Thursday, June 30, 2022

Stranger Danger

I have to say I was feeling a little apprehensive at the prospect of watching The Black Phone. As a hardcore horror fan who came of age in the splatter era of the late '70s, early '80s, not much fazes me but as a parent, kids in peril is something that I am squeamish about and The Black Phone's story, about kids being snatched and killed by a psycho known as "The Grabber," seemed primed to be unpleasant. Even though I figured the chances were good that this was going to end alright for the main kid, you still have to go through that journey with him and, man, was that something I really wanted to put myself through? Not every type of horror movie is for every horror fan so I was kind of leaning towards giving this one a pass and maybe check it out once it hit streaming. 

Thing is, though, I have really liked director Scott Derrickson's previous films. Sinister (2012) is the one that gets the most attention and that's a great one, just a tremendously effective shocker, but I think The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005) is terrific too. He even made the best of the direct-to-video Hellraiser sequels with Hellraiser: Inferno (2000) so when he puts out a new horror movie, it's kind of a big deal. Bottom line, I decided to suck it up and see The Black Phone and, damn, I'm glad I did because it's fucking fantastic. It doesn't match the sheer terror of Sinister but it's still damn scary and, more importantly, it is a much more emotional movie, hits on a deeper level and although the subject matter is grim, Derrickson and scripter C.Robert Cargill (collaborating again with Derrickson after Sinister and Doctor Strange) find a way to make this adaptation of the Joe Hill short story suspenseful but not exploitative. It never wallows in the pain of The Grabber's victims or lingers on his deeds. There's enough there to know the stakes involved but Derrickson knows when to pull back and when to let suggestion do the work. 

As much as I was dreading the way the kids in peril aspect of The Black Phone would be handled, it turns out that's only part of the misery its young characters have to face. Brother and sister Finney (Mason Thames) and Gwen (Madeleine McGraw) live in constant fear of enraging their alcoholic father Terrence (Jeremy Davies, very good in a role that could've have easily been played as a one-dimensional shitbag). On top of that, Finney faces bullies at school who are looking to kick his ass. He gets a brief respite when the school's toughest kid, Robin (Miguel Cazarez Mora), lets it be known that Finney is his friend and therefore off limits but when Robin becomes another victim of The Grabber, it's open season on Finney again. So these kids already have to navigate a brutal existence on a daily basis, even without the looming specter of The Grabber. 

Even if you were lucky enough not to live in an abusive home, the '70s were still a savage time to be a kid. Seeing the bloody fights that occur in this movie, with kids just fucking beating on each other, it brought back memories for me of being a young kid back then and seeing the same kind of violence and having it just be a normal part of life. 

Every time is a hard time to be a kid but the '70s felt very raw in its own particular way. Adults were largely indifferent to what kids were up to, being wrapped up in their own personal shit during the "Me Decade." It was a time when more and more kids were becoming children of divorce or else they grew up with both parents together but with both of them working so either way most kids of the '70s were latchkey kids and so much of their lives were ungoverned and unsupervised, no matter how much scary shit was going on. 

Kids had to take the bus home to empty houses or walk to and from school alone all while the news was frequently filled of stories about predators, with the police unable to crack these cases and communities living in terror. This was long before cellphones and iphones and surveillance cameras and so on. There was a sense then that people could easily just vanish that isn't quite the same in today's world. Not that horrible things don't still happen, of course, but the world used to be much more advantageous to predators than it is today. 

The Black Phone nails the vibe of what it was like to grow up then. Even with The Grabber on the loose taking kids left and right, the kids in The Black Phone are still roaming the streets alone rather than being safe at home closely guarded by their parents and that is a very '70s thing. If you survived your '70s childhood, luck played a part.

The fear of a predator stalking the neighborhood and snatching a kid here and there might seem quaint or even, in its own way, innocent to today's generation of young people who have to live with the possibility of having a random mass murder occur during the middle of their school day but there was a particular type of creeping terror that hung in the air in the '70s and Derrickson and Cargill do an expert job of tapping into it. 

