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The AFI Top 100 Films: E.T. (#25)

Entertainment 150E.T.: the Extra-Terrestrial (1982)
Starring Dee Wallace, Henry Thomas and Drew Barrymore
Written by Melissa Mathison
Directed by Steven Spielberg

This movie was a surprise. When it was released it was an instant classic, and growing up in the 80s and early 90s it was impossible to miss all the spoofs and parodies that abounded afterwards. Over time, the cultural kruft starts to collect on your memory instead of the movie itself. I remember it being a little hokey, an example of Spielberg’s worst sentimental excesses that worked at the time but probably didn’t age too well.

I’m quite happy I was so wrong. E.T. is sentimental, sure, and it plays a few of its scenes with an inflated sense of how cute it’s being. But it’s also a really great movie about what it was like to be a child in the 80s, where it was becoming increasingly common for your parents to have checked out on your upbringing for a bit. What’s most impressive to me is how Spielberg and writer Melissa Mathison present a broken home without any accusations; each of its characters, from Elliot’s mom (Wallace) to his sister (Barrymore) to his brother and his friends, are treated compassionately. You understand what it’s like to be each of them, and why they react the way they do.

Elliot is the middle child in a recently-broken home. His mother is working hard to keep the family afloat and mourning the death of her marriage. His older brother is being a bratty teenager, while his younger sister is…well, she’s his younger sister. Elliot himself doesn’t have many friends, and he tags along with his brother’s friends, taking mild abuse just to be a part of some sort of social order. He’s lonely, but there’s not much to be done about it. He is where he is, until he discovers the alien hiding in the tool shed of his backyard.

The friendship that’s forged is painstaking; Elliot and the alien (dubbed E.T.) have to overcome vast language and cultural barriers. But, through patience and persistence, it happens. All the while, E.T. is trying to find his way back to his home planet and he’s being tracked by government agents. Along the way, sister Gertie and brother Michael (Robert MacNaughton) are let in on the secret, and the experience of befriending and helping this visitor brings them closer as a family.

It sounds hokey, and maybe it is; but it’s also surprisingly effective. The performances by the mostly young cast are so natural you completely forget that these are children acting in a movie. Even the modern-day wunderkinds on screen these days carry a bit of artifice with them; they’re just little adults playing a role. The establishing scenes in E.T. — of Elliot and Michael playing and fighting during a game of Dungeons and Dragons — are loud, chaotic, effortless. When I stop to think about it, it blows me away how quickly I identify with the world and these characters.

What’s interesting about the movie to me is how it takes Elliot and makes him such an unlikely hero; in so many ways he’s just a regular kid, but his ability to befriend (and even love) a creature as ugly and formless as this alien propels him to defy just about everyone he comes across to do what he believes is right. The stakes are small here, even though we’re dealing with history-making stuff; this is the story of first contact with another sentient species, framed as a children’s buddy movie, where the ultimate conflict is how far someone would go to save someone they care for.

E.T. takes this fantastic premise and rather quietly turns it into a very relatable story, infusing the movie with wonder and mundanity that works really well together. The score by John Williams captures the tone of every scene quite well, and Spielberg’s direction is warm and unobtrusive. Given the demands of making sure the puppetry and special effects work as well as they do here, it’s a small miracle that everything looks as smooth as it does. Spielberg works almost exclusively with the most finicky things you could in a movie, and pulls it off almost flawlessly.

He made his name on this, and for very good reason. This is a director’s movie, to be sure, but you can’t discount the great work here by Henry Thomas as Elliot or Drew Barrymore as Gertie. Thomas is unassuming but kind, curious, likable, and Barrymore is disarmingly cute without being cloying about it. If it’s been a while, I’d recommend seeing E.T. again; even though there are a few things that date it, it’s a welcome surprise to see just how well it holds up.

Rating: 9/10.

 
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Posted by on July 24, 2013 in AFI Top 100, Movies, Reviews

 

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The AFI Top 100 Films: Jaws (#48)

(Ed. Note — You might have noticed that we’ve skipped a few movies on this list. We saw The Philadelphia Story (#51) fairly recently, so it wasn’t included in our watch list. And we’re saving Snow White and the Seven Dwarves for our run of Disney animated movies, coming up right after we finish the AFI Top 100 List. So that brings us to #48.)

