Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The Great Movies: "E.T."

At the Movies with Michael5000

Steven Spielburg, 1982

Previous Contact: I have seen E.T. once before, on the big screen on its original release. I found it treacly, sentimental, and unlikable. But then, I was, what, sixteen? Based on that viewing, I have always questioned its status as a critically acclaimed movie, and have more or less dreaded having to watch it again for this project.


Let me tell you the plot of E.T. the way you remember it: An alien creature is befriended and nurtured by some California children, but sinister authoritarian forces kidnap it and very nearly kill it for their own dark purposes. Fortunately, the plucky children are able to free the alien and arrange for it to rendezvous with its mothership.

Now, here's what actually happens in the movie: an alien creature is befriended and nurtured by some well-meaning California children. They are well intentioned, but in completely over their heads. Federal authorities are eventually, as you would earnestly hope, able to discover and intervene in this potentially civilization-destroying public health (not to say xenodiplomatic) scenario. They are alarming but unfailingly kind and courteous to the children and their mother, and perform admirably in trying to save the life of the alien after the children literally leave him abandoned in a ditch overnight. When the creature revives due to the presence of its mothership, it is able to utilize the children in order to make a rendezvous.

So, why do we misremember it the first way? Because that is the impression that Stephen Spielberg builds, very intentionally I would have to suppose, by the way the movie is crafted. When the Federal doctors, scientists, and marshals appear onscreen, they are in unnaturally arranged block phalanxes, in faceless hazmat suits, in dark lurking vehicles, and so on. Moreover, overwrought music (by John Williams) signifying danger and threat make sure that we know these are the bad guys. The impression that the alien must be kept out of their clutches at all costs is firmly conveyed, despite that there is nothing in the story, the script, or common sense to suggest that this would be anything but the best outcome for all concerned.

I object to this on two levels. On one hand, although it's not quite right to say I don't like to have my emotions manipulated -- after all, in a sense the whole reason we GO to the movies is to have our emotions manipulated -- I nevertheless don't like to have my emotions blatantly manipulated. I want to decide for myself how I feel about events in a narrative, not have my response scripted by crude visual effects or especially by swelling, bombastic music. And on the other hand, E.T. is a forerunner of the knee-jerk anti-guvment paranoia that blossomed so spectacularly in the 1990s, rendering so many of our fellow citizens vulnerable to the most slack-jawed of conspiracy theories and, on happily rare occasions, inciting them to extremes of pathological behavior.

Having said this, E.T. is better than I remembered it. Its middle third, in particular, manages a entertaining blend of highish drama, lowish comedy, and suspense. The single best thing about E.T. is E.T. itself, a wonderfully realized character who is not a great alien leader, but merely an alien working joe trying to get itself out of a jam. The movie creates for him a complete personality; not only do you not notice when watching the film that he is, of course, made out of latex, but it is almost impossible to disbelieve in him while he is on the screen.

There remain, however, an uncomfortably long list of annoyances for a film that is usually held in such high regard. These include the very unsubtle use of techniques that have since E.T. become thought of as Spielberg’s signatures. There is hardly a scene in the first reel that doesn't feature light shining through steam, fog, or inexplicable haze. People point their flashlights in unison at bright, glowing objects – strange behavior, to be sure, but it sure does create an arresting visual effect. The bad guys -- you know, NASA scientists -- move in a highly mannered fashion so that we can tell they are dangerous. In an early scene, the booted feet of a group of men running down a trail are all shown splashing one after another into the center of a small puddle, in exactly the way that people never run down paths. Even evil NASA scientists instinctively avoid mud puddles.

The product placement of a popular candy was much remarked on at the time, and for good reason: it is blatant and nonsensical enough to distract an adult viewer. And key moments, finally -- including the famous flying bicycle scenes -- are again marred by intrusive, manipulative syrup on the soundtrack. A flying bicycle ride should be able to seem wondrous enough without that big of a crutch.