Ethan Hawke is fittingly spooky as The Grabber, sporting a series of eerie devil masks designed by Tom Savini. I don't know if I would say it's a particularly great performance but it's effective enough. It gets the job done. Honestly, I actually like that this is a movie where the villain doesn't steal the show, The focus is very much on Finney and Gwen (both Thames and McGraw are outstanding in their roles) and there's no attempt to make The Grabber cool or appealing. We don't even get a backstory for him. That might strike some as a weakness but I think it was the right choice here. What do we really need to know about The Grabber? There's no need to give any kind of psychological justification for his crimes. All we need to know about is the terror he inflicts. 

With Gwen having psychic abilities that she inherited from her deceased mother and the phone calls from the dead that Finney receives courtesy of the titular device in the Grabber's basement, there is a supernatural component that puts The Black Phone just enough in the realm of the fantastic to make it more than a drab story about a child murderer. The balance of gritty realism and supernatural horror is a combo that other horror movies have had but it works especially well here. The supernatural elements allow this Good vs Evil tale to attain an almost fable like quality. At the same time it remains a movie filled with bitter truths and harsh realities. The wins the characters achieve feel earned but it's also understood that darkness will continue to play a part in their lives.

Derrickson choose to leave the sequel to Doctor Strange to direct this instead as it felt closer to his heart and seeing it, it's clear that he made the right choice. I really think that Derrickson has made a special film with The Black Phone. It's a model of how to do mainstream horror right and it shows what can be done in the genre when everyone involved isn't just phoning it in.  

Saturday, June 25, 2022

The Ultimate in Alien Terror: The Thing at 40

As soon as the throbbing electronic pulse of Ennio Morricone's score comes up in the opening shots of John Carpenter's The Thing, accompanying a doomed pursuit, it's clear that a light hearted caper is not about to unfold. That said, the intensity of what follows still took audiences by surprise in 1982. The reception towards The Thing when it was released on June 25th, 1982, wasn't just dismissive, it was openly hostile. Beyond the fact that the film simply wasn't an enjoyable experience for many, the reaction to it was as though it was telling people something that they didn't want to hear and people were quick to push back. 

A remake of the 1951 Howard Hawks classic The Thing From Another World but more of a proper adaptation of that earlier film's source material - John W. Campbell's 1938 novella Who Goes There? - Carpenter's Thing is often described as downbeat and nihilistic. Personally, I prefer to think of it as a tough film rather than a bleak one. Despite being surly loners in general, the men of US Outpost 31 actually give a damn about not just their own lives but the lives of everyone who will suffer if the shape shifting organism that has invaded their base should somehow get past them and into the general population. As the saying goes, they might not be the heroes we want but they're the ones we need.

There are no excessive attempts on the part of Carpenter or screenwriter Bill Lancaster to humanize these men or to manufacture an extra level of sympathy for their plight by having any of them take a moment to refer to, say, that special girl waiting back home or to any loved ones that they're fighting on behalf of and wanting to reunite with. You never get the kind of stock scene that you would see in other movies where one character or another pulls out a photo of their wife or fiancee and says how they just want to kill this damn Thing and get back to their life.

Nah, there's no cheap sentiment here. All these guys seem to be, by choice, pretty alone in the world. Richard Masur's Clark likes his dogs and that's about it. These guys are where they are specifically because they aren't looking to mingle with the rest of civilized society. Which, for me, makes their determination to stop the Thing all the more poignant and noble. Yes, they're fighting for their own survival but they are also completely cognizant of what will happen if they fail to keep the Thing from proceeding further and they are willing, without hesitation, to make any necessary sacrifice to save the world. Not once do they flinch from what needs to be done or stop to whine about the shitty hand that they've been dealt.

When the Thing takes out the generator in its Hail Mary attempt to freeze its enemies to death and return to its arctic slumber, helicopter pilot R. J. MacReady (Kurt Russell) is able to get Nauls (T.K. Carter) and Garry (Donald Moffat) instantly on board with the idea to "warm things up around here" and bring the whole base down. They don't even bother to consult with Childs (Keith David) before they set their suicide plan in motion. They just do it, like Carpenter protagonists should.

