In my last post, I wrote about what an incredible moment it was in Swamp Thing when the lead character said somebody’s name out loud, got his arm chopped off by editing, and then crushed a dude’s skull with his hand, which basically says everything about how low your standards can get, when you spend weeks and weeks writing about a grade-C movie like Swamp Thing.
And meanwhile, up in the cinema stratosphere, there was another 1982 movie about a misunderstood monster, who also gets chased through the underbrush by mean science thugs, takes a long time to learn how to say other people’s names, and heals his friends with his magical glowing fingers.
That film was E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, the simple story of a friendship between a boy and a telepathic mad-science space botanist, and it made more money than any other movie ever made so far, and held that record for the next ten years. But Swamp Thing got a sequel and E.T. didn’t, so who’s laughing now, space boy?
E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial is the story of a dude who sneaks into somebody else’s yard to play with their plants, and when he misses his ride home, he crashes with a 10-year-old boy that he just met, who feeds him candy and dresses him up in costumes. The homeless dude spends the day drinking beer and messing up the house, and gets obsessed with building a space phone out of broken toys and coffee cans. Then he gets earth cancer or something, and everybody has to stand around and talk about how he’s feeling for the last forty-five minutes of the movie.
If we can be honest with each other, it’s actually not that great of a story. The plotline about the government agents looking for E.T. doesn’t make any logical sense, if you try to follow what the G-men know and how they behave. The film slows to a crawl in the third act, and the end of the movie requires a whole bunch of people — teenagers, scientists, security guards, Elliott’s mom — to suddenly switch personalities, and become extremely sentimental about the relationship between Elliott and E.T., which they’ve never seen and know nothing about.
But E.T. is extraordinary, one of the great achievements of movie character design. You look at him, and he shouldn’t work: he’s ugly, and wrinkly, and he looks kind of like a turtle. His fingers are long and spindly, and he’s a little slimy. People like cute furry things, and according to the formbook, we should not think that E.T. is cute.
Except for his eyes, of course, which take up an enormous percentage of his head volume. This is a trick called neoteny, which triggers the human instinct that makes us want to take care of ugly babies. He kind of walks like a toddler, too, and we watch him learn to speak his first words. Plus, he’s constantly making strange but appealing little noises that are a roughly even split between a baby’s gurgle, a kitten’s purr and any given Chewbacca sound.
And the puppetry and animatronics are top-tier; even now, when we’re used to seeing a different amazing CG creation on the screen every day, E.T. still impresses. The dozen little servomotors around his eyes work like a dream, and they’ve even made little pulsing veins under the skin on his hand for the poignant pointing-at-the-sky shots.
Seven years earlier, director Steven Spielberg had a lot of trouble with the fake shark in his big fish movie, and this time, he said we’re going to keep working on this damn thing until we make people believe that it’s real. He was entirely successful, and the world was enchanted. I would say that E.T. is absolutely unique as a cinematic creation, except in 2008 Pixar made WALL-E, which is the exact same character in a better movie.
The build-up to E.T.’s reveal happens about twenty minutes into the movie, in a three-minute sequence that parcels out information about the alien creature at an intentionally tantalizing pace. It begins with young Elliott out in the yard in the middle of the night, hoping to catch sight of the alien that he glimpsed the previous night.
E.T. begins a slow shuffle out of the garden shed, illuminated from behind in a heavenly spotlight that seems to come from nowhere in particular.
This is matched by a similarly extra-diegetic key light on Elliott that illuminates his eyes, as we dolly in for a classic Spielberg “looking with wonder” shot. Spielberg puts great store in the power of a reaction shot, to model for the audience how we should be feeling. There are ten different shots of Elliott’s eyes in a little over a minute of screen time.
What we get from E.T. in this first minute is a general silhouette and a sense of how he walks, followed by a close-up of his spindly fingers as he returns some of the pieces of candy that Elliott dropped for him.
There is actually a person inside that puppet/costume, but the operators were all well under three feet tall, which for the audience doesn’t immediately register as “a guy in a rubber suit”.
The second minute is almost entirely about E.T.’s fingers, as Elliott leads him into the house by dropping little piles of candy on the floor. They were clearly very proud of the fingers.
Minute three is pretty finger-heavy as well, as we track E.T. moving along behind a mysterious work table that’s in the middle of Elliott’s bedroom for no reason, other than to facilitate twenty more seconds of obscuring the character.
And finally, there he is, more or less: a clear shot of about forty-five percent of the character’s face, our reward for the last three minutes of anxious build-up.
But the real excitement of this moment is that we get to see Elliott and E.T. starting to communicate. Elliott rubs his face, and E.T. imitates him, and the two of them do a silent little scene of experimentation, as Elliott realizes that this alien is intelligent, and understands how to make friends.
Then the kid falls asleep, and it’s another three minutes before we get to see the creature — and even then, Elliott has to spend another thirty seconds specifically beckoning E.T. to come out of his hiding place in the closet, and it’s still in half-shadow.
We don’t get to see a really clear shot of E.T. in the light for another five minutes, following another scene of Elliott preparing his older brother for what he’s about to see, and then beckoning E.T. to come out again.
This is an agonizingly slow build, which makes the audience want to see E.T. more than we’ve ever wanted anything in the world. The thing that works is that each little glimpse that we get is actually worth waiting for, as the film sets up a series of teases and then delivers on each promise.
And then there’s dumb ol’ Swamp Thing, who pops up out of the water and goes AAAARRGGHH! like a chump.
They actually do make a little bit of effort in Swamp Thing not to show the monster in close-up in the first sequence. We get a couple clear shots of him from behind, but we’re denied a shot of his face, if that does anything for us.
There’s no real art to it, because Wes Craven didn’t think about this reveal in the way that Spielberg did. It’s not just that the E.T. costume took three months to build and cost 1.5 million dollars, although obviously that is meaningful. But the real difference is that Spielberg had a careful, detailed plan to lead the audience through the process of discovering the creature. Craven just had some action shots, featuring a guy in a rubber suit.
So that’s what Swamp Thing is up against in the battle for the attention of the 1982 moviegoing public, and it’s no surprise that the muck-monster didn’t make much of a splash. What people wanted was a big-budget, visually dazzling epic with heavy emotional investment, about imagination, freedom and the experience of flight. Swamp Thing was a tumble in the mud with ugly dudes, which is about as far from flying as you can get without tunneling underground.
The conclusion of the epic Elektra podcast
25.2: This Will Make You Happy
— Danny Horn