Visuals: A mix. Spielberg does an amazing job with his title character, and captures the habitat of his human community pretty nicely. His portrayal of the science and public health authorities is foolish, but effective enough. Natural behavior is sometimes trumped by Spielberg’s drive for the Big Visual, which is distracting if you pay attention to such things. And, surprisingly, the movie takes a small but very palpable hit from featuring the Least Convincing Alien Spacecraft Ever in its opening and final scenes.

Dialog: With the exception of an especially implausible schoolteacher (whose face is never seen), the characters are given expressive, interesting, and fairly natural lines. The lead character's little sister, in particular, is a smart and vivid character, played by a dynamite child actress. [Oh, hey! It was Drew Barrymore, who I believe continues to be a brand-name actress! It says here that "In the wake of... sudden stardom, Barrymore endured a notoriously troubled childhood," but now she's apparently an Ambassador Against Hunger for the United Nations World Food Programme, so maybe things ended up OK after all.]

Prognosis: I've been a bit hard on E.T. here, because I feel it to be a flawed and overrated picture. But I also confess that it is an entertaining picture, likely to enjoyed by anyone who can stand being jerked around by bombastic production. With a strong premise and a great script, it had all of the ingredients for a really Great Movie, but instead became an adequate movie and a really Great Consumer Product. I'm sure Spielberg’s investors did not complain.


Ezra said...

I haven't seen it since I was, I guess 9, but I remembered the plot as being about a divorced mom trying to deal with being abandoned (I think the dad ran off) and raising her family alone. And then a magical being comes and helps the family pull together. I probably didn't really understand why the scientists wanted to dissect (or whatever) ET anyway, so I really didn't buy that whole part.

I finally got around to seeing Close Encounters of the Third Kind this year, and the part that sort of bugged me for letting the dad off the hook so easily for abandoning his family to follow his inexplicable compulstion, his special destiny to fly away in a spaceship.

I didn't really think about ET afterward, but in that light, it's almost like a mirror image, where an ET comes down and provides comfort to the mom and family left behind in Close Encounters.

I loved how shockingly messy-- especially for a movie house-- the suburban house in Close Encounters was. Was it so in ET?

Elaine said...

The ET house was pretty clean until ET got into the fridge.

In Close Encounters, the mother takes the children and flees the husband and his obsession... but I, too, wondered about his decision to just Leave It All Behind. Not a thought about never seeing his children grow up? Whether or not he and the wife remain a couple aside, it was a pretty big plot thread to leave trailing ...

And, did I get that wrong? but I thought ET went off on his own vs. being abandoned in a ditch by the kids. Anyone?

Michael5000 said...

@Ezra: You are right -- the family in E.T. is led by a recently abandoned single mother who is clearly having a hard time keeping control of the ship. For me, this was more context than content, though; the mother doesn't have enough screen time to seem like a key character.

The suburban home is indeed shockingly messy on the inside, although neat as a pin on the outside. I thought it was a bit of a stretch to think of them as the same house, but maybe that's the point.

Regarding Close Encounters -- much more my kinda movie, as you might guess -- I don't think we are supposed to think that the lead character's compulsion is anything but that: a compulsion. He doesn't choose to leave his family; he is chosen for reasons mysterious to be representin' Earth to the aliens.

@Elaine: What happens is this -- Elliot takes the creature off into the woods so he can try his (really cool) communication machine, but then falls asleep. While he's asleep, E.T. apparently wanders into the next field and falls into a small ravine. Elliot wakes up, panics, and goes home without finding the creature. So it's not an intentional abandonment, no. But it does (or should) reveal that grade school children are underequipped to ensure the safety of an extraterrestrial visitor.

Nichim said...

E.T. was the first non-animated movie I ever saw. My grandmother took me. I spent a reasonable amount of it hiding on the sticky theater floor in terror, unable to distinguish fantasy from reality. Emotional manipulation, indeed.

Michael5000 said...

@Nichim: Aww... That's kinda cute, in a sick sort of way. I don't think it would scare you so much now.

Nichim said...

