AGAINST THE GRAIN: E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982)

Richard has a few problems with Steven Spielberg’s kid-friendly classic featuring a homesick alien. Make that questions… lots of questions. 

I don’t like E.T.

There, I said it, because that should clue you in on what kind of review this is going to be. Why don’t I like E.T.? Well, let’s answer that question shall we? On one hand, the film has a lot going for it, but to me, E.T. is a movie split into two halves. One that is good and the other not so good. The first half has some of the best build-up that you will ever see in a major studio film, and the second is where Spielberg falls into his trap of being whimsical and sentimental.

The Extra-Terrestrial opens with a group of aliens landing in a remote forest. Why they have landed here is anyone’s guess, as it’s never explained, but oh well! We see one member of the landing party get separated from the rest when a group of government agents arrive, presumably to capture one of the visitors. Again, how or why they knew the aliens were landing there is anyone’s guess, with the reasoning never made specifically clear. The aliens take off before the agents can find them, but leave the titular E.T. stranded.

Then, we are introduced to our main character, Elliot (Henry Thomas), his older brother Michael (Robert MacNaughton), and younger sister Gertie (hey, is that Drew Barrymore?!). God, I hate these kids. Yeah, I know that they were merely children and can’t help the way they were, but did Spielberg have to get such bratty and petulant kids to be our main characters? Elliott especially gets on my nerves; I know Spielberg has a talent for getting good performances out of child actors, but I really can’t stand Elliott. He complains about everything and has no consideration for anyone but himself.

What the movie does right in terms of characterisation is keeping E.T. in total mystery; we only see brief glimpses of him such as his hands or moving a bush, or a couple of dustbins falling over. It’s done really well and adds a sense of atmosphere to the film, and it’s what keeps me invested in the story. But, unfortunately, when Elliott finally meets E.T. is when the film starts to go downhill for me. You just couldn’t resist going all whimsical on us could you, Steven? For one thing, I’m not a fan of the alien design. Why did they have to make him so bug-eyed and cute? Couldn’t they have made him a bit creepier and less an adorably curious being?

But that’s not even my biggest issue with this part of the film. At one point, Elliott is at school and E.T. is at the family home doing things like drinking beer and smacking into cupboards, and yet Elliott seems to feel this and reacts as though he has a connection to E.T. WHY does this happen? There’s no prior connection established between the two and it comes out of nowhere. Then, for some reason, Elliott starts to free all the frogs he and his classmates were going to dissect in their science class. Again, why does this happen? It just comes out of the ether with no explanation.

Whilst I’m still scratching my head at scenes like that, E.T. gathers together some random objects to make a rudimentary communicator in order to contact his home planet and call his people to rescue him. Why these parts work to create this device that can somehow get E.T. home is totally beyond me and is, in my opinion, the result of lazy writing. Not long after that, it’s established that Elliott and E.T. are both dying. I assume it’s because E.T. is not used to Earth’s atmosphere and our oxygen would be toxic to him, thus he’s unable to survive as a result. This is fine from a storytelling standpoint, but why is Elliott feeling this? I know there’s a famous scene earlier when Elliott cuts his finger and E.T. uses his powers to heal it, but I don’t see how that would mean they now share each other’s pain. But then E.T. finally dies and Elliott gets better, which is, to me, where the film should have ended. Despite all the problems, it could have had a strong conclusion with Elliott going through a character arc and progressing in such a short amount of time for a child.

But, of course, you all know this isn’t where the film ends. Elliott stands over his friend’s body, tells him how much he loves him and E.T. miraculously comes back to life. The first question is: what? The second is: what the hell? Now people will tell me that it’s emotional and symbolic. Well, I stuff your cheap symbolism and manipulative emotions, I want logic goddamn it! We also then meet a government agent known only as “Keys” (Peter Coyote) because of a set of keys that hang from his belt (yeah, I know, go with it). He tells Elliott that he has been waiting to meet an alien since he was ten-years-old. Why the hell wasn’t the film about this guy? He’s far more interesting than Elliott, and I would actually love to see a film about him growing up into a government agent and spending his life searching for extra-terrestrials. But, nope, Elliott is the one who gets to meet the alien first because… reasons.

Then comes the film’s final act when Elliot, his brother and their friends take E.T. to the forest to rendezvous with the spaceship, doggedly pursued by the government. Why don’t they just turn E.T. over to them? Think of what they could learn from him; I know they would probably kill and dissect E.T., but we don’t know that for sure, and they seemed pretty determined to keep him alive earlier. Hell, they could have probably discovered so much about the universe and advanced our scientific abilities in so many ways, but nope! Goddamn it, I wish that Elliott wasn’t such a selfish, whiny little brat. It doesn’t help that the climax makes little to no sense. Of course the film ends with E.T. promising to Elliott that “I’ll be right here.” Giving me the urge to vomit, he gets on his spaceship and flies away with John Williams’ smaltzy score in the background, and the film has its sad but happy denouement and everyone except for me cries.

So, that’s E.T. folks! I more than understand that it has a lot of nostalgic value for so many people, but for me, when I apply my analytical and critical-thinking to it, it doesn’t really work for me. The writing feels forced and lazy, the characters get on my nerves, and I don’t like the forcibly whimsical feel the film has. Plus, it has quite a few plot holes which most people either ignore or have never noticed before. As someone who often defends Spielberg and usually argues that he is not the overtly-sentimental and manipulative filmmaker many of his critics say he is, this is one of the films that certainly doesn’t help my case.

I would say that Empire of the Sun is a much better Spielberg film with a great lead performance by a child actor (said child actor being Christian Bale), but this was definitely in the period of Steven’s career when he wasn’t much of a risk-taker and didn’t want to frighten his audience too much. I would say The Extra-Terrestrial would have been much better had it ended with E.T.’s death and Elliott actually learning something, but the finale wastes whatever potential or emotional punch the film could have had.

Useless Trivia

(Via IMDb)
  • Steven Spielberg shot most of the film from the eye-level of a child to further connect with Elliot and E.T.
  • Most of the full-body puppetry was performed by a 2′ 10 tall stuntman, but the scenes in the kitchen were done using a 10-year old boy who was born without legs but was an expert on walking on his hands.
  • According to the film’s novelization, E.T. is over ten million years old.
  • The filmmakers had requested that M&M’s be used to lure E.T., instead of Reese’s Pieces. The Mars company had denied their request and so Reese’s Pieces were used instead. As a direct result, Reese’s Pieces sales skyrocketed. Because of this, more and more companies began requesting that their products be used in movies – a common practice which was done previously with the James Bond film franchise (the end credits of a Bond film prior to 1982 have had their end credits when contributing companies had their product used in a feature film). Thus, product placement was born.

Richard Bal

My name is Richard, I like beer, heavy metal and movies, but maybe not necessarily in that order.

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