Friday, December 28, 2018

E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982)

USA, 115 minutes
Director: Steven Spielberg
Writer: Melissa Mathison
Photography: Allen Daviau
Music: John Williams
Editor: Carol Littleton
Cast: Henry Thomas, Dee Wallace, Peter Coyote, Robert MacNaughton, Drew Barrymore, K.C. Martel, Sean Frye, C. Thomas Howell, Debra Winger

Director Steven Spielberg was already big time in 1982, complete with a certified flop and the oomph to slog on through (1941, which I still haven't seen, though it is presently at #236 in my Netflix queue so I'm getting there). He had shown he could do horror (Duel, Jaws), science fiction (Close Encounters of the Third Kind), big budget action adventure (Raiders of the Lost Ark), and even desperate crazy kids relationship romance (The Sugarland Express). But a movie intended expressly to make you cry, well, even if it's all tarted up with science fiction trimmings or whatever, that seemed like a stretch for popular culture and for me, at least at the time. Eventually—it started slow as blockbusters go—E.T. turned out to be a giant smash, overtaking Star Wars in 1983 as the highest-grossing film of all time. It still sits at #4 on the all-time list adjusted for inflation at Box Office Mojo, behind only Gone With the Wind, Star Wars (resurgent doubtless under the weight of its endless rereleases), and The Sound of Music. It's just ahead of Titanic, DeMille's second Ten Commandments, and Jaws—Spielberg is the only director in the top 10 with more than one movie.

I finally did see E.T. the summer it was released, and I cried at all the right parts I'm sure, but it felt a little porny, and feels even more so now. The movie's rise to popularity suggests an interesting trajectory—it holds top 10 box office records for ninth, 10th, 11th, 12th, and 13th weekends, but is much lower for earlier weekends. Is that repeat viewers, or word of mouth, or some combination? Anyway, the idea of going to see a movie because it would make you cry was new and exotic, though I later realized of course it's one of the oldest traditions of storytelling there is. My first experience had been a TV broadcast of The Wizard of Oz I happened to sit down to watch by myself when I was 21. It was disconcerting to find myself overwhelmed by emotion over things like Kansas, ruby slippers, and no place like home, but there I was, and it wasn't altogether unpleasant, once the tears and tender convulsions stopped—kind of cathartic. Now I'm old and sentimental and cry at anything that resembles kindness, from great moments in film and literature all the way down to soft drink and auto insurance commercials. I use it as a certain indicator. If it can make me cry I want to know why, even the commercials—especially the commercials. That's how I've decided it's generally kindness that sets me off, and we can all benefit from more of that.

But I'm not sure E.T. has worn so well even on that score, or whether I can be so kind to it in turn, in spite of its still generally beloved reputation. Any time there is rampant hanky soaking there is also usually some element of base manipulation going on (yes, even in movies like Au hasard Balthazar and Fearless, the two that most regularly make a wreck of me these days). Charlie Chaplin, Frank Capra, and (starting approximately here) Steven Spielberg are among the most notorious film directors for putting the emotional screws relentlessly, until you're practically crying out of self-defense or turning away from the whole thing in disgust. What surprises me about E.T. the two or three times I've looked at it in the last 20 years is how little there is to it. It's really more of a children's movie, straight up.

With Close Encounters five years earlier Spielberg showed an almost unnatural ability to evoke a sense of wonder that felt profound. "This means something," is the way his main character Roy Neary puts it so memorably again and again in that movie. "This is important." I'm sure I brought a lot of it to that movie in the first place, already with some predisposition toward the frame of mind on UFOs and aliens from outer space. Even in 1977 our civilization was quite apparently in need of saving and in my lifetime I've seen little sign yet that we are capable of doing it ourselves. Spielberg played it perfectly, so much so that for years I remained among those oblivious to the fact that, in the ending of Close Encounters, Neary abandons his family wholesale with barely a blink. Hell yes, I would have been climbing aboard that spaceship too if I had the chance. Bye, wife and kids! Good luck! (No doubt this is a key reason I'm single.)

In E.T., Spielberg is working much the same territory, down to the special effects—the spooky lights of spaceships in the woods, the nonthreatening big-eyed doll-like aliens, the evil scientists and government agents who just don't understand. But rather than a full-grown man who takes reality much the way we do, with a mortgage and responsibilities and worries, now our primary human contact is a 10-year-old boy, Elliott (Henry Thomas), who may or may not still believe in Santa Claus. He describes the stranded alien to his disbelieving family as a goblin, and says he wants to keep it. He has little adult sense of the world. Roy Neary's sense of wonder is more vital compared to Elliott's. Ultimately that makes E.T. more like a Lassie movie—not that there's anything wrong with that.

But for every "E.T. phone home" inspiration there are long and disappointing patches of muddled foolishness—the alien E.T. getting drunk on Coors beer (a ton of product placement all through this one), Elliott liberating frogs from a science class (the movie is deeply hostile to science on many levels), kids flying their bicycles on thin air across the gorgeous full moon by the power of ... something. All the nonsense about a psychic bond between Elliott and E.T. Call it movie magic, if you must. It gets to be too much—just cheap. I have other curmudgeonly complaints as well, no doubt about more of the things that make it most beloved. John Williams, for example, Spielberg's right-hand man for music, works best for me when I don't notice him, and it's hard not to notice this score, which is constantly intruding with obvious cues. E.T. depends for its life, like so many great movies, on casting a spell. Alas, I seem to be immune to it. Ouch.

1 comment:

  1. Watch out for the E.T./Spielberg trolls. Apparently, similar criticism of, say, Pink Friday or Lemonade warrant death threats. It was probably that movie magic sentimental bond betw Elliott and E.T. for me nearing now 40 years ago. Now I'm afraid to see it again. Sacred cows die hard.