Even in the film's famously ambiguous final moments, when the prospects of survival for MacReady and Childs look grim and it's very possible that all their efforts to stop The Thing may have still come up short, MacReady is still able to give a rueful chuckle before the fade out. Maybe he'll make it, maybe he won't. Maybe Childs is going to Thing out on him or maybe they're just two men about to die. Whatever happens, there's no sense crying about it. 

Carpenter and Lancaster don't ascribe the failures of the men of Outpost 31 to any specific errors on their part, an aspect of The Thing that I believe makes it more troubling to viewers. I think most people honestly prefer it when characters in horror movies make stupid mistakes. You know, it allows them to nudge their friend next to them, roll their eyes and feel safe in believing that, well, if these fools had been smart about this, all this could have been avoided but that does not happen in The Thing. You could say that MacReady and Cooper (Richard Dysart) shouldn't have brought those burned remains back from the Norwegian camp but hey, the damn dog was already in their base. The remains were superfluous. Many horror movies have a moment where the characters do something specific that unleashes the evil or sabotages everyone's chances of survival (in the original Thing, it was putting a heated electrical blanket on the block of ice holding the Thing). In the '82 Thing, though, there are no obvious, egregious fuck ups. As much as paranoia may be running rampant, the men of The Thing manage to keep their heads and make smart decisions at every turn. That they still can't claim a decisive win as the credits roll did not sit well with 1982 audiences. The we're fucked before we even started pessimism of The Thing was completely contrary to the gung ho, can-do spirit of the times. 

After the defeatism of the '70s, audiences of the early '80s were not into seeing Americans forced to play a losing hand. And they definitely did not want to hear a protagonist wearily admit "We're all very tired." No sir, not in the same summer where Rocky was getting the eye of the tiger.

The Thing's poor box office performance has always been laid at the feet of E.T. with the belief being that audiences choose Spielberg's kindly alien over Carpenter's nasty one but I don't think that one had anything to do with the other. The fact is, Ridley Scott's Alien could have come out in the summer of '82 and still crushed it. The Xenomorph would have held its own just fine against E.T. because Alien is a crowd pleaser, pure and simple, and, in every way, The Thing just isn't. Had MacReady encountered Childs in the smoking ruins of the base at the end and they immediately high-fived each other over the Thing's defeat just as a rescue helicopter arrived, well, then it would have been a different story at the box office. 

It wasn't the shocking splatter of The Thing that alienated audiences. Had its story ended with MacReady being satisfied that the Thing had been defeated and if he and Childs had survived to tell the tale, I believe that audiences could have stomached whatever hideous sights The Thing had to offer. No, it was the hopelessness and the ambiguity that really got to them.

Had Universal held off on The Thing's release until the fall, saved it for Halloween (and maybe chose to re-title it Who Goes There?), maybe it would have fared better. Who knows? Forty years later, it's all moot. It tanked and the fallout was what it was. 

The only person whose star immediately rose after The Thing was young FX genius and former Rick Baker protege Rob Bottin. As much as the grotesque FX of The Thing was slagged as borderline pornographic by outraged critics, no one could deny the astonishing level of skill that it took to pull off The Thing's transformations. 

Only twenty-four at the time and placed in charge of leading a massive crew, Bottin threw himself into the creation of the Thing so hard that he had to be checked into the hospital for nervous exhaustion by the time the shoot was done. The result of Bottin's groundbreaking wizardry, though, allowed Carpenter to make a monster movie that finally broke the "guy in a suit" cliche that even the best examples of the genre, like Alien, had always succumbed to. 

Even though the critical plaudits did come eventually it's still a shame that Carpenter took such a beating upon The Thing's release. There's some irony to be found in the fact that Carpenter made a movie about people fighting to hold onto their individuality only to get so much shit for being true to his own artistic identity. 

