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Echoes of Reaganism in Hollywood Blockbuster Movies from the 1980s to the 2010s

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Ilias Ben Mna

This book examines the reverberations of key components of Ronald Reagan’s ideology in selected Hollywood blockbuster movies. The aim of this analysis is to provide a clearer understanding of the intertwinement of cinematic spectacles with neoliberalism and neoconservatism. The analysis comprises a dissection of Reagan’s presidential rhetoric and the examination of four seminal Hollywood blockbuster movies. The time range for analysis stretches from the 1980s until the 2010s. Among the key foci are filmic content as well as production and distribution contexts. It is concluded that Reagan’s political metaphors and the corporatization of film studios in the 1970s and 1980s continue to shape much of Hollywood blockbuster filmmaking.

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Chapter 3 E.T.—The Extra-Terrestrial as a Reaganite “Small-Government Fable”

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Chapter 3 E.T.—The Extra-Terrestrial as a Reaganite “Small-Government Fable”

Introduction and Chapter Overview

The release of the film E.T.—The Extra-Terrestrial in June 1982 signaled a new phase in the history of Hollywood blockbuster filmmaking. After the tremendous financial successes of previous blockbusters, such as Jaws (1975) and Star Wars—Episode IV: A New Hope (1977), E.T.85 achieved even higher levels of success and accelerated the high-concept formula into full swing. The film became the top-grossing movie of the 1980s, totaling more than $792 million in worldwide ticket sales alone.86 This science-fiction tale not only incorporated many narrative and stylistic elements of the early blockbuster craft; it also excelled as a vehicle for merchandise (from candy to video games) and as a branding tool for Steven Spielberg’s own newly formed production company, Amblin Entertainment. The handful of filmmakers who had proven themselves skilled in the new blockbuster craft (e.g. Spielberg with Jaws (1975), George Lucas with Star Wars (1977), John G. Avildsen with Rocky (1976), Richard Donner with Superman (1978); Prince, A New Pot of Gold 186–287) could now aim for record-breaking budgets, while producers saw the immense revenues generated through merchandise and aggressive marketing campaigns as vindication for the corporate integration of ancillary markets into the Hollywood landscape.

It is this far-reaching legacy and entrenchment within the popular culture of the United States that make E.T. an interesting starting point for an analysis of the interrelationship between Reaganite rhetoric and Hollywood blockbusters. The immense popularity of E.T. raises questions of how the content and context of the film helped to propel it to these record-breaking financial successes. On the surface, the movie relates the story of a 9-year-old boy named Elliott, from a white, suburban, middle-class, single-parent family, who befriends an alien stranded on Earth. Federal agents, who are aware of an alien presence in the suburb, seek to seize and use the alien for scientific purposes. The ←105 | 106→central conflict arises from both Elliott’s and E.T.’s opposition to these plans, as E.T. wishes to be reunited with his87 fellow aliens and return to his home planet. After E.T. is captured by the government, Elliott, his siblings, and his friends mount a largely improvised rescue mission and succeed in liberating E.T. just in time to deliver him to his mother ship before it departs Earth.

Through this antagonism between government bureaucracy and suburban child protagonists, the movie implicitly touches upon competing social visions of the role of government versus the role of the white, male, and middle-class individual. Through the formal and narrative positioning of Elliott, E.T., and their friends as victorious protagonists, it can reasonably be argued that the film’s attitude toward this conflict is highly conducive to an interpretation that celebrates a racialized and gendered form of individualism in the face of an intruding, yet ultimately ineffective bureaucracy.

Released the year after Reagan’s inauguration as the fortieth President of the United States, the film is located at a critical moment in recent history, shaped by the beginning of a process of cultural and political realignment. In Reagan’s 1980 campaign rhetoric,88 one of the most frequently repeated themes was the assertion that “government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.”89 Reagan initially rode on a wave of dissatisfaction with the Carter administration—which he had characterized as imposing “on the individual freedoms of the people.”90 In this context, the “small-government” metaphor became a staple for the newly formed conservative coalition and a fixture in the neoliberal consensus that characterized both major political parties after the 1980s (Mann 27–29).

Against this political backdrop, a possible interrelationship between Reagan’s endorsement of a so-called “small government” in 1980 and the tremendous success of a blockbuster movie that pits suburban boys against federal agents becomes tangible. Thus, the aim of this chapter is to analyze the extent and contours of these similarities. The analysis will trace the echoes of Reagan’s campaign rhetoric in the movie, as well as dissect the role of neoliberal policies ←106 | 107→in the production and distribution of the film. Drawing on Douglas Kellner’s multi-perspectival approach, this inquiry will be based on three components: 1) a discussion of the production and the political economy, 2) a textual analysis, and 3) a study of the legacy and repercussions of the film (Kellner, Media Culture: 10–16).

Reagan’s rhetoric on “small government” in the early 1980s and the related co-ordinates of his ideology at the time will serve as a primary frame of reference for this ideological analysis. The reading of the film will therefore mainly focus on episodes that either address the government’s role or depict its immediate actions. Nevertheless, certain aspects that facilitate the understanding of the political subtexts in the film—for example, the depiction of the family, the spatial setting, the construction of E.T. as an Other—will be interwoven into this reading. Two specific foci will form the foundation for the analysis:

The dystopian undertones of the portrayal of government agents and institutions.

The restoration of the father through white, male, middle-class individualism.

Based on these focal points, the textual reading will draw together possible resonances and dissonances between Reagan’s rhetoric and the movie. While the restoration of the father has already been analyzed in E.T. in psychoanalytical and cultural terms (Wood 155–160), the subsequent analysis is differentiated by its application of George Lakoff’s concept of the “strict vs nurturant father” (Elephant 39–40) to stake out the usage of political framing devices. This makes it possible to strip back the seemingly apolitical veneer of this movie and determine how basic political frames are transformed into simple metaphors. These metaphors can, in turn, provide a basis for formulaic, high-concept story lines. In addition, the frequently observed moralist overtones and infantilization of the audience (Britton 102–103; Wood, 156–160) make this movie a candidate for classification as a fable.91 At of the basic level, it can be observed that this is a narrative about a talking, intelligent, non-human creature with ←107 | 108→anthropomorphic qualities, who teaches a family—and in particular children—about an implicit value system.

The inscription of patterns of legendary storytelling and mythical imagery into the movie exposes a subtext that is comparable to the use of national myths in political rhetoric (McConnell). This analysis will lay out the ideological parameters for the themes of mythical restoration in Reagan’s campaign rhetoric on the role of government in their historical context of the early 1980s. A selection of myths—which are present in both Reaganite rhetoric and the movie—will therefore be scrutinized in terms of their relation to power and their self-ascribed “depoliticized” nature (Barthes 142–145). As power relations between the government and the white, middle-class citizenry are central to this analysis, it is essential to understand the precise role of myths in outlining the normative parameters of this relationship.

In the film analysis, the central argument aims to demonstrate how both Reagan’s rhetoric and the portrayal of government representatives in the film addressed widespread anxieties among the white, middle-class mainstream in the United States. The implicit resolution comes through the pronouncement of a reactionary and neoliberal vision mediated through national myths and escapism. It is important to note that I am not arguing that Reaganism stands in a direct causal relationship with the movie and/or its narrative. Like Susan Jeffords’ discussion of the “Reaganite hard body” in US cinema of the 1980s, this inquiry is

about the correspondences between the public and popular images of “Ronald Reagan” and the action-adventure Hollywood films that portrayed many of the same narratives of heroism, success, achievement, toughness, strength, and “good old Americanness” that made the Reagan Revolution possible. (15)

As described in Chapter 1, it is beyond the capabilities of this analysis to support or make claims of mono-causality between Reagan’s rhetoric or popular image and the conception, production, and distribution of E.T. This examination seeks to explain how the rise of conservative neoliberalism—and its delivery through Reagan and his rhetoric—gave rise to some of the discourses in popular culture in the United States that created an atmosphere in which such a movie could materialize as a profitable echo chamber.

Furthermore, the film analysis is not intended to suggest an ideological congruence between Reaganism and the entirety of the movie’s possible ideological interpretations. The examination is dedicated to juxtaposing a primary theme of Reagan’s political rhetoric at a given time (the early 1980s) with the implicit meanings of selected scenes and narrative threads that arise from the central ←108 | 109→conflict in the movie. The prospective argument rests on the premise that the narrative further reinforces Reagan’s rhetoric, rather than contradicts it. In other words, there is more evidence in the movie that it speaks for, rather than against, Reagan’s rhetoric. Therefore, this analysis will also explore possible dissonances with Reaganite themes, as these can provide valuable insights into how the film’s success could also have rested on an underlying drive to resist the conservative realignment in the early 1980s.

This is crucial for contemporary discussions on the cultural resonance of this film, as scholars seem to be divided regarding its ideological impetus. For instance, Susan Jeffords argues that E.T. is among the many Hollywood films of the 1980s “that attempted to counter some of the prevailing social and political messages of the Reagan presidency” (Hard Bodies 22). This, however, begs the question: Which specific messages were targeted and to what extent does this attempt succeed? William J. Palmer posits that “E.T. is a fable for international cooperation, a warning that people cannot continue to react violently toward those who are different from them” (232). Palmer’s observation appears to be well founded; yet, it requires a thorough discussion of who represents the Other in this movie and how “otherness” is mediated (e.g. in a non-threatening or challenging way). Chris Jordan, on the other hand, sees E.T. as embedded in the yuppie movies’ “construction of suburbia as a self-sufficient community of individual families that is restored to stability through the elimination of the threat posed by external forces like the state, bureaucracy, science, rationalism, and capitalist greed” (72). Jordan’s perspective offers valid starting points for a comprehensive investigation of class, gender, race, and space in this film.

Ultimately, this analysis aims to determine how the ideological undercurrents of the movie’s central conflicts interconnect with the presidential rhetoric that facilitated a reactionary shift in social and economic policies in the United States at a crucial point in history. Analyzing E.T. through a Reaganite lens can illustrate how specific ideological discourses gained such momentum that their on-screen manifestation resulted in a blockbuster effect. The transformation of preceding, counterculture discourses of social transformation into a right-wing cultural regime can be better understood by examining a movie that appealed to millions of baby boomers and their young children in the early 1980s. This is a movie that helped ease the transition into a pop cultural climate that returned focus to the “traditional nuclear family” and extolled the virtues of white male entrepreneurialism and individualism.

E.T. achieved long-standing success through merchandising, as well as cinematic and TV reruns. This gives rise to further questions of how its functioning as a mass media spectacle might have translated into a recognizable cultural ←109 | 110→script for subsequent imaginations of the role of government and the role of the white, middle-class, suburban individual—both in film and politics. Therefore, this chapter offers insights into how and why a conservative and neoliberal cultural regime has cemented itself in US-American society since the early 1980s (Ventura 23–44; McGuigan 236–237). In the following section, however, the economic and studio political settings that informed the production of E.T.—The Extra-Terrestrial will be outlined.

Hollywood Studios at Heaven’s Gate: The Production Background of E.T.

