Welcome to Thursday Thunderdome, where two members with opposing views on a pop cultural subject joust to the death for our entertainment. Did we say joust to the death? We meant debate respectively and live forever afterwards. For the first battle, the topic of discussion will be Stephen Spielberg’s classic sci-fi family drama E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982). Stepping into the cage will be Erin and Glenn to slug it out. Who’s side are you on? Sound off in the comments and let us know.
GLENN MILLER VS. ERIN MISKELL
First up, we have Glenn in defence of the film…
E.T: The Extra Terrestrial is a marmite film it these days, in stark contrast to its first release in 1982 where it was seemingly universally loved and adored. Yet even then I remember it being called too saccharine, too sentimental and – from SF fans expecting another Close Encounters of the Third Kind – not really science fiction. Since then opinion is split, with those who defend it as a loved childhood film, or those who hate it for a number of reasons. But my argument is this: not only is E.T a great film, but its one of director Steven Spielberg’s best films.
Everyone knows what E.T’s about. Alien gets stranded on Earth. Gets befriended by a 10-year old child, Elliott (Henry Thomas) who then protects him from his new life on Earth, and the attempts of the American government who, for a number of reasons, want to take E.T for their own investigations. They don’t especially mind if E.T’s dead or alive either. Eventually Elliott, E.T and their friends escape their government’s grasp in order to return E.T to his people, and we all bawl our eyes out as the pair are split up, but it’s a cathartic release as he’ll always be in our hearts…
Now, how I see E.T isn’t as a SF/adventure film (I’ll explain the adventure part in a bit) but as a story of a single mother trying to bring up three children, including one that would be possibly classed as registering on the autistic spectrum. Elliott finds his world overwhelming, he finds it hard to relate to people, including his elder brother Michael (Robert MacNaughton)and his wee sister Gertie (Drew Barrymore), but he really can’t relate to his mother, Mary (and yes, there’s a little sign of the film’s later Christian allegory planted right there) as played by Dee Wallace. Elliott can’t relate to adults at all, hence why for the first half of the film the only adult Spielberg shows us as an entire person is Mary, his mother, only because she’s the only figure of authority in his life since his father left.
If you look at E.T as a John Cassavetes drama but with an alien, then the film starts to change. The film follows the Kübler-Ross psychological model (better known as the five stages) and we see Elliott going through anger, anger, bargaining, depression and then finally acceptance on his journey from confused, lonely, possibly autistic, young boy to a child that’s grown up in a short time to accept and interact with others. For example, the Elliott at the start of the film could not tell teenage boys much older than him to help him and E.T escape armed American government agents who will shoot them had E.T not done his space-magic.
E.T as a character is a way for Spielberg to tell a hard dramatic story in an easy accessible way. It’s the third of his films (Close Encounters and Jaws being the previous two) where the third act ends up being a grand adventure so it’s easy to come away from E.T having been swept up in that adventure. It makes the struggles of a single mother (and remember, in 1982, single parents were still seen as ‘abnormal’ in some way from some) and her failing relationship with her 10-year old son more commercial, more palatable and oddly enough, more relatable to a mass audience. However Spielberg wasn’t making this a film for adults to relate per se (though obviously they did), it was for children. If you’re a child you can relate to the magic friend who comes and saves your from your loneliness and pain a lot more if you’re an adult with a series of failed relationships, a naff job, a mortgage and an ache in your back that wasn’t there 15 years ago. E.T works as a film where children who are confused, lost, hurt, lonely or in some sort of pain can access the world and see they can work through to not only process the world as ‘normal’ people do, but they can relate to adults, even give their parent/s the love back they’ve been unable to.
This is a film not without flaws. It does have rose coloured glasses on at times, plus E.T as a character is frequently annoying but as a film, this is one of Spielberg’s finest.
Erin, on the other hand, does not quite agree…
I hate E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial.
Always have. It came out in 1982, but I didn’t watch it in the theaters, as I was only two at the time. Nope. I saw that one at home, on video, in early 1986. I was five years old at the time. My siblings loved it, laughing and crying. Most girls had a crush on Henry Thomas, who played Elliott. I, however, was less than amused. “Don’t you like the cute little alien?” my mother asked me. I replied no. She asked why. My response? “This movie is trying to make me cry.”
