E.T.: The Sacred Cow

I want to perfectly straightforward about this: I have never liked E.T. (1982). For whatever reason, the universally beloved sci-fi classic never resonated with me as a child. So, when I learned about Ryan Kelly and Adam Zanzie’s Spielberg Blogathon, I decided to give it a second chance. After all, I hadn’t seen it in maybe 10-15 years; maybe my reactions would be more positive this time around? Alas, they weren’t. For all its considerable virtues, I still find the film treacly and phenomenally overrated.

This is one of the difficulties of criticizing E.T. It’s so intensely adored and consistently praised by legions of fans that in maligning it, I feel like I’m kicking a puppy. But what can I say? I don’t like it. It doesn’t work for me. At the heart of the film, and my dislike, is the relationship between Elliott (Henry Thomas) and E.T. Normally, I love relationships between children and their secret friends (see, for example, Let the Right One In), but here it’s played as self-consciously cutesy, darting back and forth between broad comedy and unearned pathos.

One second I’m being cued to laugh as E.T. waddles around, comically exploring life on earth, and the next second I’m prompted to cry because this all-important friendship is in danger. “Look, isn’t this tragic?” the movie seems to ask. I’m also turned off by Elliott’s constant, grating self-righteousness—his assumption that, in his state of innocence and childish wonder, he’ll know what path is best to take – and the way that Spielberg implicitly agrees with him. Worst of all, though, is John Williams’ score. It pounds in every emotion, leaving nothing to the imagination, letting you know the awe or sadness or relief you’re supposed to be feeling, and never lets up.

I have other quibbles with E.T.: its soppy melodrama; its flip-flopping about whether the government agents are good or evil; its endorsement of consumer culture as synonymous with childhood, as in the scene where Elliott cross-promotes Star Wars merchandise to his new buddy’s delight; and finally, that fucking rainbow as E.T.’s spaceship flies away. It’s so garish and unnecessary. I understand that the moment is meant to be magical and enchanting à la The Wizard of Oz; the rainbow is the gilt on the lily.

All of this is not to say that I find E.T. totally worthless. I just don’t think it deserves the enthusiastic critical accolades it’s received since its release, setting it up as this unassailable masterpiece. For me, it’s symptomatic of Spielberg’s worst and best qualities. In terms of the former, it’s ultra-commercial (and with one rerelease after another, the E.T. profits never stop flowing), preachy, and about as subtle as a hammer to the face, painting with the very broadest of strokes.

On the other hand, it is technically marvelous, and the special effects that create E.T. are wonderful. It’s also very scary when it wants to be (especially as the government agents invade the house), a reminder of Spielberg’s considerable talent for white-knuckle horror from Duel to Jaws and Jurassic Park. Early on, the film shows an interest in the clichés of Cold War sci-fi—note the resemblance between E.T.’s fingers and those on the Martians from War of the Worlds (1953)—and, until it descends into the childish hi-jinks that dominate the film, it does its best to toy with genre conventions.

What I like most about E.T. is how Spielberg lovingly evokes small-town California and realistically depicts familial relationships. The banter that flies between Elliott’s mother (Dee Wallace-Stone), brother (Robert MacNaughton), and sister (Drew Barrymore) is what really works here for me. It rings so true, and therefore contrasts all the more with the human/alien interactions, which come off as precious.

E.T. contains bits and pieces that I love, but it’s all overshadowed by the film’s insistence on Elliott and E.T.’s relationship as self-evidently tragic—and on E.T. as a goofy, childlike messiah. Beyond that, I’m just a little peeved by the film’s glowing critical reception from 1982 to the present day, whose language often implies that to not enjoy E.T. is to not enjoy the cinema, or life. I do not enjoy E.T. Make of that what you will. What about you?

5 Comments

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5 responses to “E.T.: The Sacred Cow

  1. I love E.T. but I’m always a bit surprised when Spielberg-bashers take a defensive or underdog tone in their critiques. Yes, they are battling against a popular perception of Spielberg as THE director but in the context of critical debates, I’ve always felt it was the Spielberg defenders who were fighting the uphill battle.

    At any rate, I really like your piece: it does a good job highlighting problematic elements of the film while also giving it its due (something the film’s detractors don’t always do). Ultimately, I suppose I take some of the more sentimental or hypocritical aspects for granted and focus more on the pleasant surprises: the Altmanesque overlapping dialogue and naturalistic performances, the loving almost anthropological detail with which Spielberg documents suburban childhood/adolesence (which, yes, includes a healthy dollop of commercial culture though I think it’s done in a fashion which is accurate rather than subliminal marketing – or rather in a way that’s accurate enough to make up for the subliminal marketing, see Reese’s Pieces). And the way he fuses a love of the everyday with a love of fantasy.

    He certainly does all of this in a more adult and arguably more compelling fashion in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, but in the end I’d probably tilt the field towards E.T. – by getting closer to the ground, physically in terms of the camera perspective and metaphorically in terms of the psychological terrain he’s exploring, it’s probably the most mythical Spielberg film and the purest expression of his vision. And yeah, even if you dislike the result, you gotta acknowledge the sheer craftsmanship. Judged as a director Spielberg has few peers.

  2. Jenny

    I like the movie too and I’m glad you found some good stuff to say about it. I really liked how Elliot related to his siblings also.