The early 1980s were marked by significant restructuring within the entertainment business, which also had a direct impact on Hollywood film studios. The deregulatory trends that began in the 1970s—championed by Ronald Reagan as Governor of California, among others (Jordan 32)—led to new forms of conglomerate ownership. This type of proprietary control became part of the very fabric of filmmaking and film distribution. Despite these tremendous shifts, Stephen Prince argues:

[O]utwardly, though, to its theatergoing public, the industry gave few signs that anything was changing. Certainly, the films that Hollywood made in the initial years of the decade held few clues to the industry’s mutation. Surveying the big moneymakers, a casual observer might conclude that Hollywood was engaged in business as usual. (A New Pot of Gold 3)

It can be argued that the early blockbuster emphasis on heroic story lines, the reliance on seasoned, profitable directors (like Steven Spielberg and George Lucas), and the leveraging of star power were well established in the tradition of Hollywood filmmaking. Yet, the conglomerate structure of studio ownership created new opportunities for production and distribution that had been out of reach in previous decades. Media corporations adopted a mode of business integration and expansion to ancillary markets that gave them a much larger stake at every step of the creative and distributive process (Prince, A New Pot of Gold 18–25). This resulted in an overall decline in the bargaining power of the individual director as the leading creative force behind film production. Film historians often point to Michael Cimino’s epic Western film Heaven’s Gate (1980) as a defining moment signaling the end of “auteur filmmaking” in Hollywood (Prince, A New Pot of Gold 33–39). Despite a lavish budget of roughly $45 million, Cimino’s feature underperformed severely at the box office—generating a mere $3.5 million in lifetime gross. The ambitious project ←110 | 111→also failed to resonate with film critics, indicating to many film studios that a different tone and narrative outlook were needed. Heaven’s Gate’s poor performance is often blamed for the demise of its parent film studio, United Artists. Prince describes the following ramifications:

The Heaven’s Gate debacle pointed to absolute need for the majors, in an inflationary climate, to institute tight production controls, especially over ambitious directors who did not have proven box-office track records and who were not working in solidly profitable genres, such as science fiction. Filmmakers like Steven Spielberg, John Landis, or Sydney Pollack would be entrusted with major production budgets because of their flair for handling popular material, but such highly regarded auteurs of the 1970s as Martin Scorsese, Robert Altman and Arthur Penn would experience a difficult period marked by chronic funding problems. (A New Pot of Gold 37–38)

The drive toward risk reduction on the part of production studios also affected script-approval processes. The “Lucas–Spielberg syndrome”—as Robin Wood calls it (144)—was thereby fueled by a more risk-averse focus on proven formulas and directors. The first Star Wars film by George Lucas and Raiders of the Lost Ark by Steven Spielberg—both fantasy/adventure films—proved extraordinarily successful at the box office in 1981 and sequels were already in the making in the early 1980s. Spielberg continued to build on this reputation by embarking on another fantasy/sci-fi project. Originally, he envisioned a rather dark feature about aliens terrorizing a suburban family (tentatively titled Night Skies). These plans later morphed into the more fairy tale–like narrative of E.T.—The Extra-Terrestrial. Spielberg explained in an interview that during the shooting of Raiders of the Lost Ark,

I might have taken leave of my senses. Throughout [the production of] Raiders, I was in between killing Nazis and blowing up flying wings and having Harrison Ford in all this high serialized adventure, I was sitting there in the middle of Tunisia, scratching my head and saying, “I’ve got to get back to the tranquility, or at least the spirituality, of Close Encounters.” (Sinyard 78)

The basic outline for Night Skies was, however, successfully recycled in the film Poltergeist in 1982—demonstrating that fantasy films dealing with the supernatural were in high demand. Nevertheless, Spielberg’s move toward a more simplistic, family-friendly narrative for his upcoming project was not well received by major production studios in Hollywood initially. The first studio he approached, Columbia Pictures, rejected the script that he and his screenwriter Melissa Mathison had put together for E.T. and Me (the project title)—calling it a “wimpy Walt Disney movie” (Caulfield). This decision was made in 1981—a time when the Walt Disney Company was having serious financial and ←111 | 112→creative difficulties. Hence, comparisons to Disney were unflattering in the film business. Spielberg then approached MCA. Its subsidiary, Universal Studios, recognized the growing demand for fairy tale–like stories and the project went into production in September of 1981.

Universal Studios and its parent company, MCA, found themselves in a situation similar to that of other major Hollywood production studios in the early 1980s. The corporate structure consisted of five business segments, of which filmed entertainment was one. However, the parent company also sought to expand its influence in pay TV and cable and—through a joint venture with Philips and IBM—was exploring the creation of a videodisc system (Prince, A New Pot of Gold 12). Simultaneously, the company released around 80 titles on the videocassette market each year. This diverse strategy was complemented by a general push within the industry to purchase real estate in key suburban areas throughout the United States for the construction of multiplexes. Thus, Universal was in a strong position to offer E.T. a wide release in June of 1982 and cross-media distribution after its original theatrical run. According to Chris Jordan, “E.T. grossed a staggering $12 million in a single weekend upon its nationwide release in June 1982. Box-office figures for the week of June 9, 1982, alone were $96.9 million, nearly double the figure of the previous year’s opening summer week” (41).

Furthermore, MCA developed a synergy-oriented marketing campaign with Pepsi to leverage both companies’ strong presence in multiplexes across the country (Jordan 46). Thus, the main cogwheels in production, distribution, and promotion were in place for a blockbuster success. However, the resounding and unexpectedly strong performance of E.T. at the box office was also situated in the context of a thematic shift in Hollywood production that very clearly mirrored the demographic, cultural, and political changes that were taking place in mainstream society. As previously outlined, science-fiction and fantasy films were among the most successful genres during the 1980s in the US film market, a trend arising from a confluence of a variety of political and structural factors. By the late 1970s, movie-going audiences were not only shrinking (in part due to the competition from pay TV and cable), but also becoming younger. Terry Christensen and Peter J. Haas posit that this generational shift stimulated demand for more stylized and light entertainment as opposed to “serious or analytical political film” (145). The move toward sci-fi and fantasy films provides a certain measure of evidence for this claim.

The political climate of the United States by the late 1970s has often been described as “gloomy” and exhausted after years of perceived domestic- and foreign-policy failures (Jordan 62; Bunch 42; Troy, The Reagan Revolution ←112 | 113→45–48). Hollywood studios moved toward offering more escapist fare that seemed to provide a departure from the dreary political and social conundrums of the day. However, this form of “escapism” presented a revealing and partially pro-Reaganite political commentary at that point in film history. After all, it was this focus on optimism and almost child-like simplification that allowed Reagan to mobilize disaffected and independent, white, working-class voters in 1980. Christensen and Haas outline how the move toward seemingly unpolitical films represented a political move in itself:

Spielberg went on to make Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977); Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), and E.T. (1982), all of which only contained minimal explicit political comment. Lucas started with American Graffiti (1973), and then went on to make Star Wars (1977), and its equally successful sequels. The lack of political content in all these films was seen by some critics as a sort of conservatism, as was their reliance on individual heroes. (145)

The emphasis on reassuring and comforting messages in filmed entertainment coincided with the rise of Reaganite restorative rhetoric—creating an intertextual relationship whereby each reinforced the another. The retreat of large portions of the white middle class into the “designated safe space” of suburbia was accompanied by new forms of consumption in the form of individualized entertainment that fostered an atomized social climate (e.g. the Walkman, introduced by Sony in 1982).

Executives at Universal Studios calculated the potential for merchandising early in the production process of E.T. The producer of the film, Kathleen Kennedy, decided to hire Italian special-effects artist Carlo Rambaldi to design the look and animatronics of the alien.92 Rambaldi, who had previously worked on the alien designs for Close Encounters of the Third Kind, paid great attention to ensuring that E.T. had an endearing, pet-like quality that would appeal to children in particular. This bid to create a charming and innocent-looking creature paved the way for merchandising strategies aimed at families and children, who were expected to make up the bulk of the target audience. Nevertheless, potential merchandise partners were not always impressed with the design. Mars Incorporated opined that E.T.’s appearance would frighten or disgust children. This led to the company’s decision not to use the film as a vehicle to market its brand of M&M’s chocolates. The Hershey Company was much more open to the alien’s design and agreed to have their product “Reese’s Pieces” ←113 | 114→featured in the movie. This decision paid off as sales of this brand of candy increased by roughly 300 percent after the release of the film (van Biema).

It was against this background that E.T.—The Extra-Terrestrial was conceived, produced, and distributed. As stated at the beginning of this chapter, the overwhelming success of this film represented the confluence of a variety of developments, which were successfully tapped into by Hollywood filmmakers and the “Reagan Revolution” (Troy, Morning in America 53–70). The economic setup of Hollywood and its distributions arms was ripe for a massive blockbuster success. This was fueled by additional revenue from merchandise and entertainment-hungry middle-class families, who sought refuge in tales that offered a very narrow version of reconciliation (Palmer 308). The carefully crafted stylistic elements of the movie constituted not so much an auteurist vision of artistic expression, but a business proposal to draw large numbers of suburban families into theaters and multiplexes and provide them with an immersive spectacle of infantilism and escapism.

A key part of these mythologies is the visual and narrative reimagination of the relationship between the state and the subject (W. Brown 17–46). This also undergirds discourses on class, race, gender, and space. All these elements will scrutinized in the following analysis.

Film Analysis

The Dystopian Nature of Government and Bureaucracy in E.T.

The nine most terrifying words in the English language are:

“I’m from the government and I’m here to help.”

— Ronald Reagan

The government is one of the first and most momentous actors in E.T.—The Extra-Terrestrial. The narrative is set in motion in the opening scenes by the intrusion of government agents, who disrupt a group of aliens collecting plants in a southern Californian forest at night—presumably for botanical research. One character, later identified as E.T., strays from the group and wanders around in the forest. The camera adopts his perspective as he reverently stares at the towering Redwood trees that surround him. The low-angle shots used to convey E.T.’s observation of Earth’s flora contribute to a “child-like” point of view, characterized by an aura of exploration and wonder. This is fully realized when E.T. works his way through a patch of thick grass and suddenly finds ←114 | 115→himself overlooking an illuminated, developed urban (or suburban) site, which appears to enthrall him.

It is at this moment that a group of Jeeps burst onto the scene and the dreamlike music is replaced by a more menacing, non-diegetic score. The front of one Jeep fills the screen almost entirely—signaling an overbearing and totalizing presence. This is amplified by the fact that the camera retains its low-angle, childlike view of the surrounding world. Several other vehicles arrive on the scene. Their muddied tires suggest that they recently plowed through natural soil. This impression is reinforced by the subsequent scene, in which the vehicles come to a halt in the middle of the forest, demonstrating no apparent regard for the delicate flora established in the previous scenes.

The men exiting the Jeeps appear to be on a search mission. Equipped with flashlights, they tread through the muddy soil; the camera focuses on one pair of legs following another—almost in military step. Acoustically, one individual is announced by the sound of a jangling set of keys attached to his belt. Not one of these men is captured by a frontal shot that would allow their face to become discernible. Subsequent shots focus on their backs or their profiles from afar. The only time they are shown from the front is when they discover E.T. and face the camera, which is still adopting E.T.’s perspective. However, the lack of meaningful key light or fill light renders their faces almost invisible. Their gaze is represented by the flashlights, which have suddenly turned on the alien. They start running after E.T., with the agent’s keys creating a rhythmic and metallic sound that repeatedly disrupts the non-diegetic dramatic music. E.T.’s attempt to run back to his mother ship is unsuccessful as his alerted fellow aliens decide to leave the scene. The agents pursuing E.T. now spot the ship and uniformly look to the sky to watch it depart from Earth (see Figure 2).

