E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial
(SPOILERS) I didn’t really care that I didn’t get to see E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial at the cinema. Quite reasonably, my parents demurred from accompanying me, considering the title character to be hideous (he is, which is why he didn’t feature on any of the initial promotional materials). Although I was just the right age (10-ish) for the creature’s indelicate charms, and well remember the merchandising accessorised by many a classmate (mostly in the form of lunchboxes), I wasn’t that fascinated. It (he) didn’t hold the lure of Star Wars or Raiders of the Lost Ark. The movie was about kids, and it didn’t seem terribly exciting. So I’m presuming it wasn’t until 1990 (its BBC Christmas Day screening – and world TV premiere) that I finally caught up with the little guy. And yes, E.T.’s a likeable, well-made little movie, one with its glowing red heart in the right place. Just the kind of archetypal fare one expects from Steven Spielberg. But, like many a box office champ, whatever it was everyone else responded so strongly to escaped me. Ultimately, I was only very vaguely affected.
And I don’t think that’s because E.T.’s trying too hard to tug the heartstrings (although John Williams score really doesn’t know when to hold back, and despite that signature theme, is definitely one of his weaker efforts). As master a manipulator as Spielberg is, it’s not like he planned the movie to be the (at one time) all-time box office champ. Or had a Lucas-like master plan for how the merchandising would permeate every aspect of culture (for a period that seemed to last a decade but definitely wasn’t). It was simply his magic touch.
No, I think it’s just that I wasn’t inspired to care very much for E.T. himself. Perhaps this was simply the legacy of parental disapproval in operation, but that didn’t usually hold sway. True, there is the aspect of straightforward aesthetics; this isn’t like Gremlins, where the far less vital (to the lifeblood of the movie) Gizmo is thoroughly delightful (Terry Gilliam considers the key to E.T.’s appeal is the “big Walter Keane moonstone eyes”, arguing the challenge would have been to make Elliot love a creature with eyes like frogs’). But it isn’t really because Carlo Rambaldi’s creation resembles “an animated dog-turd crossed with a vacuum cleaner” (John Walker, the Film Yearbook Volume 2). It’s that he fails to move me, except maybe when he’s lying face down in a drainage ditch (drunk again, no doubt). E.T.’s a preternatural child, arriving on Earth equipped with vast technology but possessed of the emotional faculties of the boy he befriends. He proceeds to get irresponsibly pissed-up, fall down, eat bits of metal and shout excitedly at inopportune moments (thus endangering himself) when he should know better. He’s a bit of a doofus, basically.
I guess that, because I merely think the movie’s good, rather than awesome, I have no soul, certainly if the AFI is anything to go by (it comes in at number six on their list of most inspiring films which, to be fair, isn’t interchangeable with most sentimental). There’s certainly much to admire here, not least the instinctive facility with which Spielberg knows just how to unspool his yarn. He’s completely unhurried, confident the audience will remain with him throughout (I admit it, there are times I can feel the picture dragging, which I suspect is a consequence of his dropping the storyboards and going with the flow), and conceits that might be distractions work splendidly (until Peter Coyote’s Peter Pan-father surrogate rocks up, the only adult whose face we see is Dee Wallace, and she can be trusted because she’s the mum; at least, she can be trusted until she reacts like every other mum in the world did on clapping eyes on E.T. and pulls her kids away).
The picture isn’t perfect technically – not least in terms of puppetry, which even at the time was inferior to Lucas’ galaxy-spanning fare and had more in common with Bruce from Jaws in terms of the seams showing – and with nearly 35 years distance it doesn’t feel as fresh as it did, but its key attraction is exploring a child’s world unburdened by artifice. Where the Spielberg-produced The Goonies a few years later was mostly just a lot of noise, the kids here behave like proper kids (complete with the very un-U Certificate “penis breath”).
Henry Thomas may be centre stage – and he’s fine for the most part, even if too much is occasionally placed on his shoulders, such as Elliot’s ruse to fashion an escape for E.T., which plays more like kids’ TV – but Robert McNaughton and Drew Barrymore are more than his equals. McNaughton as initially belittling big brother Michael turns out to be supportive in all the correct and crucial ways, while Barrymore’s adorable moppet Gertie very nearly steals the show from the central Elliot-E.T. relationship when she gets to spend the day with the turd-like-vacuum cleaner. Together, the trio form a very naturalistic bond of teasing, bickering and sibling support, crucially within a broken home that informs the setting without ever overwhelming it or getting in the way.
