Forget phoning home, let's stay in and watch movies.
Steven Spielberg’s classic film E.T. hit Blu-ray this week, so I got to thinking about something that’s one of my favorite things to do: a double-feature. Sure, sometimes the schedule is so hectic that you’re luck to be able to sit through one movie, much less two. But there’s just something enormously satisfying about the double feature, especially if you’ve put some thought into picking the perfect pair of films, whether they’re united by genre, theme, creative talent, or even some obscure joke only you and your friends understand.
I’m betting some of you will be picking up E.T. on Blu-ray and watching it for the first time in a while, or maybe ever showing it to your kids for the first time ever. Because GFR is a full-service kind of place, I’ve sifted through the heaps of cinematic history and pulled out eight family friendly science fiction movies that will pair quite nicely with E.T.. We hope the results will be something to phone home about (ahem).
The Last Starfighter (1984)
E.T. still resonates after all these years because, when you think about it, what kid hasn’t wanted to meet an alien? It’s the sort of thing we grew up dreaming of in our tree houses and staring up at the night sky. Another inevitable bullet point on that dream list? Getting to pilot a freakin spaceship. And if that spaceship happens to have a featured called the “death blossom”…it’s enough to give a seven-year-old boy heart palpitations.
The story of a kid stuck in a dead-end trailer park who is swept away into a life of adventure and wonder will still connect with all the kids out there who dream of a bigger or more amazing life. Even better, The Last Starfighter teaches that the best way to achieve those crazy dreams is from practice, practice, practice. Of course it could also encourage irresponsible levels of videogame playing, but that’s where the whole “parenting” thing comes in.
Enemy Mine (1985)
Easily the most “grown-up” of the movies on the list, Enemy Mine was nevertheless in regular VHS rotation when I was growing up, and I still love it to this day. It stars Dennis Quaid as Willis Davidge, a spacefighter jock in a future war against a reptilian alien species called the Drac. After crashing on an alien planet, Davidge soon discovers that one of the alien ships crashed as well, and sets out to find and kill the enemy pilot. Eventually the two realize no rescue is coming and that had better learn to live together or else they’ll die alone (thanks, Lost!)
The story isn’t super original or groundbreaking, but Quaid and Louis Gossett, Jr. totally sell the performances as two enemies who become the closest of friends. You probably shouldn’t introduce the kiddos to this one unless they’re a little older, because there’s definitely some language, violence, and scenes that’ll likely scare young kids. But if you think they’re old enough for it, there’s plenty to like in Enemy Mine, and some nice life lessons snuck in there for good measure. Fun fact: Enemy Mine is one of two movies on the list that, without fail, will put a lump in my throat during the final scenes.
Like E.T. is all about some kids who get to meet an alien. Where E.T. brings the space visitor to the kids, however, Explorers flips that concept on its head. Directed by ‘80s genre kingpen Joe Dante (Gremlins, Innerspace), Explorers is about a young kid who one night has a strange dream about an alien circuit board. He describes the dream to his smarty-pants friend, and soon — in classic kid-movie fashion — they’ve used the dream to construct their very own spaceship, which whisks them off to another galaxy.
The trio’s journey through outer space culminates with them finding the aliens they had always dreamed were out there…but they’re not quite what any of them expected. Rather than H.G. Wells’ “intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic,” the aliens of Explorers are downright goofy, and totally obsessed by all the pop culture we’ve been carelessly flinging out into the cosmic void. Explorers isn’t going to have the same adult appeal as some of the other movies on this list, but your kids will probably love it. Unless you’re raising a CGI snob, in which case knock it off and ground that little snot.
Flight of the Navigator (1986)
This flick recently made an appearance on our list of favorite time travel movies, but it simply has to be included here. Like E.T., Flight of the Navigator centers on the meeting of a kid and strange visitor from outer space…this time, the visitor just happens to be the UFO itself. In the year 1978, 12-year-old David Freeman vanishes. He returns in 1986, not having aged a day. With no memory of the intervening years, David soon discovers that he was kidnapped by a well-intentioned artificial intelligence he nicknames “Max” (short for “ Trimaxian Drone Ship”), and now government scientists are keen to study both David and the ship.