A lot of directors might have folded after receiving the kind of body blow that Carpenter suffered with The Thing but he not only persevered and toughed it out, he kept on making classics for years to come. Just the same, I'm sure he wishes that his first foray into major studio filmmaking had not been its own sort of painful transformation.  

In the end, I suppose you just have to believe that, come what may, every Thing is meant to be.

Monday, June 20, 2022

We're Going To Need A Bigger Cave: Batman & Robin at 25

The famous line in The Dark Knight is "You either die a hero or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain" but with movies, it's all about going the distance. Over time, many movies that were reviled on their original release see their reputations improve. The longer that a movie is out there, being watched and rewatched, the better the chance that it's going to finally find an appreciative audience. Movies are constantly being reappraised, long after their initial release. If nothing else, once enough years go by, people inevitably find themselves getting nostalgic for almost anything. 

Now that a quarter of a century has passed, are we finally at at the point where we can say whether time has redeemed Joel Schumacher's Batman & Robin? When it was released on June 20th, 1997, it was instantly vilified. Schumacher's Batman Forever (1995) had been a successful shot in the arm for the franchise after Tim Burton's Batman Returns (1992) had made it unsafe to sell Batman Happy Meals to kids so to have Schumacher come back for more seemed like the safest move imaginable. I'm sure the attitude of the studio was "That thing you did, just do it again." And to be completely fair to the man, that is exactly what Schumacher did.

Having George Clooney, still in the early days of his movie stardom after leaving ER, step into the role of the Caped Crusader seemed like such a slam dunk at the time. Just a flawless choice. You only had to look at Clooney's performance in From Dusk Till Dawn (1996) to believe that he could easily be the best Batman yet (reportedly, Schumacher drew a cowl over Clooney's face on the Dusk Till Dawn poster when he was considering offering him the role). Then you also had Alicia Silverstone hot off of Clueless as Batgirl and Arnold Schwarzenegger as Mr. Freeze (questionable casting there but whatever) and Uma Thurman as Poison Ivy (spot on!) so, you know, on paper everything about Batman & Robin was looking good. Better than good, maybe. I'd say it was looking great! 

So with all these promising elements, and with a proven director in charge, what could go wrong? Or let me put it this way: what could go so catastrophically wrong that this would be torture to watch? If you had told most people ahead of time back in '97 that this would be a total disaster, they'd have brushed that kind of talk off. You know, even if it isn't great it'll be mindless fun. A good popcorn movie, as they say. 

I mean, come on, it's Batman! 

Then the movie came out and, oh my God. 

I say again, OH MY GOD.

I remember sinking into my seat on opening night, right from the start of the movie, mortified by what I was seeing, and it never got better. But hey, that was then. Were we all just being too hard on it? I know that no matter how much time goes by this movie is not going to magically morph into The Dark Knight or even into The Dark Knight Rises (a lousy movie, just not Batman & Robin lousy) but is it at least looking a little better these days? I think the assumption would have to be that, yeah, it must be.

Sadly I have to tell you that, no, it's still every bit as horrible. That in itself, though, is actually kind of impressive. If there's such a thing as doing a great job of making a terrible thing, holy shit, they did it.

Listen, I would like nothing better than to report that Batman & Robin is waaaay more fun than people initially gave it credit for. As a movie fan, I think the best thing is to revisit a movie that didn't click for me only to see it again and suddenly find myself loving it or at least having a better appreciation for it. However, as much as moments like Batman sliding down the tail of a brontosaurus can be a kick (let's not be completely anti-fun here), Batman & Robin is still a bust. If someone were to tell me that they loved Batman & Robin, I'd be very happy for the joy it brought them. I would only wish I could experience it through their eyes. 

For what it's worth, I do believe that Schumacher and everyone involved made an earnest effort to give the people what they thought the people wanted, to give them another Batman Forever, but it just didn't work out. Batman Forever had managed to fall on the right side of a certain line while Batman & Robin just careened over it. Why one struck the right balance and the other didn't, who knows? All the ingredients were essentially the same, they followed the same recipe but somehow one was tasty and one was inedible. 