Dee Wallace too, post-werewolf, pre-mad dog, and pre-pre-Critters, is at her most sympathetic as deserted mother Mary (riiiiight) having to contend with kids who unfairly idolise their absent father (gone to Mexico with his new woman). Spielberg’s skill here, through Melissa Matheson’s screenplay, is presenting the new norm, the broken home, in a manner that fits sweetly with the themes of the story; E.T. arrives as a companion when Elliot needs him most, and the family find a common bond that supplants the pain of loss.
That Elliot doesn’t go off with the little goblin at the end, in response to E.T.’s invitation, can only be taken as Spielberg atoning for Close Encounters of the Third Kind; Roy Neary leaving his family may as well be Elliot’s dad, Mexico another galaxy. The adult with the childlike obsession, Coyote’s Keys, hangs around. Who knows, perhaps in due course he fills a ready-made gap for an absent dad.
As such, Spielberg’s film couldn’t resolve itself more differently from another huge hit (albeit relatively much less so) featuring a child protagonist from the year before. Spielberg chooses the comforts of home and the security of order restored at the end of E.T., even if the actual departure of the alien is a bittersweet moment. Time Bandits finds Kevin returned home, following an uncondescending adventure that calls into question the very underpinnings of notions of good and evil, to find his parents have been reduced to charred lumps of coal. But then, Gilliam’s never been the sentimentalist; that’s what gives his films greater resonance, beyond the quick fix that’s Spielberg’s candy-coloured sugar rush confection.
Matheson and Spielberg throw several smart ideas in the mix, not least the symbiotic connection between alien and boy. This allows Elliot, for all his ordinariness, to become special and chosen by virtue of his connection with the visitor (now, Elliot really would be special). Close Encounters found the ‘berg rehashing his childhood by referencing Pinocchio, and here he’s doing the Disney again with Peter Pan, from Coyote’s boy who won’t grow up, to E.T. himself, the eternal child from a Never Never Land who teaches a real boy to fly. The best scene in the film might be Mary reading JM Barrie’s novel to Gertie while Elliot and E.T. bond in another room; it’s a perfect blend of language, image and emotion that could so easily have coalesced into a saccharine lump.
The class scene, for example, where Elliot gets drunk via E.T. then releases all the frogs (see the Gilliam comment above), finds a director brimming with ideas, but perhaps overstretching himself. Certainly, the kiss homage to The Quiet Man is cute in concept, but fails to display the musicality, the effortlessness it needs. It’s too ornate and manufactured (I know some love it, but this kind of play is usually better realised when fully integrated, such as in the opening to Spielberg’s next film, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom).
Much of where E.T. succeeds is through keeping things deceptively simple; the motif with the withered and rejuvenated flowers, for example, is far more potent that E.T.’s glowing chest or pen torch finger. So too, E.T.’s promise “I’ll be right here” is simple and direct, notably pointing to Elliot’s third eye, rather than the more expected heart, but we all understand; the connection is spiritual, not only emotional (see also Jesus below).
The flying bikes is entirely marvellous, and justly iconic, stunningly executed (that Moon flyby, only topped by The Naked Gun 2½: The Smell of Fear's wheelchair) – but you do wonder how a dying E.T. is able to expend such audience-rousing energy at such a narratively unlikely moment. Logically it needed to happen earlier in the movie. Or maybe I’m just nit-picking. Earlier, it bugged me that the family (and friends) leave a perfectly good pizza in the backyard just because Elliot dropped it (in its box) on the ground. On the other hand, I rather like that Spielberg has the quarantine team invade the vacuum-sealed house in spacesuits simply because it looks cool.
It’s in the last third of the picture that the threat of adults (rather than man, or woman –notably, when it comes to the crunch, Mary sides with the adults against the alien, even if only for a moment) manifests, bringing them in from the side-lines to occupy a similarly ambivalent role to the establishment in Close Encounters. The government still manifests the architecture of conspiracy and supressed knowledge, but as the ‘70s dwindles away the fear and paranoia, their unquestionable wrongfulness, is less certain. In Spielberg’s world, the wolf may lie down with the lamb, and an average joe can be sent off to space as a wish fulfilment fantasy (Close Encounters) or a government employee (a proto-Mulder, who just wants to believe?) can be on board with the greatest catch of his career returning to the skies and leaving him empty-handed. We see this too with Indiana Jones – or more especially with Raiders of the Lost Ark – where the hero nominally allies himself and represents the government while retaining his own moral code and individuality. It may be an expression of the ‘80s, or simply betraying his own corporate indebtedness, that Spielberg’s heroes have to be venerable sell-outs. Because that’s what he is.