The depiction of these characters as anonymous and indistinguishable effectively minimizes any positive relatability with them from the very beginning. Their presence has a robotic quality as they announce themselves through flashlights and the sounds of keys. The use of human voices is notably reduced. Thus, the opening scene can aptly be described as establishing a duality between a child-like and dreamlike view of the world—which encompasses a nature that is presented as majestic and a shining urban landscape—and a towering, overbearing, and menacing presence that acts in unison in an organized fashion. This is exemplified by the shot focusing on the agents’ legs following each other and the shot of them simultaneously staring into the night sky as the spaceship takes off. As previously noted, the few frontal shots are obfuscated by profound darkness, which renders the facial reactions of the agents undiscernible. ←115 | 116→This creates a sense of an inscrutable, dehumanized power at work—one that is opaque and appears larger than life due to the camerawork.

Although the movie does not explicitly associate these agents with the federal government, they are associated with popular imaginations of civil servants in US-American cinema by certain narrative markers. According to Michelle C. Pautz and Laura Roselle, the portrayal of government employees is highly gendered and racialized with abled-bodied, Caucasian males in their thirties and forties frequently being presented as the norm (16–17). Therefore, certain fundamental signifiers already distinguish these characters as suitable candidates for representatives of a government agency. Those pursuing E.T. and his fellow aliens are therefore associated with mainstream cultural codes of power (Hitchcock and Flint 1–9)— whereas the diminutive protagonist is portrayed as the underdog. This could conceivably set the stage for an interpretation of E.T. as a figure opposing white, able-bodied masculinity. This would create a possible space for resistance against the reactionary “white backlash” that Reagan espoused in 1980. However, it must be noted that the otherness of the central character is thoroughly structured by a romanticized, escapist, middle-class fantasy of the Other. Robin Wood notes that:

as a more general representation of Otherness, E.T. almost totally lacks resonance (“zero charisma,” one might say). All the Others of White patriarchal bourgeois ←116 | 117→culture—workers, women, gays, Blacks—are in various ways threatening, and their very existence represents a demand that society transform itself. E.T. isn’t threatening at all: in fact, he’s just about as cute as a little rubber Martian could be. (160)

E.T.’s innocuous and curious nature presents a clear obstacle to his construction as a deliberate challenge to reigning power structures. Instead, it positions him in proximity to popular conceptions of whiteness.93 The opening sequences make it apparent that the agents are not pursuing the aliens because they represent an imminent, physical, and/or ideological threat to the United States and/or its government. On the contrary, the aliens’ apparently peaceful collection of plants can easily be likened to human leisure or research activities. The government, however, is pursuing the aliens for reasons of its own. This pursuit is executed through manifestly secret operations throughout the movie. At no point in the film is it ascertainable that these ever-growing operations are backed by popular support or demand. The motives of the government agencies can therefore be presumed to be endogenous and not reflective of the discernible consent of the governed. It is the depiction of this disconnect between the overwhelmingly white middle class in the movie and an increasingly large, robotic, and intrusive government apparatus that—within the historical context of the early 1980s—interfaces with Reagan’s rhetoric on “small government.”

The previously mentioned aspects of a robotic, overblown, and intrusive government that operates on its own logic, with no apparent concern for “white America,” strongly supports Reagan’s portrayal of how the federal government—represented, first and foremost, by the Carter administration—has allegedly grown too large and detached from the concerns of “everyday people.” This was such a central theme during his campaign that he elaborated on it in the first candidacy speech of his presidential run in November of 1979:

We must put an end to the arrogance of a federal establishment which accepts no blame for our condition, cannot be relied upon to give us a fair estimate of our situation, and utterly refuses to live within its means. I will not accept the supposed “wisdom” which has it that the federal bureaucracy has become so powerful that it can no longer be changed or controlled by any administration. As President, I would use every power at my command to make the federal establishment respond to the ←117 | 118→will and the collective wishes of the people. […] The federal government has taken on functions it was never intended to perform and which it does not perform well.94

According to this rhetoric, a large government is not only unresponsive to the needs of its people, but also secretive and self-absorbed. Within the context of the late 1970s, a period marked by discourses of “national crises,” Reagan draws a connection between these crises and the existence of a supposed “bloated government.” The inherent assignment of blame attacks the Carter administration, as well as notions of welfare liberalism and government intervention in the economy. As previously noted, the aliens in the opening scene of E.T. are depicted as merely going about their own business, pursuing interests that are of no concern to the overall well-being or defense of the country. In the film, it is governmental intrusion that upsets a private endeavor and ultimately endangers E.T.’s life, as he is now stranded on Earth with no place to go. The narrative thereby employs myths of individualism and innocence to posit a binary power dynamic.

As noted in Chapter 1, Roland Barthes explains in his writings on “mythologies” that the “signified” in a myth “is in no way abstract: it is filled with a situation. Through the concept, it is a whole new history which is implanted in the myth” (117). The signified, therefore, is embedded in tangible narratives and/or setups that widen the meaning of the story (116). From this point of view, the act of gathering plants casts the aliens as vague targets in a conflict initiated by antagonists who appear tangible enough to be identified with the government, but also nebulous and formless enough to allow for ideological projection. Correspondingly, Reagan establishes a mythology of an “expansive federal government” that appears straightforward, but blurry enough to allow for a variety of conservative and libertarian interpretations.95

The alleged lack of government accountability plays into the “small-government” myth as the movie shows the agents conducting a mission in secret, outside the realms of populated, urban, or suburban space. This is an agency that is visibly disconnected from the concerns of the largely white and middle-class mainstream depicted in the movie. The elusive nature of the agency is underscored by the fact that the viewer is never given any clues ←118 | 119→regarding which agency or government body they belong to.96 They operate in the shadows at night and the public in the nearby suburb seems to be unaware of their activities. The movie affirms in a subsequent scene that only the 9-year-old Elliott is aware that they are foraging in the woods. In the Reaganite imagination, this bureaucracy is on the verge of becoming “so powerful that it can no longer be changed or controlled by any administration.” Forcing this bureaucracy to “respond to the will and the collective wishes of the people” would not only restore the allegedly lost political equilibrium between “government and the governed,” but it would also translate into a victory for E.T. and his friends, who seek to outsmart the federal agents throughout the film.

In later scenes, the disconnect between government and a seemingly beleaguered white suburbia is further accentuated. The imagery employed is reminiscent of Cold War totalitarianism. However, the totalitarian overtones are not shown to be the result of a foreign invasion but are rather presented as a pre-existing metatext without any further context or historical narration. At no point is any explanation given as to why agents in space suits seem to be entitled to break into a suburban home without a proper warrant or even announcing themselves. The ideological subtexts of these images, which are presented as traumatic and harrowing for Elliott and his family, add to the sense of dystopia.97 The erosion of the imagined trust between the white middle class and an ideally prudent bureaucracy gives rise to a narrative dynamic that lends the film the air of both a fable and a dystopia—a warning of how things could be in the future (Negley and Patrick 298).

The lack of explicitly stated motivations for the government’s actions and the introduction of government agents in the film as “aggressive first movers” casts the government into a discursive sphere that is conversant, yet not entirely overlapping, with Reagan’s public pronouncements on “limited government.” Colleen Shogan points out that one of the four key promises that Reagan made in his 1980 campaign was an “increase in military spending” (19). This was accompanied by his chastisement of the Carter administration for supposedly having weakened the nation’s military capabilities. In addition, Reagan’s vision of aggressively weaponizing space in order to “to protect the population ←119 | 120→of the United States from nuclear annihilation” (Grossmann 93) was already a recurrent and publicized theme of his presidential campaign. Thus, it stands to reason that a forceful, well-funded, and dominant space agency, as depicted in the film, would align with the Reaganite vision of space defense. In other words, military capabilities that allow for global dominance and muscle-flexing represent one of the few areas in which a “big government” would be warranted. However, the positioning of the bureaucracy in E.T.—The Extra-Terrestrial still subscribes to the discursive logic of conservative neoliberalism, as the government targets and intrudes into the space of the domestic, white middle class. In this sense, the authorities turn their power against Reagan’s main clientele and not against external foes. Moreover, the non-menacing stature of E.T. offers grounds for coding the government forces in the movie not as pursuing the restoration and maintenance of white hegemony, but as a patronizing institution that is oblivious to the demands of the “nuclear family.” In this sense, the film negotiates suburban Cold War anxieties through images of homegrown authoritarianism.

William Palmer maintains, in his book Films of the Eighties, that anxieties regarding Soviet totalitarianism were meditated through four types of texts during the 1980s: “the rightist military text, the cold war spy text, the E.T. text and the leftist freedom under totalitarianism text” (209). According to Palmer, the E.T. text “metaphorically dramatized the need for understanding and the eventual thaw in relations between these two wary nations (the U.S. and the Soviet Union)” (209). This framework points to an important political development that permeated Hollywood filmmaking in the second half of the 1980s: the growing rapprochement between the United States and the Soviet Union. However, it does not address questions regarding a dystopian US-American future in which the country has degenerated into a homegrown totalitarian regime. An interrogation of the film from the perspective of Reaganite “small-government” rhetoric, however, gives rise to a conservative-libertarian understanding of “homegrown bureaucratic excesses” as a variety of totalitarianism that seems as menacing and all-encompassing as Soviet totalitarianism. Ultimately, key scenes in E.T.—The Extra-Terrestrial provide grounds for seeing the United States as susceptible to sliding into an “authoritarian big government state.” This form of statism appears unrecognizable to the suburban family of the early 1980s. The subtext of an “un-American” and overbearing force taking over the suburbs is most evident in the scenes in which Elliott’s family’s home is taken over by agents in space suits.

The imagery in these scenes presents government agents, scientists, and police forces as harbingers of a pervasive and practically uniform collectivism ←120 | 121→that is about to seize the suburbs. The scenes take place right after the mother of the family, Mary, finally discovers a very sick and ailing E.T. on the bathroom floor in her house. She reacts with immediate shock and disbelief. She does not trust her kids’ assurances that E.T. poses no threat and needs help. She grabs Elliott and orders her oldest son, Michael, to get the youngest sibling, Gertie, out of the house. On their way out, they are confronted with an overwhelming government presence that has seemingly built up around the house overnight. After Michael opens the door, he is shown in a frontal medium shot, from a slightly lower angle. His reaction to what seems to be a frightening and intimidating sight is plain to see. Through the mise-en-scène, he is placed between a stairway to the left and a floor clock to the right, which adds a subtle subtext of the importance of flight and time in a situation like this. However, it is already too late for this family. Once Mary approaches the door, the true balance of power becomes evident. An agent in full astronaut gear, audibly breathing through a respirator, enters through the front door. He inexplicably extends his arms toward the family as if he is attempting to capture them. No introduction, no dialogue, and no prior announcement accompanies this home invasion for the audience or for the family in the film. Mary and the children try to run away, but they are confronted with more space suit-clad intruders. Cornered in the living room, the shocked family witnesses one agent making his way into the house through a window (see Figure 3). Mary’s frantic declaration that “[t]his is my home!” does nothing to dissuade the intruders. In the lower-middle part of the shot, a toy train is circling on a table and making a loud choo-choo sound. In addition to signaling the intrusion into an idyllic and modest existence, this audiovisual element can be coded as the announcement and arrival of a powerful machinery.

