In 1982 Steven Spielberg won over thousands of viewers with the release of his iconic science fiction movie E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial. This family film about the friendship between a young boy and an alien accidentally stranded on Earth made a huge impact on the science fiction genre, with a balance of comedy and drama, solid relationships, and some impressive special effects. At the time, Spielberg was at the top of his game, but his success was not without a price.
What many people forget is that Spielberg wasn't the only one making a science fiction film at the time. Two other newly-established directors were also creating their own. One was Ridley Scott, who had established himself with 1979's Alien and was now working on an adaptation of the Philip K. Dick novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep which would be released under the title of Blade Runner. At the same time, John Carpenter, riding the success of Halloween was working on his latest project, an adaptation of John W. Campbell's novella Who Goes There? which would become arguably one of his best horror films: The Thing.
Both these films were huge flops at the box office. They were critically panned and it was not until years later that they finally started to get the recognition they deserve. Why? There's plenty of reasons but one that frequently comes up is the success of E.T.: The Extraterrestrial. Audiences were so in awe of the family fun of E.T. that they didn't seem to care much for the much bleaker atmosphere of the other two movies.
I do find this interesting because having finally watched E.T. for the first time in years, I would say that Blade Runner and The Thing may have actually been better films. E.T. is an enjoyable movie but when you get down to it there are a lot of story problems and plot holes. For one thing, as solid as the relationship between the kids and E.T. was, I personally felt a lot of the cast was underdeveloped. There were those three characters who liked to bully Elliot and then suddenly they decide to help him during the climax with no clear motivation. They also don't really do a whole lot to help outside of following Elliot on bicycles.
There was also that strange man with the keys. Throughout the first three quarters of the film we never see his face. He is kept mysterious and the only indication of his identity is a distinct set of keys on his belt that tend to make a jingly noise whenever he walks. There is this certain intimidating vibe to the character, but we have no idea who he is, almost as if they're building up to a twist. So then we come to the big reveal and the man with the keys turns out to be... some guy who wears keys on his belt. Seriously, he doesn't even get a name, and suddenly he's treated as being somewhat sympathetic despite being played as frightening for most of the film.
The mother could also have been a more interesting character if she had found out about the alien sooner. Elliot had no problem introducing E.T. to his siblings, why not also his mother? Sure, it would have been a shock but her gradual warming up to his presence could have been an emotional touch instead of getting cheap laughs out of her failing to notice when they're both in the same room.
The stories of the other two movies are far more complex and I'd say far more interesting. The alien is hostile in The Thing, but what makes that film so interesting is how it affects the characters themselves. They have to deal with the paranoia that comes from relying entirely on themselves since the alien could be anyone. With E.T. you have a relationship forming between the kid and the alien, but with The Thing you have the alien tearing apart the already strenuous relationships between the protagonists.
The relationship between Rick and Rachel may well be stronger than the bond between Elliot and E.T. ever will be. With Elliot and E.T. you just have two friends from unlikely sources, whereas Blade Runner deals more with the social and ethical consequences of the relationship. Rick is a man trained to kill replicants, and yet he falls in love with one who doesn't even know her true identity.
So why did E.T.: The Extraterrestrial become such a hit while two better films were left in its wake and only gained their deserved recognition later on? Well, at the time the concept was revolutionary. Spielberg had previously explore the themes of benevolent alien visitors in Close Encounters of the Third Kind (parallels to which are pretty clear in E.T.), but the idea of a children's movie, and in particular a child's friendship with an alien was pretty unusual. We do see that sort of dynamic in The Day the Earth Stood Still but there the alien had a goal. It was treated as a superior being intentionally visiting Earth with a plan, as opposed to an innocent alien who gets left behind by accident.
It is interesting to compare these three movies. All three of them came out in the same year of 1982, and yet they are all so different. E.T. became a huge box office success and won four Oscars, while leaving The Thing and Blade Runner, both far superior films in terms of atmosphere and story, to fail horrendously.