The ‘berg thought he had gone too far with the darkness of his next picture, but he wisely never commissioned a re-edit (not that we know of, anyway). E.T., on its 20th anniversary re-release, did get ill-advisedly sprinkled with CGI fairy dust, though. Most notably, the changing of road-blocking cops’ guns to walkie-talkies (I rather like Harrison Ford’s principal scene that didn’t make the new cut; the actor gives a pitch-perfect performance as a pompous ne’er do well). It’s all for the best, though, as the universal derision that greeted the decision dampened appetites for such tinkering (which, in the wake of the Star Wars special editions, was looking like a viable money-spinner for a while). Besides, it’s entirely plausible that cops should have guns at the ready to take down a few rambunctious kids; it seems like a very American outlook, rather than merely the conceit of a family science fiction movie.
The picture is otherwise benign though; the adults can only intrude so far, and the army of children mass together to do what’s right; there’s no Lord of the Flies here. Although, it does constitute a marker for the ensuing decade, replete with kids and teens’ tales encountering great box office (WarGames, The Goonies, The Lost Boys, John Hughes’ oeuvre), and one where pop culture could be increasingly recognised and celebrated; the fact of Star Wars is all over E.T., even to the extent of the slightly Yoda-esque title character becoming enthused by a Halloween goer in a Yoda mask, and the near-meta scene where Mary investigates the closet, finding a throng of toys including a papier-mâché puppet, being the papier-mâché E.T. (not as extreme as the witticisms Joe Dante would get up to with his Mogwai, but not bad for a ‘berg).
One of the off-cited aspects of E.T. is its function as a Christ metaphor, what with his coming down to Earth to the house of mother Mary, performing miracles, dying, being resurrected, and returning to the stars (God) again. I don’t find it too persuasive, not in a decade where other ready-and-willing candidates for such laurels (The Terminator, Robocop) have a stronger case; E.T. feels very much the lesser of applicants. He may suffer the little children to come unto him, but he absolutely does not get enraged with any money changers. And besides, he only visited us for the mushrooms. The strongest religious feature is actually the deliriously inspired poster, courtesy of Michaelangelo’s The Creation of Adam.
Well, that and the absence of a sequel (we can’t have one until there’s a Second Coming); Spielberg and Mathison produced a treatment for one, called Nocturnal Fears, which sounds entirely wrong-headed, taking in some of the ideas from his once-planned Dark Skies and finding Elliot kidnapped by evil aliens, with E.T. coming to the rescue.
John Walker, in his contemporary article The Selling of E.T., commented “Overkill was impossible, because the movie would exceed its promise”. It wasn’t as if there was any purity or lack of compromise in the endless array of E.T. memorabilia available circa 1982 (re-released 1985), other than with the ill-fated Atari game (they should have just knocked out a Jet Set Willy-type platformer; no E.T.-inflicted violence necessary there). Spielberg might have regarded his picture with something akin to misplaced sanctity, since its non-video release (until 1988) and lack of TV screenings undoubtedly hastened piracy. Which was a big thing from the off, what with a six-month gap between US and UK cinema releases coinciding with video becoming a true force to be reckoned with. But conversely, there’s little doubt either that being held back ensured it became something of a hallowed picture for a while, something special and prized.
And, while grumpy boots Spielberg may have had to wait another eleven years before he basked in Oscar glory, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial saw his third Best Director nomination, all for resolutely populist, commercial fare that isn’t exactly the Academy’s immediate choice to grant a garland. That he was regularly featured at all is more a cause for comment than that he didn’t get the top prize. The film won four of its nine noms, as usual for fantasy in the tech categories, John Williams aside, and was probably the most unabashedly nominated crowd-pleaser of its type until Titanic swept the board. Whether or not E.T. looks like a bald monkey, a pig, or a turd crossed with a vacuum cleaner, he was a phenomenon. But, if you’re unswayed by his charms, or you rather feel as if you weren’t invited to the party, it’s easy to end up looking for fault to justify that you just though it was good. E.T. is good, E.T. be good, but he doesn’t be quite the enduring classic his unassailable reputation suggests.