The following scene illustrates the theme of encroaching and dystopian totalitarianism in vibrant colors. A low-angle shot of a suburban street captures a bright red sunset and the top of a lone streetlight behind the horizon. The warm colors convey a sense of heat and anticipation. Suddenly, a perfectly aligned group of scientists in uniform white outfits and helmets emerge from over the horizon. They are almost exactly the same height and their step is practically in unison. Their faces are all hidden behind inscrutable masks. As soon as they appear, a loud and unceasing drumbeat accentuates their every step up the street. There is little doubt now that suburbia is being taken over by a quasi-military force. The next shot captures E.T. lying on the bathroom floor. An agent in full astronaut gear enters the room, again audibly breathing through a respirator. The camera assumes E.T.’s perspective, giving the viewer the impression that the agent is towering overhead. The alien stretches out his arms and uses his last ←121 | 122→ounce of strength to crankily yell, “Home … home.” Unlike all other characters in the film when they first encounter E.T., the agent remains completely silent, his facial reactions hidden behind the mask. He neither accelerates nor slows down his pace as he walks toward E.T. When the alien yells for home one more time, the scene immediately cuts to the spectacle of government power that is now unfolding in the streets.

Scores of uniformly dressed scientists and engineers transport quarantine equipment along the street to the sound of the marching drumbeat. From behind the horizon, further waves of agents appear. They are followed by a fleet of police cars, slowly driving down the street, their emergency lights flashing. The next shot depicts all approaching police officers, agents, and scientists in frontal view. Yet, all their faces are obscured by the setting sun against which the scene is filmed. The dusky mise-en-scène not only serves to heighten the tension, but it also creates an atmosphere of “end times.” One scientist is carrying an instrument that is partially self-illuminated, leaving the viewer wondering what its purpose might be. The impression of an enigmatic and unaccountable force marching through the streets plays into a variety of dystopian anxieties, ranging from Cold War fears of a communist invasion to a perceived onslaught by an authoritarian police state (see Figure 4).

←122 | 123→

It is important to note that the unfolding narrative of a government that initially lurked in the shadows and is now entering the sacred space of the home suggests a progression and expansion of powers. By situating Reagan’s anti-government rhetoric in the context of backlash politics (specifically against many of the social and progressive advances made in the preceding decades), it can be made evident that his proclamations tapped into similar desires for a reversal of history. In his inaugural address in 1981, Reagan declared that:

Our government has no power except that granted it by the people. It is time to check and reverse the growth of government, which shows signs of having grown beyond the consent of the governed. It is my intention to curb the size and influence of the Federal establishment and to demand recognition of the distinction between the powers granted to the Federal Government and those reserved to the States or to the people.98

Given the historical context of the film’s release, a discursive confluence emerges whereby his inaugural assertion that government has grown too large partially overlaps with countercultural discourses of the 1960s and 1970s characterized by their rejection of systematic oppression and mandated societal conformity. Douglas Kellner notes:

←123 | 124→

Reaganism should be seen as revolutionary conservativism with a strong component of radical conservative individualism and activism, and that this fits in with Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Superman, Conan and other films and television series which utilize individualist heroes who are anti-state and who are a repository of conservative values. (Media Culture 66)

This rhetorical synthesis allows for a realignment of existing ideological attitudes in a post–New Deal environment along the lines of anti-statist sentiments (Bimes 11) as common denominators for utopian cultural fantasies. In the film, these denominators are carefully gauged to allow both white, middle-class liberals and conservatives to acknowledge the suggested threat of statism to childlike utopias (as represented by the toy train in the living room and E.T.’s innocent collecting of plants). This imagery is heavily structured by myths of “simpler times” during which government appeared “small” (Troy, The Reagan Revolution 20–30). This plays into widespread sentiments among baby boomers, who were usually responsible for making movie-viewing decisions for their kids in the 1980s. As the movie goes on, the suggested remedy to “big-government” excesses comes in the form of a white, male counter-offensive of neoliberal individualism. The social functioning of the fable as a narrative form in which cuddly animals “teach” their audience about “good versus bad” can now be paralleled with the instructive character of the media spectacle. Due to its market-saturation strategy, E.T. is permeated by a cross-generational appeal whereby the experience of infantilized “innocence” offers both images of mythical nostalgia and ideals of opposition to a corrupted government (Piqueras Fraile 33).

The regression to the infantile plays an important role in the conflict between the protagonists and the antagonists. While Elliott, his siblings, and his friends are immersed in a romanticized epistemology that draws inspiration from escapist pop culture items (such as the Star Wars figures that Elliott introduces to E.T.), the adults inhabit a world marked by calculated pragmatism and an avoidance of wonder or mystery. For instance, Mary attempts to dissuade the children from investigating the strange noises that Elliott has heard in the backyard. Elliott’s teacher (another government employee) tries to reassert his authority after Elliott liberates a number of frogs who were about to be dissected in a biology class. All of these contrasts are sharpened by the arrival of the government, which enters the film as the ultimate rational and patronizing force. These markedly white, middle-class imaginations of childlike innocence are conducive to framing a rejection of the complexities of modern-day government as an innate and natural tendency of the human condition. In his analysis of E.T., Robin Wood highlights the “use of the infantile as escape from ←124 | 125→an adult world perceived as irredeemably corrupt, or at least bewilderingly problematic” (156).

Against the socio-historical backdrop of Reagan’s election victory in 1981, this use of the infantile can be seen as a cultural negotiation strategy to psychologically disconnect the US societal mainstream from the political entanglements of the Vietnam War, the Watergate scandal, the Oil Crisis, and the Iranian hostage crisis. Through regressing to the infantile, these national traumas can be attributed to the work of uninspired, “grown-up” bureaucrats. The government’s fierce entry into the lives of Elliott and E.T. is cast as the newest manifestation of bureaucratic arrogance. As Andrew Britton has pointed out, however, the regression to the infantile and the solipsistic is highly ideological in a context of capitalist cultural production (100), as it espouses the celebration of an “ideology of entertainment,” thereby stifling or appropriating impulses of resistance. Hence, it can be extrapolated that behind the veil of the valiant struggle of suburban children against government agencies, there lurks a politics of escapism that is highly supportive of the neoliberal projects launched by the Reagan administration in the 1980s. It is through the celebration of the childlike/childish that E.T. is at its most ideological. The final quarter of the movie negotiates the generational gap by introducing the character “Keys,” who is one of the principal government agents in the movie.

Keys is instrumental in giving the government a more human face as he builds a rapport with Elliott by outlining the benign intentions of the operation of which he is part. In a scene in the oxygen tent, Keys reassures Elliott—who is lying on a bed next to E.T.—that their main goal is to ensure the alien’s survival (at 01:22.37):99

KEYS: Elliott, he came to me, too. I’ve been wishing for this since I was 10 years old. I don’t want him to die. What can we do that we’re not already doing?

ELLIOTT: He needs to go home. He’s calling his people … and I don’t know where they are. He needs to go home.

This exchange re-inscribes the government into the filmic narrative as not motivated by nefarious purposes or purely selfish impulses. The following scene shows a group of doctors and nurses frantically trying to save E.T.’s life as his situation suddenly deteriorates on the hospital bed. The fast-paced exchange of medical jargon and the high-tech equipment used on the alien creates an ←125 | 126→impression of highly educated professionals who treat the situation as a technical matter (at 01:26:27):

1ST DOCTOR: No blood pressure.

2ND DOCTOR: He’s got no pulse or respiration. We can’t get a pulse or blood pressure.

3RD DOCTOR: He’s not breathing.

ELLIOTT: Leave him alone! You’re killing him! Leave him alone!

2ND DOCTOR: Let’s move it!

3RD DOCTOR: Get the boy out.

ELLIOTT: Stop it! You’re killing him! You’re killing him! You’re killing him! You’re killing him! You’re killing him! He came to me!100

Like other representatives of the government, the doctors are virtually indistinguishable from another. All of them wear the same type of hospital lab coat and surgical mask and their faces are partially obscured by the masks. The camera intermittently focuses on E.T. lying on the operating table. In a close-up from a high-angle (i.e. taking the doctor’s point of view), his devastating condition becomes clearly visible. He is surrounded by at least five doctors, one of whom is placing his hand over E.T.’s mouth, presumably in order to ascertain whether he is still breathing. When Elliott starts yelling at the doctors, demanding that they leave E.T. alone, the camera switches to a low-angle view at the level of the operating table. The orders of the 3rd doctor, who now has a towering appearance in the shot, to remove Elliott from the room gain visual authority. The point of view in this shot is practically identical to that of Elliott, who is lying on a bed next to E.T. A tracking shot then follows Elliott as he is rolled away from the alien, giving the audience the impression that they are being evicted with the boy. Thereby, the scene makes it clear that the viewer’s sympathies should lie with Elliott and his protesting against the elitist over-doctoring that is taking place. Again, government representatives remain elusive, unresponsive, and patronizing, despite their manifest dedication to saving E.T.’s life.

Within the context of Reagan’s anti-government rhetoric of the early 1980s, these discourses of benevolent intentions are insufficient to absolve the bureaucracy from its status as antagonist. Building on Lakoff’s “strict father” model, ←126 | 127→an over-nurturing government appears to be detrimental to the health and well-being of society. Therefore, this scene of “helicopter-parenting” doctors comfortably accords with Reagan’s portrayal of the Carter administration in his election eve address in 1980: “And many Americans today, just as they did 200 years ago, feel burdened, stifled and sometimes even oppressed by government that has grown too large, too bureaucratic, too wasteful, too unresponsive, too uncaring about people and their problems.”101

Just like the agents in E.T.—The Extra-Terrestrial, the Carter administration is characterized as a vast apparatus of anonymous faces with no real connection to the experience and everyday life of middle-class families. Reagan contends that social programs have not yielded productive outcomes and are now about to risk the very survival of the nation. In the movie, this “patronizing attitude” is accentuated by the inaccessible medical terminology of the doctors, which adds a layer of anti-intellectualism to the scene.102 “Big government liberalism” is thereby associated with university education on a socio-cultural level. This can foster the impression that Elliott’s seemingly non-ideological “childlike intuition” is more representative of the will of the people and thus more democratic. Again, government representatives become emblematic of a dystopian decline in mythical white, masculine strength and individual entrepreneurialism, which, according to Reagan, were the driving engine of the nation. This lamentation of the state of the government also contains echoes of the Puritan jeremiad. In his discussion of the use of the puritanical jeremiad in presidential rhetoric, David C. Bailey highlights how

Reagan adapted the traditionally judgmental and moralistic character of the Puritan rhetorical form to make it far more palatable to a 1980s American audience. The economy was in trouble not because the people had sinned, but because they had been led astray by the false prophets of collectivism. (20)

As in the film, seemingly “un-American” discourses have inserted themselves into the white mainstream of the United States. They are now “exorcized” through a regress to mythical images of childhood and the restoration of cultural and political discourses that prevailed before the liberal interventions of the New Deal and 1960s countercultures. Within the movie, this restoration ←127 | 128→is narratively intertwined with the restoration of the family. Only through re-centering white male individualism can the dystopian future of collectivism be averted, the family reunited, and the non-threatening Other safely returned to its home planet.

