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1 Year, 100 Movies #24 E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982)

by Trey Hock on April 18, 2011

in 1 Year, 100 Movies,Columns

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)

1 Year, 100 Movies #25 To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)

1 Year, 100 Movies #26 Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)

1 Year, 100 Movies #27 High Noon (1952)

1 Year, 100 Movies #28 All About Eve (1950)

1 Year, 100 Movies #29 Double Indemnity (1944)

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)

In addition to contributing to Scene-Stealers, Trey makes short films and teaches at the Kansas City Art Institute. Follow him here:

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{ 26 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Greg April 18, 2011 at 10:37 am

I remember loving ET as a child and haven’t seen it since. Perhaps I’ll keep it that way.


2 Scott April 18, 2011 at 4:06 pm

Trey, I watched E.T. with my friend’s boys about a month back. I had not seen it since it was in the theaters and was anticipating the same memorable experience as when I saw it the first time. The kids seemed to be very engaged, but to me the film came across feeling thin. I chalked it up to an adult not buying some of the cutesy fluff that E.T. is abundant with. On Close Encounters, it didn’t have enough fluff for me as a kid (not enough laser blasts and lightsabers). Watching as an adult though, it is the much more enjoyable movie. My suggestion is that E.T. might belong on a hypothetical AFI children’s top 100, and Close Encounters should go on the Adult list.


3 Trey Hock April 18, 2011 at 4:11 pm

Scott – Nice insight. Perhaps there should be a Kid’s list. I know that the “Muppet Movie,” which is a great film whether you’re a child or an adult, would be a hard sell for the regular AFI list, but it’d be a no brainer on a kid’s list.

Greg – Yeah keep the memory whole and unmarred.


4 megrox April 18, 2011 at 5:10 pm

Well I am the younger sister in this review and my memories of this movie when I was young was that this was my favorite movie, crying that ET was dead, loving Drew and believing I could make my bike fly if only I rode fast enough. I watched it with my two girls recently and now found it a bit boring where they found it kind of scary. I guess I was expecting to feel the same magic or see my girls experience what I did when I was little but now I spend some nights assuring them ET is not in their closet. Some movies should be left to the magical memories of childhood and locked up. However knowing how much my brother hates Drew I must say it might be her best movie! Haha


5 Trey Hock April 18, 2011 at 6:29 pm

Thanks Meghan, now I will have nightmares that E.T. is in my closet. Maybe I can get Jaime to double check and reassure me that he’s not there.

Keep the nieces safe, and let them know that your comment had me chuckling.


6 Rosie April 18, 2011 at 6:32 pm

I’ve never been able to sit through an entire watching of E.T.
In high school orchestra we played the theme for a pops concert and one lucky little boy was usually chosen to wear a red hoodie and zoom around the auditorium on a bike. Of course the audience and our “maestro” thought this was charming, but we were jaded high schoolers. Close Encounters, on the other hand, I drop everything for.


7 Rosie April 18, 2011 at 6:33 pm

P.S. this review was freaking hilarious. Much more entertaining than the actual movie.


8 Eric Melin April 18, 2011 at 7:28 pm

Wind-chapped little buddy? Squat alien botanist? Mr. chatty-pants?

The way you write this piece with such obvious venom is hilarious!

I disagree with you, though, on many things: The faceless bad guys — very effective, even though you rightly point out its all keys and crotches. Some adults are rightly scary when you’re that age, however, and the entire movie is shot through that lens. “Undeveloped bad guys” are wholly appropriate here.

Secondly, “The Quiet Man” scene isn’t just “sugary.” It’s downright clever. I laugh out loud almost every time I see it. If more “sweet” scenes these days were mounted with that much uninhibited enthusiasm, they might work better.

I also think that no matter what he became after reaching success that Spielberg’s status as an outsider as a child is immutable. And you can tell from watching the film that this resonates with him today, no matter how much success he has. That feeling is why kids identify with this movie, and partially why I did when I was a kid.

That said, I agree partially with your assessment of the ending, It’s a bit too convenient; a little deus ex magical alien. BUT Elliott does give something up, and its similar to Pan. He gives up E.T’s companionship–the only thing that made him complete and gave him confidence.

Did you “kick a cute fluffy animal”? Sure you did. And I, for one, am better for it. I may disagree with you on parts of the movie (I still think it holds some movie magic), but I love hearing your opinion. Especially when its so bitter!


9 George Hickman April 18, 2011 at 9:02 pm

Holy shit I couldn’t disagree with this review more, Trey.

