Alienated Audiences of the 1980s
E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial was released in 1982. It was greeted by a tsunami of money so violent it caused other studios to jealously raise their fists and greenlight any child fantasy films they had in their stables. From The Never Ending Story to The Explorers to the Flight of the Navigator everyone wanted a piece of that monetary influx that E.T. brought home. While quality peaked and dipped across different properties, it wasn’t until 1988 that a wilted contender lazily emerged and said just what was on its mind.
Mac and Me ran the celluloid gauntlet. It aesthetically paraded as the beaten up, translucent, powdered donut-charm of E.T.’s splotchy body found in a drainage ditch. E.T. had heart and wonder while Mac and Me had menace and McDonalds. Both films follow young boys in fatherless homes that befriend aliens who happen to like candy. Both films tap-dance around Christ-like figures. E.T. is delivered from the sky with miraculous powers to aid a world lacking compassion; Mac and Me has Ronald McDonald as an omniscient clown who introduces the film only to appear later in a barn-burner of a dance sequence alongside an alien dressed as a teddy bear.
The commercial success of E.T. was parlayed into video games, gaudy glassware, and whatever else they could slap the alien’s putty face onto. It took a few years to glean the lesson, but Mac and Me did its homework. Where E.T. was a film phenomenon that went on to inspire countless lines of tie-in trash, Mac and Me chose to be a tie-in product first with all its ambitions worn like a Coca-Cola-stained smile. It didn’t pretend to be anything it wasn’t. It wanted your money so bad it eschewed story and filled that deficit with images of hamburgers, soda, and candy. If it strayed too far into commercial zaniness, E.T.’s parallel footsteps brought it right back home. If in doubt, the latter film just copied and tweaked from the former to the color of green. It was a full-blown marketing gimmick set to not care about anything other than draining your wallet. To see it play out so brazenly is why the film’s cult status continues to elevate.
It is easy to pin the notoriety of Mac and Me on its bad effects and nostalgia fumes. To say it isn’t an enjoyable film, however, is hardly giving it any credence. It was a product of consumerism and blank identity. Mac may as well be American Psycho for kids with how it treats its audience. Mac and Me remains true to itself while never straying from its intentions. It wants your money. Almost all movies have this approach built into their plans somewhere, whether obvious or not. But Mac leaves little doubt as to what it is about, and therein lies its charm.
In 2002, there was an attempt to reinvent E.T. for its 20th-anniversary re-release. The re-release paints a nicer, less scary version of the movie by editing out weapons to lull viewers into a safe place. The contention is the rest of the world still exists in the film and while words and firearms can be altered, the actions and gravity of the situations are still grounded in reality. It is nice to think of a world where what offends or discomforts is at a minimum. However, the attempt to re-gloss a theme or concept in such a way implies there was something wrong with the message to begin made E.T. re-release fall flat.
The difference between the two properties is that if Mac and Me came out and did the same thing with new scenes or jazzy new effects, it would still be just a marketing gimmick. E.T. started as the wholesome contender but has begun its slide into a caricature of faded wonder. To line the films up side by side, Mac and Me at least stayed true to its vision. Its uncompromising greed in the face of bewilderment and confusion is a postcard of a time and place.
To view these two documents as capsules of their era is to witness two truths at play. One offers a glimpse of optimism in a world willing to grow with it. The other presents truth as it was then and there in 1988. Two voices that say the same thing with exact different meaning. One changed its tune down the line while the other did what it needed to when it needed to and that was enough. Which is the better film? In the end, it all depends on what you want from your movies. I like a little honesty.