One positive thing that the last 25 years have done for Batman & Robin is to put it in perspective. We're two successful Batman reboots down the line so we're long past the point of having to blame Batman & Robin for killing the series. Batman has long since proven his resiliency. That said, the franchise did not escape completely unscathed, with the chief casualty of Batman & Robin being Robin himself. This movie did what the Dark Knight's entire rogue gallery never could - it killed the Dynamic Duo. We've had eight solo Batman movies since 1989. Over those eight movies we've had five Batmen (with, of course, Ben Affleck as Batman in the Snyder-verse entries BvS and Justice League) but yet Chris O'Donnell remains the only Robin in all that time (and no, Joseph Gordon-Levitt's character in Rises doesn't count). For a character that is so integral to Batman's mythology, that's crazy.

 Sure, we've seen Dick Grayson and Jason Todd in Titans but as far as having Robin in a Batman movie, forget it. As far as the big screen goes, Robin is a bird that's as extinct as the Dodo. I will say, though, that Matt Reeves' The Batman did leave me with the hope that he was setting the stage to re-introduce Robin. The way Reeves leaves things off at the end of The Batman, with Bruce embracing the idea that he can be and should be a symbol of hope, that the citizens of Gotham need to see him as a hero, I felt for the first time since 1997 that we might actually see Batman take on a partner again.

Reeves is much more interested in bringing a comic book sensibility to his Batman than Christopher Nolan was and I suspect the arc of Reeves' trilogy will be to transition Batman back into classic superhero mode with not just a new Robin but eventually the whole extended Bat Family of Huntress and Batgirl and others potentially making their way to Gotham City. This is just idle speculation on my part, of course, but I have a feeling that under Reeves' watch, the Bat Cave won't stay so empty.  

When he was on the press tour for The Batman, Robert Pattinson stated that he thought there was no such thing as a bad Batman movie, saying "...None of them are bad movies. People kind of shit on some of them, but they're not actually bad." I think that was very cool of the new wearer of the cowl to say and, you know, maybe he's right. But even if you agree with his assessment that there are no bad Batman movies, I think you still have to concede that even 25 years later, Batman & Robin remains the closest that they've come.  

Sunday, June 12, 2022

If It Bleeds, We Can Kill It: Predator at 35

In the summer of 1987, Predator was the ultimate rumble in the jungle. Hard hitting pulp sci-fi guided by the sure hand of director John McTiernan, Predator surrounded peak '80s Arnold Schwarzenegger with a crew of guys - Carl Weathers, Jesse Ventura, Bill Duke and Sonny Landham - who might not have been able to match him muscle for muscle but were still convincingly tough. Shane Black and Richard Chaves filling out the rest of the team, not so much, but you gotta have a couple of normal dudes in there.

Released on June 12th, 1987, the story of Predator, with its screenplay penned by brothers Jim and John Thomas, put a team of bad asses deep in a Central American jungle where they unexpectedly found themselves up against a star-spawned adversary so proficient it could take 'em out one by one as easily as Jason slaughtering his way through a bunch of camp counselors. If you think of Predator as essentially a sci-fi slasher, with its mounting body count (and shots from the killer's POV) and its series of gory, creative deaths (far bloodier than the late '80s Friday sequels were allowed to be), then Schwarzenegger's cigar chomping Dutch is its Final Girl. 

He's the last survivor who has to prove himself to be pluckier and more resourceful than all the characters that have fallen before him in one final, do or die battle. 

In true Final Girl fashion, Schwarzenegger's Dutch gears up for his third act showdown by elaborately booby trapping the jungle in a way that would make Nightmare on Elm Street's Nancy Thompson proud. In the end, both of them are operating from the same playbook. Nancy sets up Freddy to take a sledgehammer to the gut while Dutch tricks the Predator into getting a log dropped on his head. 

