I can’t believe it took me almost four decades and living through a global pandemic to realize it, but in E.T., Elliott and his motley crew of rascals might well have been endangering the entire human race when they broke the hermetic seal placed around Elliott’s house by government scientists. This is where I have to take issue with the ragtag group of misfits narrative. It disparaged rational science and government caution, and it lionized childish intuition and sentimentality. Elliott knew in his heart that E.T. was entirely benevolent and harmless, but how exactly was NASA supposed to gamble the human race on that possibility?
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Who doesn’t love a story about a ragtag group of scrappy misfits, especially when the ragtag group of scrappy misfits wins at the end? When I was growing up in the 1970s and 1980s, it seemed that half the movies Hollywood intended for my eyeballs featured ragtag groups of scrappy misfits. And the raggedier, the scrappier, the better. If they were scrappy enough, then the audience was still uplifted even when they did not win in the end, such as The Bad News Bears, the motliest baseball team in little league history who lost the championship game by one run to the hand-picked, stuck-up Yankees in their fancy uniforms.
The Bears’ moral victory aside, it was much easier to pitch a film in which the ragtag group of scrappy misfits won for real at the end of the picture. At the end of Episode IV: A New Hope, the scrappy rebels blew up the Death Star. At the end of Animal House, the unfashionable Deltas humiliated the supercilious killjoys. At the end of Caddyshack, the Irish- and Polish-surnamed underdogs out-golfed the WASPy country clubbers. At the end of The Goonies, the nearly dispossessed neighborhood kids saved the neighborhood. At the end of Red Dawn, a band of American “mujaha-teens” began a guerrilla rollback of a Soviet invasion.1 At the end of Revenge of the Nerds, well, just read the title again. And at the end of E.T., the dirt-bike-riding gang of precocious 10-year-olds emancipated E.T. from the clutches of NASA scientists and delivered him safely to his spaceship.
What were the consequences of seeing this familiar story play out over and over? My argument here is that the scrappy misfits storyline can have an insidious effect on the viewer. These stories equate amateur status with virtue and equate professionalism with authoritarianism. They indulge the audience in a romantic fantasy that their purity of heart matters more than well-funded, expertly run organizations. The stories overwhelmingly side with the 19th-century Romantics in their impassioned rebellion against the 18th-century Age of Reason. No scene in 1970s-80s cinema more literally epitomized pro-Romantic partisanship than the opening of Terry Gilliam’s The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988), in which a pencil-pushing bureaucrat orders the execution of a gallant soldier because his derring-do would only inspire too many suicidal acts of heroism among his fellow soldiers. The audience was meant to be appalled by his death sentence. I was appalled. Those sick bastards!
Any time a plucky youngster was crushed by unfeeling operatives, the audience was meant to be appalled. This is just good moviemaking. But it can have consequences. My criticism here is not meant to fault Hollywood for embracing narratives in which an oddball assortment of plucky outsiders triumphs over an over-confident, well-organized villain. Even if Hollywood never existed, U.S. history books would still overflow with such tales: from Valley Forge, to the Battle of New Orleans, to Pickett’s Charge, to San Juan Hill, to Mt. Suribachi, to Steve Jobs throwing a hammer through Big Brother’s screen. The pages of U.S. history also tell tales of audacious upstarts who never quite vanquished their foes.2 Some of them, indeed, were defeated quite thoroughly. William Walker’s Republic of Lower California, John Brown’s Raid on Harper’s Ferry, the Haymarket Eight, the Bonus Army of 1932, the Black Panthers, and the Indians of All Tribes’ occupation of Alcatraz all come to mind. But again, a clever roomful of screenwriters could probably figure out a way to emphasize the nobility in each of these defeats, just as they conjured up the Bad News Bears dousing themselves with beers and instructing the Yankees to commit a physically impossible act with their trophy. (Well, maybe nobility is not the right word in the Bears’ case.)