The Restoration of the Father through White, Male, Middle-Class Individualism

Themes of reuniting the family and restoring white masculinity were prominent in the early blockbuster cycle of the late 1970s and early 1980s. The preceding metatexts of second-wave feminism and the coming of age of the baby-boomer generation were giving way to manifestations of beleaguered patriarchal families or already broken-up families without a dominant male figure. In these right-wing fantasies, the redemption of the family is premised on the reinstallation of traditional father figures, who not only implement heteronormativity and “law and order,” but also a capitalist understanding of individualism. This is often juxtaposed with an overbearing, and yet inept, bureaucracy (Wood 152–155). These themes also permeate Reagan’s political rhetoric in the 1970s and 1980s, which frequently tied neoliberal axioms to myths of a lost entrepreneurial spirit that needed rekindling (Weiler and Pearce 237–239). This hidden attack on the welfare state was often presented in the language of popular cinematic metaphors that portrayed single, white, hard-bodied males as enforcers of virtue.103

E.T.—The Extra-Terrestrial offers a detailed commentary on the state of the suburban family in the early 1980s. The “missing father” embeds the film in a textual relationship with the socially conservative realignment of the 1980s, as well as the neoliberal projects launched during the Carter administration and brought to fruition during the Reagan era. Both reactionary thrusts were still nascent and far from ascendant in 1982, when the film was released, which makes it important to examine how the textual relationship between E.T. and Reaganite visions of family and capitalism interact with one another. Robin Wood notes:

←128 | 129→

[T]he 80s have seen the development (or in many cases, the resurrection) of a number of strategies for coping with (the restoration of the father). There is the plot about the liberated woman who proves she’s just as good as the man but then discovers that this doesn’t make her happy and that what she really wanted all the time was to serve him. […] The corollary of this is the plot that suggests that men, if need arises, can fill the woman’s role just as well if not better (Kramer vs Kramer, Author! Author!, Mr. Mom). (152–153)

Through the re-emergence of a dominant masculinity vis-à-vis a feminism that is depicted as “exhausting” and “exhausted,” it is possible to identify narrative threads that reassert discourses of entrepreneurialism and capitalist innovation as male-centered strategies for a cinematic “restoration of the family.” The unleashing of this type of individualism virtually necessitates a “limited government,” which makes the welfare state and bureaucracy feasible targets for the Hollywood blockbuster imagination.

Within the movie, the family plays a central role early on. In accordance with Robin Wood’s statements on the “faux-liberated woman of the 80s,” E.T.—The Extra-Terrestrial reproduces a sheen of feminist awareness by presenting the mother, Mary, as trapped within the demands of traditional motherhood. She serves as replacement father and has a professional job that allows her to act as the breadwinner. Mary is consistently portrayed as unable to exert “effective authority” in various scenes and she often appears overburdened with the responsibilities of single parenting. This is evident in the establishing scene in which the family is first introduced. Mary is the only adult and female present as her teenage son Michael plays a round of a card game with his male friends. Simultaneously, Elliott is inspecting the first signs of E.T. in the backyard. In her first exchange with the card-playing group, Mary seems to be unacquainted with the realities of her children’s lives (10:48):

TYLER: All’s you get is those 40-year-olds.

MARY: How do you win this game?

STEVE: It’s like life. You don’t win at life.

GREG: Money helps.

(In the following shot, Elliott storms into the dining room.)

ELLIOTT: Mom! There’s something out …

MIKE: Where’s the pizza?

ELLIOTT: There’s something out there! In the toolshed. It threw the ball at me. Quiet! Nobody go out there.

(The teenagers get up from the table and rush toward the backyard.)

←129 | 130→

MARY: Stop. Now, you guys stay right here.

MIKE: You stay here, Mom. We’ll check it out.

MARY: And put those knives back!

(The teenagers proceed to go outside.)

Early on, Mary is depicted as struggling in her mission to both connect with and establish authority over a group of male adolescents—referencing the lack of a traditional father figure. This is underlined through the mise-en-scène: Mary is positioned outside the range of a low-hanging ceiling lamp that hovers over the boys at the dining table. In this American shot, the camera is leveled at the height of the boys’ faces. This gives Mary a towering appearance—signaling her oscillation between authority and irrelevance. This changes when Elliott comes running into the room and advances right into the lit space under the lamp. He is standing up, whereas the other boys remain seated, giving him a visually superior position. Mary, however, remains in the background while Elliott passionately instructs everyone not to go out there. The boys’ decision to go out and investigate the noise in the backyard leads to a remark that reinforces female domesticity and dependence on males for physical safety.

In this scene, several discursive patterns underline Robin Wood’s observations on how the restoration of the father was structured in 1980s Hollywood cinema. The character of Mary is arguably informed by notions of second-wave feminist independence and self-reliance.104 She articulates her desire to understand a card game played only by boys, demonstrating her willingness to enter a space that is connoted as male. However, the design of the scene and the narrative unfolding of an emergent potential threat quickly relegate her to the role of a supporting character, who is eclipsed by a precocious and enterprising young boy who dared to venture into a backyard in the hope of finding the alien he suspects is there.

Elliott, in contrast to his mother, emerges as a potential masculine law-giver through his instruction that nobody leave the building, echoing George ←130 | 131→Lakoff’s concept of the conservative “strict father” who “protects the family in the dangerous world” (Elephant 7). This protection comes in the form of strict paternal authority derived from the father’s supposedly appropriate discernment of “right” and “wrong.” Performing within this framework of gendered self-discipline is indicative of the ability to adequately pursue one’s own self-interest and thereby succeed in the marketplace. Elliott may be unsuccessful in dissuading his peers from leaving the building, but the audience is aware of his frightening initial encounter with E.T. The boy is thereby constructed as having a proper appreciation of potential dangers in two ways: Firstly, in the aftermath of his first encounter with E.T. and, secondly, in his suspicions regarding a government agent whom he spots in the forest while searching for the alien. Elliott does not attempt to contact the agent or report his sightings to him. Instead, he turns around quickly, jumps on his bicycle, and flees the scene. Apparently, his intuition tells him that the men foraging through the woods are not to be trusted. Although Elliott lacks authority over his peers and is unaware of E.T.’s harmlessness, he does exhibit the proper capitalist instincts to rely on his own initiative rather than turn to the state for help.

Against the backdrop of Reagan’s “small-government” rhetoric, several discourses of self-reliance and masculine assertion in a neoliberal, post-industrial setting emerge within the film. Jeffords remarks in her analysis of masculinity in The Terminator movies that

in a slick rewriting of the gender-marked division between the public and the private, the Terminator films offer male viewers an alternative to the declining workplace and national structure of sources as masculine authority and power—the world of the family. It is here, this logic suggests, that men can regain a sense of masculine power without having to confront or suggest alterations in the economic social system that has led to their feelings of deprivation. (Hard Bodies 70)

Similar debates are also addressed in E.T.—The Extra-Terrestrial as the film touches upon a gendered sense of public versus private, industrial versus service society, and self-reliant individualism versus interdependence. In a telling scene at the dining table, the family has a conversation about how to proceed after Elliott maintains that he has seen the alien in a crop field with his own eyes. His mother and his brother call his sighting into question (at 17:40):

ELLIOTT: Dad would believe me.

MARY: Maybe you ought to call your father and tell him about it.

ELLIOTT: I can’t. He’s in Mexico with Sally.

←131 | 132→

GERTIE: Where’s Mexico?

MARY: Excuse me. (She leaves the table and walks to the window.) If you ever see it again, whatever it is, don’t touch it, just call me and we’ll have somebody come and take it away.

GERTIE: Like the dogcatcher?

ELLIOTT: But they’ll give it a lobotomy or do experiments on it or something.

Through the initial mise-en-scène, Elliott and Gertie are placed in the left third of the screen, with Michael and Mary positioned in the opposing right third. Each party thereby occupies a space within a golden ratio. However, Mary and Michael are visibly taller and assume a clearly more upright physical stance. Elliott appears beleaguered, as he looks down while stating faintly that his father would have believed him. The absence of the father lingers in the subconsciousness of the family like an Oedipal subtext. This creates an awkward silence when evoked by the younger members of the family. It is curious that the boy, who possesses seemingly childlike beliefs, remembers the absent father and emphasizes that he would concur with his beliefs. This suggests not only that Elliott used to have a trusting bond with this father, but also that the lost paternal figure was capable of absorbing and upholding the dreams of the white, male individual. When reading the family as a metaphor for the nation, a picture emerges in which the patriarchal “father of the nation” is legitimized through his discursive functioning as an institution that sanctifies and unleashes the mythical creative qualities of male individualism (Jeffords, Hard Bodies 15; Carroll 231).105 The restoration of the national father is therefore embedded in ideological patterns that mark the father–son relationship as one in which capitalist individualism is considered sacrosanct and in line with the goals of the administration.

In this context, it is worth quoting a passage from Reagan’s inaugural address that embraces the legitimizing function of discourses on “heroic entrepreneurialism” for neoliberal projects that have, in fact, squashed the aspirations of a large number of working- and middle-class families:

←132 | 133→

We have every right to dream heroic dreams. Those who say that we’re in a time when there are not heroes, they just don’t know where to look. […] Your dreams, your hopes, your goals are going to be the dreams, the hopes, and the goals of this administration, so help me God.106

In light of Elliott’s positioning as the one who “has dreams” in this scene, it is easy to imagine how Reagan’s announcement that a government should foster dreams aligns with Elliott’s belief that his father would concur with him. The fact that the government attempts to stifle Elliott’s hope to get to know and eventually befriend the alien indicates its dystopian and also improperly masculine nature. This is echoed by Mary and Michael, who doubt Elliott’s version of the story, thereby signifying their unsuitability to serve as “substitute fathers.” Mary’s deference to socially interdependent services in the form of a “dog-catcher” adds a layer of mythical self-reliance vis-à-vis the comforts of a post-industrial service society. In his dissertation, David Alexander Smith outlines the premises of early 1980s nostalgia for a “pioneering individualism” that eschewed dependence on service providers, despite the unfolding realities of the post-industrial age:

Reagan’s successful political career was based in large part on a longing that many Americans had for the “good old days.” His ideas about pioneering individualism, mobility and personal autonomy struck a responsive chord with many Americans—even though they seemed hardly fitting in a highly industrialized and increasingly urbanized twentieth century society. […] Reagan was, in many respects, a nineteenth-century man who still preached the unlikely conservative combination of “rugged” individualism along with a constant haranguing for the establishment of “law and order.” (307–308)107

Against this backdrop, the scene serves as a prism for the internal contradictions of middle-class suburban existence in a service society. Elliott’s unease regarding his mother’s proposals evoke male, blue-collar anxieties regarding ←133 | 134→economic displacement in the post-industrial climate (Buijs 82). Tom Harman notes that

the decisive shift from large-scale industrial economies to ones based upon information and services taking place since the 1970s, the end of the “job for life” and the scaling back of the family wage, placed the traditional role of men as breadwinner and patriarch under threat. (6)

The invocation of the service sector mirrors a discomforting reality in which the traditional nuclear family becomes increasingly dependent on external power structures, which Elliott identifies as congruent with the apparent goals of the bureaucracy (“But they’ll give it a lobotomy or do experiments on it or something”). Withdrawing from self-reliant initiative is therefore an implicit concession to “big government” and simultaneously a surrender to the realities of the post-industrial society that threatens masculine authority.

