Recently, out of morbid curiosity, I rented the special edition of E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial. I’m sure we all have memories of watching it in our youth. It’s a movie that still holds up well over the past 20 years. True, some of the special edition touches seemed out-of-place. You could tell when some new animation was dropped in because, suddenly, E.T. just moved so much more fluidly than before. But once you got past all that, you still had this touching story of a boy and his alien. This was a pop culture phenomenon when it first came out in 1982. But when this special edition came out in 2002, it was promptly deemed a bomb after being in release for just one week. So, I kept asking myself one question: how come people no longer embrace E.T.?
At first I thought it was backlash. There are a lot of people who really don’t like the concept of special editions. I’ll admit, I’m one of them. When I buy a movie on DVD, I want to see the exact same movie I saw in the theatre, not some “director’s cut” that has 12 minutes of previously unseen footage. As Leonard Maltin said, “Then what are we paying our $12 to see in the theatre? The first draft?” We need look no further than the Star Wars: Special Editions. There are many, many people who loathe Greedo shooting first and the computer animated Jabba. But, Star Wars: Special Edition made a gazillion dollars. No backlash there. So why did poor E.T. suffer? It could have to do with the fanbase. When was the last time you heard about an E.T. convention? And at least Steven Spielberg has made sure the original E.T. is still available to be seen. Unlike George Lucas, who would have us believe that the CGI Jabba was always there. While I think the Star Wars fanbase may have something to do with it, I think it all goes back to a much simpler concept.
E.T., at the end of the day, is about a boy and his magical friend. We live in cynical times now, in a cynical society that doesn’t want to accept magic in the everyday world anymore.
This is a discussion I’ve had with Mr. Anderson on several occasions, mainly as we compare the cultural differences between North America and Japan. When you look in Japanese pop culture, you find works that are filled with magic in the everyday. We have the grandeur of Spirited Away, which is about spirits co-existing with us and a little girl who just manages to get pulled through into their world. And we have the mainstream that is Pokémon, where people are quite willing to accept that these funny little creatures coexist with us. So, while the Japanese are still willing to accept a little bit of magic in their everyday lives, we are not.
“But we do!” you may be saying to me. “Just look at the movies right now! More Star Wars films are on the way! Every comic book ever made is now getting a movie treatment! Lord of the Rings! Harry Potter! Magic is everywhere!” OK, you may be right. But really, how many of these works are rooted in the real world? Star Wars takes place in a galaxy far, far away. We’ve got Middle Earth. Hogwarts. The term “comic book movie” carries so many connotations with it. All of these films are so fantastical that they require a massive suspension of disbelief when we buy our ticket. The magic in these films is so overt that we are forced to accept it.
Plus also, a part of the appeal of these universes is the fact that they are so intricately detailed. It’s often said that J.R.R. Tolkein wasn’t so much an author as he was a guy who invented his own mythology and then felt he had to do something with it. If you go to the official Star Wars website, you just point and click and get an intricate history of every alien race that has 2 seconds of screen time. Even comic books, where the heroes and villains have varied histories and colourful origins. If something ever pops up in these mythologies that you don’t understand, you can go to any one of these tomes and get all the answers you need. We don’t like to be told, “Ehh, it’s magic” anymore. We need to know the reason. We need to know how the magic works. We want to be told, “Well, the Force works because of these microscopic creatures called midichlorians.”
That’s why people have turned on E.T. He’s still a rather mysterious guy. All we know was he was here collecting a few plant specimens. We don’t know why his chest glows red like that. We don’t know how he made the bicycle fly. We can’t just point and click and learn everything there is to know about E.T. We have to just accept that there’s magic involved. We need to take a leap of faith.
That’s what it’s all about really. Not so much magic as it is faith. We as a society are losing our faith. For me, personally, this all goes back to Christmas movies. Compare the original Miracle on 34th Street with its 1994 remake. In the original, Santa Claus is saved when he starts getting all these letters addressed to him, and postman after postman delivers them into the courtroom. “Since the government recognizes this man as Santa and delivers Santa’s mail to him, this court must also recognize him as Santa,” says Santa’s lawyer. And the judge agrees. There’s a leap of faith involved in that. But in the 1994 remake, Santa’s lawyer instead makes a very long, boring speech about the nature of faith. No parade of postmen delivering letters here. We couldn’t make the leap of faith that our letters get to Santa anymore. Instead, we had to be told what faith is.
That’s where Star Wars succeeds and E.T. fails. With all the spaceships zooming around and people using the Force, we can always keep telling ourselves, “Well, this isn’t real!” We don’t need to make a leap of faith to lose ourselves in that film. But in E.T., where the fantasy elements are more subtle and mysterious; where the filmmakers ask us to make a leap of faith, we just can’t do that. We need to know why E.T. is here. We need to know how his magic works. But Steven Spielberg never told us why. And that is why we can no longer accept E.T.
In a very famous episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, Captain Picard dismisses religion as “superstitious nonsense.” I hope you’ll forgive me if I hold onto my superstitions just a little longer.