At the very least anyone who thinks kids don’t say things like “penis breath” obviously either don’t have children, don’t have siblings, or don’t remember their childhood.

My brothers and I said a lot worse things at Elliot’s age.

I saw this theatrically about three years ago and fell much harder in love with it than I did as a child.

I really don’t understand how you can have such an adverse reaction to it.


10 Trey Hock April 18, 2011 at 9:53 pm

George – I’m gonna quote you.

“My brothers and I said a lot worse things at Elliot’s age.”

This is my point exactly. Kids cuss. Penis breath is just the type of stupid semi-benign crap that some adult would think an ornery kid would say. Why doesn’t Elliott just say dumbshit? Because Spielberg is misguided and makes a bad choice.

I have an adverse reaction to highly praised and totally flawed movies. You could say I’m allergic.


11 Trey Hock April 18, 2011 at 9:58 pm

Eric – I don’t think Spielberg was ever a true outsider. I think he was bright, privileged, bookish, and obsessed with movies. That’s different than being bullied or treated as an outcast.

Oh and “deus ex magical alien” is my new favorite go to saying.


12 Xavier April 19, 2011 at 5:34 am

I agree in part with the review, I think you probably came off a bit harder than is deserved. I didn’t connect emotionally with the film and the light finger thing never landed properly with me. It is definitely overly praised and should not be in the top 25 films of all time. I also agree that Close Encounters is brilliant and may even be my favorite of spielberg’s films, which makes me curious what 3 films of his do you find incredible if none of them are on the AFI list?


13 Trey Hock April 19, 2011 at 5:38 am

Xavier – I think “Close Encounters” is great and should be listed, “The Color Purple” is incredibly well directed, but there was such a cultural backlash to the film that it would be difficult for AFI to put it on the list, and finally “Empire of the Sun” which is Spielberg’s perfect film.

For the record I would keep “Raiders” also.


14 Streams of Whiskey April 19, 2011 at 6:20 am

>>”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.”

I think that’s a great insight and hits the nail on the head as to why E.T. doesn’t pack the emotional wallop that it could. The family just doesn’t need much help and therefore can’t really grow. After all, this isn’t a lovable bunch of scrubs who need coach Norman Dale to walk through that door to lead them to the state championship. (Sorry; another “Hoosiers” reference from me.)

I don’t agree about Close Encounters, though. I never saw that film as a kid, and when I watched it as an adult last year, I just couldn’t get into it in any way, shape or form.


15 Streams of Whiskey April 19, 2011 at 6:22 am

Also, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Robet MacNaughton’s performance in 1983’s “I Am the Cheese.”


16 Chris April 19, 2011 at 7:49 am

Spielberg is a master manipulator of the masses. This movie is as tepid and sentimental as anything on the Lifetime network, and as you correctly pointed out, is little more than a formulaic movie intent on eliciting emotion, rather than thought (second to only “Dead Poets Society” in that regard).

Everyone champions Spielberg’s insight into children and their worlds, but I argue the same voices that praise him are deeply touched by greeting cards. Give me “the Black Stallion” – “400 Blows” or “Where the Wild Things Are” any day.

And to your point Trey – I would feel better about ET being left off the list to make room for “Uncle Buck” – a Candy masterpiece.


17 George Hickman April 19, 2011 at 9:06 am

Maybe it was different for you, but we didn’t actually start swearing until puberty or so because an actual swear word was something that would get us in trouble… But we would throw things together that sounded bad… Like pee mouth or papsmear or vaginaface.


18 Trey Hock April 19, 2011 at 10:49 am

Chris – I can only hope that Spike Jonze and some of the new guard of filmmakers will make the next revision.

George – I still don’t buy penis breath. I have never heard it used in reality, and it sounds more like an adult construction than a child’s swear word. I would also point out that Elliott is in Jr High, which is where many start building their “naughty” vocabulary. So “dumbass” or some similar borderline swear word would be apropos. And really in the grand scheme of things the “Penis Breath” outburst is a only a minor annoyance in grander failure.

Streams – Thanks for the “I Am the Cheese” reference. IMDB has MacNaughton’s current occupation listed as mail carrier. I guess the fame and fortune just didn’t work for him anymore.


19 Trey Hock April 19, 2011 at 10:51 am

And George if for no other reason, I am glad that we’re having this discussion, because it gave me the opportunity to type this:

“George – I still don’t buy penis breath.”

Thank you, thank you, and thank you.