  3. What I admire about E.T. is that it’s a film about both communication and/or a lack thereof, from E.T.’s attempts to make contact with his people to his tortured connection with Elliot. I totally recommend you read this piece by Jim Emerson that was written in 1982 and then resubmitted for the blogathon:

    http://blogs.suntimes.com/scanners/2010/12/making_contact_spielbergs_clos.html

    To respond to your complaints about how the film fluctuates in emotion, I think of E.T. as a type of seriocomedy. The humorous scenes are scattered around here and there to make the movie a great entertainment, and also because they often figure into the movie’s themes about communication: as Emerson notes in his review, when Gertie screams at E.T., E.T. screams back–because, to him, this is how humans say hello. But I think at the heart of the movie is really the consequences of Elliot and E.T.’s connection, as it nags at them throughout the course of the story. We have no idea what it means when Elliot drops a carton of milk when E.T. drops an umbrella. Or when E.T. watches John Wayne and Maureen O’ Hara making out on television while Elliot makes out with future Baywatch star Erika Eleniak. That’s how subtle the film is: Spielberg and Melissa Mathison are building up to a point where this will all become a serious concern, and we, as an audience, don’t sense it. If E.T. dies, Elliot dies.

    It’s essential that Mary be the only adult whose face we actually see until the house/hospital sequence, so that our sympathies are only with the children. It is only after Keys (the Peter Coyote character) explains to Elliot that the discovery of E.T. is in fact a blessing to the world of science that Spielberg opens up the door to more empathy with the adult characters. We start out in the film believing E.T. must be sheltered. As he is dying, we wonder if perhaps it is only right that the adults inherit him. But once he dies, it is absolute that he must be returned to his people. This is all emotional manipulation for sure, but I don’t think it’s ever to a fault.

    A lot of insightful and downright funny criticisms here though, Andreas. I agree with you that the marketing aspect of E.T is one of the least appealing things about it. Also, the “fucking rainbow” part made me laugh out loud. My own personal opinion of the rainbow is that Spielberg could have included almost anything in those final scenes and I would have been smiling. By that point, the movie had–and always has–gotten me.

  4. @MovieMan: To be clear, I don’t consider myself a Spielberg “basher” per se. I like many of his films, and I’d say Jaws is an all-around masterpiece, but I don’t consider his contributions to cinema unambiguously good. I concede the impressive craft on display in E.T., but overall Close Encounters interests me far more, in its representations of the visitors and the government agents, and through Dreyfuss as the questing protagonist.

    @Adam: I read the Emerson piece the other day, and did find it intriguing. I like what Spielberg does with the cross-cutting to build-up Elliott and E.T.’s psychic link in terms of narrative technique, but – in connection with your point about humorous scenes being scattered around the movie – that cross-cutting sequence sets up the physical humor (dropping things, kissing the girl, etc.) resulting from the link as the flip side of the later suspense and drama. This is part of why I consider the film’s emotional back-and-forth to be Pavlovian.

    Keys’ fascination with E.T. resonates with me when it arrives, but Close Encounters hits the same notes more effectively. Here, it feels like the film can’t make up its own mind: are the adults (who are led by Keys) evil? Do they have E.T.’s best interests at heart? It changes based on what’s convenient. I agree about the naturalism with which Spielberg presents his vision of childhood; I just think it gets lost in the drive to make the audience FEEL, dammit.

    In any case, thanks to all for reading & commenting, and for the civil debate.

  5. Ultimately, I think the film concludes that the adult figures are good people who are simply too educated to figure out what to do with a being as simple as E.T. The first half of the movie looks at the adults negatively because we’re initially looking at it from the children’s point of view. From Elliot, Gertie and Michael’s perspectives, every adult who is starting to close in on their secret is nothing but a menace–that includes Mary, and in the scene where she spills coffee at the sight of E.T. and takes takes the kids away from him, the audience is, naturally, alienated from her. She’s only doing her job as a maternal figure, obviously, but since we know more about E.T. than she does, we initially see her, too, as a threat–just like the rest of the adults.

    It isn’t until E.T. dies that the adults finally come around as real people with feelings. This is why I think it was so brilliant a decision on Spielberg’s part to cast real Chicago physicians as the doctors: he captures the real tears and emotions of real, everyday people weeping at the demise of a creature not of this Earth, and that allows us to realize that they are there not to hurt, but to help. Keys is not officially a sympathetic figure until the moment he taps on Elliot’s plastic curtain. Mary is not officially sympathetic until she wraps her arms around Elliot to show that she recognizes just how much E.T. means to him; or when she encourages Gertie to “wish” for E.T. to come back to life, which is a rather lovely mirroring of the earlier scene in which Mary encourages Gertie to clap her hands in order to revive a fictional Tinkerbell during a bedtime story.

    The only truly “evil” adults in E.T. are the two government workers who get trapped in the plastic tube which Michael’s car drags across the road during the children’s escape at the end; Spielberg basically pits Elliot and Michael against two bumbling idiots trying to make their way to the car. The other adults in the film are more human, though, so I don’t think the film condemns adults–it believes that adults wouldn’t understand the situation as much as children would, but it does understand that all of the adults are just doing their jobs, and that all of them do their best to prevent E.T. from dying in the ER. Even the two morons Michael drags in the plastic tube are allowed to have a moment of humor: after Elliot effectively breaks the tube off the back of the car, the two men are left sprawled out on the road throwing hilarious, childlike tantrums.

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