In this scene, Mary is in a shadowy corner of the kitchen and is shown from behind as she tells the children to avoid the creature and call someone else to deal with it. She is looking down, not facing any of the children, and her tone is slightly suggestive of sobbing. While this tone can be attributed to her being upset about being reminded that her husband left her, her reaction reveals that she is inclined to seek anonymous, external assistance rather than consider any possible return of the father. The low lighting establishes a visually dark atmosphere for her verbal statement. In contrast, Elliott, sitting at the kitchen table, is shown in full three-point lighting. Thus, the cinematography of this scene makes it clear that it is Elliott’s invocation of the father that deserves sympathy and consideration.

Of further interest in terms of power relations is the reference to “Mexico.” Little sister Gertie’s lack of knowledge about Mexico’s location and the ensuing awkward silence at the dinner table frame “Mexico” as referential point for the Other that resides outside of the known comfort of suburbia. Not only did the father leave the family and the mother behind; he is now removed from the society that is known to all. The “pitfalls of postmodern society” (Vémola 16)—in this case presumably divorce—thereby become associated with a frequently racialized and otherized locale. This can be read, for instance, as a racist rebuke of the liberalism of the 1960s and 1970s (and its alleged “big-government” political regime), which has allegedly given greater prominence to the Other and is now threatening the heteronormative nuclear family. This would play into the dog-whistle racism of the Reagan campaign in 1980, which sought to leverage ←134 | 135→white working-class frustration and direct it toward immigrants and culture war issues (Philpot 47–48).108

However, a textual reading based on Douglas Kellner’s “critical theory of globalization” (“Theorizing Globalization” 6) allows for an interpretation of the scene in terms of mass media resistance to the effects of Reaganite neoliberal policies. As Mary points out in the same conversation, the family father himself dislikes “Mexico,” but is drawn there by his pursuit of a selfish motive (presumably a new relationship with “Sally”). This offers a potential subtle critique of neoliberal globalization. It was in the 1970s and 1980s that large manufacturers in the United States began the process of relocating production and jobs to Mexico and other Latin American countries—creating widespread feelings of social and economic abandonment in the United States. This can be interpreted as an early rebuke of the “free-trade policies” that the Reagan administration (and successive administrations) strongly championed (Steger and Roy 21–49). E.T.—The Extra-Terrestrial thereby functions as a site for negotiating economic and social anxieties that are specific to a globalizing and post-industrial consumption society.

The character of E.T. is instrumental in negotiating the absence of the father and the role of individualism in the face of an antagonist bureaucracy. In his comparison of the movies E.T. and Poltergeist, Kellner describes how

E.T. presents an optimistic and charming allegory of suburban middle-class life, Poltergeist presents its shadow-side and nightmares in a story where the Other, the Alien, is not a friendly extra-terrestrial who comes from outside the society to help it, but threateningly emerges from within the socio-economic system and social subconscious … E.T. is Spielberg’s childlike fantasy of hope. (Media Culture 127–128)

In this context, it is vital to examine how E.T. “helps” the family. Through several key scenes, a pattern emerges whereby the alien functions as a figure of reconciliation and (paternal) guidance for Elliott and the rest of the family. His influence transforms the previously lonely and insecure Elliott into a more assertive and determined character who proves himself to be adept at using different skills to outsmart the government. The emotional bond that the alien and Elliott share is shaped by discourses that aim at re-establishing the family ←135 | 136→through the performance of mythical visions of a dominant masculinity and the simultaneous rejection of what is shown to be an excessive, but ineffective, bureaucracy.

This is exemplified by the “frog-dissecting scene” midway through the film. In this episode, Elliott is in a classroom in his school, presumably participating in a biology class. The teacher, whose face is never shown, instructs the students in a rather monotonous voice on how to perform a vasectomy on live frogs. Simultaneously, E.T. is sitting at home in front of the TV set, flicking through different channels. Elliott, who is visibly uneasy with the assigned task, begins to experience a telepathic connection with E.T.109 The previously calm boy suddenly starts liberating the frogs. What ensues is general chaos in the classroom, with Elliott openly defying the teacher trying to regain control. Eventually, Elliott succeeds in wrestling himself free from his teacher’s grasp on his arm.

At the same time, E.T. is shown to be watching a scene from the 1952 movie The Quiet Man in which actor John Wayne violently grabs Maureen O’Hara and forces a kiss on her (Kellner, Media Culture 153). This display of toxic masculinity is paralleled in the school as Elliott takes hold of a female classmate, steps on the back of a boy who is crawling on the floor, and forces a kiss on the girl’s mouth in a similar fashion. An “Old Hollywood”-style film score accompanies the scene and—at home—E.T. is moved to tears by what has happened on the screen. His subconscious influence on Elliott is clearly informed by his consumption of the patriarchal aesthetics of mid-twentieth-century US-American mass media. Through his influence, E.T. puts Elliott on a path of masculine individualism, which sees Elliott rebelling against government authority and establishing a dominant relationship over the female gender.110

This scene, therefore, presents a confluence of socio-cultural discourses that pervaded much of Reagan’s political rhetoric and public image in the early 1980s. The renewed exercise of cultural hegemony is visually tied to mythical images of a pre-1960s societal setup, suggesting that the last adequate “father figure” ←136 | 137→would have been in the mold of John Wayne. The implications of harking back to a 1950s pop cultural discourse place this scene in an interrelationship with baby boomer nostalgia in the 1980s and the escapist and consumerist subtexts of “Reaganite utopia.”111 The reunification of the family is thereby predicated on a recourse to an easily accessible, mass media imagination of masculinity and the assertion of an individualist, white, male centrality that has allegedly been stifled by a drab and uninspiring bureaucracy.112 This is linked to the fact that, unlike previous conservative presidential candidates, Reagan occupied a both a pop cultural and political space. His public persona was always infused with mass media–ready associations with mid-1950s movie aesthetics, as Michael D. Dwyer explains:

[T]he implications of this were not limited to the entertainment industry. Nostalgia for the Fifties was a key cultural strategy in the rise of neoconservatism in the 1970s and 1980s, and no figure in American political life embodied such nostalgia more than President Ronald Reagan. David Marcus argues that Reagan’s ability to invoke the past offered the neoconservative political movement “an overarching sense of a national return to an earlier age after a period of American decline” and the opportunity to create “media accounts of the historical meanings of the 1950s”. (1)

As noted in Chapter 2, the themes of 1950s nostalgia and escapism recurred in Reagan’s construction of historical myths. These myths were summarized in Reagan’s election eve address in 1980, in which he described the 1960s and 1970s as “the hard years.” In the context of backlash politics—with Reagan’s rhetoric presenting a pushback strategy against New Deal and social liberalism—the seemingly depoliticized veneer of mythical images is operative in the nostalgic evocation of the 1950s (Barthes 142–145). Although Kellner puts forward an interpretation of the movie as the often-noted Spielbergian childlike fantasy of hope (Media Culture 128), a dissection of the filmic recourse to the 1950s reveals its highly detailed revisionism and implications for the present-day United States. Like Reagan’s election eve speech, the movie paints a visual picture of the past. The situation depicted is highly particular and specific, yet it is presented as normality (according to Reagan, the “hard years” came after the 1950s). Thus, it is curious that E.T.’s flicking through the highly ←137 | 138→diverse cable TV landscape of the early 1980s confronts him with a surprisingly large amount of 1940s and 1950s entertainment, ranging from John Wayne’s hard-boiled fare in The Quiet Man (1952) to golden-age Tom & Jerry cartoons and a scene from the 1955 space-invasion B-movie The Island Earth. The only contemporary piece of entertainment that he encounters is a commercial for a telephone service provider, offering new long-distance options for its customers. On television, the Reaganite synthesis between neoliberal consumption and 1950s values is fully visualized.

E.T.’s final scene in the movie concludes the restoration of the father. Before he enters the spaceship to leave planet Earth, the children bid him farewell. Gertie sobbingly declares: “I just wanted to say goodbye.” E.T. replies in a solemn, but also authoritative voice: “Be good.” In the shot, the alien fills roughly two-thirds of the frame, whereas Gertie resides in the left side of it. The key light falls on E.T.’s back and E.T. is much more illuminated than the girl (see Figure 5). Shortly afterwards, this goodbye is juxtaposed with the way in which E.T. and Elliott part ways—with the alien using his “magic touch” on Elliott one more time. Moreover, the amount of visual space the two interlocutors are given is more equal, with the boy being filmed from a much lower angle. Robin Wood draws a parallel between this scene and the ending of the 1977 Spielberg movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind:

←138 | 139→

The [mother’s] sole objective is to regain her child […]. No suggestion is made that she might go off on the spaceship or even that she might want to. The end of E.T. offers the precise complement to this: the Extra-Terrestrial transmits his wisdom and powers to the male child, Elliott, by applying a finger to his forehead, then instructs the little girl to “be good”: like Princess Leia, she will never inherit the Force. (157)

This scene underscores the fable-like character of the film: The cuddly, anthropomorphic alien has succeeded in conveying a lesson in “good behavior” to children and exposed the corruption of governmental power (Ryan and Rossiter; Piqueras Fraile 33). However, E.T. does not provide his specific instruction to “be good” to either Michael or Elliott, cementing the highly patriarchal nature of E.T.’s reconciliation of the family. Douglas Kellner and Michael Ryan see in this reconciliation a “reintegration of the broken ego (or family) through the fantasy of regression” (261). Kellner and Ryan opine that this takes place at a critical distance from the “adult world of harshness and competition.”

Yet, reading this in relation to the family as a metaphor for the nation through the lens of Lakoff’s “strict father” model (Thinking Points 50), it becomes plausible to infer how a socially conservative, capitalist utopia has become a reality. Through pushing back against “big government” and feminist advances into male spaces, the family appears to gain social stability, harmony, and newly found confidence, which translates into fitness for a capitalist economy (Thinking Points 60).113 For instance, Reagan explicitly tied the health of the family to an enterprising economy in his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention in 1980: “We cannot support our families unless there are jobs; and we cannot have jobs unless people have both money to invest and the faith to invest it.”114 The wealth of the nation is mythically tied to the wealth of the “nuclear family,” which—according to Reagan—can only thrive in a ←139 | 140→capitalist setting. The restoration of the family in E.T. treads a similar path. By the end of the film, Elliott and his exclusively white, male squad of friends have successfully outsmarted the government in a competition (an action-packed chase scene)115 and relegated all female characters to secondary roles. In addition, another sympathetic male authority figure emerges in the last third of the film: the character of “Keys.”

