E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial
“Best” and “worst” are, of course, subjective terms, especially when it comes to art. Different people assign different values to things using all sorts of criteria, so it’s impossible to make superlative statements that can’t apply to everyone. But in my opinion, “E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial” is the best movie ever made.
When we think of “best movies,” academics usually reference movies like “Citizen Kane,” or “The Godfather,” or “Lawrence of Arabia.” These are all critically-acclaimed movies, but they require certain prerequisites in order to fully appreciate them: a knowledge of history, a knowledge of culture, and, most significantly, age. Many of these “best movies” simply cannot be seen or understood by children, and they therefore exclude a large number of potential audience members. To watch something as a child, as an adolescent, and as an adult and to still experience profound emotion is a feat that no other movie does as well as “E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial.”
When I saw “E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial” in theaters in the summer of 1982, I was a 6-year-old boy. I was just a little bit older than Gertie (Drew Barrymore), but I related more to the 10-year-old boy Elliott (Henry Thomas). We spoke the same language and had similar interests, and the motivations of the grown-ups in the movie were more alien to me and Elliott than E.T. himself. During the course of the movie, I experienced all the emotions that Elliott experienced, and, through Elliott, I learned some new ones as well. After feeling the shock and fright of getting scared by (and scaring) E.T., Elliott didn’t retreat; instead, he went out on his own to find this scary creature, luring him with (of course) candy. That brief scene of Elliott sowing the ground with Reese’s Pieces and avoiding “Keys” (Peter Coyote) showed me an example of bravery and courage that I could understand. When E.T. says “stay” to Elliott as he is examined by scientists, I heard what Elliott heard: to comfort Elliott, E.T. was sadly parroting Elliott’s words as E.T.’s condition deteriorated. I felt Elliott’s grief and anger at losing E.T., and his subsequent elation when E.T. comes back to life. I was in awe of the teenagers as they used their biking skills to evade the authorities. The authorities’ guns frightened me, which made my relief and joy at the boys’ escape flight that much more powerful. I felt the sadness of their parting, a parting that was ultimately accepted as necessary. When we first see Elliott, he is a boy who couldn’t get anyone to take him seriously. The last shot of Elliott looking up in the sky as E.T.’s spaceship disappears is not that of the boy we saw in the beginning, but of a young man ready for the future. As John Williams’s score boomed its final chord and the screen went black, I wiped the tears from my eyes and I knew that watching movies would be my favorite thing to do.
“E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial” came out on VHS in the fall of 1988, and I got it for Christmas. I think I watched tape at least twice a day during that holiday break. Now 13-years-old, I was able to better understand Elliott’s pain, especially that of missing his father. I was happy when he got to kiss the pretty girl in his class. I felt guilt when watching Elliott and his older brother Michael (Robert MacNaughton) coercing Gertie by “torturing” her stuffed animal. Of course, a TV monitor can’t project the same scope and scale of a movie screen, but the beauty of the story shone through nevertheless.
As years passed, I would revisit the movie rarely, with other interests taking my time. When watching the movie again as a senior in high school, I was shocked at how I now could relate to Michael. As a child, I saw Michael as much an authority figure as their mother Mary (Dee Wallace). When Michael poorly backed out of the driveway, as a kid, I was shocked that he was that bad; I thought everyone who could get behind the wheel of a car would be an expert. His line of “we’re all gonna die, and they’re never gonna give me my license!” sang so true to me as a new driver that I had an epiphany about this movie: all the characters in this movie were written as real people. (Well, except for the grown-ups, right? But I’ll get to that later.) This movie stood out in my memory because of that enduring feeling: I could relate to someone other than Elliott.
For those of us of a certain age, national and world politics made less of an impact on our lives and were therefore less of a priority. For older people, the experience of the end of the Cold War was a disruption of the world order, a welcome one, but a disruption nevertheless. For people my age, the end of the Cold War was seen as more of an inevitability and a hope for new opportunities. It wasn’t exactly a topic that young people could debate about.
Pop culture, on the other hand, was an easier field for younger people. The impact that certain movies had in our young lives made them an integral part of our psyche, so it’s understandable when something you once held as constant and true is changed in any way, even in the name of progress. When George Lucas re-released the original Star Wars trilogy with added effects in preparation for the release of “Star Wars, Episode I: The Phantom Menace,” the alterations felt more like desecration than improvement to some people. If Lucas had only made cosmetic improvements like recompositing footage or cleaning up matte lines, there wouldn’t have been much outrage. But Lucas’s additions were so significant that his “improvements” or “corrections” invalidated our enjoyment of a supposedly inferior experiences, experiences that we had held to be ever unchanging.
