What’s the Hype About “E.T.”?
by Greg Rawlings
The shrivled pea-pod alien returns to the big screen.
In late March 1982, a 35-year-old native of Cincinnati, Ohio, released a science fiction movie. The expatriate Buckeye director, Steven Spielberg, was already unthinkably rich and successful, having helmed such blockbusters as "Jaws" (1975) and "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" (1977). It’s not that he hadn’t also made stinkers— "1941" (1979) was a coke-fueled disaster, but it was hard to hold anything against the director of the delightful "Raiders of the Lost Ark" (1981), a cartoonish cliff-hanger for adults. Thus far, his best films had been fun bursts of pop-art cotton candy, nothing to expend any brain cells over, with minimal brilliance and maximum box office. He and his oeuvre were seen as a pleasant counterpoint to the edgy films of ’70s mavericks like Scorcese and Coppola. How could you not like the guy? How could you not like his movies? Hey, what was not to like?
Then the deluge: "E.T.—The Extra-Terrestrial," which became, within weeks of its release, the most popular film in the history of cinema, surpassing George Lucas’s own science fiction extravaganza "Star Wars" (1977). Suddenly, Spielberg wasn’t just a good director of pop films, he was a genius—nine Academy Award nominations, including best picture and best director. The world was at his feet. It seems that everyone loved/loves "E.T."
Everyone but me, I’ve come to think. A New Yorker article by the otherwise sane Anthony Lane all but consecrated it (and the 2002 re-release) as sacred. Critics the world over fought vicious battles over who could be most fulsome (to me) in their hosannas. The Second Coming couldn’t have conjured up such obsequious press.
Pardon me while I flee from the room.
You see, I hate "E.T."
Reason one: It’s ugly. Spielberg has never evinced one iota of aesthetic sensibility (although he has occasionally been smart enough to hire some, think "Shindler’s List"). He usually shoots scenes that have no logical framing, no color sense, full of unsightly people doing boring things (except for "Raiders," of course). "E.T." is the poster child of this artistic failure. The man simply does not know what to do with color film. He should be locked in a screening room with Godard’s masterful "Contempt" (1963) and go to school. That or take a basic course in painting. I’ve never seen a still by Spielberg that I wanted to frame and put up on my wall.
Fritz Lang, John Ford, Akiro Kurosawa, Francis Truffaut—great directors direct great shots. They are artists; not hacks. Spielberg is a hack and "E.T." is Hallmark Hall of Fame hackwork.
Reason two: Name the great acting scenes in "E.T." You can’t, because there are none. Arguably, the little green pea pod alien gives the best performance in the film and he’s not exactly alive, real, whatever. Great directors direct great actors. Why is it that Spielberg has more luck with mechanical or computer-generated sharks, aliens or dinosaurs than actual humans? Other than Roy Schneider in "Jaws," nobody in a Spielberg film has ever turned in a top-notch acting job. Blame the director.
Reason three: It’s an overblown TV show. Spielberg makes TV shows with bigger budgets for bigger screens. "E.T." has Sunday night after dinner written all over it. Pops has a beer, Mom some white wine, junior and sis sip sodas. Popcorn is present. The dog settles by the front door sniffing for the neighbors cat. Two hours pass; you laugh, you cry, you go to bed.
Personally, I’d rather watch last year’s excellent "The Royal Tenenbaums" again, and hear all the great music Wes Anderson stuffed into it. Or put on some vintage Coltrane and read a book. Anything but "E.T." So spare yourself the pablum, and opt for something that, at the very least, isn’t swill. I hate "E.T.," and it would make me deliriously happy if you did, too.
It’s the very least that you can do for the culture.