Through the wonder of a handy little thing called Netflix, my seven year old son and I have been watching some interesting things lately. Among them have been The Little Rascals, Jungle Book, and assorted Disney films. None of these has had as much of an impact as watching E.T. the Extra-Terrestial.
I recall first seeing the film on a hot June evening back in 1982. School was out for summer, and I was humming Alice Cooper’s most famous song as I went with a few friends and waited on a long line. Once inside the packed theater, I settled back to watch something that more than surpassed the buzz I had been hearing and Rex Reed’s review I read in the NY Daily News.
All these years later I truthfully had forgotten a good deal of the film. Besides “E.T. phone home,” E.T. getting loaded on Coors beer, and the scene when Elliot (Henry Thomas) rides his elevated bike with E.T. in the basket across the moon, it was like seeing a new movie.
My son just loved the film, wondering aloud a few times “Is E.T. real?” and “Are there really little people up in space?” My answers matter little considering that most of the time he sat there mesmerized by what he was watching. He particularly loved the fact that Elliot hides E.T. from his mom (a wonderful Dee Wallace), and only his brother Michael (Robert MacNaughton) and sister Gertie (adorable little Drew Barrymore) know about it.
What strikes me now (as I don’t remember from way back then) is how big a slice of American pie the film is. It encapsulates so much of the childhood experience of millions of kids who had to dissect frogs in school, got dressed up for Halloween, and played with Star Wars and other action figures. Elliot’s room is like a 1980s museum piece, and even the old stuffed toys in his closet capture the essence of what it was like to be a child back then.
The interesting thing though, despite the old fashioned phones and the antique Coors cans, is there is a great deal more to which a 2016 child can relate. My son was excited to see that Elliot played with Boba Fett and Greedo action figures just as he does, and when he saw Elliot’s TIE Fighter, he yelled, “It looks just like mine, Dad.” He could also relate to having some issues with an older sibling, liking a girl in his class, and wanting someone to understand him better.
When Elliot and Michael take disguised as a ghost E.T. trick-or-treating (with the motive to get him to a space in the woods to try to contact home with a device E.T. built from toys and a coffee can), you get the feeling it could be 2016 in that Halloween costumes have changed little in all these years, with the old reliable Frankenstein or zombie still leading the pack. In one of the funniest moments, when E.T. sees someone dressed as Yoda from Star Wars, he mistakes the child as a compatriot.
Director Steven Spielberg and writer Melissa Mathison captured something more than a time capsule here – they embraced the universal elements of childhood that remain the same today. Elliot is a normal kid who likes girls, plays with his toys, and has his school friends, but he’s feeling alienated since his father and mother separated. He gets along with his older brother and his friends for the most part, and mother Mary is doing as best as she can to cope with being a single parent after her ex left for Mexico. Elliot’s need of something to fill the void he feels comes conveniently in a small alien with glowing fingertip.
The conflict here comes in two forms – one is the old kids hiding a big secret from Mom, but the other is the government team constantly searching for E.T. in the area. Spielberg’s choice of camera angles heightens the tension whenever we see the faceless men searching the forest, led by a seemingly villainous guy wearing a set of keys.
Elliot and E.T. also make a psychic connection, one that is very humorous when E.T. gets drunk watching TV at home and Eliot starts feeling the effects in school. Thus a deep emotional bond becomes also physical, and as E.T. starts to slowly die, Elliot does as well.
I won’t go any further regarding plot details just in case anyone reading this hasn’t seen this film yet, but the last twenty minutes or so are about tugging on your heart strings and having a full box of Kleenex handy.
My son sat stunned as the film ended, and we shut the TV off and talked for about fifteen minutes before he went bed. He grasped all the subtleties of the film, especially how E.T. can be seen as symbolic of people here on earth about whom we may think preconceived things, but we don’t really know enough about them.
After watching all the Star Wars films a few times, my son had an idea about aliens that wasn’t always positive. Many of them come off as evil in that galaxy far, far away, but then along comes E.T. and shakes up his ideas about potential visitors from outer space.
After all these years I felt the film stands up amazingly well, and it definitely appealed to my son. The funny thing is that only the next day he asked me, “Why didn’t E.T. and Elliot have cell phones?” Of course, I told him they didn’t have them back in those days, but that was the only blip on his radar, otherwise thinking nothing was greatly different than things are today.
In the end E.T. the Extra-Terrestial still makes the grade with its target audience, but it also remains an extraordinary film about love, loss, sacrifice, and tolerance that we adults need to see. The message Spielberg drives home is clear, one that is especially necessary and compelling in this increasingly volatile world – no matter what our outward appearances are we are all more the same than we are different.
For over 30 years the E.T. character has captured the hearts of millions of people worldwide, and now here in my house my son has been pulled in to the E.T. fan club that I guess his father never left. If you have never done so, sit down and watch this film with your kids (or your grandkids); you’ll be glad that you did. Oh, and don’t forget to have some Reese’s Pieces handy; trust me, they will be the perfect snack for you during the show.
Photo credit: Universal Pictures