As the years passed, my generation became more aware of the impact of the rest of the world outside of popular entertainment. There were so many changes: the Clinton Administration’s scandals, the war in Bosnia, and the 2000 presidential election nonsense had taken its toll on American society. We were all needing something definite to hold onto, be it a new experience like “Harry Potter” or “The Matrix,” or re-experiencing older ones, like listening to forgotten hits from the 80’s by downloading mp3s en masse from Napster.
And, of course, there was 9/11.
No matter your age, there was no denying that a profound change had occurred on a worldwide scale. Nothing would ever be the same anymore. Everything was in flux, and everyone had to confront the harsh reality that there were forces who were willing to do anything to change what they didn’t like. There was a widespread feeling of powerlessness, an existential fear that unfocused anger would threaten to run unchecked on a global scale. That need to hold onto something like a cherished memory grew even more intense, and when Steven Spielberg re-released a Special Edition of “E.T.,” it was not hard to feel insulted.
It was the summer of 2002, and the Special Edition was released to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the theatrical release of “E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial.” There were only a few changes that Spielberg made to “E.T.,” and some were not too bad. One example was the modification of E.T.’s escape from authorities in the beginning of the movie: instead of an obvious doll on a track, a CGI-version of E.T. bounding away using his arms was digitally inserted. But even the subtle changes, like E.T.’s face being digitally-enhanced to look more expressive seemed uncharacteristic. It was my mother who voiced what I felt was wrong. She said, “E.T. is an alien; he wouldn’t have human expressions.” She was right. E.T. looked and acted more like a cartoon than a corporeal entity, and I found that to be a little condescending. More specifically, my 6-year-old inner child felt a little patronized, and that hurt. But that was nothing compared to the digital replacement of the firearms with walkie-talkies.
I knew that Steven Spielberg was uncomfortable with displaying guns in the presence of children, and it was certainly understandable considering the horrors of the previous years involving firearms, most notably the 1999 shooting spree committed by teenagers at Columbine High School. But it was precisely the threat of violence that allowed us to cheer so hard by the miracle of the boys’ and E.T.’s escape into the sky. The greater the fear of danger, the more palpable the feeling of relief and joy, and Spielberg took that away. In his effort to spice things up, Spielberg made something blander. In his effort to sanitize, Spielberg made something more sterile. During a time where we as a society had experienced so much loss in the real world, losing a sense of joy in the fantasy world hit some a bit too hard, and in a world where nothing was certain anymore, this alteration was unequivocally declared by more reactive fans to be nothing less than a perversion. Were the minds of Spielberg’s critics so fragile that they could unironically proclaim that he and George Lucas had “ruined their childhoods?” If you believe them to have been weakened by an ever-changing and more dangerous world, then maybe. Personally, I was extremely disappointed, but I empathized with Steven Spielberg; this movie was his baby, and like a parent, he wanted to correct what he felt to be a mistake that he did to his child. But like a parent, he couldn’t see the perfection in the masterpiece he created; what he saw as flaws actually made his work endearing to the world.
More years passed. I enlisted in the Air Force. I got married and moved overseas to serve in Okinawa. I moved back home, and I became a father. I did a tour of duty in Iraq. I got divorced after 9 years of marriage, and shortly afterwards, my enlistment in the Air Force ended. Jobs came and went. Relationships, love, and heartache all came and went. The only thing I was certain of was that I was a good father to a loving daughter. I made it a point to be present for her no matter what, and our time together was always precious. I counted myself lucky that she was interested in watching movies, and I was anticipating the day when I could finally introduce “E.T.” to her (the DVD or the original version, of course). When we finally watched it in 2017, she was 9-years-old. I was 41.
I didn’t realize how long it had been since I’d seen the movie, and it was the first time I watched it as a parent. On that level, I was now able to relate to Mary, Elliott’s mother. I also could relate to “Keys,” and I smiled when he told Elliott that E.T. “came to me, too.” As a child all those years ago, I was irritated by that exchange. E.T. didn’t come to you, I had thought. Keys said he had been wishing for this since he was a boy, but I had thought that was impossible. You’re a grown-up, I had thought. You could never have been a boy, and you could never understand what it means to be a child. Now as an adult, hearing Keys talk to Elliott, I finally understood what he meant.
Unfortunately, even though I understood and could now relate to the experiences of the adults in the movie, I wasn’t feeling it as much, because part of my attention was directed towards my daughter and making sure she was enjoying it. That was really my priority, and I was relieved after we finished the movie and she had declared it to be the “best movie ever.” Mission accomplished. Milestone achieved.
In following years, I’d played back the movie in my head, and as I learned more about my inner child in therapy, I finally felt what Keys had meant. Keys saw himself in Elliott and was showing Elliott his honest and heartfelt appreciation in the only way he could. “He came to me, too,” continues to hit me hard in my memory; there is a child within us all, and that inner child needs as much love and validation as real children. E.T. was able to give those things to Elliott, and through Elliott, Keys was able to feel some of that validation as well.