When it was released in 1988, McTiernan's Die Hard was praised for subverting the macho cliches of '80s action cinema, with Bruce Willis' John McClane painfully bleeding his way through his face offs with Hans Gruber and his band of terrorists rather than breezing through them but I say McTiernan had already been breaking down those cliches in Predator. The whole movie is about how empty and ineffectual macho bullshit is. One by one these tough guys get taken out as their advanced weapons prove to be completely useless and most of them don't go out stoically but instead die screaming. Predator is very clear about the fact that none of the stuff that usually wins the day in action movies counts for shit. 

After having Dutch's team in full swagger mode in the first act, having them spouting lines like "I ain't got time to bleed," McTiernan takes the wind out of all their smirking machismo by having the Predator make quick work of them. 

Predator is typically perceived as a celebration of male bravado but it is not that at all. McTiernan ruthlessly torpedoes the cartoonish bluster of these characters. Jesse Ventura's Mac gets his chest blown out before he even has a chance to give the Predator a taste of Old Painless. When Sonny Landham's Billy decides to stand alone in a mano a mano confrontation between himself and the Predator, McTiernan doesn't even honor this encounter by showing it. Instead all we get is Billy's off-camera scream. That jacked arm of Carl Weather's Dillon that greets Dutch's handshake? It ends up dismembered, lying on the floor of the jungle, firing off rounds into the dirt. And although Dutch ultimately does win, he isn't wrapped in glory at the end. Instead he's covered in ash. 

As designed by FX legend Stan Winston (and as worn by Kevin Peter Hall both here and in Predator 2), the Predator suit proved to be instantly iconic. I wouldn't have thought that dreadlocks would look right on an alien but as soon as you see the Predator you know that Winston's instincts were spot on, right down to him wisely incorporating his buddy James Cameron's casual mention that he always thought it'd be cool to see a creature with mandibles. When James Cameron says "Hey, you know what'd be cool?" it definitely pays to listen. 

Given how well McTiernan set this franchise up for success, I think it's crazy that he never returned to the series. I mean, if Ridley Scott could come back and do a couple more Aliens, why not McTiernan on Predator? Maybe the ultimate answer to that is, well, he went to jail but to that I say "yeah but he got out" and, you know, a lot of stuff can be overlooked for the sake of the Predator.

I think it's interesting, too, that Schwarzenegger never came back. This could have been his franchise, if he wanted it to be. It was definitely his name that sold the original but he just moved on and ultimately I think that was to the series' benefit. Even though it's easy to imagine all kinds of sequel scenarios in which Dutch returns and has to gather another group of guys to take out more Predators or he starts working with the government to advise them on combating this alien threat or even to have Dutch really go on the offensive and lead a Space Force back to the Predator's home world, Schwarzenegger was out after the first film and I think that only helped the Predator franchise to thrive. 

The biggest problem with the Alien series is that they kept Sigourney Weaver around way too long. Coming back for Aliens, fine, but after that they should have moved on. The studio and the producers got hung up on the idea that Sigourney was what was driving the franchise, not the concept of the Aliens themselves and that ultimately hurt the series. With Predator, the Predators have always been the star. Going back to the idea of the first movie being a sci-fi slasher, the Predator sequels have been like Friday the 13th's in which every movie presents a fresh slate of victims for the Predators to eliminate in gruesome fashion. With the Predator, it's all about the hunt and the sequels, despite taking place in different environments (or even different time periods), have all followed the formula of Predator vs. Prey that the original established so perfectly.  

So Happy 35th, Predator. You're one classic motherfucker! 

Saturday, June 11, 2022

His Adventure on Earth: E.T. at 40

Of all the classics released in the summer of '82, E.T. is the one I have the least nostalgia for. And by least I mean zero. Not to say that I didn't like it at the time. I did. The movie worked just as well on me as it did with most everybody else. It pushed all my emotional buttons (let me tell you, between this, Wrath of Khan, and Mick's death in Rocky III, I did a lot of crying at the movies in June of '82!) but the thing is I was just the wrong age to really fall in love with it. You know, 13 is just not the age where you think E.T. is cool. It's your younger sibling's movie, if you have any, not yours. That said, there's no denying the power that E.T. had over audiences that summer. It's uncanny how perfectly attuned to the mood of the moment Steven Spielberg was. It was almost as if he had been given psychic access to the audience's deepest emotional cravings before making it. 

