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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?

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