The time dilation that keeps David the same as years pass back home plays on a fundamental childhood fear: the loss of one’s parents or family. Even for the smartest kids, the concepts of death or aging are nebulous and hard to grasp, so the thought of your parents suddenly being a decade older in the blink of an eye, so Navigator is likely to grab your kids’ attention and not let go. Thankfully this is kids’ movie, so everything is fixed and all get a happy ending. It also imparts one of the most important lessons of childhood, one also covered by E.T.: never trust government agents who want to probe you.
*batteries not included (1987)
Another common childhood wish: that your toys would really come to life. While *batteries not included’s main characters Frank and Faye — Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy — are older than the protagonists of the previous films by quite a few decades, the movie’s aliens are, for all appearances, they coolest robot toys you’ve ever seen. *batteries not included mixes the mysterious nature and intentions of the mechanical aliens with a classic ‘80s plot that has the ‘bots helping defend Frank and Faye’s apartment building from an unscrupulous manager who wants to evict all the tenants.
The fact that I still have fond memories of *batteries not included some 25 years after I last saw it can probably be attributed to one of the movie’s screenwriters: Brad Bird, who later went on to give us another entry on this list. Bird worked on the Spielberg-produced anthology series Amazing Stories, but Spielberg liked the idea so much it became a full feature film. A great concept, a great cast, and flying robots created by Industrial Light & Magic — what’s not to like?
Galaxy Quest (1999)
Finally venturing out of the ‘80s (it’s when I grew up, deal with it), we come to the first movie on the list that can be unapologetically loved by both kids and parents. The story of a type-cast group of actors made famous — and cursed by that fame — by an iconic science fiction television series will offer parents and long-time Trek fans countless hysterical references and jabs at that venerable franchise. Thankfully, there’s also plenty of slapsticky stuff for the kids, not to mention friggin’ spaceships and friggin’ aliens and Severus friggin’ Snape in an alien prosthetic.
One of the great things about Galaxy Quest — aside from the top-notch cast and the hilarious script by David Howard and Robert Gordon — is that it takes the subject matter seriously, even with its tongue lodged firmly in its own cheek. Underneath all the laughs and Trek references, there’s actually a decent story being told, and the characters are never just spoofs of Star Trek and other beloved SF shows. Back when it first came out somebody, I can’t remember who, called Galaxy Quest “one of the best Star Trek films in ages,” and I think that still holds true. It’s fun, it’s funny, and I’m still pissed we never got a sequel.
The Iron Giant (1999)
And here’s that Brad Bird chap again. For those who saw and fell in love with the movie, The Iron Giant was exhibit A in our arguments that Brad Bird deserved to be a gigantic Hollywood success. And while he made a name for himself on The Simpsons and became a breakout talent with Pixar’s The Incredibles, I’ll argue to my dying day that The Iron Giant is still the best thing he’s ever done.
With tips of the hat to Cold War paranoia, a sly sense of humor, and a heart even bigger than the titular collossus, The Iron Giant has something for everybody, and in a just and decent world it would be far more of a success than it was. Thankfully its found an audience on DVD, but The Iron Giant is a movie that every movie lover should see, and is one of the movies most guaranteed to reduce you to a sobbing, blubbering wreck by the end of it. It’s okay, just tell your kids you’ve got something in your eye. “Sooooooperrrmaaaaaaann…”
Super 8 (2011)
It’s only appropriate that we wrap this list up with Super 8, since it was explicitly a tribute to E.T. and the films like it. And while Super 8 isn’t a perfect movie, it is a great one that succeeds primarily from the performances of the young cast. Their performances feel far more “real” and genuine than the stuff you get in kids’ movies these days.
For all the grief J.J. Abrams gets for the Star Trek reboot, here his script largely succeeds by keeping the focus on the kids. That does make the alien something of a MacGuffin whose motivations are nebulous at best, but it’s never enough of a problem to derail the movie. Super 8 is good in and of itself, but it’s ever better as a tribute to E.T. and similar ‘80s classics. They may not make ‘em like that anymore, but every once in awhile somebody sneaks one through.