Steven Spielberg's E.T., the Extra-Terrestrial cuts down on the physical brutality of the director's other films, but not commensurately on the musical brutality of the customary John Williams score, so that the viewer might often be moved to look around the auditorium wondering where all the excitement is. Physical brutality is an element difficult to measure in Spielberg's work, however, since it depends so much on the strenuousness of the staging and editing as on such objective criteria as body-counts, pints of blood spilled, distance and duration of chases, etc. And regardless of how much the physical brutality might be down in E.T., it is made up for in unprecedented emotional brutality.
Nothing more ought to be required to dismiss Spielberg's pretense of sweetness and innocence, or to dismiss the movie in toto from respectful consideration, than a glance at the death-scene of the monogrammatic spaceman. This sickroom spectacle is milked for all it is worth, with the normally cigar-colored creature having turned to the color of ash, his full-moon eyes narrowing to mere crescents, and the ten-year-old boy who has befriended him, and who is symbiotically wedded to him, at first wasting away in tandem, then regaining sufficient strength to wail in protest when the selfless little alien severs all ties. For cruelty to characters and audience alike, the expiration of E.T. bears comparison to Dickens's polishing off of Little Nell. No one but a card-carrying masochist would want actually to carry out such a comparison, and, in any event, the relevance of the comparison is very soon squelched. Spielberg has not yet finished, and before he has, he will make Little Nell's exit seem a model of artistic tact and integrity. For sheer manipulativeness, for utter shamelessness in pursuit of popular approval, it would be hard to stop Spielberg when, once having shot E.T. away in his coffin, he arbitrarily brings him back to life again. Let's be clear; it matters little to me whether E.T. lives or dies (except that in the second eventuality I could have gone home sooner); it matters even less to art. I simply submit that to torture an audience at such lengths, only to throw off tragedy's mask and exclaim I was just fooling, constitutes rather caddish behavior.
It is understandable that the turn-around in E.T.'s fortunes has not produced a rash of hard feelings. The audience, such as in J.M. Barrie's Peter Pan (explicit reference is made to this work, should any prompting be necessary), is put int he position of trying to keep a character alive by force of will, and Speilberg, after having his sadistic fun, gives them just what they want. That warm ember of a heart begins to glow and again, the flowers dropping in grief suddenly stand at attention, and when the coffin-lid is thrown open, there lies the E.T. of old, looking as refreshed and saucer-eyed as if he had just snacked on milk and Oreos, and trumpeting out words to touch the souls of all people disposed to believe anything they hear from used-car salesmen, department-store Santa Clauses, political office-seekers, and other white liars of Spielberg's class: "E.T. phone home!" (E.T., I should perhaps explain, has that childlike, self-dramatizing habit, shared on occasion by Norman Mailer, Confucius, and Tarzan, of referring to himself by name.)
This utterance, in case you are so far out on the fringes of American society that you have neither seen the movie yourself nor had your ear bent by a friend who has, alludes to E.T.'s desire to get back to that Rube Goldberg contraption he has rigged up from a phonograph turntable, a coat hanger, a kitchen fork, etc., and by which he hopes to signal the alien spaceship that abandoned him on Earth when forced to make a hasty getaway. E.T. may make a nice companion for a lonely little boy from a broken home, regaling him with Mary Poppins-ish magic tricks involving telekinetically juggled balls or a flying bicycle, but deep inside he is gnawed by serious feelings of homesickness. These are made known when E.T. points one of his elongated talons (with illuminable tips, like penlights) at his heart and says "Ouch!" — an expression he learned when his little human friend cut his finger, although E.T. stretches it out to give it deeper meaning: "Ow-w-w-w-ch!"
Despite this grab at our heartstrings, similar in delicacy to a quarterback-sack by a blitzing linebacker, E.T.'s homesickness is not remotely as affecting as that of the alien in The Man Who Fell to Earth. Part of the difference might be that we have a clearer idea what The Man Who is up to on Earth than we do with E.T. and his compatriots. The latter appear to be in the business of collecting samples for disinterested scientific study when we first see them, in the opening scene, scurrying and scrabbling about in the suburban woods. The fact that Spielberg would start right off in the midst of this activity, without any preliminaries (unless you are willing to count Close Encounters as a preliminary), is no indication of his overweening confidence that we will accept anything he throws out at us, and will not demand anything more. We are not expected to wonder why, for instance, if these nonaggressive extraterrestrials have such a birdlike terror of human beings, they would pick an investigation site so close to an urban center. This, I argue, is not an important question, but the larger question of the mental capabilities of these creatures.
