Director: Steven Spielberg
Production: Universal Pictures; DeLuxe color, 70mm, Dolby sound; running time: 115 minutes. Released June 1982.
Producers: Steven Spielberg and Kathleen Kennedy; associate producer: Melissa Mathison; production supervisor: Frank Marshall; screenplay: Melissa Mathison; photography: Allen Daviau; editor: Carol Littlestone; production designer: James D. Bissell; music: John Williams; special effects: Industrial Light and Magic; supervisor: Dennis Muren; E.T. created by: Carlo Rimbaldi.
Cast: Dee Wallace ( Mary ); Henry Thomas ( Elliott ); Peter Coyote ( Keys ); Robert MacNaughton ( Michael ); Drew Barrymore ( Gertie ); K.C. Martel.
Kolker, Robert Phillip, A Cinema of Loneliness: Penn, Kubrick, Scorsese, Spielberg, Altman , Oxford, 1980; revised edition, 1988.
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* * *
In itself, E.T. would hardly concern us; if not entirely negligible (it manifests certain skills, and contains a few memorable turns of dialogue, such as the question of how one explains "school" to a "higher intelligence"), it has no greater claim on the attention than countless other minor Hollywood movies. It does demand consideration as a cultural phenomenon: not merely the film itself and what it signifies, but the commercial hype, the American critics' reviews, the public response, the T-shirts, the children's games, the candy advertisements. It represents a moment in American cultural history. The film is distinguishable from the Disney live action movies it otherwise so closely resembles only by virtue of Steven Spielberg's evident commitment to his own infantile fantasy. Where the Disney films seemed more or less shrewd commercial exploitations of the child-audience, we have the sense here of a filmmaker infatuated with what he is doing. Just what difference that makes is open to argument: bourgeois society sets a high value on "sincerity," regardless of what the possessor of that virtue is being "sincere" about. Suffice it to comment that the precise quality of Spielberg's sincerity remains open to question. I am not convinced that it is entirely innocent and uncompromised.
E.T. belongs to the Reagan era as surely as the genuinely distinguished works of the period (the films of Martin Scorsese and Michael Cimino, or even of a minor figure like Brian De Palma) do not. It is an era profoundly inimical to serious art, especially within the field of popular culture. "Serious art" is, by definition, challenging and progressive; what is wanted now—after the upheavals of the 1970s, the era of Vietnam and Watergate, the era when every American institution was called into question and radical movements suddenly flourished—is reassurance, the restoration of the symbolic Father, preferably in a form that allows one simultaneously to believe and disbelieve.
The premise of E.T. is essentially the appearance of the "Other" within the bourgeois home. Roland Barthes suggests in Mythologies that bourgeois ideology has two ways of coping with Otherness: it either denies it, and if possible exterminates it, or converts it into a replica of itself. American civilization was founded upon the denial/extermination of the Other (in form of the Indians); during the 1970s the Other erupted in numerous forms—women, blacks, gays— demanding recognition. Now, in the Reagan era, Spielberg presents the Other in the shape of a lovable, totally innocuous little extraterrestrial, who just wants to go home (to his own nuclear family?). The treatment of E.T. himself is shamelessly opportunistic for he becomes whatever is convenient to the development of the narrative from scene to scene: mental defective, higher intelligence, child figure, father figure.
The film is extremely sexist. Spielberg seems unable to conceive of women as anything but wives and, in particular, mothers. Apart from almost dying, the worst thing that happens to E.T. is being dressed in female clothes, an event which is shown to deprive him of his dignity. At the end of the film, as all-purpose friend, Christ figure and patriarch, he lays his finger on Elliott's head to transmit to him his power and knowledge, but tells the boy's younger sister to "be good." (I have not yet found a woman who likes the film: the fantasy about childhood that it enacts is heavily male-oriented.)
Crucially, the cultural phenomenon presented in E.T. signifies a choice made by the critical establishment, the public, and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, who nominated it for many Academy Awards even though they ultimately found in Gandhi an even more respectable and archetypal liberal/bourgeois recipient of honors. One must compare E.T. with the commercial/critical failure of the infinitely more interesting Blade Runner (released the same week) and its troubling and complex presentation of the Other. The most pertinent comparison remains, however, with the two It's Alive films of Larry Cohen, which provide numerous suggestive parallels. Critically despised, they lack E.T. 's aura of expensiveness, an essential component of reassurance within the context of capitalism's decline.