20 Violent Femme April 19, 2011 at 9:20 pm

I once saw Spielberg in a documentary about John Ford relating how he somehow got into the office of that actual genius when he was a child. He then described how Ford made him look at Remington paintings to understand the concept of a horizon line in images. Let me state: if you happen accidentally to end up in John Ford’s office as a young film making prodigy and the master gives you a private lesson, then you can’t call yourself an outsider ever. It means you got access. It’s like being a struggling actor named Nic Cage who also happens to have an uncle named Francis Ford Coppola as does Jason Schwartzman. In other words, if you are able to get your foot into these corridors of power, then you have an opportunity level that excludes the majority who will die on the outside. And as one who comes from the 80s I think the term we’re looking for is “Dickface,” not penis breath.


21 Trey Hock April 19, 2011 at 9:34 pm

Violent Femme – Yes, yes, yes!!!


22 Roger D April 20, 2011 at 12:54 am

I enjoyed the review, and hated the scene where Elliott frees the frogs and kisses the girl. Thank goodness, E.T. was watching some romance movie instead of “Strangler in Paradise” or some slasher flick. I could accept that he and Elliott were connected psychically but not that this connection would extend to the whole class.

Also, the spaceships appearing over the roadways while people were driving in Close Encounters of the 3rd Kind is indelible in my mind, and sometimes I half hope that the lights I see as I approach a hill will turn out to be something more spectacular than a car.

Finally, the complaint that Elliott’s family doesn’t fit the formula of a broken family needing an outsider’s help is lame to me. Yes, it doesn’t follow that formula. This isn’t that story. This is the story of an ordinary boy who makes his first very strong connection with another being. It’s an unusual love story. Asexual, but a love story nonetheless. If you are trying to fit it into a different formula, that’s why it failed for you.


23 Trey Hock April 20, 2011 at 3:24 am

Roger – Love the comment and as far as your defense of “E.T.”

“This is the story of an ordinary boy who makes his first very strong connection with another being. It’s an unusual love story.”

I think that’s what everyone wants “E.T.” to be. It’s what I want “E.T.” to be. If it were just that it would be a better movie, but though the friendship story is there it gets distracted with too much other stuff.


24 Scotty April 27, 2011 at 12:17 pm

O.K. Let me say first that I love E.T. It certainly deserves the #24 spot. I was surprised that it didn’t get a better mark to be honest.
To me the review is sophomoric in it’s complaints. Penis breath? Get over it. It has been well documented that some of the dialog was improvised by the children…. reactions, dialog, motion etc.
I think too that as AFI looks at these movies, they are looking at the big picture. Movies are a marriage of many arts. Movies are the ultimate art because of that very fact. Here we are looking at an incredible blockbuster that captured so many peoples hearts and imaginations. It just stands up. It’s tender and so very sweet. Movies like this are not made anymore and that’s kind of sad. Each element (direction, story, and we must not forget the music) is an epic offering. This movie is a trailblazer.
What’s funny, is that in the past few years I rediscovered E.T. after crying like a baby so many years ago as I watched it in the theater. The great thing for me was that I had almost the exact opposite reaction as Trey. I was so excited that I called my sister, mother and some of my friends to urge them to see this movie again. It was emotional and of course sentimental, but it’s just such a good movie.
It’s time for Trey to phone home and get picked up immediately…. Ouch….
Just joking Trey. Still love ya. Thanks so much for dedicating your time to doing these reviews here. I read every one. It gives us all something to rant and rave about. I just really love E.T. and you feel bad that you don’t love E.T. too.


25 Trey Hock April 27, 2011 at 7:30 pm

Hey Scotty – I get it. Some people do love “E.T.,” but your defense of the film, like most defenses offered, has been one packed with nostalgia and emotions that stem from a childhood viewing experience. I think this is a flawed and overrated film, and I’ve been surprised at how many people agree with me. If you love it, love it. Love it for nostalgia, for the magic you remember, for the fact that your kids love it, but love it for its flaws too. And don’t feel bad that I don’t love “E.T.” There are way better films to love.

I am glad that you read and enjoy the reviews. They take a ton of time and energy, and I make sure to give every film, even “E.T.,” due diligence. Honestly this discussion that we’re having is why this whole endeavor is fun. I really love it when people get passionate about the movies they love. Thanks for the big ol’ response, and keep ’em coming. I’ll keep turning out the reviews for you.


26 Eric Melin April 28, 2011 at 10:46 pm

Scotty- I love that you ended your comment with how sorry you feel for poor Trey. It’s OK–I pity him too. It must be awful to be such a bitter, cantankerous soul. 😉


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