Prior to its release, though, expectations for E.T. were shaky at best. The above item from Cinefantastique 's May-June issue penned E.T.'s obituary in advance ("Universal hopes to make a bundle on the secretive Steven Spielberg picture before word of mouth kills it."). This not only seems crazy in hindsight, betting against Spielberg seemed pretty crazy then, too. I mean, it's not like his track record had been spotty. 1941 may have tanked but the win column was still firmly in the guy's favor. I mean, for God's sake, his last movie was Raiders of the Lost Ark. 

Maybe the fact that E.T. had been filmed under such tight security naturally generated suspicion. Who knows? Personally, I think Spielberg had earned the benefit of the doubt but whatever. Of course once the public saw E.T. after its release on June 11th, 1982, the reaction was immediate. Between Spielberg's direction, the uniformly excellent performances of its cast (particularly of its talented child actors), Melissa Mathison's sensitive screenplay, and John Williams' score, it instantly claimed equal footing with cherished classics that had been around for decades. It brought audiences together in a way that many people had assumed couldn't be done anymore.

In the early '80s, Walt Disney Studios was struggling to regain the family market that, for decades, had been their exclusive bread and butter. The kind of all-ages movies that Disney used to specialize in seemed to have gone out of style in a more savvy, cynical, sensation driven era. I expect the thinking within Disney was that, well, it wasn't their fault that they couldn't score hits like they used to because the audience for movies with the sort of innocent outlook that used to define their brand just wasn't there anymore. But then Steven Spielberg came along with E.T.

In every way, E.T. was exactly the kind of family movie that Disney wished it could still make. Faced with changing times, Disney had come to believe that their best option was to shake up the perception of what a Disney movie was and to go a little darker with movies like Dragonslayer and The Black Hole. Ironically, every time they did that, the movies still stiffed at the box office (even when the movies themselves turned out good). But just by sticking to his guns and following his heart Spielberg had, unintentionally, beat Disney at their own game. As Variety said at the time, E.T. was "the best movie Disney never made."

The look of E.T. himself, designed by Carlo Rambaldi (Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Alien), is so familiar and so taken for granted that I think it's achievement as a piece of design is underrated. The bottom line on E.T. is if E.T. himself didn't work, if audiences didn't 100% buy into the reality of this creature or if they found the look of him to be off putting in any way, the movie would have fallen apart. The whole movie rested on his wrinkled shoulders and the fact that they nailed it is a much more impressive achievement than it's given credit for. This wasn't like adapting a non-human character from a comic book, you know? It a different thing than getting, say, Rocket Raccoon right. That's a case where the design has been already laid out. You can adapt it and modify it but the basic idea has already been established. This, however, was about inventing a creature from whole cloth and hoping that audiences will a) believe it and b) fall in love with it. Additionally, Spielberg didn't have the same option here that he had with Jaws in which if it proved that his star attraction wasn't convincing on camera, that he could just choose to show it as little as possible. No, E.T. had to deliver. 

When making a scary alien, there are certain elements that you know have to be there in order to make an intimidating creature. When designing a predator (or The Predator, for that matter), you know you have to incorporate fangs, claws, etc.. Size, too, of course can be important. Making a lovable creature, though, is a much tougher assignment with no ready formula to follow. But somehow everyone involved with E.T. intuitively found a way. Beyond the emotion that was able to be conveyed with E.T.'s large, expressive eyes (modeled after Albert Einstein's), it was ingenious to make E.T. - with his diminutive shape and impossibly thin neck that stretches and contracts - break the mold of being just a man in a suit. When you see classic movie monsters like the Creature from the Black Lagoon or the Xenomorph from Alien, as incredible as they look and as impressive as the suits are, you know there's a guy inside of them. They're sophisticated enough outfits where you don't see a zipper running up their back or any seams showing but yet you recognize that underneath it all they're still a full sized adult in a costume. The mechanics of how they pulled it off aren't a mystery. But E.T. broke away from that. 