Keys assumes a father-like role when Elliott and E.T. are in the operating room. He is the only male adult in the film who is engaged in a meaningful dialogue with the boy. Moreover, his inclusion in the earlier scenes in the forest makes him a permanent figure in this tale. He strikes up a rapport with Elliott during their conversation, which distinguishes him from his fellow agents. Fully clad in in a radiation suit, he gently taps on the plastic curtain behind which Elliott lying on a bed, in quarantine. The boy wakes up and quickly recognizes him. Keys begins to explain his reason for searching the forest:

Elliott, I’ve been to the forest. […] he came to me, too. I’ve been wishing for this since I was 10 years old. I don’t want him to die. […] Elliott, I don’t think that he was left here intentionally. But his being here is a miracle, Elliott. It’s a miracle … and you did the best that anybody could do. I’m glad he met you first.

Within the framework of the seemingly depoliticized nature of “childish/childlike imagination” (Wood 156), Keys emerges as one of the few, if not the only, adult figure who validates and sympathizes with Elliott’s personal dream. In a calm and soothing voice, he reveals himself to be a dreamer of the same ilk. This sets him apart from the cold, rational, and faceless bureaucrats that permeate the film. Nevertheless, he operates within the general logic of the government, which has no nefarious intentions in relation to E.T., yet is incapable of providing him with the breathing room and individual freedom that he craves. It is possible to interpret Keys’ statement regarding him being glad that the alien met Elliott first as a tacit admission that this might be preferable to government intervention. Nevertheless, he considers it necessary for the government to step in now for reasons that are not clearly specified. By the end of the movie, Keys has given up his pursuit of E.T. and no other agents follow the alien and his friends into the forest, where the spacecraft is waiting. Keys—the most vocal and prominent government representative—thereby recedes and leaves the reconciliation of the family to E.T. and Elliott. Chris Maltezos observes, in his analysis of the ending of E.T., that “[t]he family in ET can gradually accept ←140 | 141→the devastating, emotional effects of a divorce and learn to bond together as a whole family, reaffirming the preservation of the nuclear family despite such obstacles as a missing parental figure” (55).

While the biological father may have gone missing and thereby left a void, the introduction of a symbolic father has spurred the young males in the family to reassert themselves against the allegedly dystopian paternal authority of the government and the sincere, yet structurally constrained and “inadequate” maternal authority of a working, single mother. Although E.T. leaves the planet in the end, the myth-laden lessons he has handed down are sure to reverberate among the family and the movie’s audience. The Reaganite project of turning back the clock to an imaginary past by appealing to escapist fantasies and reformulating this past to facilitate the dismantling of welfare liberalism is, at least, sympathetically portrayed in Spielberg’s most significant blockbuster of the 1980s.

This reading has revealed how the plot exhibits a narrative of pushback against forces that threaten the family and how this theme is intricately interconnected with Reagan’s rhetoric in the early 1980s. The overwhelming success and resonance of this film—not only in the United States—indicate a large demand for cultural fantasies of restoration and individual heroism within an emerging neoliberal framework.

The Pop Cultural Legacy of E.T.—The Extra-Terrestrial

As described in the introduction to this chapter, E.T.—The Extra-Terrestrial remains notable among early Hollywood blockbusters for its unprecedented global success at the box office, as well as in terms of the sale of merchandise. This popularity carried on throughout the decade and has manifested itself in frequent cinematic and television reruns to this very day.116 MCA/Universal delayed the release of the film on VHS and LaserDisc in anticipation of higher profits. Fans and viewers had to wait until 1988. Yet, upon its release, 5 million tapes were sold, which generated an additional $175 million in revenue (Prince, A New Pot of Gold 107). The consistently high demand for this science-fiction ←141 | 142→tale of an alien befriending a suburban boy highlights the emotional and discursive resonance of the movie’s underlying premises not only in its release year of 1982, but also in subsequent years. Chris Jordan has placed this film in the context of Reagan-era “yuppie movies,” which celebrated the re-centralization of the suburban unclear family:

Incumbent in yuppie movies is the construction of suburbia as a self-sufficient community of individual families that is restored to stability through the elimination of the threat posed by external forces like the state, bureaucracy, science, rationalism and capitalist greed. […] Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), E.T.—The Extra-Terrestrial (1982) and Poltergeist (1982), for example, predicate the family’s redemption on the assistance of Christ-like mediators. (72)

The observations made in this chapter are largely congruent with Jordan’s conclusions. Multiple undercurrents of pushback against emergent challengers have been discussed and contextualized in this chapter in light of Reagan’s neoliberal and patriarchal rhetoric on “small government.” However, through adding a phenomenological angle—in line with Kellner’s multi-perspectival approach—it is possible to investigate an extra-textual dimension that relates to the prominent theme of consumption within the film.

Since media spectacles “involve a commodification of previously non-colonized sectors of social life” (Media Spectacle 3), it is important to also discuss the intra-textual discourses of blockbuster movies and their dispersion as a mass media phenomenon. Jordan’s argument that capitalist greed is one of the threats that white suburbia must confront in order to reunify experiences a significant modification when analyzing the production and distribution of the film as a mass-merchandised media spectacle: Without the motivation of corporate profit for Universal Pictures, the film would arguably not have been produced and disseminated to the same degree.

This exposes an important parameter of the seemingly depoliticized nature of Reaganite entertainment, which Andrew Britton has described in the following terms: “Reaganite entertainment refers to itself in order to persuade us that it doesn’t refer outwards at all. It is, purely and simply, ‘entertainment’—and we all know it” (100). Accordingly, the subtle hints of anti-corporatism in the film need to be considered in relation to the consumerist underpinnings of its distribution in order to properly deconstruct them. It can be reasonably argued that, for instance, Elliott’s and/or E.T.’s ecological concerns and the semiotic relationships between bureaucracy and corporatism allow for a critique of big business. However, the fact that the tale inspired millions of families around the world to consume and buy the accompanying mass-produced ←142 | 143→merchandise adds an undeniable layer of pro-corporatism to the film as a cultural phenomenon. This is textually reinforced through the heavy emphasis on consumption and merchandise within the film itself. It can therefore be argued that one of underlying reasons for the film’s success is its ability to effectively negotiate the inherent contradictions of growing discomfort with neoliberalism and the simultaneous leveraging of nostalgic sentiments for contemporary consumption.117

This presents a crucial intersection with Reagan’s political rhetoric and public persona in the early 1980s. The Reagan campaign composed a theme and public image that tapped into notions of the “family in crisis,” while simultaneously selling a reconfigured brand of pro-corporate Goldwater conservatism.118 As in the case of the film’s success, a large part of the target audience awarded this with resounding support at the ballot box in 1984. This was a time when conservative entertainment was ascendant in Hollywood (Jeffords, Hard Bodies 16).

Another significant element is the groundbreaking role of special effects as a “theater of reassurance” (Franklin 26). The use of highly modern computer-generated imagery contributed to the creation of an all-encompassing movie-going experience that served multiple aims for Hollywood studios (including signifying financial viability, but also distinguishing the movie from the competing TV and cable offerings in a bid to resurrect the Hollywood studios that had gone through dire straits in the 1960s and 1970s). The combination of capitalist restoration and increased spectacle was partially achieved through the pleasure of viewing awe-inspiring effects, as Robin Wood observes:

[T]he unemployment lines in the world outside may get longer and longer, we may even have to go out and join them, but if capitalism can still throw out entertainments like Star Wars (the films’ very uselessness an aspect of the prodigality), the system must be basically OK, right? (148)

←143 | 144→

The combination of reassurance and escapism in the special effects–driven spectacle of E.T. parallels Reagan’s constant performance as a reassuring, optimistic, and childlike character.119 The performance of these qualities serves as a structuring factor for the emergence of a reactionary and neoliberal cultural regime in the United States in the 1980s.

For major Hollywood studios, the success of E.T. was further vindication of the “Spielberg–Lucas” formula (Wood 144) of special effects–laden, high-concept spectacle movies that prioritize style and emotion over content and intellectual depth. This institutionalized the drive toward repetitive cycles of optimistic movies that favored (often infantile) solipsism. The shift from the auteurism of “New Hollywood” to the ascendancy of box office–oriented escapism was also evident in the way in which film critics’ opinions diverged from those of the viewership. Stephen Prince notes:

Once again, to the dismay of serious film critics, the popular audience made a clear statement about the importance of feeling and emotion in cinema and the enthusiastic narrative skill that Spielberg brought to his work. E.T., in particular, touched viewers in a powerful manner that few filmmakers ever achieve in their work. Many critics distrusted the emotional response that Spielberg’s films evoked from their viewers […] a schism prevailed between box-office success […] and artistic success. (A New Pot of Gold 202)

The corporate mechanisms now did their part by constantly reinforcing a new view of merchandise-oriented cinema that banked on resurgent masculine patriotism and “free-market” fundamentalism. This spirit of optimistic consumption could thereby become much more deeply embedded in the fabric of US-American popular culture. This provided large numbers of young children in the United States (and worldwide) with a form of naturalized “bourgeois entertainment” (Britton 100). Spielberg followed E.T. with highly profitable sequels to his first Indiana Jones film and George Lucas released Return of the Jedi in 1983 in a bid to outperform the success of E.T.

Despite the early mixed reaction, many film critics ultimately warmed up to Spielberg’s sci-fi family tale, which currently holds a 98 percent positive rating on the aggregated review platform Rotten Tomatoes.120 But it was not ←144 | 145→only the movie-going public across the world that wanted to deliver a verdict. On September 27, 1982, the film was also screened at the UN headquarters in New York City.121 This was part of a ceremony in which Spielberg received the UN Peace Medal—an award bestowed on those who have made significant efforts to promote peace around the world. Like William Palmer (308), UN officials interpreted the film as a fable of mutual understanding. This, however, sidelines the power dynamics that were discussed in this chapter.

As an aside: Reagan himself had a personal relationship with the film. He invited director Steven Spielberg to a special screening of E.T. in the White House on June 27, 1982. An anecdote arising from this screening played into the widespread perception of Reagan as a humorous “everyman” who had difficulties distinguishing between “fiction” and “reality.” In a 2011 interview, Spielberg relates the following story:

The room did laugh and then later on I’ll never forget my conversation with the President. He pulled me aside, he said … and I can’t do Reagan. I wish I could do that breathy, wonderful voice of his … And Nancy Reagan was standing right next to him and the President said to me, “I only have one criticism about your movie,” and I said “What’s that?” He said, “How long were the end credits?” I said, “Oh, I don’t know. Maybe three, three and a half minutes?” He said, “In my day, when I was an actor, our end credits were maybe 15 seconds long.”122

Reagan’s reference to the end credits mirror the movie’s invocation of a mid-twentieth-century aesthetic. Against this backdrop, Reagan’s comment seems to “double down” on the mythical connotations of a “simpler time.”

