Film & TV

The Second Coming — and Betrayal — of E.T.

E.T., the Extra-Terrestrial (1982 Universal Studios/IMDb)
Our cultural history and moral heritage have become a hollow ‘Okay, Boomer’ joke.

The new ad spot “A Holiday Reunion” is the sequel to Steven Spielberg’s E.T., the Extra-Terrestrial (1982) that no one was asking for. It wouldn’t have been made if we hadn’t reached this point-of-no-return moment of cultural devolution — and corporate audacity.

E.T. was the most popular movie of the 1980s (ranking No. 4 on Box Office Mojo’s list of all-time highest grosses, adjusted for inflation). It humorously and movingly portrayed grade-school kid Elliott (Henry Thomas), feeling lonely during his parents’ separation, as he develops a friendship with an alien from outer space.

The extra-terrestrial (called E.T., condensing Elliott’s own name) is a squat, brown-skinned, wide-eyed creature with whom white-American suburban-boy Elliott experiences telepathic empathy: psychological projection made real.

E.T. was instantly beloved. Coming after the cornball antics of Star Wars, it raised the stakes of what popular cinema could express and tapped the universal need to be understood. It made the process of identification that accompanies a child’s personal growth and maturation seem almost magical.

The film’s fairy-tale simplicity went surprisingly deep, a culmination of the yearning need for recovery expressed in the groundbreaking cynical classics made during the American movie renaissance. E.T.’s enchantment was a response to post-Sixties, post-Vietnam, post-Watergate disenchantment.

A Holiday Reunion picks up E.T. at a moment of cultural instability, when cinema as a unifying public event is being phased out by private streaming of narrative content — society’s definitive fragmentation. The advertisement’s ulterior motive is to promote Xfinity, the cable delivery system owned by Comcast and NBC Universal, which is the parent company that owns Spielberg’s film. Its brand-name logo marks several scenes in the ad.

The reconnection with E.T. — the last great example of global-village film art — proves to be a heartbreaking betrayal of cultural unity, done for mercenary purposes. It occurs at precisely the same time that Millennial youth have been indoctrinated and transformed into protesting political pawns — their innocence thoroughly expropriated and monetized, ironically brainwashed into meaningless “diversity.”

E.T.’s story might be largely unknown to Parkland–Greta Thunberg activists. Born after E.T.’s social phenomenon, the generation made pessimistic and dystopic by Wall-E and The Dark Knight never learned Spielberg’s lesson about the ultimate ecumenical empathy. E.T.’s annunciation and resurrection imagery was so replete with Judeo-Christian resonances that, as with Spielberg’s greatest film Close Encounters of the Third Kind, it was more than what Disney’s family-movie fodder could ever be.

Instead, “A Holiday Reunion” presents false nostalgia. Its appeal to Boomers encourages them to forget that E.T. was, above all, a spiritual touchstone.

In the advertisement for this advertisement, the spot’s plot is described as “37 years in the making.” So it is a shock when 47-year-old Henry Thomas himself appears as a married father of two children who embraces his old extra-terrestrial friend, returning to Earth for no apparent reason except to sell Comcast. (Adult Elliott’s couch-potato family watch cable TV with E.T., and Elliott’s son even introduces the once technologically advanced visitor to the wonders of WiFi, tablets, and virtual-reality gadgets.)

In “A Holiday Reunion,” Xfinity’s four-minute promise of media revolution, some precious part of our cultural past has been violated. E.T.’s storybook moral, the truly great moment of the alien and children bicycling across the luminous orb of the moon, as well as God’s rainbow sign to Noah, are traduced.

“These things are fragile!” Holly Hunter insisted in Spielberg’s 1989 metaphysical romance Always. She referred not only to tradition or nostalgia but also to signifiers of Spielberg’s (and the West’s) entire ethical, ethnic foundation, now trivialized — and, apparently, with the corporate maestro’s own consent. He’s finally succeeded in turning E.T. into merchandise. This ad’s Christmas is a holiday minus a Christ figure.

Even as John Williams’s repurposed score tugs at your memories, the “Okay, Boomer” sarcasm of this ad is a patronizing offense. The ad’s director, Lance Accord (a former cinematographer who gave a mirthless, disenchanted look to several of Spike Jonze’s surreal art-caprices), cannot match that transcendent final close-up of Elliott staring heavenward, his child’s face conveying the price of wisdom. Is nothing in our culture sacred? Will anything ever make Spielberg great again?

Armond White, a film critic, writes about movies for National Review and is the author of New Position: The Prince Chronicles.

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