Super 70s Sunday - They're Here...


I suppose revisiting Spielberg's first venture into alien visitation stories is something a lot of people do on a regular basis. It's hardly a weird and creepy adventure into another cult classic. In the grand scheme of things I always find that on a re-watch this is still a great release even if it's not one of my personal favourites from his filmography. E.T. might be the better movie and Jaws is a better character piece, but this still feels like a unique piece of work. The pros and cons are pretty marginal of course, and though there are several cuts the final version keeps enough of the interesting character moments and thankfully avoids the unnecessary scenes added for the 1980 re-release.

Looking at this era the genre would soon be in for a big change, as the move from science fiction to science fantasy adventure became complete. Despite the year of release I think it's still safe to consider it a pre-Skywalker film; after all they released around a similar time and so would have been in pre-production without any real kind of cross pollination. What makes it interesting is that this is something of an anomaly for the period - this time alien life isn't out to kill a group of isolated people or invade the planet through spores or microbes.

Steven Spielberg would later get his chance to do this in War of the Worlds but I often wonder how his version might have turned out in the '90s if Roland Emmerich hadn't beaten him to the punch. The delay eventually produced something that is of another era entirely. It's interesting to consider where the line would have been drawn in terms of mean spirited malevolence and blockbuster entertainment. "CE3K" as it's often referred to tends to push more in the direction of more positive outcomes, but provides a good balance between menace and wonder.

There are many now classic scenes included, though my favourite moments are the more subtle ones. The first spaceship sighting involving apparent car headlights suddenly floating away and giving Richard Dreyfuss a sudden tan is probably the stand out. This kind of masterful touch carries through to the rest of the movie, which of course includes him losing his marbles and playing with his food. It's easy to see why this was another pop culture smash (no pun intended). The nightmarish child abduction sequence is another high point in terms of slowly creeping suspense with its hellish orange light and otherworldly weather effects.

As usual John Williams adds a lot to this and gets in a few good melodies thanks to both the alien signal tune he devised and some quiet references to things like his own Jaws theme and Pinocchio's 'wish upon a star'. There are many other talents in the mix including Doug Trumbull, whose typically stellar model wizardry adds to many great set pieces. Breaking away from the usual grey, sterile space vehicles, the UFOs here are dazzling, multicoloured and very unsymmetrical. These kind of extra imaginative touches adds to what is already a great mix of conspiracy thriller and adventure.

Beyond the technical aspects and effect the cast is incredibly naturalistic, and while a lot has been said of the young boy who gets taken from his mother, the other kids in the story are all great. Some of them seem to be doing weird improvised things in the background of some scenes that adds to this vibe -- just check out the piano player. You can hear one of them declaring that there's a 'fly in my potatoes' off camera during that famous dinner scene, which was apparently unscripted but then left in after the crew thought it was so funny. These aren't exactly rounded characters but they do at least feel realistic a lot of the time.

The plot itself mostly works as an adventure and mystery tale, although I have often felt that the apparent good nature of the visitors is a little puzzling. Perhaps it's just a result of seeing too many other alien stories but they come off as too sweet and benevolent without clear intentions during the ending. Are the people who made it to the mountain the worthy ones, with more willpower or stronger minds? Is Ned ever going to be returned to make up with the family he abandoned? However I do feel that the vague hints at their motivation works mostly in the film's favour. After all it's good to see a finale with some mystery left in it.

It's noteworthy that mechanical props designer and artist Carlo Rambaldi worked on the creature effects here. Before being involved in the good vibes of E.T. he would go in to work with a certain mister Giger on another, altogether more sinister form of life. One which would avoid any kind of sickly sweetness and bring the decade to a close with not so much a bang, more of a screeching, blood splattered mess...