The point here is that the audience wanted to root for an unsung squad of feisty tatterdemalions, and the filmmakers knew it. Even privileged people seemed to imagine themselves as outlaw loners who played by their own rules and defied social conventions. For example, when everyone in my high school went to see Pretty in Pink on opening weekend in 1986, I was amazed to see my wealthiest, snobbiest peers moved to tears by the plight of Molly Ringwald’s working-class protagonist. Didn’t those snobs see that if they had been characters in Pretty in Pink, then they would be James Spader and his arrogant preppy clique, patrolling the ramparts against arriviste social climbers, exactly the same way they did every day in real-life high school? Apparently they missed this. The ragtag group of scrappy misfits story works so well because so many of us want so deeply to identify with it, even if our tags are not raggedy and we stigmatize misfits for fun.
And herein lies a problem. The sympathetic heroes might have been lovable, but they were also sometimes catastrophically wrong. Romanticism is a scrappy underdog against Big Science, but sometimes Big Science is right. It was adorable when E.T.’s glowing fingertip touched Elliott’s forehead, but it also could have been the first-ever intergalactic virus-spreading event. It was thrilling when E.T.’s telekinesis lifted the outlaw BMX biker gang of 10-year-olds into the air, but that image also might well have been a scene from the fever dream of the first victims of the Great Xenopox Pandemic of 1982. Imagine a movie where Pocahontas and her crew of quirky Powhatan ragamuffins lured John Smith out of a cornfield with a trail of Reese’s Pieces, only to incur the quite sensible wrath of her elders for bringing an unvetted outsider into their midst. Their elders would have known that wherever pale Europeans went, smallpox soon followed. But in the early-80s movie fantasy, the plucky scamps would liberate Smith from bondage, return him to his sailing ship, then go back to a village to find it already dying from the pox. Swell the soundtrack and roll credits?
I can’t believe it took me almost four decades and living through a global pandemic to realize it, but in E.T., Elliott and his motley crew of rascals might well have been endangering the entire human race when they broke the hermetic seal placed around Elliott’s house by government scientists. This is where I have to take issue with the ragtag group of misfits narrative. It disparaged rational science and government caution, and it lionized childish intuition and sentimentality. Elliott knew in his heart that E.T. was entirely benevolent and harmless, but how exactly was NASA supposed to gamble the human race on that possibility? NASA could have justifiably decided to incinerate Elliott’s house and everybody in it, but they at least had the humanity to try to save their lives, E.T.’s included. It certainly frightened the audience when Elliott’s family gasped in terror as their home was invaded by spacesuits, but what were those people supposed to wear, a bandana?
Please allow me to disclaim here that my critique has nothing to do with Steven Spielberg’s filmmaking abilities, which are considerable. Many of his films are in various pantheons, and my critique has nothing to do with which ones deserve to be in the Hall of Fame. Spielberg has always been able to mold his audience’s feelings like putty. We rejoiced when Miss Celie told off Mister and set herself free in The Color Purple. We felt as though we ourselves had stormed Omaha Beach after enduring the first half hour of Saving Private Ryan. Of course I wept when E.T. died. I think everyone else in the theater was weeping, too. This natural audience sympathy for the underdog was nurtured and honed over the course of the 1970s and early ’80s that featured several popular movies about plucky upstarts taking on the established order. Bonnie and Clyde; Holly and Kit in Badlands; Frank Serpico; Michael Corleone (at first); Travis Bickle; police chief Martin Brody, Hooper, and Quint; the aforementioned Bad News Bears; Judy Bernly, Violet Newstead, and Doralee Rhodes (in 9 to 5); Karen Silkwood and Dolly Pelliker; Norma Rae Webster and Reuben Warshowsky; Kermit and the Muppets; and of course Luke, Han, Chewie, and Leia.
To appreciate the extremes to which 1980s popular cinema took the ragtag group of scrappy misfits narrative, compare E.T. to its nearly identical ancestor The Andromeda Strain (1971). When I say identical, of course, I do not mean in tone or production design but in the mechanics of the plot. An alien life form arrives on earth unexpectedly. It has an immediate influence on a small group of humans, until the government notices and sends in an elite team of experts to contain the possible biohazard. A life-or-death race against time ensues, but the good guys win in the end.
