Films: E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, Blade Runner
Format: DVDs from personal collection on kick-ass portable DVD player (E.T.) and on big ol’ television (Blade Runner).
[These reviews have been included as a part of Pussy Goes Grrr's Juxtaposition Blogathon!]
The biggest film event of 1982 was not Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan no matter what the Trekkies have to say about it. The movie of the year was E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. Like any great kid movie, this one enamored both adults and kids and became a huge sensation, solidifying Steven Spielberg’s reputation as a director who could capture magic on film and could do no wrong, an amazing feat from a guy just a few years removed from 1941.
There’s not much reason to go into the plot here—if you haven’t seen E.T. it’s because you’ve seen fewer than a dozen movies in your life, are less than 20 years old, or live under a rock (which makes me question how you have Internet access). There are other options, but it’s still no excuse for not having seen this film, which even now, 30 years later, is remarkable for how well it captures a particular mystery and sense of youthful adventure. Suffice to say that a squat little alien gets left behind by his compatriots, is discovered by a boy who helps protect him, and the two attempt to get the critter back to its people while the big bad government attempts to kidnap the alien for research purposes.
Starring in the film is Henry Thomas as Elliott, the boy who finds the alien in the woods behind his house. He’s a good child actor, although at times he’s difficult to notice simply because he spends so much of his time next to the creation that is the focus of the movie: the alien. Also featured as his siblings are Robert MacNaughton as Elliott’s older brother/tormentor Michael and, of course, Drew Barrymore as little sister Gertie. This film was the break-out role for Barrymore, who has gone on to a tremendous Hollywood career. MacNaughton, on the other hand, has vanished from acting and at last account works in a post office. In many ways, though, he is the most natural of the kids on the screen. I had a brother much like Michael. He tormented me the way Michael torments Elliott. At the same time, once Michael discovers what is going on, he’s Elliott’s protector and confidant. This is a great screen relationship, and speaks to smart and believable characters.
E.T. is filled with early Spielberg tropes—a missing father, evil government, and magical childhood adventures, things it holds in common with Spielberg-written films like The Goonies. There’s also a sense of high adventure--Raiders of the Lost Ark, Jurassic Park, and Close Encounters of the Third Kind all bear this stamp.
What’s fascinating to me, and it’s a connection I didn’t see until today, is that for Spielberg, at least at this point in his career, dangers came from planet Earth while salvation came from the stars. Early Spielberg films have terrestrial, or at least formerly terrestrial dangers. The bad things in Duel, Jaws, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and even Jurassic Park and Poltergeist have Earth origins. In outer space-related, science fiction films, the aliens are misunderstood at worst and actively beneficent at best.
And get this—I’ve also only realized on this watching (it’s been a long time since I’ve seen this film) that E.T. the character is essentially space Jesus. Much of the symbolism is there. This is an odd realization, and an odd position for the Jewish Spielberg to add into American film mythology, but there it is. It would not surprise me if a cut scene involved E.T. walking on water and then turning around and transmuting that water into kid-friendly root beer. Quick spoiler:
*** E.T. PHONE HOME ***
Think about it—E.T. has magical abilities. He can levitate objects and move them, and has a special connection with Elliott in the sense that what one feels, the other feels as well. He can also heal the injured and afflicted. E.T. is persecuted and hunted by those who don’t understand what he is. Eventually, E.T. dies, but comes back to life and ascends into the heavens, but not before he tells Elliott that he will continue to live on in his heart…just like Jesus does. Both are misunderstood by all but those who believe (although the argument could be made that Jesus is misunderstood in particular by the most devout). Still, there are enough points of similarity that the two occupy the same general sphere of altruistic, beneficent, otherworldly beings with miraculous powers. The one can be seen as a version of the other.
*** PLEASE CHECK THE NUMBER AND DIAL AGAIN ***
It’s without a doubt true that E.T. has entered the American mythology and lexicon. There are several iconic moments—“E.T. phone home” and the bicycle across the face of the moon being the most obvious ones, not to mention the huge upsurge in sales of Reese’s Pieces in the years to follow this film’s release. But the real reason the film has had such staying power, and will continue to charm children and adults is that it is a recognizable and great story. This is a true boy’s-own adventure, immediately accessible to kids of virtually any age, and still entertaining for the parents.
I like E.T. just fine. My tastes tend to run to the more violent, weird, thoughtful, and/or disturbing, but it’s a difficult film not to like. Of the great and noteworthy films released in this greatest month of American movies ever, this one is my least favorite—but it’s my least favorite in a hell of a good group. It’s sweet and endearing—perhaps too much so—but as a movie conceived and written for kids, it hits almost every mark. As a jaded high schooler, I wasn’t a big fan of this film. As an adult with kids, I appreciate it for what it is, and what it is is special.
