E.T. the Extra Terrestrial (1982, Steven Spielberg)

At the time of its release, E.T. the Extra Terrestrial became the most financially successful movie ever made; though it’s since been superseded in that regard several times over, it retains the archaeology and cultural cachet of a singular, untouchable success. Much more so than its director’s earlier smash Jaws, and certainly more than George Lucas or James Cameron’s films, it seems to pulsate with a populist conscience. Significantly, of the last seven films to hold the title of top domestic earner (The Godfather, Jaws, Star Wars, E.T., Jurassic Park, Titanic, and Avatar), only E.T. and The Godfather feel distinctly like American films, or like elements of any larger American mythology. [2019 note: Further additions to this list, always sequels to other successful franchise films, have not altered my viewpoint.]

The Godfather achieves this mostly superficially, through its intrinsic ties to outmoded ideas of the immigrant American dream, here cynically applied to organized crime. E.T. goes much deeper, if not into any significant string of U.S. literature then certainly into the essence of twentieth century pop culture in this country. It’s a Capra film, sort of, if Capra had worried himself with kids and aliens; it’s Walt Disney as the theme park man rather than the filmmaker — the ultimate commercial hay of The Love Bug or Francis the Talking Mule keyed up with the growing-up parable designed to uniquely describe adolescence in the ’70s and ’80s. Spielberg’s investment here is obvious, and the film aches with a personality and sense of mournful loss that are unmistakably his, evidenced easily by the melancholic final scenes in his first four films, two pessimistic (Duel and The Sugarland Express) and two triumphant yet ambivalent (Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kid). E.T. is the first of his films to sustain that hazy, upset mood for its duration — yet, more tellingly, it’s also the first possessive of an unambiguously cheerful finale. This allows the film to capture its audience’s needs and desires so well it’s almost frightening in its exactitude; if this entertainment were any more forcefully instructive and responsive to constructed impulse, it’d be propaganda — the skill in its execution is unreservedly astonishing.

But hell, I’d rather watch Titanic, even, and more to the point, I’d rather watch Raiders of the Lost Ark — a movie that consists wholly of Spielberg piling one superficial and fun ritual atop another to create a rollercoaster effect. E.T. isn’t nearly such a thrilling movie, but it doesn’t claim to be. Children flocked in to have their compassion tested, in some cases created; adults went to capture their own childhood, and the film dutifully calls to both. In a bit of eye-opening documentary footage created on the set of E.T., tiny Drew Barrymore is shown openly weeping at the model of E.T. after his health has deteriorated. Spielberg embraces her and, mugging for the camera, announces in a childlike voice “Movies are sad… especially this one,” like the proverbial second-grade teacher reading Charlotte’s Web to his or her students.

This director, perhaps more than anyone save Alfred Hitchcock, is an expert at conjuring up these emotions, what his elder and (briefly) colleague at Universal called “pure cinema.” But the fan of Spielberg’s craft, this writer included, comes away from E.T. slightly befuddled, not least because the film is a painful, oppressive experience all too vividly reflective of the sorts of trauma it documents upon its four lead characters. Each of the three children corresponds neatly to an age group and then the alien, E.T. himself, stands as a manifestation of imaginary friends and sci-fi dreams. E.T. fails to earn the emotions it effortlessly elicits; though many cinephiles detract Spielberg for what they regard as false sentiment in his work, I generally don’t see it as much as they do — yet here it’s everywhere. The problems begin with character development, typically the director’s strong point. The film began its genesis as a thriller — a sort of proto-Signs about a family trapped inside a house with a nefarious alien lurking outside — and Spielberg inexplicably retained a sizable portion of the image set that might have suited such a movie.

We’re left with the sinister, literally faceless individuals chasing the alien; the palette of foreboding blues and whites in the night scenes; and the cutting of story corners that might have provided crucial emotional bedrock. Despite the overwhelming amount of screen time afforded to the boy Elliott, played gamely by Henry Thomas, he spends so much of the film staring and marveling at things that we never have the information required to really know him, except as an empty vessel for the boys in the crowd to use as an insertion point — but why? Circa Close Encounters, Spielberg was capable of explaining everything we needed to know about a character like Melinda Dillon’s in seconds. In neither principal nor peripheral figures in E.T. is there any such incisive awareness of who these people are; their relationship to the strange creature who’s suddenly taken residence in their lives is streamlined to coincide with our own, which sadly seldom moves far beyond: gee, he’s awful funny-lookin’ and sweet (we think). But if the family is meant to respond to the catalog of deeper issues hinted at here, they’re never present or distinct enough to make it work.