The key difference was that in Andromeda, the ragtag group of scrappy misfits and the well-funded scientists were the same people. Both groups were the good guys. They did not discover the secret to the pathogen’s lethality by racing their bikes through suburban construction sites, but by hunkering down in the lab. Were they really a ragtag group of scrappy misfits? In a way, yes. At the end of the 1960s, Andromeda was a very straight movie. It was far from the Easy Rider, Dr. Strangelove end of the irony spectrum. But Andromeda’s scientist-heroes came across as members of a secret kids’ gang. They even had their own code words: “There’s been a wildfire,” the very utterance of which makes each of them drop immediately out of their normal-seeming lives and race to an underground lab in Nevada to investigate the outbreak. For Barbarella-era Hollywood, the fact that one of the scientist-heroes was a woman – a sardonic, wisecracking woman with epilepsy, no less – made this crew unconventional and relatable, if not as ragtag and scrappy as, say, the Goonies. One of the scientists was even chosen for the Wildfire team precisely for his outsider status. He was an unmarried adult male, and under the “odd man hypothesis,” such a person could be counted upon to flip the self-destruct switch if it looked like the pathogen might escape, which of course happened. The “odd man” would not hesitate to blow up the whole lab just because he would never again see his children, the theory had it. So, the top-notch crew of pathologists and chemists might not have been 100% ragtag, but they were quirky and scrappy enough to get the audience on their side.
Despite this square-sounding premise, The Andromeda Strain combined a mystery plot (how exactly did the pathogen spread and kill?) with a last-second team effort that saved the world from an Andromeda pandemic. The odd man was about to nuke the whole lab just to be safe. But this conventional Hollywood plot was bookended by scenes of testimony at a Senate hearing, just about the stodgiest way you could possibly begin and end a movie. No wonder Steven Spielberg opted for much more exciting (and mostly wordless) sequences to open and close E.T. If you’re going to make a movie about space aliens, how about some actual spaceships zooming about? Fair enough, but Spielberg’s sharpest departure from Andromeda was to de-professionalize the film’s heroes, turning them into middle-class suburban kids who relied on their instinctive trust and scrappiness to save E.T. Spielberg also turned the NASA scientists into the bad guys, with the exception of Peter Coyote’s nameless character “Keys,” the one scientist who came close to understanding Elliott and E.T.’s Romanticist bond.
There are many ways to read “E.T.,” of course: as a coming-of-age story, a hero’s journey, an assertion that love is the most powerful force in the universe. Those are all fine ways to read the film, but what strikes me now, at the start of 2021, continuing a year of pandemic, is how far away from Andromeda the audience was when it cried over E.T. No longer were society’s best and brightest scientists protecting humanity from a plausible but unknown threat. Instead, the scientists in E.T. were adults who just didn’t get it. Not for one second did Spielberg prompt the audience to empathize with the scientists who seemed to know a patient zero when they saw one. No, the scientists wore menacing space helmets and barged through doors to grab Elliott and E.T. so they could attach electrodes and quarantine them. It hardly surprises me that the generations of Americans who have watched E.T. in the years since 1982 now include hundreds of thousands who seem to regard medical science as a guise for authoritarianism and public health guidelines as arbitrary social control. It also does not surprise me that these skeptics are forming themselves into scrappy bands of outlaw misfits, defying the government’s COVID-19 control efforts at every turn, and launching hare-brained schemes to get revenge on duly elected public officials. I only hope there are not enough of these scrappy misfits to render the whole vaccination effort useless.
- I cannot help but suspect that the ragtag group of scrappy misfits who in 2020 plotted to kidnap Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer gave themselves the name “Wolverine Watchmen” at least in part because the scrappy irregulars in Red Dawn called themselves the Wolverines. I know, the Wolverine is the University of Michigan’s mascot and some members of the “Watchmen” might also have fantasized about sprouting saber blades from their mutant forearms, like the Marvel superhero. But assuming some of them were around the same middle-age as me, it’s fair to speculate that they watched Red Dawn in their youth and fell for its romantic depiction of a citizen-militia uprising. Too bad for their fantasies, Gov. Whitmer was not the Red Army. She was just trying to get Michiganders to mask up during a pandemic. [↩]
- It’s hard to believe now, but for most of the 1980s Apple was losing its war against IBM. [↩]