I’m dedicating two years of my life to watching and reviewing every movie on the American Film Institute’s 100 Years…100 Movies, even the ones I’ve seen before. Here’s #25, E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial.
It’s not that I don’t like E.T. or don’t respect it. It’s just that I don’t care.
I don’t CARE. I feel bad that E.T. misses his home and almost dies from the separation from his species. I feel bad that the kid misses his dad and needs a replacement father figure. I appreciate the fun, the magic, the “wonder” (whatever that means). I just completely and utterly do not give a shit.
What kind of monster could hate E.T. you ask? Well, I don’t hate it. Nor do I think it’s a bad movie, because it clearly is. I won’t dispute the 98% on Rotten Tomatoes or Richard Attenborough’s complete surprise at winning the Oscar for Gandhi over it. It just feels like I’m watching all my friends drop acid and having a great time while the prescription meds I’m on have neutralized all effects, and I’m left thinking, “Gosh, it looks like they’re having fun. Gee, I’m bored.”
You may argue that it’s a kid’s movie, or at least aimed at “the kid in all of us” (whatever that means). But I felt the exact same way about it when I was a kid. The place where other kids kept their E.T. VHS, I had the Indiana Jones and Star Wars trilogies (plus Terminator 2, Wayne’s World and Pulp Fiction. Probably says a lot about me). That’s what excited me, and that’s what I sympathized with. Those are outward movies with guys out exploring the world, fighting for something within it for some justifiable reason. I loved that, I just couldn’t wait to get out and see what was out there. Sure there was adult stuff, but it didn’t corrupt me, it just went over my head until I was old enough, and that just made it better.
E.T., meanwhile, always felt less like it was for me and more like it was at me, like it was telling me to like it without asking my input. Like how I always hated Mickey Mouse, but still grew up with him in my life because adults everywhere insisted that he was great. Even as a kid I felt I was being pandered to, I just didn’t know the word for it yet.
E.T. came at a time when Steven Spielberg could do no wrong. He had cut his teeth with Jaws, gained international and artistic recognition with Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and proved everyone wrong with Raiders of the Lost Ark. E.T. originally came from two different projects – a semi-autobiographical story about a boy who needs an imaginary friend after losing a father, and a sci-fi horror flick about an alien that torments a family. Both were about to happen but were delayed by 1941, Spielberg’s oft-forgotten (rightfully so) WWII John Belushi/Dan Aykroyd comedy. While bored during the filming of Raiders, he decided to combine the two and tell the story of a young boy who meets an alien that fills a void in his life.
And so E.T. was born as Spielberg’s cathartic tale of a young boy with no role models who needs to come out of his shell.
So maybe that’s what’s stopping me from enjoying it.
Maybe it’s so personal and specific that I don’t recognize anything about this family. There’s a very specific way Spielberg views kids and adults – children ages 2-5 are walking cuteness and always try to help. Kids from 7-13 are ambitious and precocious, they’re the heroes. Teens from 14-17 are bratty but ultimately decent. After that, anyone in their late teens and 20s are absolute shitheads. Adults are pretty much worthless unless they’re parents; they’re cops, scientists, alien-hunters or some other big scary adult who just doesn’t get it. Sometimes parents have marital problems, but they’re just described as “problems,” presumably because going into detail wouldn’t make any sense to a kid.
But that’s not how I felt when I was a kid. Despite being painted incredibly broadly to be an everykid, I never sympathized with Elliot, even when I was his age.
The other reviews of Spielberg films in this series have all dealt with the struggle of a talented kid who just can’t catch a break, or whose ideas he can’t get funding for. His best movies came from struggle and vision, which led to the need to separate necessary concepts from self-indulgence (for example, Raiders was originally half sci-fi with Indy as an antihero, and Jaws had to be completely rethought because of a malfunctioning prop shark). And while I wouldn’t call E.T. self-indulgent, it definitely a sign of annoyingly sappy Spielberg films to come. A point of no return.
Look at what he’s done since E.T. Drama, historical drama, family-friendly fun and a shitload of producing other people’s big action movies. And then look at the drift towards not wanting to offend children, going so far as to put invincible CG gophers and monkeys in Crystal Skull and reworking E.T. so that there aren’t any guns in it. Even the 80s Indy sequels, though still great, are a bit more cartoonish and less rough. That transition away from the courageous, hungry, energetic filmmaker of the 70s can be seen in E.T. Since then, the only times he deals with real emotions or anything remotely R-rated are in his Oscar-bait.
Though as the transition movie, there is a real crackling energy to E.T. that I won’t deny. There are some incredibly imaginative set pieces, and the animatronics do make you believe that this alien is a real character. The scene where he gets drunk and Elliot feels it is some pretty inspired filmmaking that tells plot-essential details while treating us to something we’ve never seen before.
But I’m still not on board. If you believe that E.T. is amazing, don’t let me convince you otherwise.
Comments: Cute, sweet, inventive, completely neutral. Deeply personal for Spielberg and many people whose opinions are worth trusting. I don’t hate it, it just means absolutely nothing to me.
Deserves to be in Top 100: Wouldn’t make my list of Top 100. It’s not disingenuous, dishonest, bad or overrated like Forrest Gump was. I understand that I’m the outlier.
Inspired: Mac and Me. You know, this one.
Next Week: #24 Raging Bull
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