I am not about to find out. And my scarred psyche is not cute. A year later I refused to see Return of the Jedi and made my dad watch the re-release of Snow White instead. I never saw any of the Star Wars movies in the theater, and I blame Spielberg. But he couldn't stop my love of science fiction, once it finally got started.
It's kind of cute that you were sixteen and jaded when I was seven and sticky, though.

sister jen said...

I've never seen E.T.--but I found it telling that in the original script, the Elliot character was a girl. It was changed (by Spielberg, I think) to a boy on the rationale that girls in the audience could identify with a boy, but boys wouldn't identify with a girl.


DrSchnell said...

I know it's a minor beef compared with all the other issues you raise, but I remember wondering even then: what the hell's the deal with the moon being that big when the bike crosses in front of it? I don't remember if it's that way in the actual movie, or only on the posters, movie boxes, etc. If the moon is that close to us, there's bigger issues than a lone wrinkly space freak to deal with....

Yankee in England said...

Two thumbs up for using the word Xenodiplomatic. I think I will make it my mission in life to try and slip that into casual conversation this coming week.

On the ET front I can not watch the movie I was seriously traumatized as a young child I thought ET and Elliot were going to die and was in a fit of hystarics in the movie theater to the point my parents had to take me out. I have tried watching it as an adult and have made it through but it really bothers me.

Michael5000 said...

@Nichim: I'm sure you weren't so sticky. It IS funny, though. I don't feel a bit more grownup than you.

@Sis: You've never seen E.T.? Bummer -- I was looking forward to finding out what you thought of it.

@DrSchnell: Well, the moon can look pretty freaking big on the horizon sometimes. Once upon a time, mhwitt and I scampered up onto the roof of our rental house to revel in the sight of a glorious huge autumn moon coming up above Collegetown5000, and were then shouted at for a while by a neighbor girl who assumed we were trying to get a look at her preparing for her shower. And I'll tell you, "no, we're looking at the moon," true as it was, sure sounded lame as a response. This is perhaps an irrelevant story, though, in that no bicycles, boys, or extraterrestrials drifted across that great moon. Or if they did, it happened while we were distracted by the outraged neighbor girl.

@Yank: Maybe you and Nichim should start some kind of recovery group....

Jenners said...

I very much enjoyed reading this post -- after all, it is about the ONLY one of the great movies that I've actually seen that you've written about. Very amusing review, and it makes me wonder what I would think of it seeing it through my "grown up" eyes.

Aviatrix said...

I have heard that one feature of the the re-release of E.T. is that the guns carried by the authorities have been digitally replaced by flashlights. It is possible that the original movie was more like the movie of your remembering than the one you saw most recently. There could be numerous subtle edits that removed menace from the authorities.

I never saw the movie, but I read the book (in which the candy in questions was M&Ms -- apparently they turned down the request to be used in the movie, so Reece's instead reaped the benefit of the publicity). I think it was written largely from the point of view of the alien, so the menace quotient of the various authorities is hard to fix.

Michael5000 said...

@Aviatrix: There was a book? I'll be damned.

Maybe there were some guns forged into flashlights for the version I just watched, I dunno. But my bigger point stands: if you let the movie (in whatever cut) dictate your response, you are earnestly and unambiguously hoping that the seven-year old boy is able to keep the extraterrestrial creature out of the hands of knowledgable adults. I maintain that this is a pretty strange thing for the movie to want you to want.

boo said...

I liked it at the time but even then I didn't feel the need to see it twice. Movies that leave and impact and that I consider great, do make me want to see them again.

The only one of Spielberg's films that I gravitate to repeatedly is Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Even as young as I was watching it, the everyman's story was compelling. And perhaps because there was no clearly identified bad guys (if you don't count the cow killers whoever they were) I was able to let my heart strings be tugged. Plus, way better aliens all out of focus and stringy.

boo said...

Oh I should have read the comments before commenting myself.

I always took the man's obsession to be representative of any person's need to be a part of something bigger. After all, he sacrificed his life too in going with with them as a volunteer for the greater good.

And the countries all working together. It made me cry.

KarmaSartre said...

Great review. Thanks.