E.T. isn’t really about outer space aliens, of course. Like so many of Spielberg’s early films, its true concern is divorce; divorce and the absence of a father, the latter a paramount Spielberg theme inherited from major influence Francois Truffaut, whose Small Change is an obvious precedent for E.T.‘s approach to children. Divorce is what falls upon the sullen Elliott and transforms him into the lonely boy. His loneliness, in Melissa Mathison’s celebrated but hollow script, is what requires E.T. himself to exist — and in turn, when the boy matures enough to regain his sense of belonging in his own family, E.T. will return from whence he came. The bareness of E.T.’s function in the story renders Elliott himself even more so: that much of a screenwriter’s tool, whose central metaphoric similarity to the “lost boy” of E.T., left behind by his own family on a strange planet, is illustrated as a psychic connection very much akin to the “visions” experienced by Roy Neary and the other abductees in Close Encounters.

E.T., in fact, functions as a de facto sequel to that earlier and superior film, which would be a fine thing if the result weren’t simply a desire to re-watch the older effort. Elliott’s mysterious fusion with his new friend is a retread of Neary; even the design of the creature himself recalls the shadowy figures we’re left with as Neary departs for the cosmos. Unfortunately, the E.T. design is far less evocative and literate, opting for big cute bug-eyes and a series of pandering, childlike expressions — all rendering much too explicit the nature of E.T.’s heart in not merely a particularly earthbound and human but a particularly Western series of stock pantomime communications. We are meant to believe we know when E.T. is happy, sad, angry, hopeless; yet we judge him from the standpoint of our own societal constructs about the way emotions read on a face — which, of course, makes no sense; why would this alein civilization communicate so similarly? That’s not really a problem that would have much consequence if the movie were stronger; as it is, the mind wanders enough to be troubled, and E.T.’s time onscreen is, very simply, not enjoyable. He appears as an odd cartoon injection into an otherwise serious, anguished film.

With all that said, this is a Steven Spielberg movie, which means there are stunningly beautiful moments here — the Halloween sequence alone captures as much of the magic and weirdness of suburban childhood as any film ever has; the cross-cutting between a drunken E.T. and an increasingly incoherent Elliott in biology class is adorably subversive; you may not be human if your heart doesn’t break a little bit when Elliott says “I think we’re dying”; the iconic flying bicycle rides are beautifully crafted and emotionally buoyant, remarkable shorthand for a child’s faith in magic; and young Barrymore’s reaction to seeing an ailing E.T. is as genuine and felt a piece of acting as I’ve ever seen, from a child or an adult. Her performance in general is the best and least guarded of the film, although Robert MacNaughton is quite believable as the obnoxious older brother. The design of the film, a change of pace for Spielberg after years of shooting in Scope, is utterly brilliant — with a more intimate 1.85 frame, he shoots the action from knee-height to keep all of the events firmly in the world of the children, an act of empathy that permanently extricates E.T. from so many of the condescending crimes of the bulk of kiddie films, including his friend George Lucas’. With cinematographer Allen Daviau, he also communicates with color — the magic-hour precision of many sequences is haunting. There is, most assuredly, the skeleton of a masterpiece somewhere in here.

But if the film’s heart is in the right place, that’s because it’s reflective of the true memories of Speilberg’s (and Mathison’s) childhood(s), the day-to-day life of the lonely and sullen kid who, like Spielberg, creates an imaginary friend who becomes a central savior to coping with a trauma like divorce, bullying, or any other form of ten year-old terrorism. Perhaps the problem, and the reason the film is so uncomfortable today, is that it literalizes that act of self-preservation. Even if the film posited that E.T. were a creature only in Elliott’s mind, there would still possibly be the violation of making formal and rational a thing that has no right to be either, of crafting a dream in three-dimensional space that must inevitably be reductive to a protective, private thought. (Has anyone except Bill Watterson ever tackled this in a tasteful manner? Even Watterson could be pretty treacly at times.) Conversely, though, by offsetting the realistic sense of childhood alienation and trauma with “good and evil” clutter (the artificial entrance of the cruel government officials as seen through Elliott and E.T.’s fearful eyes) and hokum — like that of using toys to solve big problems and spaceships that make pretty rainbows in the sky as John Williams’ music swells — we make rational and coldly precise a tale that ought to have the central vagueness and strangeness of memory. There’s no mystery to E.T., and the things it takes pains to explain to us are disturbing and upsetting. The film is bare enough in its intentions to work broadly, but I don’t think it’s anything close to the definitive portrait of childhood in cinema that it could have been.

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