Much as the aliens in Close Encounters seemed to flutter away their great gifts in Louis XIV-type ostentation, E.T. doesn't let his superhuman intelligence stand in the way of fun. In addition to the Mary Poppins-ish legerdemain already noted, he seems endlessly willing to play infantile games with M&Ms, to engage in monkey-see-monkey-do mimicry, to klutzily knock over a pencil holder, to get tipsy on Coors and bump into kitchen cabinets or fall flat on his face — in sum, to do the sorts of things traditionally done by dogs, monkeys, etc., in formularized animal pictures. His big for our sympathy depends, at that, not on his similarity to our household pets.
His physical design, courtesy of Carlo Rambaldi, reinforces the effect. The recurring gag, whenever E.T. runs into a new human, of him terrifying the human and him being terrified in return, point to two divergent traits: the grotesque and the cute. Grotesqueries are distributed pretty much from top to toe. Enlarged head, pencil-thin, extensible neck, wrinkled skin, emaciated torso — all combine to give the impression of an aborted fetus or unfledged bird or other defenseless creature. Cuteness, on the other hand, and apart from certain behaviorisms, is confined to the face (modelled, so I am told, partly after those high-school-English-teacher's pets: Sandburg and Steinbeck): wide-set round eyes, chimplike nose and upper lip, Yoda-like moth. (In one of the movie's relentless silly jokes, the alien, disguised under a bedsheet on Halloween, gravitates toward a tot in a Woolworth's Yoda costume — another debit against E.T.'s I.Q.) Personally, I would have thought that the total effect was too excruciating on the one hand, too cloying on the other hand, too calculated on both hands, to be truly embraceable.
But it is not for me to say what other people will find embraceable, and I can't very well begrudge anyone finding something to embrace here — or I couldn't, anyway, if I could be surer that people were reacting according to their own true feelings and not according to what they had been told they would feel, had made up their minds beforehand they would feel, were damn well not going to shell out five dollars and not feel. It is particularly not for me to say, or know, what the under-12 audience will feel. And we should have a much better fix on the movie if we were to discuss it in relation to that audiences. What first needs to be said is that it is more for them about that audience, and its closest kinship is not with such realistic portraits of childhood fantasy as Spielberg's Spirit of the Beehive, Our Mother's House, and Curse of the Cat People, but rather with such direct appeals to that fantasy-faculty as Peter Pan and Mary Poppins. Virtually all the insights into children and childhood in E.T. are rooted in the truism, common to all the aforementioned movies and to countless others, having to do with the separateness and secretness of children's society, the Them-and-Us relationship between the adult world and the subterranean childhood one. Spielberg takes this truism, or pretends to take it, not as a simple fact of childhood but as a virtue of it. The distinction is worth making because of the notion now being spread around that no one in moviedom understands children better than he. This notion might usefully be amended to read: no one understands better how to butter them up.
Here again the threshold of shamelessness is frequently crossed over. The liberation of frogs marked for classroom dissection is a serviceable enough example, though a more extreme Them-and-Us situation would be the tightening dragnet around the enfeebled E.T., with the largest number of police cars conversed in one spot since Spielberg's debut movie, Sugarland Express, plus an infantry regiment of faceless, speechless, asbestos-suited ogres. That the members of this posse, and especially one member of it who openly confesses to having been a child once himself, turn out to be not as malevolent as they look, is the biggest and nicest surprise in the movie. It may, in truth, be the only surprise. But it doesn't prevent Spielberg from switching these grown-ups back into the villain's role again, when E.T. returns from the dead and a handful of daredevil teenage bicyclists, making like Steve McQueen in The Great Escape, are mobilized in the attempt to spirit him away.
As in his last movie, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Spielberg obviously believes in letting kids travel first-class — and no quarrel there. Children's movies deserve to be as lovingly handled as anybody else's movies, and there is plenty here for people of all ages to "ooh" and "aah" at: gorgeous night-time skies that might be out of vintage Disney cartoons (or, more to the point, out of Close Encounters); much fancywork with headlights and flashlights in fog; and, as already mentioned, that self-consciously surrealistic bike ride above the treetops. This last, particularly, is visually quite exciting, more so certainly than comparable flights in The Absent-Minded Professor or Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, but less so, I would say, than the one in The Other — a vision of childhood as lopsidedly black as this one is lopsidedly rosy. This sort of middle-ground comment needs to be made much more often about E.T., to counter the rumor that the movie is like nothing you've ever seen before. Propoganda in that direction has advanced too far to be beaten back by the odd voice of reason. Voices of anything harsher run other risks. As kiddie movies go, E. T. is far from the bottom, and its actual merits might be interesting to debate. But when you must start from the proposition that the movie is a magical miraculous masterpiece for all age groups and untold future generations — well, it's a long road back. D.S. feel tired. D.S. feel depressed. D.S. point finger to head and say "Oww-w-w-ch!"