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Four Who Also Shaped Events: Making the Everyday Seem Unique

3 minute read

He is 3-ft. 6-in. tall and 3 million light-years from home. His face looks like a cross between Carl Sandburg and a Galapagos turtle. He snacks on Reese’s Pieces, and after a hard day he enjoys relaxing in front of the TV with a few cans of Coors. He walks like Charlie Chaplin in slow motion and, when excited, breathes like an asthmatic piglet. He wants nothing more in this world than a faithful pal, unless it is to return to his out-of-this-world home. Cynics will insist he is made of aluminum, E.T. steel, fiber glass, polyurethane and foam rubber, but this is a small matter. The larger truth is that E.T. emerged from a sweet communal dream: of fellowship, loyalty, ordinary heroism, unfettered fun. He is every child’s secret best friend, every adult’s reverie of the innocence that was, once upon our time.

He is also a magical money machine. As the unbilled star of Steven Spielberg’s E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial , the little botanist from outer space has beguiled $310 million worth of U.S. movie goers since June, easily outpacing the previous front runner, Star Wars. With December openings in foreign capitals, he is starting to duplicate that triumph around the globe. A novelization of Melissa Mathison’s script has sold more than 3 million copies, an illustrated storybook another million. Heartlight, Neil Diamond’s musical homage to E.T, has sold more than a million albums since September. And, even in this recession-blitzed Christmas season, E.T. dolls were whisked off department-store shelves as fast as they could be flown in from Taiwan and Korea.

Virtually every blockbuster movie is a powerful fable of resilience. The audience finds vicarious strength watching Scarlett rebuild Tara, or Maria von Trapp spirit her brood out of Hitler’s Austria, or Don Corleone take his cold-dish revenge. E.T. gives its viewers more, from less. Here is a fairy tale set in the most mundane of contemporary realities: a typical California suburb. The creature appears to his friend Elliott in a pizza-strewn back yard; he lives in a child’s closet. As E.T. built his “phone home” device from old toys and household castaways, so Spielberg fashioned a dream world from the Formica-and-vinyl tatters of the American dream.

It is important to remember that E.T. is also a movie, crafted as expertly as if it had come off the NASA assembly line. Every character has his own quirky resonance; each scene is energized by grace notes that reward all those subsequent viewings. But Spielberg had proved his directorial skill before — with Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Raiders of the Lost Ark —while tapping the moviegoer’s sense of fear and excitement. This time, though, he touched something more than a nerve ending. With E.T. he proved that the everyday could be unique, and that the science fiction of movie technology could show us all the way home. Inside this runty extraterrestrial was the idealized heart of America, pulsing bright with humor and humanity.

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