The other day, leaving the cinema, I saw a poster announcing the 20th-anniversary re-release of E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, and just as I was about to make some dismissive, smartass comment to my companion, I caught myself. I wasn’t being fair. I had seen so many clips from E.T., parodies and homages, excerpts in Chuck Workman Oscar-night montages, entire scenes on Biography Child Star Week, stills in books on the best-loved films, articles on the marketing, the box office, the phenomena!—so entirely pervasive, in fact, was the massive PopCult campaign surrounding the thing that I thought I knew the film shot by shot. I thought of that lovable burn-victim gnome as an elderly relative I’d known since childhood. I forgot I hadn’t seen the movie.
More than the work of any other filmmaker, Spielberg’s output seems uniquely designed to induce in me this queasy false-memory syndrome. I can’t say with any certainty whether or not I have seen the second Jurassic Park, for instance, or Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Either way, I’m not too concerned. I know for a fact that I’ve seen an awful lot of the guy’s stuff—some has pleased me, some has repulsed me. In my opinion, I’ve seen enough to function fully in society. But E.T. is different; more loved, more essential. It’s the only film on the American Film Institute Top One Hundred that I haven’t seen. And at the very least I would like to be able to joke about it publicly without a guilty conscience.
Now I can.
E.T. is a dog movie. Genre-wise, I mean. It’s about a boy meeting a dog, naming it, taming it, learning from it, and growing up. Of course, the genre is superficially disguised as science fiction, as was the fashion at the time. Star Wars, Alien, Outland, and Blade Runner are among the many other films of the period that were deliberate sci-fi updates of established genres. But, in the case of E.T., there’s no way to overlook the dog-yarn genealogy. The script makes things quite clear with lines like “I found him, I’m keeping him!” “He’s trying to tell us something,” and “E.T. phone home,” a repeated refrain that evokes that most famous of canine titles, Lassie Come Home.
Now, as we know, Spielberg movies are pretty much always about an innocent, “normal” character encountering an unknowable—to use a word very chic at the time—”other.” The “other” is either good (alien, fairy, brontosaurus) or evil (shark, truck, Nazi), but in either case the child-like protagonist, after suffering through protracted reaction shots of awe and/or terror, is better for the experience. This is obviously a model very close to Mr. Spielberg, and his best movies are those able to conform most comfortably to these parameters. Happily for E.T., dog stories fit the template very well. (War stories, note, do not.)
Of course E.T. is not just a dog. He’s a bit Mary Poppins, a bit Peter Pan. He can move things telekinetically. Communicate telepathically. Heal messianically. Hold off his excretory needs indefinitely. He’s a magic dog! Liberated from the earthly restrictions of the conventional dog, E.T. is free to demonstrate whatever convenient miraculous ability the occasion requires. In one curious sequence that seems to have slipped in from a John Landis or Joe Dante film, E.T. gets drunk, checks out some TV, and transmits the images across town to his human friend Elliott. The boy, who up to this point has expressed no interest in the ladies, responds by leering lecherously at a pretty classmate and, in the end, re-enacting the famous kiss scene from The Quiet Man.
What are we to make of this bizarre puppet routine? Is the alien able to mentally control human behavior? Is he so impressionable that he would have compelled the lad to re-create any famous scene he had seen on TV—the finale from Taxi Driver, for instance? Or is Elliott merely responding to a sudden telepathic influx of extra-terrestrial fantasies? His libido lubed by Coors and provocative TV, perhaps E.T. is finally coming to terms with his lust for earth women. This may seem a bit of a stretch considering the creature’s comfort with living in the closet and dressing in full drag, but he definitely seems to find Maureen O’Hara hot. What at first appeared to have been a benign botanical visitation from his people may have had an ulterior purpose after all: “They’re here to steal our women!”
In the end, the absent father figure is reinstated, and E.T.’s job here on earth is done. In dog movies, the boy often has to make some difficult sacrifice to signify his readiness to take his place in society, to show he is growing up. Not so in E.T. Elliott’s only sacrifice is to remain on earth. Thank God for that, at least! I’ve always felt that there was something profoundly defeatist and anti-human about the endings of films like Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Cocoon, where characters decide to give up on life as we know it and take a chance on a mushy, glowing beyond. What’s so great that these aliens have to offer? If E.T. is indeed a higher intelligence, as Elliott insists, what does he have to teach? Evidently he is one of those autistic genius types that Hollywood adores—capable of crafting an interstellar communicator out of toys and cutlery, but completely inept at basic social skills. Despite his ability to learn English in a couple of hours, what does E.T. have to say? The boy learns about tolerance, loyalty, his capacity for love. Well, that’s all fine, but it’s nothing you can’t learn from anearth dog.
This article originally appeared in the spring 2002 issue of Cinema Scope.