In 1978, Steven Spielberg was aghast to find that footage from his debut film, Duel, had been reused in an episode of the television series The Incredible Hulk. The experience led him to insist on a contractual clause preventing other film-makers from cannibalising his work. “I’d hate to see the mothership from Close Encounters end up on Laverne & Shirley five years from now,” he said.
But it appears he has given his blessing for one of his most beloved characters to sell cable, internet and phone services. A new, four-minute advertisement for Comcast Xfinity brings ET, the main character of Spielberg’s 1982 masterpiece ET: The Extra-Terrestrial, back to Earth for a reunion with Elliot, his friend and protector from that movie. The original actor, Henry Thomas, has returned to play Elliot, and to give his stamp of approval to the project.
“The audience is going to get everything they want out of a sequel without the messy bits that could destroy the beauty of the original and the special place it has in people’s minds and hearts,” Thomas says, displaying a touching eagerness to come out with any old guff so long as the cheque from Comcast has cleared. Imbecilic PR statements aside, Thomas looks in pretty good shape for 48. Whether ET has aged is harder to say since he was as wrinkled as a wizened crone to begin with.
At the start of the advertisement (no, we’re not calling it a sequel), the alien’s ship lands in the back garden of the house where Elliot now lives. In a 1996 short story, the critic David Thomson imagined that the boy, bereft by the departure of his intergalactic BFF, would go on to a life of aimless alienation full of drugs and weightlifting. The Comcast version is rather different. Elliot has a wife and two children, and is apparently unscarred by having ridden through the night sky on a flying bicycle at the age of 11 to escape the clutches of sinister government forces.
The commercial amounts to a greatest hits parade of rehashed moments from the film. Elliot’s children scream when they find ET, and the alien screams along with them. There is a glimpse of Reese’s Pieces, the confectionery brand that made a killing when M&Ms turned down the chance to be featured in the movie.
ETis also seen reviving a bunch of wilted flowers with one wave of his leathery hand. “You came back!” exclaims Elliot, although he doesn’t ask why because the answer would probably produce from ET an uncomfortable response such as: “I had no choice. Comcast, which owns Universal, the studio which produced and distributed the original film that made me famous, has full dominion over the exploitation of my IP rights.”
Dishing up a dinner of salad and cupcakes, Elliot remarks that “a lot has changed since you were here” but as there simply isn’t time to sit down to explain Iran-Contra, the first Gulf War, 9/11, the second Gulf War, #MeToo and fidget spinners, his son brandishes a tablet and instead says simply: “It’s called the internet.” The child then makes a gesture intended to suggest that his mind is blown, but which seems more like he has just shot himself in the head. Either interpretation would be fitting under the circumstances.
ET puts on a set of virtual-reality goggles and falls over at the sight of a dinosaur lurching towards him. Don’t they have anything as sophisticated as VR in his part of the galaxy? Then they all cuddle up in front of the TV for Christmas movies. The plaintive look on ET’s face as he gazes at Elliot could mean “I’ve missed you” or he may just be thinking: “I didn’t fly halfway across the universe to watch Bing sodding Crosby.”
Either way, he’s off a few seconds later, commandeering a pair of bicycles to whisk him and the children through the sky to … where exactly? Wasn’t his spaceship parked in the back garden? Ah well, no time for logic when there is internet and cable to be sold. John Williams’s triumphant score fills our ears and then it’s time to say goodbye.
“I’ll be right here,” says ET to Elliot’s son, touching his chest. Yeah, about that. Not sure that the current US immigration policy is going to look too kindly on the free movement of aliens. That’s not really where the world is at right now.
Still, at least the 1978 Star Wars Holiday Special – of which George Lucas tried to remove all traces before being thwarted by the rise of YouTube – now has a rival for the title of Worst Ever Festive Spin-Off of a Hit Movie. Some have described the ET commercial as “heartwarming”, and I suppose it is, in the sense that a bonfire of your fondest dreams, memories and possessions can still generate a certain amount of heat.