Unlike the aliens or creatures in horror movies, whose impact is largely derived from how little we see them, once E.T. is revealed, he has to be seen full on, all the time. There's no hiding him, no resorting to quick glimpses of just an eye or a claw. He has to hold up to the audience's constant scrutiny. We know that he's not just a puppet like Yoda because we get all kind of full body shots of E.T. in action, but at the same time the shape of the costume obfuscates how it all works. Is it an actor in a suit? Is it a puppet? Is an animatronic creation? It's all of those things and they all combine to create a seamless performance on screen (two different little people along with a 12 year old boy born without legs all took turns being in the E.T. suit). The craftsmanship behind him is so good and it calls so little attention to itself that all the work behind making him happen disappears and that allows us to connect with E.T. as a character, not as a special effect. On some level, it's almost as if people find it easy to believe that E.T. somehow just walked onto the set like any other actor.  

As much as the film still holds up, I think to fully appreciate or understand the response to E.T. and the mania that greeted the film, you really had to be there. The reaction to it when it was new and in theaters is different than seeing it now and being able to objectively appreciate its virtues as a well-crafted film. In '82 it was more than that. It was a phenomena. This was a movie that your dad might cry at. You know, like in public. That was crazy. 

Something else I feel you also had to really be there to fully understand is the impact of Spielberg in his prime. To have Raiders and E.T. in back to back years (along with producing Poltergeist) on top of having Jaws and Close Encounters (and the TV movie Duel!) to his name, that was just a string of hits that no one else could touch and '82 was the peak. After that, Spielberg was - by his own choice - not content to stay in the same lane, despite absolutely owning that lane.

The rest of Spielberg's pop stuff in the '80s was limited to the Indy sequels while past that he was working on stretching as a director and expanding his range with more serious fare like The Color Purple and Empire of the Sun. Great movies but just not the kind where kids hung the posters in their bedrooms. After those back to back summers of '81 and '82, Spielberg (to his credit) didn't try and just keep repeating that particular brand of success. There will forever be a sense of magic associated with his name but the summer of '82 was the moment when his name cast the most powerful spell. We talk a lot about franchises dominating the box office today but in his prime, Spielberg was the franchise. He was able to occupy a singular spot in the pop culture landscape that no other director has matched. 

Over the years, the temptation for Spielberg do a sequel, a prequel, a remake, or just about anything to exploit the value of this insanely successful property must have been - and likely continues to be - enormous. He could say he was making an E.T. 2 today and it would instantly be a Huge Fucking Deal. Despite that, he's continued to leave it alone and I have to say I find that to be pretty cool. Even when he mucked around with it for the Special Edition in 2002, digitally removing the F.B.I. guy's guns, he soon thought better of it and vowed to never tamper with the movie again. Spielberg's refusal to make E.T. into a franchise has allowed this movie to do what few other films with the same level of success have done: remain pure. 

Not to pat Spielberg too hard on the back for having integrity but when you look at the godawful Fantastic Beasts movies or how adapting The Hobbit, which should have been two movies at best, ballooned into a bloated trilogy, you see how intense the pressure to squeeze every last dime out of a property is. The fact that Spielberg never did that with E.T. is no small thing, in my opinion. The thing is, I don't even think it's hard to imagine that there could be a story worth telling with an E.T. 2. Even now I believe there could be a follow up that wouldn't necessarily cheapen the original but whether that's true or not is something we'll never know. When E.T. says goodbye to Elliott, that was our goodbye to the character too. 

Forty years later, E.T. remains a singular creation. When we talk about it, we don't have to specify whether we're talking about the first one or the original rather than the remake. When you talk about E.T., you can only be talking about E.T.

That's a pretty remarkable thing. 

So rare, in fact, that it qualifies as an alien concept.