To be honest, I really don’t like Steven Spielberg. He’s simplistic, condescending and, the odd for-the-ages shot aside, he isn’t a very original or intelligent director. Even at age nine, I had my suspicions about Hook’s ghastliness, and I haven’t been encouraged recently by his frustratingly derivative war movie Saving Private Ryan and godawful sequel to the so-so Jurassic Park. Over at his five-year-old production company Dreamworks SKG, Spielberg has encouraged the production of some of the more overrated studio films in recent years, including the plodding Almost Famous and the sophomoric American Beauty. Most shamelessly, he advised pumping up a scene in The Contender with swelling, patriotic music. He is, in sum, far from the most admirable moviemaker in Hollywood.
With these depressing convictions in mind, I went into E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial’s 20th Anniversary rerelease with basement-level expectations. And I was startled: E.T. is not a terrible film. It’s not a classic, or even a particularly good film, but it doesn’t embarrass itself in Spielberg’s traditional and self-importantly mawkish fashion. The story is a simple one—boy (Elliot, played by Henry Thomas) meets alien (E.T.), boy befriends alien, boy helps alien escape the authorities and return to his people. Within this framework, Spielberg and screenwriter Melissa Mathison craft a fair tolerance parable that teaches its lesson with brevity.
Spielberg places kids at the heart of E.T., and properly so. In a way, the choice is one of artistic convenience, because Spielberg has never really grown up. He has little insight into how mature characters function, and it shows in this film: Elliot’s single mother, who remains ignorant of E.T.’s presence far longer than she realistically could (a scene in which her daughter blatantly announces a speaking, moving E.T.’s proximity to her requires the mother to be improbably dense); the kindly scientist, who serves solely as a personal ego boost for Elliot; and the evil, E.T.-chasing authorities, who are masked, helmeted, shot at waist level or otherwise faceless.
But Spielberg knows kids inside and out, and E.T.’s children are true-to-life—cocky, energetic and driven alternately by their cravings for mischief-making and discovery. Spielberg’s connection to them enables him to build their scenes from oh-so-genuine moments of gesture and action, endowing these scenes with a realism that whisks the story from well-observed incident to well-observed incident. The paper-ball fight on Elliot’s bus was a staple of my middle school afternoons, and doubtless Elliot’s feigning illness by warming his thermometer on a lightbulb was inspired by Spielberg’s acknowledged childhood practice. Unsurprisingly, the youngest actors give the finest performances. As Elliot’s wide-eyed kid sister, Gertie, Drew Barrymore gives a wonderfully unforced performance of a caliber she hasn’t matched since. Thomas’ Elliot is almost as good—smart, sincere and a worthy lead.
The reason that E.T. is one of Spielberg’s warmest and most honest films is largely due to his drive to make E.T. as much like these children as possible. Like the film’s children, he has an excess of curiosity but a genuinely good heart which literally glows with healing power. The film, in short, makes him a symbol of all that is lovable in a child. He eases the shock of a human-to-alien bond by presenting it as a friendship between children. E.T.’s methods may be sentimental—John Williams’ score grows stiflingly saccharine under many of the more intimate scenes—but the unfettered openness that Elliot and E.T. show each other is a fine, touching exploration of two alien cultures striving to touch each other in brotherhood, and their interactions have a tender majesty.
The union of their spirits serves, on a crucial level, to amplify the film’s ability to evoke a sense of wonder in the audience. This is a key practice for Spielberg; his films feed the soul far more than they do the mind. Spielberg is not, in the end, a director who pays inordinate attention to a film’s characterizations, pace or intelligence; he will take an awe-inspiring visual over a smart line any day. At this philosophy’s extreme—the climactic Close Encounters of the Third Kind setpiece, for example—he lets the visuals overpower the story, paradoxically creating a numingly ponderous work that actually robs the soul of sustenance.
E.T. does not drag in the pretentious fashion of Close Encounters—indeed, it feels far shorter than its two hour running time. It does not present its ideas in a terribly new light, but it has heart and it shows us some truth. Spielberg, for his part, keeps dishonest audience manipulation at a low level by his standards, though he can’t resist giving E.T. a sudden late-movie illness to raise the film’s tear-jerking quotient. Those who decry E.T.’s loss of the 1982 Best Picture Oscar to Gandhi are fools; Tootsie, another nominee that year, is far, far better than either film. Nevertheless, E.T. is one of the rare Spielberg films that I wouldn’t mind watching again. That’s faint praise, but given the man’s oeuvre, I’m pleasantly surprised to call it praise at all.
Directed By Steven Spielberg
Starring Henry Thomas, Drew Barrymore
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