Back in ’82 this little movie came out about a boy who found an alien in his backyard. It was called E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial. Ever heard of it? He phoned home and whatnot? This was basically the movie that solidified Steven Spielberg as being not just a guy who was making great movies everybody liked, but as being the most important director in the world: the guy. When you see that Amblin Entertainment logo you know you’re in for a certain kind of movie designed to appeal to everyone, and it’s an image from E.T. that gets the job done.
Russkies came out in ’87, when the outbreak of Spielberg imitator movies about kids going on adventures was in full swing. This one is about a group of kids who find a Russian naval officer who has washed up on the coast of their Florida town. Even Spielberg knockoffs as bad as Mac and Me still get mentioned when people start talking about the good old days of the 80s, when family programming was king, but I’ve never in my life heard anyone bring up Russkies. Considering two of the main three kids in this movie are a young Joaquin Phoenix (pre-hobo beard) and Peter Billingsley (pretty much the king of 80s nostalgia), how is this movie completely forgotten?
What do they have in common?
Despite the fact that one of these movies is about a group of nice kids from the suburbs who come in contact with a three-foot-tall alien, and the other one is about a group of war-mongering kids who harbor a blonde-haired, blue-eyed Russian naval officer, they’ve got a lot in common thematically. They both deal with kids rubbing up against authority figures who won’t take them seriously because of their age. In E.T. the kids are dealing with government agents who think they know better than anyone else how to deal with an alien invasion. In Russkies it’s the kids dealing with their parents who at first won’t believe there are Russians on U.S. soil and then won’t listen when they try to tell them that their new Russian friend Mischa isn’t a threat.
Also, both of these movies deal with kids coming in contact with cultures that are completely foreign to them and then learning lessons from the experience. In E.T., Elliott and his family meet a freaky little brown alien who looks scary and gross at first, but who turns out to be a pretty nice guy. He’ll heal your wounds, make your bike fly, and all he asks in return is to share your candy. Don’t judge a book by its cover. The kids in Russkies start the movie reading war comics that paint the Russians as our arch enemies, bloodthirsty monsters we need to take down. But then they end up meeting one who likes to play mini-golf and gets upset when a drunk guy tortures a defenseless manta ray. Does that sound like a cold-blooded killer to you? People are just people, no matter where they’re from. There’s a lot to be learned by hanging out with beings from completely different cultures, so long as you don’t randomly get a homicidal maniac or anything.
Why is E.T. overrated?
The biggest problem I have with E.T., and it’s the same problem I have with Jurassic Park, is that it relies too much on a childlike sense of awe and wonder to hook in the audience. A large chunk of the movie is spent watching the characters gape with their mouths open and gaze in wide-eyed wonder at what’s going on around them. If you’re a little kid who’s right there with them, then that’s fine. Usually it works out okay the first time you watch. But after that you’re just kind of left with a been-there-done-that feeling. Once you’ve seen E.T. brought to life the first time, that’s pretty much all there is. After you’ve seen that bike rise into the air once, it’s never going to have the same effect again. Drew Barrymore might have been adorable back in the day, but now we’ve all seen her show her tits on Letterman. I needed a story with more action and bigger stakes for E.T. to stand alongside the greatest blockbusters of all time.
For most of E.T.’s runtime I find myself waiting impatiently for something to happen. There’s one interesting scene where Elliott becomes mentally connected to E.T. that I thought was a missed opportunity. Elliott can feel his drunkenness as he downs a six pack, and feel his romantic stirrings as he watches an old movie. That’s kind of interesting, but it never really developed into anything. The story we get could have played out exactly the same way it does if Elliott had just become emotionally attached to the little brown guy; there didn’t need to be a mind meld. But once that mind meld was introduced, there were about a million places that this movie could have gone but didn’t. What if being connected to E.T. started to fundamentally change the way Elliott perceived his world? What if it gave him knowledge beyond human understanding? Or, on the other side of things, what if E.T. started unwittingly controlling people like puppets? Could he start imposing his will on lesser beings in a misguided attempt at improving their lives? There were some intriguing questions to be explored with that setup, but instead all we really get is a “boy and his dog” movie with the dog replaced by a mocha colored puppet. We hang out in a bedroom for a while, an hour in the government guys show up, and then there’s a chase scene on bikes: kid’s stuff. Elliott doesn’t even have to shoot a rabid E.T. at the end. Now that would have been a learning experience.
Why is Russkies underpraised?
This movie is like Red Dawn for the per-pubescent set. The kids in Russkies are ready for a Russian invasion, they seem almost obsessively preoccupied with war and death, and they have watches that make beep-boop-beep noises when they synchronize them. Pretty much they’re exactly how I wanted to be when I was a kid. Forget that hour long wait for the government agents to even show up in E.T., 20 minutes into this thing and these kids are assaulting a Russian soldier with their bare hands. As a matter of fact, several times in this movie the kids engage grown men in fisticuffs. How is that possible? Because they know karate. People who knew karate were invincible in the 80s.
While the kids in E.T. bond with the alien in weird ways like dressing him up like a lady, the way the kids in Russkies get their Russian sailor to like them is much more believable. In montage form they take him to the batting cages, to the go-kart track, to play mini-golf, and to eat at McDonalds. If you want to teach someone how to appreciate freedom, this is the way to do it. Also, the kids teach Mischa the very important lesson that boys don’t hug each other in America. That’s weird foreign crap (and a hilariously dated sentiment). Back in the decade of excess, kid’s movies were okay with these little whippersnappers calling each other homos, dickheads, and geek assholes, and that stuff is pretty shocking (and fun) to hear with modern ears, both here and in E.T. But probably the best reason to check this one out is because its big action climax involves a 12-year-old Joaquin Phoenix flying a jetpack. Yeah, this movie gets it.
Evening the odds.
E.T. is a better movie than Russkies, pretty unequivocally, in every respect. But I don’t get why it’s held up as the gold standard of Steven Spielberg movies, why that image of E.T. and Elliott crossing in front of the moon has been used as the symbol for everything good in the 80s. When you look at all of the movies that Spielberg directed back in his golden age, I would say that E.T. is the one that I like the least. Jaws popping out of the water, Indy running from the boulder, those are your iconic moments. They come from movies that are head and shoulders above the relative snoozefest that is E.T.
I’ll face facts, Russkies is a big hunk of 80s cheese. But it’s the kind of schmaltzy pap that just gets funnier with age. This is the bum wine of 80s kid’s flicks. You’ve got Cold War era hysteria, kids acting way more competent than they should be given their ages, and a series of montage sequences set to pop music taking the place of actual storytelling. This is basically the blueprint for every family-friendly genre movie that came out in the 80s. So why isn’t it remembered alongside all the others? I don’t need people to love Russkies, I just need them to watch it. That way, the next time somebody tells me goodbye and I respond by saying, “Not good. Badbye,” they’ll know what I’m talking about.