As outlined in the section on the production background, E.T. also proved instrumental in establishing product placement as a new mode of advertising in the film industry. Subsequent blockbusters, such as the Back to the Future trilogy or the Transformers franchise, made even greater use of this intertwining of film and advertisement. This facilitated further integration of corporate distribution structures into filmmaking in subsequent decades (Walton 70–77). However, not all attempts to ride the wave of success created by E.T. resulted in profits. An infamous, E.T.-based video game produced by Atari, Inc. for the Atari 2600 proved to be a such a financially disastrous endeavor that it is sometimes credited with contributing to the North American video game ←145 | 146→crash of 1983—the industry’s first serious recession (Montfort and Bogost 76). The story has entered US-American folklore and even urban legends for two reasons: the apparently weak design of the video game (which was developed within five weeks in order to release it before Christmas) and the fact that hundreds of thousands of cartridges were secretly buried in a landfill outside of Alamogordo, New Mexico.123 The widespread presence of E.T. as a pop cultural icon had penetrated not only various companies, industries, and consumption trends, but even subterranean US-American society—literally and metaphorically. In 2014, the Smithsonian Institution decided to add an excavated video game cartridge to their collection.124 Allegorically, it can be stated that, after being abandoned in the barren hinterland for the second time, E.T. had again returned home into popular consciousness.

Ultimately, the film’s success resulted in an instructive public spectacle, which revealed a large demand for narratives that privileged style and emotional appeal over complex and gritty analyses of the contradictions of US-American society (Wood 44). The popularity of the slick, music video–inflected high-concept style of cinematic storytelling also found its parallels in the world of politics. Full-time spin doctors and PR specialists began to develop “permanent campaigns” that were executed by more and more media-savvy and sound-bite–oriented politicians (Bunch 226). Hollywood came to recognize the compatibility of these public personas with the high-concept mode and started taking cues from popular politicians as well. One such figure was the forty-second president, Bill Clinton, who mirrored Reagan’s image and style in critical ways. The next chapter will, therefore, analyze the Reaganite and Clintonite echoes that can be found in one of the highest-grossing movie spectacles of the 1990s, a tale that also involved aliens landing on Earth: Independence Day.


85 The film title E.T.—The Extra-Terrestrial will occasionally be shortened to E.T.

86 “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial,” box-office information at boxofficemojo.com. Accessed December 16, 2018: <https://www.boxofficemojo.com/movies/?id=et.htm>.

87 Even though gender and sex of E.T. remain ambiguous throughout the movie, certain narrative signifiers construct the character as male.

88 This rhetoric was among the factors that contributed to Reagan’s landslide victory against Jimmy Carter in the presidential election (Shogan: 2–3; B. Dan Wood 39).

89 Ronald Reagan, “Ronald Reagan’s Announcement for Presidential Candidacy” (November 13, 1979).

90 Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter, “The Carter–Reagan Presidential Debate” (October 28, 1980).

91 In Approaches to Literature: Genres (1987), D.W.S. Ryan and T. Rossiter define the term “fable” as “[a] very short story in which birds, insects, and animals talk and act like humans. Its purpose is to communicate a moral, to teach good behavior, and to show the hurtful side of vice [bad behavior].” Rosario Piqueras Fraile adds that these tales not only serve entertainment purposes, but often also have hidden objectives, for example, attacking “corrupt politicians” or satirizing governmental power (33). In this sense, the fable provides an ancient format for the production of knowledge about political power and appeals to audiences of all ages.

92 E.T.—The Extra-Terrestrial: The 20th Anniversary Celebration (DVD). Universal Pictures, directed by Laurent Bouzereau, 2002.

93 This is bolstered by E.T.’s physical appearance, which is designed to resonate on an emotional level. The undercurrents of a “morality tale” align with the “fable” aspect of this narrative, as E.T. is designed to instruct his audience while also visually representing the visual attributes of familiar animals.

94 Ronald Reagan, “Ronald Reagans Announcement for Presidential Candidacy” (November 13, 1979).

95 For instance, in his November 1979 speech, Reagan does not detail which specific functions the government has usurped and which it does not perform well and why.

96 During the chase scene toward the end, the text on the side of the pursuing agents’ cars simply reads “United States Government.” This codes them as generic representatives of the federal government.

97 Glenn Negley and J. Max Patrick define “dystopia” as “not a world we should like to live in, but one we must be sure to avoid” (599).

98 Ronald Reagan, “First Inaugural Address” (January 20, 1981).

99 Indicated times for movie dialogues refer to the Blu-Ray edition of the film in question throughout this book.

100 Taking Elliott’s language at face value, it is possible to construe both Reagan and E.T. as sharing the distinction of having survived almost being killed (in Reagan’s case, the assassination attempt in 1981). Just like E.T., Reagan woke up on the operating table to the relief of much of the nation. Susan Jeffords has described Reagan’s survival in relation to her concept of the “hard body”: “[Surviving] the assassination was taken not only as a personal triumph for Reagan but a national one as well” (Jeffords, Hard Bodies 30).

101 Ronald Reagan, “Election Eve Address: A Vision for America” (November 3, 1980).

102 Reagan referred to Carter as a “nerd” during the 1980 campaign (Rohan Tomer, “A Brief History of American Anti-Intellectualism,” The Odyssey (May 31, 2016). Accessed December 9, 2018: <https://www.theodysseyonline.com/brief-history-american-anti-intellectualism>).

103 For example, when Reagan made a public announcement at the 1985 American Business Conference, declaring his opposition to the congressional tax plan: “I have my veto pen drawn and ready for any tax increase that Congress might even think of sending up. And I have only one thing to say to the tax increasers. Go ahead—make my day” (Church). The last line is clearly a quotation from Dirty Harry (1971), in which Clint Eastwood portrays a hardboiled, hyper-masculine police inspector.

104 Chris Maltezos voices this point of view in his analysis of the return of the 1950s nuclear family in 1980s films: “Mary’s character represents a new 1980s mother that breaks the 1950s myth of domestic housewife. She is emotionally distant due to time constraints rather than selfishness, a contrast to the neglectful mothers in Kramer vs. Kramer and Ordinary People. Mary displays strong connection to her children and valiantly attempts to provide the emotional assurance and time needed. Spielberg and Wallace effectively portray Mary as a divorced mother struggling to work and spend time with her children” (49–50).

105 As opposed to the “stifling” or “belittling” influence that the supposedly overly bureaucratic Carter administration had exerted in the Reaganite view (Shogan 3–4). For example, in May 1980, Reagan described Jimmy Carter’s newly formed Department of Education as a “Bureaucratic Boondoggle” (“Reagan Calls Department of Education ‘Bureaucratic Boondoggle,’ ” NBC News (May 4, 1980), NBC Universal. Accessed December 9, 2018: <https://archives.nbclearn.com/portal/site/k-12/browse/?cuecard=3552>).

106 Ronald Reagan, “First Inaugural Address” (January 20, 1981).

107 While Smith is correct in his assessment that a significant portion of the US electorate was motivated by a desired return to a mythical past to vote for Reagan in 1980, it is important to add that the supposed previous prosperity and individualism were barely available to people outside of certain gendered, racialized, and socioeconomic categories. In fact, the “unlikely combination” of “rugged individualism” and “law and order” fits in well within conservative narratives and was highly influential throughout the twentieth century (from Barry Goldwater to Richard Nixon and William F. Buckley).

108 Tasha Philpot notes that “[t]he Reagan rhetoric surrounding tax issues became as racialized as the debate over school desegregation and affirmative action […] The Reagan Democrats no longer saw their economic position as a reason to politically coalesce with blacks. Rather, their position put them in direct competition with African Americans” (47–48).

109 Later in the movie, Elliott’s brother Michael remarks to an investigating scientist that Elliott “feels E.T.’s feelings.” The union between the alien and the boy is also evident when they are both on operating tables.

110 It should be mentioned that Elliott’s resistance to dissecting frogs also makes reference to environmentalist discourses that have made their way into popular images. Thus, Elliott’s rebellion exhibits a degree of social progressivism. Yet, the restoration of the family along patriarchal lines arguably remains in the foreground, as evidenced by the power relations Elliott establishes in relation to his female classmate.

111 Andrew Britton echoes Herbert Marcuse’s view that utopianism is grounded in recollection (106–107).

112 In the context of the rise of neoliberalism, the frequent appeals to pre-1960s white/male hegemony by US conservatives conveniently leave out the ascendancy of New Deal liberalism and the associated welfare capitalism of the day.

113 Lakoff states that, according to the conservative vision, “[t]he profit motive creates efficiency in business. Government, lacking a profit motive, is inefficient and wasteful—and gets in the way of the market via regulation, taxation, unionization, and lawsuits” (Thinking Points 60). In this context, it is interesting that the movie presents a story line in which Elliott protests the capture of the alien and its subsequent treatment in a hospital by exclaiming, “He came to me! He came to me!” Rather than opting to grant E.T. his own voice (E.T. had begun to master the English language), Elliott expresses his objection in terms of his own private relationship with the alien. It does seem that the government is getting in the way of what could have been a fruitful opportunity for the family.

114 Ronald Reagan, “1980 Republican National Convention Acceptance Address” (July 17, 1980).

115 A few agents are armed with rifles, which introduces a subtext of violent conflict into the scene.

116 The cinematic re-releases happened in 1985 and 2002 respectively (“E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (Re-issue).” Re-issue information from boxofficemojo.com. Accessed December 16, 2018: <https://www.boxofficemojo.com/movies/?page=main&id=et85.htm>; “E.T. (20th Anniversary).” Re-issue information from boxofficemojo.com. Accessed December 16, 2018: <https://www.boxofficemojo.com/movies/?id=et20th.htm>).

117 Daniel P. Franklin maintains that “[i]t doesn’t make a lot of sense then, to assume […] that studio executives, producers, actors, theater owners and everyone else involved in the film business are not capitalist.” Franklin goes on to underline this by referring to Kellner, writing that “movies are neither liberal nor conservative but ‘contested terrain, and that films can be interpreted as a struggle over representation of how to construct a social world and everyday life’ ” (Franklin 56; Kellner, Film, Politics, and Ideology 1).

118 Melinda Cooper points to the interconnection between Reagan’s neoliberal rhetoric and “family values” (22).

119 John M. Jones and Robert C. Rowland note that one of the main functions Reagan’s weekly radio addresses were supposed to fulfill was “[r]eassuring the public” (257–281).

120 “E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial.” Aggregated film review info at rottentomatoes.com. Accessed January 8, 2019: <https://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/et_the_extraterrestrial/>.

121 “U.N. Finds E.T. O.K.,” The Twilight Zone Magazine, February 1983.

122 Germain Lussier, “Steven Spielberg Teases ‘Jaws’ Sequel Scene In New Interview,” slashfilm.com (June 24, 2011). Accessed December 9, 2018: <http://www.slashfilm.com/steven-spielberg-teases-jaws-sequel-scene-interview/>.

123 Emru Townsend, “The 10 Worst Games of All Time,” PC World (October 23, 2006). Accessed December 16, 2018: <<https://www.pcworld.com/article/127579/article.html?page=2>.

124 Drew Robarge, “From Landfill to Smithsonian collections: ‘E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial’ Atari 2600 game,” O Say Can You See—Stories from the National Museum of American History (December 15, 2014). Accessed December 9, 2018: <http://americanhistory.si.edu/blog/landfill-smithsonian-collections-et-extra-terrestrial-atari-2600-game>.