For 1 Year, 100 Movies, contributor/filmmaker Trey Hock is watching all of AFI’s 100 Years, 100 Movies list (compiled in 2007) in one year. His reactions to each film are recorded here twice a week until the year (and list) is up!
When I was eight years old, my parents took my four-year-old sister and I to see “E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial.” We sat in the quiet theater and watched Elliott (Henry Thomas) and his siblings frolicking with their newfound alien buddy. My sister gasped or cheered at all the appropriate times, but I never felt totally engaged. When it came time to cry for our pale and wind-chapped little buddy as he “dies,” my sister started the wailing water works right on cue.
Some teenagers in the row in front of us started giggling, and there I sat, stuck between the two groups. I didn’t think the moment was sad nor did I think it was unintentionally funny. I just didn’t get it.
Now let me make it clear that I loved alien movies or big space adventures. Even as a small child, I found another Steven Spielberg film, “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” fascinating, but I remember being disappointed as my family and I left “E.T.” It is a disappointment that I continue to harbor against the film, in spite of having seen it numerous times in various settings.
As I go through the film I will discuss the various ways that “E.T.” falls short of what it could have been, and hopefully clear up the overall confusion with what it is. We’ll see. “E.T.” is often seen as sacred to many a thirty-something’s childhood. To criticize “E.T.” is like criticizing the memory of an aged and beloved pet, but I will push on regardless of the backlash that may come.
Though the movie begins with a squat alien botanist, who is left behind by his fellow aliens, “E.T.” is a drama about a family struggling with a recent divorce. Elliott, his brother Michael (Robert MacNaughton), and sister Gertie (Drew Barrymore) help out as their mother, Mary (Dee Wallace), struggles through the small moments that make a divorce difficult.
Elliott has already run into E.T. once in the cornfield next to his house, but the rest of his family is skeptical of his “goblin” encounter.
This scene bothers me a lot, not just because of the “penis breath” comment, which is unbearably stupid, and not something a kid would say, but if this is supposed to be a broken family, that a lovable outsider is going to come in and fix, well it’s just not that broken. They sit together for meals, all of the kids help with the chores, and even though Elliott has a frustration-fueled outburst, he, Michael and Gertie all care about their Mom’s feelings.
We’ll see as the movie progresses that the emotional state of the family doesn’t grow or become closer, but stays level. This is a close and loving family with siblings, who cooperate with and love their parent, and yet this has all of the markers of “Where the Red Fern Grows” in which a boy’s pair of dogs teaches him about death and the dangers of mountain lions, or “Rain Man” in which the lovably autistic Dustin Hoffman teaches Tom Cruise about family and quality underwear, or perhaps “Uncle Buck” in which a drunk and morally corrupt uncle teaches a teen girl about the value of chastity.
This is the formula. A lost yet lovable outsider enters and changes everyone for the better (Peter Pan, perhaps?), but this family doesn’t seem to need such an outsider.
When Elliott again encounters E.T., he lures the gentle stranger into his closet with candy pieces. He decides to tell Michael and Gertie, but hides his alien friend from his mother.
The shot choices in the closet definitely push the emotional content of the moment. From the augmented POV shot from E.T.’s perspective, to the higher angle looking down on E.T. We do get a sense of the skeptical wonder that both children and alien feel towards one another.
Again we see that Mary is patient with her son, who faked his sickness that day, and Michael and Gertie both calm down quickly and join up with Elliott to protect E.T. from the G-men that pursue him.
Cue faceless bad guys, and a ridiculous zolly shot.
Until their chase concludes, these tech-savvy alien hunters remain faceless. Though this could add anxiety and anticipation to the mounting tension, it just seems so obvious that we keep wondering why the bad guys are continually represented by their keys and crotches.
Spielberg has a propensity for reducing bad guys down to an absurd level. It makes sense when the adversary is a shark, but less so when the bad guys are government agents or Nazis.
The mean trick is that there aren’t any bad guys in “E.T.” Keys (Peter Coyote) turns out to just be a grown up kid, looking for his old pal, and yes the scientists would dissect E.T. but they try to save him first.
Because E.T. has an exceptionally limited vocabulary, he speaks to Elliott through an emotional and psychological link that they share. This gives Spielberg an opportunity to shoehorn in an exceptionally forced and awkward homage to “The Quiet Man.”
This moment is the cinematic equivalent of a black and white photo of children wearing adult clothes and handing each other a color-tinted pink rose. The acidic bile that I hold for cramming in a scene filled with such overwhelming sugary sweetness, when we already understood the growing connection between E.T. and Elliott, I must keep my teeth clenched for fear of vomiting.
