"E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial" is an honorable film. All the films of Steven Spielberg are honorable films, and besides, this one is everybody's favorite.
His marooned space boy is beyond reproach. Although not exactly cuddly--anatomically, he looks somewhat like Reddy Kilowatt during a brownout--he has a great and vulnerable heart clearly beating in his chest. He can throw a softball, waddle like a duck and even smile. Endangered, he brings out the best in the human children who nurture and protect him.
In short, E.T. is not just lovable, he is inhumanly lovable.
In this single vision and conception, Spielberg--with a little help from his pal George Lucas, progenitor of the "Star Wars" cycle--has torn away the veil from the one big problem of life, love and the movies: people.
The problem with people--and also to some extent with collies and German shepherds--is that they tend to run away, bite your hand and generally break your heart.
We have all tried making people the objects of our affection, and what did it get us? What did it get Rick and Ilsa in "Casablanca," Roberto and Maria in "For Whom the Bell Tolls" or poor dumb Ned Racine in "Body Heat"?
Nothing but trouble.
What did it get kindly old Gepetto? A typical pre-"Star Wars" sensibility, Gepetto longed for a close encounter with a human boy, so he carved himself one. Pinocchio, animated by a fairy, then proceeded to play truant, eat forbidden candy, etc., in typically human behavior that just about broke his father's heart.
How much better for Gepetto if the fairy had turned Pinocchio into the love bug!
What Spielberg has seen is that E.T. makes a much better friend than your brother or sister or father or lover or Lassie. You will never hate him, leave him or have to vacuum his dog hairs. There is no chance of your priest, rabbi or minister having an opinion of your behavior regarding him. There are no flying saucers in divinity school.
For this lesson, you can only go to the movies.
It has been said that "E.T." and "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" and the "Stars Wars" stories were inspired by an earlier film called "The Wizard of Oz." Spielberg and Lucas themselves credit that picture as influential in their development. They are too modest by half.
In that obsolescent fantasy, Dorothy did meet up with otherworldly critters built of tin, straw and bluster, and with a supernaturally nasty witch. But unfortunately, "The Wizard of Oz" slavishly toes the old humanoid party line. It turns out to be only a dream remembered--a dream about the heart, courage, brains and nastiness of . . . people.
The wizard turns out to be a snake-oil salesman. The witch is not supernatural at all, but a bicycle-riding grouch who wanted--and still wants, no doubt--to sic the dogcatcher on Toto. Dorothy has been returned to the real world and must live in it. With people.
Spielberg leads us out of that trap.
Why was this central fallacy--movies about people--not identified long before? Well, don't blame Hollywood, which has always been willing to manipulate any emotion that sells. But the problem was that parts were written by people for people, to be shown to audiences of people. From there, it is just one short step to actually making movies about people.
Now we reach for the stars.
At least Hollywood was never as guilty of humanism as the cinema of Europe. It is hard to maintain that the proper study of mankind is man when you have Jane Russell waving at you from a haystack. But Fellini, Renoir and Truffaut and the rest of them absolutely wallowed in mankind. The Swede Ingmar Bergman made movies so relentlessy about humankind that audiences went home wishing they'd been born zucchinis. Give a European director a visa even now and he will make a movie about human beings right under our noses, as Louis Malle did in "Atlantic City."
To understand how essentially unrewarding people really are--in comparison with an interestingly short-tempered Wookie or a marooned star child--we have only to remember our recent lessons.
In "Star Wars," Luke Skywalker is a lukewarm, teen-aged Mr. Goodwrench. Han Solo is an action guy put together from directions on a cereal box. They are extravagantly multidimensional compared to Princess Leah, an ice cube in earmuffs who wants to be king. Darth Vader and Obe Wan Kenobe are considerably less human--and more interesting.
But warmth, taste, generosity? Tolerance? These qualities are invested in R2D2 and C3P0, who are robots. Wisdom? Philosophy? Education? For that we have Yoda. When Luke and Han walk through the galactic cantina in "Star Wars," it is no accident they are the least interesting critters there.
The extra-terrestrials have it across the board, and Spielberg carries the vision forward.
E.T. has been abandoned by necessity (his spaceship frightened away by malevolent humans), but young Elliott, his earthly equivalent, has been abandoned by design. His father has run off to Mexico with his girlfriend, leaving Elliott's mom to mope around her California suburb, helpless, stoical and destined for Friday night at the local fern bar.
While Spielberg's camera is busy showing E.T.'s overwhelming lovability, the same camera intentionally declines to confront a single adult male face. For most of the movie, it pans at waist level among heartless bureaucrat-police somehow intent on making sure that extra-terrestrials never have a nice day. Is this the world from Elliott's point of view? Or would Elliott be more likely to search every adult male face, hoping to see his father's?
When the camera finally does reward us with a man, it is of an actor named Peter Coyote--who proclaims that he, too, has pined for love from outer space. No wonder he isn't married. By this point E.T. is very sick and may die, and the great outpouring of audience for space creature has reached a tremulous pitch.
Perhaps Mr. First-Male-Face and Mom eventually will get together. Who knows? But it really doesn't matter. After all, they are only human. It is E.T. that Spielberg would have us love, and we do, and we must--for every time you don't believe, a UFO declines to land.
We might have expected this. In Spielberg's "Close Encounters," human affairs have already come to a standstill: Richard Dreyfuss has left his family to follow the music of the spheres; on the way to the mountaintop he meets a similarly orphaned adult, Melinda Dillon; they both eventually receive the ministrations of an extra-large flying saucer.
They never see each other again--but who cares?
Beware the ancient who sidles up under the glowing marquee to whisper that the Spielbergian universe is insidious, adolescent--exquisitely banal.
He will say that "E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial" falls short of being the ultimate shared experience by humans. He will call Steven Spielberg the Paddy Chayevsky of outer space. He will see in lovable little E.T. not wisdom and metaphor, but only a wind-up mouse--a mechanical entertainment of flywheel and spring.
Tinker Bell, he will say, was part and parcel of the human spirit, as Grendel was, and King Arthur: each derived from earthly sights, birds and butterflies, beasts and kings.
E.T. comes from a flying saucer. We do not. Does falling in love with an extra-terrestrial mean never having to say you're sorry?
Pay no attention! Look to the skies!
Just be careful nobody picks your pocket.