairly) Spielberg as a filmmaker who could not only speak to, but speak for kids; it's telling that with the exception of Mary, their mother (prior to the end sequences with the military), we don't see the faces of any of the adults in the adolescent characters' worlds. And later, in the scene in which Eliot and E.T. are being examined by the team of military doctors, theirs are the only two characters that are not encased in plastic or otherwise obstructed – only they can communicate with one another, while the rest of the world is outside their special, unspoken bond.
Finally, the film is a technical marvel, taking full advantage of the lessons Spielberg learned on 'Jaws' with its broken shark, as he withholds direct images of E.T. until it's important and emotional for him to do so. Allen Daviau does some absolutely breathtaking things with light and shadow, even in relatively neutral moments such as when Eliot is introducing E.T. to his Star Wars action figures in his bedroom. But as a whole the film is elegant and moody and gorgeously involving because not everything is shot in a flat or clear way – unclear meaning shadowy but logically comprehensible, creating a palpable sense of the secrecy that Eliot, Michael and Gertie share over E.T.'s existence.
What Doesn't Work: Spielberg has shown a boundless appetite for sentimentality, and while I think he mostly modulates it well in this film, he goes slightly overboard at the end, if only with one small detail: the rainbow that lights up the sky when the alien mothership takes off into the cosmos. Not as bad but also not unlike that horrible, horrible digital dissolve that transitions from Matt Damon into "old" Private Ryan in 'Saving Private Ryan,' it's one gesture too many, and it spoils the already operatic but almost perfectly balanced pitch of emotion and story that Spielberg already achieved with the farewell scene. (By comparison, a small twinkle as it leaves Earth's atmosphere would have been more than enough.)
Otherwise, the only other minor complaint I have is that - whether it's Spielberg or John Williams' fault - there's absolutely no breathing room at all in the film to interpret or feel without some guidance from the music. The score seems to literally fill in every single moment of the film, and goes from one piece to the next as each scene finishes, and it becomes slightly cloying, at least once you begin to notice it. At the same time, Williams obviously does some brilliant work here – as similar to his 'Star Wars' and 'Raider of the Lost Ark' music as it is – but its overall impact could potentially be stronger if it was used more sparingly.
What's The Verdict: 'E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial' holds up and deserves all of the accolades and success it has received. Few films have ever used such sophistication to so simply capture the essence of childhood, and although Spielberg certainly had established himself as a force to be reckoned with prior to its release, he became canonized with this film in a legitimate and again, deserving way. The movie is funny and sweet and scary and hugely emotionally involving, and it's with good reason that so many other filmmakers attempted to recreate, imitate or just plain rip off his inspirational creativity in the decades to follow. In short, 'E.T.' is a true-blue masterpiece, and it's a film that will continue to entertain and inspire for generations to come.