I had no other way to articulate it back then, but the description is pretty apt. E.T. goes out of its way to try to get you to cry. I didn’t have the words back then to try to describe it, but I do now. Really, you can break down what makes it so loathesome for us jaded folks by reversing the arguments that many use to say it’s great: cuteness, sentimental moments, and heartbreak. E.T. is loaded with more artifical sugar than a Splenda factory. If its sentimentality was makeup, it would look like Tammy Faye Bakker circa 1987. And if that’s not bad enough, it then goes out of its way to stomp on your feelings so that you’re left in a puddle that’s destroyed for three days.
First up: the cute factor. I don’t know about you, but a lump of flesh that looks like a wrinkled, elderly man that’s all eyes and points at everything isn’t exactly cute to me. Yes, I know I’ve just described the majority of newborns. The thing about that is that unlike most newborns, our titular character can go creepy pretty quickly. While you may hear the name “Eliott” whispered in soft tones that melt your heart, I hear a creaking voice coming from a pile of stuffed animals; for anyone that’s ever had a doll with terrifying eyes, you can vouch for how scary this is. “But Erin, he’s cute!” you might be saying. “Just look at him.” Not buying it. You know what other movie had a cute alien? Species. Look how well that turned out for everyone. Our main man Elliott’s little sister, Gertie (Drew Barrymore, in all her lispy glory), has an initial reaction to him that’s pretty evenly matched to mine: she screams.
However, good ol’ Gert, Elliott and E.T. become the best of pals, which means that there’s sentimentality for everyone at the table, even our satellite characters. Gertie gets to play with E.T., dressing him up and having tea with her dolls. Elliott gets to bond with a buddy that shows him wonderful things, like a glowing finger, in between coming of age (learning to get along with siblings, first kisses, etc.). Even Elliott’s brother Michael (Robert MacNaughton) gets to grow up and stop treating his brother like some pesky kid. It’s the point that he realizes his little brother could die that really seals it for him, reinforcing that the bond between brothers is something that can’t be broken by a little thing like everyday teasing. As if that’s not enough, we get the Great Recurring Theme in most 80s films: mom and dad are getting divorced. Dad is nowhere in sight. It’s all up to Mom (Dee Wallace) to raise those kids into upright citizens, that brave stoic woman that is trying her best in less-than-ideal circumstances. The problem? It’s way too much going on. It’s like wearing plaid with polka dots – your eyes aren’t sure where to focus first. Are you rooting for Elliott to grow up, or stay an innocent kid? Can Gertie please stop with the wide-eyed, “I’m-an-adorable-child” act for two solid minutes and be the hardcore brat we know she’s capable of being? Because let’s face it, little kids that are that cute know that they’re that cute. By the time we get to the divorce drama of the week, it’s exhausting. Every movie in the 80’s had divorcing parents. Is divorce traumatic? Yes, absolutely. But this was just one more thing thrown into an otherwise busy plot. We would have been just fine without it, because we already had the conquest of cuteness, the brotherly love and the coming of age components to whack us over the head with real-life experiences.
But no. E.T. isn’t content to just stop there. For those of you that do manage to get attached to the characters and their struggles, we then get hit over the head with our old friend death. Death is something we can’t fight; however, it’s never easy in a kids’ film, yet kids’ films are the places where writer feel the need to undo the belt and fart as loud as they can on the couch of cinematic feelings. Don’t believe me? Old Yeller, people. Old Yeller. It’s as though the writers of these things sit around and think, “Okay, it’s not enough for the kids to cry. We want mom and dad wrecked for at least two days. Make it good.” E.T. could have settled for the dying flower, but no, that shit’s for chumps. Elliott has to get sick too. And when he’s brought back to life, he has to have the bond with his little buddy broken, causing more sickness and near-death. The solution to all of this? Get the little alien back on his ship, never to be seen again. That’s right, folks: in order to save the life of your best friend, you have to stick him on an escape raft and jettison him off into deep space, never to be seen again in order to save him a lifetime of anal probes and medical experimentation at the hands of the U.S. Government. It’s either literal death or cutting ties. You know he’s got to go home in order to survive, and that’s the nicer option because at least your alien gets to live. It’s not exactly uplifting though. There’s a fine line between making you feel something and trying too hard. Like a bad date, this one is trying to get you to fall in love before dessert. For some, it works; for the rest of us, it makes us want to run screaming into the night.
That’s not love, people. That’s manipulation. It’s like this movie got you drunk, is now knocked up and is expecting a ring so that you can see your kid. We like to call that emotional blackmail. This film grabs you and turns your honest feelings into a hostage situation, except Bruce Willis is not going to save you. Nope. You’re on your own kid. It’s just you and your bike, hoping that you reach the moon when you go over that cliff. Then again, it did inspire MAC and Me, which means that we really did go over that cliff.