Carlo's Corner: E.T. the Extra-Exploitable
There's no better indication that your movie is an instant, worldwide hit than the sudden appearance of a bunch of fast and cheap knock-offs. In a way it’s more of a compliment than anything else, or at the very least, shouldn’t be taken as a threat to your livelihood. I’ve touched on this subject before in previous articles, but I felt it was time to really dig deep. Basically people have been “borrowing” throughout history, and I’ll demonstrate this by breaking down one particular case: a little movie called E.T. The Extra Terrestrial.
E.T. The Extra Terrestrial was Señor Spielbergo introducing the world to good-natured, huggable aliens–and boy did it ever connect with people. Shot on a budget of $10 million (which was still plenty in the early '80s) it ended up with a whopping 80-fold return. According to Spielberg he based the film on childhood memories of an imaginary friend, and while I’m sure he had those, some people weren’t so convinced that it was an original idea. Indian Bengali director Satyajit Ray accused Spielberg of ripping off his 1967 script called "The Alien,” to which veteran directors Martin Scorsese and Richard Attenborough voiced similar concerns.
In all honesty I couldn’t care less where Stevie boy got his mustard. Back then it might have been controversial to call someone a copycat, but these days you don’t see anyone batting any eyelashes at remakes as long as it’s all nice and licensed. Most of the Marvel Cinematic Universe has already, aside from costume changes, blended together in a well calculated, indecipherable mush. Studios are stuck in an endless back and forth of trying to stay ahead of the zeitgeist, and that will no doubt end in a big interdimensional orgy.
People whine about “integrity," and "those cheap cash-ins only wanna make a quick buck!” but newsflash: movies are a business and without money businesses die. Another thing movies are inherently about, is emotional manipulation. You wanna release them endorphins, try and make that —R A I N B O W C O N N E C T I O N (how has it taken me this long to make a Muppets reference). And if there’s one thing I gotta give Spielberg, it’s that he knows how to appeal to the sensibilities of a broad audience. A master manipulator, if you will.
I’m not surprised at the fact that E.T. is still considered a timeless classic for young and old. I mean look at the little git. Carlo Rambaldi’s creature work is second to none, and everything about this naked moleman is manufactured to appeal, and sell a lot of merchandise. I’m not trying to be damning, I adore the iconography of E.T. and his place in 80's pop culture, but don’t go yappin’ to me about “integrity” and “wholesomeness.” E.T. is far too on-the-nose, it's gauche, and in the end it’s just ideas being sold to appease your id.
There are also a lot of things E.T. doesn’t admit to. Like how it’s basically subliminal Star Wars advertising (first thing Elliott does is give E.T. a crash course on Star Wars action figures, and later they cross some kid on the street dressed as Yoda for Halloween), and a Peter Pan movie in disguise. Think about it, E.T. arrives on Earth (Neverland), where you don’t see the face of any adult person aside from Dee Wallace (a mother figure like Wendy) until the final act (Captain Peter Coyote and his merry band of scientists), E.T.’s finger lights up like he’s got Tinkerbell in there, and just because Spielberg couldn’t find any blunt objects to hit us over the head with: the bedtime story that Dee Wallace reads to Drew Barrymore is (you guessed it): Peter Pan.
Still, E.T. was magical as all fuck in those days. Another reason it may have worked so well was because back then movies didn’t treat us like children. They weren’t afraid to show us the bad stuff, like E.T. dying in a ditch like a shriveled up white lump of dookie. But does it hold up when we take off our nostalgia-colored glasses? This is gonna sound like a hot take, but no, I really don’t feel it does. And if I had to sum it all up in one condensed, overblown Spielbergian moment, I’d have to point to the ending. I’ve cited a couple of reasons why E.T. isn’t top shelf for me, but his mothership farting out a rainbow as the credits (and my eyes) roll takes the cake.
In direct opposition to all this self-aggrandizing, is transparency. I don't mind a movie being emotionally manipulative as long as it admits to it. Heck, that's how I try to live my own life as well; be honest about your shortcomings, don’t let it be a handicap but a defining feature that gives you color. Which probably explains why I’m so enamoured by “flawed” movies that fall to the wayside of popular perception. Rip-offs are only a small part of this, but what better way to highlight them by putting a spotlight on one of the most notorious E.T. rip-offs: Stewart Raffill’s Mac and Me.
Mac and Me is America’s mutant offspring, born from the New Mexico E.T. Atari cartridge landfill. It’s a cheap, blatant, and ugly copy of E.T. that’s trying to sell you the happy memory you have of going to McDonalds as a child in the late '80s, then coming home and watching The Snorks on your 5 inch CRT TV. But it’s also all the fun parts of E.T. without the emotional baggage, which, at this point in your adult life I'm sure you’ve accumulated enough.
It's interesting to see how Mac and Me is treated as a creative failure and a shameless excuse for product placement, when E.T. is just as guilty of all the same things. Substantially they're pretty much the same movie, but where E.T. just wants to make it back home, MAC (Mysterious Alien Creature) and his family are all about cashing in on their American Dream™ of drip-fed Coca-Cola and driving off into the abyss in an unregistered Pink Cadillac. No seriously, that’s literally what happens.
It's no secret that rip-offs come in second, but that doesn't mean that they can't also have a perfect understanding of the things we’re looking for. It might not be a trendy wine and dine dinner, but what’s wrong with pizza and a movie? Sure, it’s not as fancy, but that doesn’t mean you can’t have a good time. And who knows, maybe you’ll learn something cool about yourself by letting go of expectations.
Other E.T. rip-offs include: Badi (Turkey, 1983), Homoti (Turkey, 1987), Little Boy Blue: Tiny Terrestrial (Philippines, 1990), Extra Terrestrian: Die Ausserirdische (Germany, 1996, Adult), Extra Terrestrial Visitors (Spain, 1983) Joey (Germany, 1985), Munchie (USA, 1992).