Welcome to Debate Club, where Tim Grierson and Will Leitch, the hosts of the Grierson & Leitch podcast, tackle both sides of the greatest arguments in pop culture.
In this installment, we're paying tribute to the mighty Steven Spielberg, who's made his share of classics (and turned 71 on Monday). But which of his many superb sci-fi movies is the all-time champ: Close Encounters of the Third Kind or E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial?
THE CASE FOR CLOSE ENCOUNTERS
Politically and culturally, the 1970s are thought of as a contentious period in American history. [Cue familiar newsreel footage of Vietnam and Richard Nixon.] Time may have tempered Close Encounters' thematic impact, but in 1977, it was positively subversive to make a movie that argued that humanity isn't so terrible and that we can all come together in harmony with life forms beyond our solar system. (Oh, and that we should get over ourselves — there's all kinds of alien species out there in the cosmos, Close Encounters insisted, so maybe we ought to stop thinking we're the only game in town.)
Spielberg's Oscar-winner is a gasp-inducing vision of a planet-wide benevolent alien invasion — they only come to make contact — that's deeply optimistic, as well as touched by a reverence for the mysteries of the universe. Plus, it's powerfully mythic, telling a classic hero's journey in which a profoundly ordinary guy (played by expert everyman Richard Dreyfuss) discovers his destiny and ends up going on the ride of his life.
Decades later, John Williams' five-note theme that Earthlings use to communicate with the UFOs remains iconic. And Close Encounters proves to be that rare sci-fi film to preach curiosity and open-mindedness about what awaits us out there. In our contentious modern times, that message still resonates.
THE CASE FOR E.T.
E.T. is a perfect film in many ways, but what's most perfect about it is how firmly grounded it is. This is a movie about an alien who befriends a group of kids, particularly one big-eyed, huge-hearted boy from a broken family trying to navigate the terrifying terrain of adolescence, and it never loses sight of that.
Spielberg's genius was anchoring the film entirely from the perspective of those children, with all the hope and fear and confusion that comes with it; the movie is funny and scary and thrilling and weepy but more than anything else, it understands childhood in a way that's almost cosmic.
It's the most purely Spielberg movie in existence, one he obviously still deeply feels today. And good lord, that ending is an all-timer. This movie is special, one you find yourself wanting to make sure you protect, even all these years later.
THE CASE AGAINST CLOSE ENCOUNTERS
First off, let's give a little love to two other great Spielberg sci-fi films: Minority Report and War of the Worlds. (The latter of which remains Spielberg's most underappreciated film, as if audiences and critics just couldn't get over Tom Cruise jumping on a couch.) They're not in the class of these two, but for most filmmakers, they would be their singular masterpiece.
As for Close Encounters, the argument against it grows a little stronger every year: Roy Neary is a real jerk. Sure, he's sympathetic, and Dreyfuss still has that '70s everyman quality. But this is still a guy who drives his family insane, provokes them to run away from him and ultimately abandons them all together. Spielberg himself said he'd finish Neary's story differently if he made it today, now that he has children himself. The movie gets the cosmos right, but there is a callousness to Roy that feels even more acute today.
THE CASE AGAINST E.T.
It's pretty easy to argue that E.T. is Spielberg's most universal tale — it's a sci-fi rewrite of the classic boy-and-his-dog adventure. But that doesn't keep it from being awfully cutesy. In Henry Thomas, the filmmaker found the ideal Elliott — a believable mixture of sweet, bratty and sensitive — and the movie helped launch the career of Drew Barrymore as Elliott's nosy sister Gertie.
But the kid-friendly shenanigans of E.T. can get a bit tiring. E.T. captures childhood adroitly, but the problem with a child-centric cast is that, well, some of the actors are naturals while others struggle in their roles. When we were younger, we related deeply to Elliott's plight, but as we get older, it's a little easier to see the film's flaws: There's a lot of slapstick-y hijinks and adolescent humor in E.T., which doesn't always mix well with the more resonant, grownup moments, like when we're absolutely certain that little alien has died.
Sometimes it's hard to reconcile our nostalgia for a longtime family favorite with our more discerning eye as adults, but after all, E.T. is, like a lot of coming-of-age films, a story about learning to let go of childish things.
Close Encounters inspires awe and wonder. E.T. makes you cry, laugh, and then cry some more. Ultimately, though, we have to go with the boy and his extra-terrestrial.
Spielberg wrote the screenplay for Close Encounters, but it's striking how even more personal E.T. seems to be for him, expressing everything he feels about abandonment, childhood and the need to belong. As in other classic love stories, Elliott and E.T. don't end up together, which makes their bond — and their parting — all the more poignant. The universe can be a very lonely place sometimes. Against the odds, these two found each other, albeit briefly. Other Spielberg movies are grander, but this may be his most complete — even more so because he was never tempted to make a sequel.