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E.T. - The Extraterrestrial (1982)
At his very best (Duel (1971), Jaws (1975), Empire of the Sun (1987), Schindler's List (1993)), Steven Spielberg can be the master manipulator of the human emotion, a craftsman at wringing the last drop of feeling from his pliant audience. Sadly, he can also be a sentimental old fool (witness the mess that is Hook (1991)) and E.T. - The Extraterrestrial is a case in point. Sure, an awful lot of people fell for it and, until Spielberg's own Jurassic Park (1993) came along to steal its crown, it was the biggest money-earner in cinema history. But when all is said and done, it remains a rather cynical exercise in emotion wrangling, Spielberg trying hard to convince us that a fake looking plastic dwarf who wants to place the most expensive long-distance phone call in the history of telecommunications is actually quite cute and loveable.
The story is simplicity itself and therein, one suspects, lies a lot of the film's tremendous appeal. Lonely Elliot, a young boy clearly missing his absent father, finds solace of a kind in his relationship with ET, a tiny alien stranded on Earth when his plant- collecting expedition is disturbed by government UFO specialists and his colleagues are forced to depart rather hurridly. Elliot keeps the alien's presence a secret from his scatty mother though eventually, the authorities track him down and the little spud appears to croak.
The film, which until now has plodded along quite nicely, suddenly takes a turn for the nauseating when ET is restored to life by Elliot's love (pass me a bucket will you...) and the dynamic duo make good their escape aided by Elliot's understandably gob-smacked mates and ET's ability to make BMX bikes fly through the air (we won't dwell too long here on the question of why ET can make bikes fly, but he couldn't make himself fly back to the spaceship at the beginning). In true Spielbergian fashion, ET's gardening buddies arrive in a blaze of light (where the hell have they been all this time? Didn't they notice that he was missing?) and the little plastic one zooms off to the stars leaving Elliot to face an uncertain future without his one true love.
Now you'll have to excuse me if I sound not a little cynical at this point, but I really do find all this a little hard to swallow. The film itself is beautifully crafted (even Spielberg's worst films are technically stunning) and it certainly has its moments (the opening scenes of ET being pursued through a nightmarish forest that only moments before had seemed like the Garden of Eden, for example and, OK, I'll admit that that bit at the end when ET tells Elliot "I'll be right here" does come close to jerking a tear or two), but the mawkish, over-sentimentality of the whole show damn near scuppers it altogether. There's not a single jot of real emotion in E.T. (compare this to the raw, gut wrenching emotion of Schindler's List or Saving Private Ryan (1998)), just simple, knee-jerk reactions to a series of pre-programmed emotional conditions. ET himself is cunningly fashioned to look as vunerable as possible, not unlike a human baby in fact, with those big blue eyes and bald head, and merely placing him in a threatening situation is enough to elicit the required amount of emotion from the more sensitive (or indeed gullible) members of the audience.
Spielberg especially plays on the fears and fantasies of young children (and, no doubt he would claim, the child in all of us) by representing the entire film from the viewpoint of a child. Elliot is lonely and obviously quite confused about his role in his disfunctional family, a feature of many of Spielberg's films, most noticeably in the similarly intentioned but far superior Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977). Elliot and ET are, in a sense, one and the same, both lost little souls adrift in a world that they neither understand nor want to be a part of. In this respect, Spielberg is priming his audience to react rather than think right from the off.
And, just as he elicites emotions in a cold and calculated manner, his representation of emotion on the screen is equally lifeless and automatic. Characters express awe and surprise by standing around with their lower jaw round their knees, gaping in mock wonderment at whatever special effect ILM have conjured up for them. And when they try to express themselves in other ways, the characters in ET are equally unconvincing - blubbing at the drop of a hat, shouting, screaming "whooaaa!!" at the top of their voices and generally being cute are not my ideas of genuine human emotions. And just in case you don't quite get the message and forget when to feel sad or upset or overcome with joy, there's always John Williams' sugar coated soundtrack ever ready to cue you your next emotional outburst - be sad now, here come the stirring strings! And now be scared, here are the loud horns! How could such a predictably emphatic score have been written by the same man who wrote the stunning soundtrack for Jaws?
Many of Spielberg's early preoccupations are present and correct - ths mistrust of faceless adult authority, the innocence (so-called - how could he be so misguided?!) of childhood, lots of big lights in foggy woods, families that are falling apart, adults too stupid to be allowed to live (Elliot's mum fails to notice ET for most of the film, even when he's right under her very nose) and so on. Many have commented that this was Spielberg's most personal film to date and, in a sense, that may be true. However, even with Jaws, Close Encounters and Raiders of the Lost Ark beneath his belt, Spielberg was, in many ways, still quite immature as a director. It wasn't until he unleashed his real feelings on Schindler's List that we finally got to see that maturity and the true depth of the man's talents. E.T., though technically quite stunning, is still the work of a man trying out his talents, still stretching himself and, in this case, reaching just a little too far for comfort.