And this brings us to the final movie on The List from this marvelous month: Blade Runner. For a long time, I think I liked this movie because I was supposed to like it. Everyone told me how great it was, and how much I should appreciate it, so I went along with that idea without really understanding what the movie was or what it was about.
And then I finally got around to reading Phillip K. Dick’s book, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Suddenly, Blade Runner made sense to me, because I suddenly had context for it. Certain aspects of the film are not really explained in the film and exist almost as artifacts from the book. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Blade Runner exists in a world where nearly-human androids have been created for use in off-world colonies. Because of some problems that existed in the past, these androids, called “replicants,” are not permitted on Earth, despite the fact that many of them attempt to come to Earth. Because of this, special agents of the police, blade runners, exist to “retire” the replicants, “retire” being an obvious euphemism for “terminate with extreme prejudice using a high caliber pistol. Our blade runner in question, Deckard (Harrison Ford), has just been given a contract on a series of replicants that are of a new model, and have not only been spotted on Earth, but have killed at least one agent.
That’s enough of the plot, really. What exists around this plot, though, are artifacts of Dick’s world that don’t really make it into the film. For instance, there’s really no reason given why so many of the questions on the test to determine if someone is a replicant deal with the death or torture of animals. There’s no indication of exactly why people are still living on Earth despite the massive advertising blitz to send people to the colony worlds. These aspects of the story are explained fully in the book. They add to the experience, though, but are not necessary for the Blade Runner experience.
We get an interesting cast taking us through the story. In addition to Harrison Ford, the film features Edward James Olmos as Gaff, who acts both as Deckard’s foil and as his partner. Deckard’s nominal boss in this situation is Bryant, played by the always-excellent M. Emmet Walsh (an actor so good Roger Ebert once said that any movie that featured him can’t be all bad). As the replicants, we get the terrifying Brion James as Leon, Joanna Cassidy as Zhora, Sean Young as Rachael, Daryl Hannah as Pris, and the great Rutger Hauer as Roy Batty. Batty is a terrifying presence in the film, in no small part thanks to Hauer’s talents. Also worth noting is the underrated and entertaining William Sanderson as J.F. Sebastian, an afflicted toy maker and geneticist.
The cast is great, and so is the story, but it’s the mise-en-scene that is the true star of this film. Blade Runner looks real to such a degree that it becomes real. Costuming, makeup, set design—it all works perfectly to create a real, believable world of the future. Ridley Scott was smart enough to make this future multi-cultural, giving it a pan-linguistic patois and a decidedly Asian flavor that functions perfectly as a backdrop for the action on screen.
I don’t normally like Sean Young, but she’s good here. It’s also worth noting that in general, Daryl Hannah is great when she plays non-humans. The minute a script asks her to be something that isn’t 100% human, she excels. Go figure.
There are multiple versions of this film out there. One version contains the much-maligned voice over explaining the film. There’s a definitive edition, a director’s cut (the first real director’s cut ever made), and it can be difficult to tell which one to watch. I’ll say it here—watch the director’s cut. When you have someone as good as Ridley Scott making the film, go with his vision. That being said, there are a couple of spoilers to handle:
*** LOOK! A REPLICANT! ***
The big question in the director’s cut is whether or not Deckard is himself a replicant. There’s evidence on both sides of the issue. For years, I believed he was for two reasons. First, he dreams of a unicorn, and Gaff places an origami unicorn in his apartment, almost as if he knows the implanted memories in Deckard’s head. Second, replicants have a particular eye gleam in certain angles of light, a gleam that appears in Deckard’s eyes at one point. I’m not so sure these days. I can tell you that in the book, this is never even considered as a question. There’s no indication that Deckard is a replicant. There’s also no love story between him and Rachael—Deckard is married in the book.
Second, why does Roy Batty save Deckard at the end? Because he does. Maybe it’s to prove that he has free will. Maybe he wanted his last conscious act to be something positive. Maybe he wanted someone to know that he was more than a killer. Again, this doesn’t happen in the book and is entirely a creation of this script.
*** TIME TO DIE ***
Like all good science fiction, Blade Runner explores the essential question of what it means to be human, and in this case, what humanity means in a world that is increasingly becoming dehumanized. That’s a central theme of author Ray Bradbury, which is one reason I can think of that there’s a building named after him in the film. Blade Runner may not answer this question fully, but should it? It offers the question as food for thought, and that should be good enough.
And so we close on this greatest month of American films in history, at least before the December deck stacking for the Oscars. I miss that prior age in the sense that there’s no mystery of when a truly great film will be released now. Summer blockbusters are just that—expensive and bombastic, and the great films don’t show up until Christmas. There’s little chance of a magical June ever happening again, and that makes me sad.
Why to watch E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial: The greatest kid adventure ever made.
Why not to watch: Too cute by a half.
Why to watch Blade Runner: The birth of cyberpunk, plus kick-ass humanoid robots.
Why not to watch: A vague, possibly unsatisfying ending.