Spielberg invades Bayonne

Harry & the Hendersons: ET Lite

I'm one of those people that is convinced that many of the films produced by Steven Spielberg and credited to other directors, are really films directed by Spielberg that didn't turn out as well as he would have liked.

For any director a second rate Spielberg cast off is better than many first rate movies by other directors - and I would take credit for one if I was in that position, too.

While this may be an exaggeration, Spielberg's influence on the content, set design and visual themes is unmistakable. Spielberg's fingerprints - as Time Out magazine has pointed out - are all over some films making it impossible for Spielberg to fully hide. This is particularly true in the use of housing developments, woods full of fog and the resolution of family crisis. These vary in degree from film to film, with some of these alternative Spielberg films showing stronger tendencies to duplicate films on which Spielberg has put his stamp of approval. But few of the alternative films so show Spielberg's influence than Harry and the Hendersons.

Although there is significant more of him to film the silver screen, Harry is basically another ET.

In seeing this film in conjunction with those films Spielberg claims to have directed and those which he claims only producing credits, I realize that Harry and the Hendersons might well have been called ET-Lite, hitting us more thick-headed viewers over the head with the themes Spielberg handled more subtly in his 1982 classic.

Whereas ET used largely symbolic representations to make its points, Harry leaves almost nothing to chance. If a point can be confusing, Harry tells us straight out what an image means.

ET, of course, is about an alien child stranded on earth when a clutch of dissecting scientists stalk its mother ships with the idea of taking captive ET or its parents to study under humanity's microscope.

Harry is about an abominable snowman who is struck by the station wagon of a middle-class trophy-head hunter on vacation with his family in the wilderness. The father -- while not pursuing Big Foot as the mad scientists were in ET - had come to the woods to teach his son how to kill for fun.

The family unit has all the dysfunctional signs of a Spielberg classic and, in fact, closely resembles the assembly Spielberg brought together for his masterpiece Poltergeist. Although more comic in Harry, we have the same slightly bumbling father, the sensitive and sympathetic mother, the wisecracking and humiliated teenage daughter and the more than nerdy younger son.

Harry like ET (and perhaps more so) makes use of a classic satirical device which makes use of someone utterly unfamiliar with the local society to come in and provide an often comic commentary on the ludicrous practices we so called normal human beings engage in. The most obvious of these in Harry is the scene in which Harry spies a woman putting a chicken into a pot of boiling water to make soup while next door two average Americans ease their bloated bodies into the turbulent waters of an outdoor Jacuzzi.

As in ET, Harry is pursued by someone guided by misguided science. ET would be taken apart for study, while Harry might become a stuffed animal for display or put into a freak show.

Like Elliott's mother in ET, the Hendersons must won over to Harry's cause - and his simple primitive nature does its best to wreck each aspect of their middle class life. Each encounter with ordinary things provides extra ordinary destruction, not out of meanness, but out of innocent unfamiliarity with the unreasonably complex machinations of modern society. Harry as in ET struggles significantly to make sense of the kitchen where humans feed and as in ET leaves the kitchen significant worse for his passing through it.

As in ET - which also features a family station wagon - and other documented Spielberg films, people just do not know how to drive, scraping bumpers, hitting trash cans, showing just how little control over these most ordinary of Frankenstein creations we have. Even without Harry's additional demolition such as denting the roof of cars or pulling off the car door, automobiles suffer significantly from human incompetence.

In some ways, Harry is a compilation of thesis from a variety of Spielberg films, with themes dumped into our laps so heavy-handedly even more most dull-witted of us can't help but miss themes we might have overlooked in the more subtle presentations of authentic Spielberg films.

If we didn't get the message for proper burial of our dead in Poltergeist, Harry hammers it home in his repeated burial in the garden of the Henderson collection of hunted heads. Harry even buries the roast the Henderson's intended to cook for dinner, turning the family into unintentional vegetarians. ET, of course, provided us with a similar theme but with much more carefully orchestrated and symbolic shots such as the wild doe in the woods and more obvious, but equally symbolic scenes with the frogs.

As noted earlier, Harry continues Spielberg's assault on suburban sprawl and housing development - and while not quite with the vengeance of War of the Worlds or Poltergeist in which he obliterates the entire problem with an invasion from outer space or sends it to hell - Spielberg (AKA William Dear) seems content in Harry to show the detrimental effects and the dubious value of life such places have. Harry as in Poltergeist and War of the Worlds strike back savagely, destroying the evil environment that turns middle class youth into insensitive and sometimes monstrous brutes in the name of civilizing us.

While the villain in Harry is infinitely more silly than the scientist Peter Coyote plays in ET, and carries a variety of weapons instead of keys, he represents the same oppressive society that would dissect or make trophies of living things like ET and Harry. But in the end, he like most of the characters in Spielberg's TV SF "The Taking" is won over to the good side, ridding himself of his allegiance to the dark force of society.

Harry as a film, unfortunately, lacked the mysticism of ET, partly because the Hendersons never made the immediate psychic connection ET created with Elliott - and while Harry often makes comic reference to the head hunter father, no scene in Harry has the impact that the frog scene had in ET.

This is not to say Spielberg makes no effort to establish this connection. In fact, Spielberg (or Dear as he likes to be called in Harry) uses one of his favorite communication devices in the attempt to make such a connection: television. The TV store window scene is as close as we come in Harry to the frog scene in ET, bearing some of the same wonderful humor.

Harry echoes many of the sympathies for nature as ET, in presenting the natural world as a purer and safer place provided humans with their guns and their inability to drive stay out. Harry like ET recalls the pre-World War One concept of "the noble savage" suggesting that nature left to its own devices, without humanity's meddling would remain pure. While we who crew up in so called civilization might survive in an urban and suburban landscape, it has twisted our values. As the Henderson trophy collection shows, we are in fact a lot more savage than many of the animals that we consider savage - even the shark in Jaws did not kill without reason or on the poor excuse of scientific study and even poorer excuse of seeking cheap thrills.

Harry and ET come out of an alien world, fumble around in the dangerous civilized world then return to the safety of their alien landscapes wiser for the experience. Harry and ET, despite their need to escape civilizations' destructive and hateful tendencies make an emotional connection with some of us, leaving behind people like Elliott and the Hendersons, who love the aliens and are loved back by them.

Harry, of course, does not die the way ET does, and is not reborn in the same fashion. But he does become alienated from the affections of the Hendersons and forced to wander the earth devoid of human friendship that makes our landscape even remotely tolerable.

Harry's reunion with the Hendersons equates to ET's return to life, at which point the Hendersons realize as Elliott did in ET - that they must let their alien friend return to the safer world from which he has come before the civilized world ruins him. At this point, both films lead into the dramatic chase scene and conclude finally with the same tearful good-byes: ET returning to the mother ship and Harry to Mother Earth.

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