So in “E.T.” Spielberg gives us faceless undeveloped bad guys, which will ultimately weaken our heroes’ victory. He also gives us children, who don’t act like children, but simply behave like tiny adults.
Even as a kid, Spielberg saw himself as an outsider. He was bright and obsessed with movies. He was seen as geeky and awkward. Spielberg also had an emotionally distant relationship with his father as a boy. There is a ton of evidence that Spielberg carried this idea of being an “outsider” as a badge of both shame and honor. Later in life critics and other filmmakers would talk of Oscar snubs of Spielberg and his work.
I have a lot of difficulty believing in “outsider” status when you start racking up the Best Director noms with “Close Encounters” and carry that through “Raiders” to “E.T.” Especially when Spielberg lost to Woody Allen for “Annie Hall” in 1977, was up against “Chariots of Fire” and “On Golden Pond” in 1981, and lost the year of his “E.T.” nomination to Richard Attenborough for “Gandhi.” Cry me a river about being a snubbed outsider, Steven. When you’re up against this kind of stunning movie power, a loss is a victory.
So I’m not buying it when Spielberg says, in Joseph McBride’s 1997 biography, that “E.T.” is “a broad-based story about an ugly duckling, someone who didn’t belong. Someone who wasn’t like everyone else. And because E.T. wasn’t like everyone else, he was picked apart and made very sick and almost died. I always felt ‘E.T.’ was minority story”
Sure maybe after Alice Walker said that she saw E.T. as “a person of color” you would say that. If this story is about E.T. then why don’t we ever get in the little alien’s head, why don’t we know what he’s thinking? Why do we spend so much time with Elliott and his emotions? Because this is Elliott’s story, not E.T.’s. This was supposed to be a story of childhood and growing up. This was supposed to be Peter Pan.
Here as Mary reads Peter Pan to Gertie in the background, we see that E.T. is part Peter Pan part Tinkerbell all rolled into one character. His finger light heals and helps, in the same way that Tinkerbell protects Peter from the poison in the passage that Mary reads.
And E.T., just like Tinkerbell, will die unless Elliott and children everywhere believe in him.
“I don’t know how to feel. I can’t feel anything anymore.”
This sounds like a middle-aged divorcee not a boy in junior high, but Elliott’s statement that he’ll believe in E.T. all his life is the most important line of dialogue in this moment. Not but a second or two later, E.T. is Mr. chatty-pants, glowing and babbling about his home.
And how do we get to Neverland to return E.T. to his alien family? It only takes a little fairy dust and a happy thought.
In Peter Pan, Wendy must make the difficult decision to leave Peter and grow up. In “E.T.” there is no such struggle for Elliott. Sure he’s sad, but the goal was always to get E.T. back to his rocket ship.
So the choices that the characters make take minor sacrifices (bike riding and one cold, sleepless night), the bad guys they face aren’t the troubling pirates, but faceless and nameless bumbling foes, and the kids start as preformed micro-adults and end that way.
Sure stuff happens, but stuff without emotional, psychological, or spiritual growth isn’t rewarding. I am irritated that “E.T.” makes the AFI list’s 2007 revision, while “Close Encounters” gets cut. Eric is right to place “Close Encounters” in the top spot on his Top 10 First Contact / UFO Movies. “Close Encounters” is the better movie, which shows clear character development, true struggle and sacrifice, and real emotional and psychological depth and change.
I know berating “E.T.” equates to kicking a cute fluffy animal, but I think Spielberg has two or three incredible films, none of which make AFI’s list, and yet AFI and most critics just gobble down his treacle filled offerings.
A funny aside that shows an interesting disparity between popular reception and critical praise is illustrated on Rotten Tomatoes. The critics rate “E.T.” a massive 98% fresh, while the viewing audience gives it a watchable 65%.
Watch “E.T.” if you need a nostalgic sugar high, otherwise watch “Close Encounters.”
Up next #23 “The Grapes of Wrath” (1940)
For links to #30-39, click on 1 Year, 100 Movies #30 Apocalypse Now (1979)
For links to #40-49, click on 1 Year, 100 Movies #40 The Sound of Music (1965)
For links to #50-59, click on 1 Year, 100 Movies #50 The Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring (2001)
For links to #60 – 69, click on 1 Year, 100 Movies #60 Duck Soup (1933)
For links to #70 – 79, click on 1 Year, 100 Movies #70 A Clockwork Orange (1971)
For links to #80 – 89, click on 1 Year, 100 Movies #80 The Apartment (1960)
For links to #90 – 100, click on 1 Year, 100 Movies #90 Swing Time (1936)