The only time the film really becomes interesting on any level higher than a simple-minded tear jerker is when it's dealing with the sinister scientists pursuing the alien. Barely seen as anything other than looming silhouettes or figures lurking in shadows for most of the film, these shady characters are by far and away the most compelling aspect of the film. Not averse to using sophisticated bugging and surveillance gear to listen in on peoples' private lives, or even breaking and entering for a discreet snoop around, they are the secretive agents of Close Encounters taken to more disturbing extremes. Their presence in the film lends it an dark undertone that it would otherwise sorely miss, particularly in the scenes when they turn their medical instruments on ET, trying to save his life but looking for all the world like they're torturing him into an earlier grave - the moment when they use defribulators to try reviving ET is genuinely quite disturbing and Drew Barrymore's startled reaction to it evokes more of an emotional response than anything else the film has to offer. But it's such a shame that they turn out to be so stupid in the end - they spend ages skulking about trying to keep themselves hidden from sight and not draw attention to the fact that they're on the trail of a stranded alien. Then they wander up and down a suburban street in space suits and cover a house in a giant plastic bubble...
Countering this darkness, however, is the unpalatable pseudo-religious subtext. ET's presence on earth is described by chief scientist Keys as "a miracle"; his 'death' is brought on by his attempt to save Elliot (dying for his sins, perhaps); and his subsequent rebirth/resurrection is given a positively biblical sheen by Spielberg. It all leaves a rather unpleasant aftertaste and again is tantamount to pressing those emotional buttons, using emotive symbolism to do the real work. Such narrative, symbolic and textual short-cuts are rife throughout ET.
From all of this, you may have me pegged as a Spielberg hater, one of that army of hacks who seem to think it fun to pillory St Steven every time he makes a mistake. But no, nothing could be further from the truth. Indeed, I respect and admire Spielberg more than many other directors and that, in essence, is why I dislike E.T. so much. The man clearly has tremendous talents and has shown himself quite capable of making startling, moving and downright terrifying movies with consumate ease. Such push-button emotion mongering is clearly beneath him. The feelings aroused by Empire of the Sun, Schindler's List and, to a lesser degree, The Color Purple are rather more genuine and heartfelt than this sentimental old pap. And anyone who claims not have been terrified by Jaws, excited by the exploits of Indiana Jones or sat on the edge of their seats during Jurassic Park is either lying or insensible.
I'm not actually denying that the film works. It certainly does and it would take a stronger man than I to sit through it with a dry eye. What I'm objecting to is the way in which it is done. Getting a movie audience to show its emotion is no easy task, I'll admit, but perhaps one expected too much of Spielberg - it's just so very disappointing that he needed to make us show our feelings in such an easy and obvious way. Torturing kittens would be just as easy, but would anyone really want to watch that?
But E.T. was a long time ago and an awful lot of cinematic water has passed under Spielberg's bridge since then. So it may be churlish to point out that the special effects are actually quite appalling - the matte shots are hideous and ET never looks like anything more than a lump of plastic stuffed with gears and motors. And who am I to argue with the great god Box Office and its mighty grip on Hollywood. Surely all those bums on seats couldn't have been wrong, could they?
Well, yes, they could. For they were probably put there - at least a good percentage of them - by one of the most cleverly orchestrated and manipulative advertising campaigns ever. By the time the film opened, the shops were full of ET merchandising and, because Spielberg cannily decided not to let any footage of ET be seen on TV prior to the film's release, people were snapping up the goodies without actually having seen the little grey spud on the big screen. I say big screen because a booming trade in illegal bootleg videos marked the beginnings of the underground market in pirate videos - never before had any film been so comprehensively bootlegged as E.T. - The Extraterrestrial. But at least we got to see the film, which is more than most of the Swedish kids in the film's target audience - inexplicably, the film was banned for under 12s because it showed kids being unpleasant to their parents...
Thankfully, Spielberg has gone on to much bigger and better things, though
unfortunately, E.T. - The Extraterrestrial remains one of his
most fondly remembered films. One suspects that when his chips are finally cashed,
it won't be his real masterpieces that are remembered, but this cynical exercise
in feel-good cinema. Still, how many of you can honestly say that you haven't
fallen for it at least once.
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