Jaws (1975)
Starring Roy Scheider, Richard Dreyfuss and Robert Shaw
Directed by Steven Spielberg
Written by Peter Benchley (novel, screenplay) and Carl Gottlieb (screenplay)

Oh man, so what is there to say about Jaws that hasn’t already been said? This is one of the most iconic movies in all of modern cinema; its pacing and composition of scenes have influenced horror directors for generations afterwards, and there’s no getting around that score from John Williams. It’s a perfect marriage of menace and mystery, the cello cue alerting you to something in the background that’s just disappeared. By the time you realize you’ve missed it, there’s another note, then another, all signifying the doom that’s racing towards an unlucky, unsuspecting swimmer.

Everyone remembers those beach scenes in the first half of the movie — the first young girl to fall victim to the great white shark’s seemingly insatiable bloodlust; the disastrous 4th of July celebration where Sheriff Brody (Scheider) is telling people to get out of the water; that scene with the two fisherman where one of them barely escapes getting eaten. They’re all tremendous, set up with a nice sense of naturalism that makes the intrusion of Jaws almost supernatural, yet perfectly believable at the same time.

Everyone knows that this could have been a much different movie, if everything had worked as Spielberg intended. But because the effects failed so disastrously, he was forced to get creative, and the result is some great fly-by-your-seat filmmaking. The scenes where Jaws menaces his victims rely on those brief glimpses, and it draws upon your imagination to fill in the shape of the beast lurking underneath the dark waves. It’s great stuff, and when it’s done correctly there’s really nothing better.

Here are the two scenes that really impressed me watching it this time around, though. The first, in which Brody is gearing up to head out to sea with nebbish marine biologist Hooper (Dreyfuss) and flinty shark-hunting captain Quint (Shaw), does a wonderful job of setting these men at odds with each other, and it serves as our first real introduction to Quint. Before then, he’d popped up in a scene or two to make an offer before trundling off into the background. Here, though, we see him on his turf, in a room that is surrounded by the jaws of sharks he’s hunted and killed before. It’s an incredibly striking image, and hints at a near-obsessive man who takes his work quite seriously — and just so happens to be good at his job.

A later scene delivers on the promise of Quint’s introduction. Quint and Hooper have been at each other’s throats for the entirety of the trip, and they’re finally bonding over alcohol and scars they’ve taken from their life on the sea. Then, almost out of nowhere, Quint recalls his time working with a submarine crew in World War II. Things go wrong, the crew is lost at sea with little hope of rescue, and all through the night he hears his crewmates harangued and eventually attacked by sharks. Few of his comrades survived, but he did. Everything that’s come before is focused on that one scene, and you walk away with a whole new understanding of him. It’s a cohesive moment, not only for Quint, Hooper and Brody, but for the audience as well.

The movie changes once those three men set sail to hunt the menace that’s rocked this sleepy island town. It actually comes across as an early novel, where character study mingled freely with travelogue and impromptu how-to guide. Quint is methodical about his work, and Spielberg makes sure we see every step of it as time goes on. It’s certainly not what you’d expect in a horror movie, but it’s engrossing all the same.

And then there’s that ending. After their steady chase of the shark, the trio is attacked and their boat disabled. Hooper decides to try the tranquilizer he’s brought with him and goes down in the shark cage. Jaws completely bashes it apart in a shocking display and Hooper is forced to hide. The shark then attacks Quint, who goes down in a horrible death. Brody is the one left to save the day, the one man who knows the least. And he does it; he saves Hooper, kills the monster and carries the day.

What’s interesting about this ending to me is that it suggests what really put man on top of the food chain. Quint, with his steely determination and Hooper, with his near-encyclopedic knowledge of the enemy, are both taken out of the fight handily. Brody, with his quick thinking and adaptability, is the one who gets the job done. So it goes for the entire human race, perhaps — we’re where we are not through our will or our intelligence, but through our ability to adapt and survive against whatever nature throws at us. There’s a comfort in that, especially in these troubled times of freak weather and looming environmental disasters. We’re smart and we’re determined, sure. But we’re also masters of quick thinking and that is perhaps our greatest asset.

Rating: 9/10.

 
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Posted by on November 7, 2012 in AFI Top 100, Movies, Reviews

 

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