From boys to men.
Elliott’s time with E.T. profoundly changes Elliott from a timid boy to an assured leader. Elliott starts off the movie pleading to get a chance to play Dungeons & Dragons with the older boys. The boys reflexively mock his whining tone, and it’s painfully clear that Elliott has absolutely no authority with this group. In the third act, Elliott becomes a general, with Michael as his adjutant. It’s Elliott who makes up the escape plan and gives the orders to Michael and his friends.
There’s a small moment that means more to me now after having served in a combat area: Michael pulls up the stolen government van to his friends and tells them to “get the bikes,” to which one of them immediately exclaims, “LET’S DO IT!” without question or hesitation. They then “suit up” in their “helmets” of hats and sunglasses with such seriousness that it’s hilarious, but the camaraderie they display is nothing short of inspiring.
These would-be cavaliers then work as a team, following Elliott’s lead, expertly using the terrain to their advantage. They split up, evade, and eventually reunite like cavalrymen, and through the miracle of E.T.’s telekinesis, the cavaliers become pilots. It’s a quest that their time spent playing Dungeons & Dragons might have prepared them for.
Michael has one final moment with E.T. as they say their goodbyes. Michael reaches out to touch E.T.’s face, which E.T. reflexively avoids, but eventually allows Michael to do. This is the first and only tender touch that Michael displays throughout the movie. Michael is the family’s steadfast knight, and in addition to displaying strength, he displays vulnerability. When E.T. verbally thanks him, Michael responds with a kind and dutiful, “You’re welcome.”
Four decades later.
And now, “E.T.” is back in theaters for its 40th Anniversary. I rarely go to re-releases like these, but this was one I couldn’t miss. How serendipitous it was that it happened to be playing while out on a date with my girlfriend, a woman who also loves the movie. Before we knew it, I’m in my seat next to my her about to watch my favorite movie of all time, the first time seeing it in a movie theater since 1982.
It was a revelation.
All my previous experiences with this movie were amplified, and there were new ones as well. Melissa Mathison’s script allowed me to see Mary not just as a parent anymore, but as a woman in her own right, trying to deal with the hurt of not only being a newly-single mom, but also as an ex-wife and a woman who pushes her own individual needs aside in order to deal with the logistics of having three kids, a job, and a dog. I felt her frustration when she said, “Stupid Ragu, I knew it wouldn’t come out!” as she saw that the dry cleaners couldn’t get a stain out of her clothes. I remembered the deleted scene on the DVD bonus features that elaborated why Mary was wearing a tight cat costume for Halloween: she was about to go on a date while the kids would be out trick-or-treating. It makes Michael’s and Elliott’s stunned reaction to her costume that much more hilarious in context. In that deleted scene, we also learn that she was stood up, and it makes her anger as she drives to look for her kids understandable, as she grumbles “Mexico” under her breath, referring to her ex-husband’s whereabouts with (presumably) his new girlfriend. When Mary yells “This is my house!” as the space-suited government agents corner her in her home, I felt the power she was trying to muster as she was trying to keep control of her and her family’s sanctuary. I could never have understood the struggle Mary had been going through until now, and I felt her anguish.
Throughout the movie, we never see any of the adults’ faces. Spielberg, taking cues from Tex Avery and Charles Schulz, has all adult characters (except for Mary) shot without showing their faces. John Williams plays a sinister melody whenever the government agents appear, and when Keys’s face finally is shown, it is eerily lit from lights under his sterile containment suit. Knowing Keys’s benevolent intentions, it seems unfair the way the movie manipulates the audience into immediately distrusting this authority figure, and it’s a brilliant filmmaking choice. His kind and supportive words to Elliott may be touching, but they’re just not enough to overcome this prejudice against Keys and his men that was established from the start of the movie. When I was a kid, I remember agreeing with Elliott when he yelled at the doctors, “you’re killing him!” I remember being extremely shaken when the doctors used the defibrillators on E.T.’s body, thinking they were torturing the poor dying alien. Now, I know they were trying their best to save him, and they didn’t have time to spend trying to explain to Elliott what they were doing, I wanted to reach out to try and calm Elliott down, but I also knew it wouldn’t have made any difference. No matter how smart Elliott was, this understanding was still something beyond his capability, and as I watched the doctors and scientists do their work, I noticed for the first time, I’m now older than all of these people. It was at this point that I found myself for the first time, absurdly, incomprehensibly, relating to E.T.
The (missing) father.
Steven Spielberg has been on record about a couple of things regarding this movie: first, that it was a story borne out of the loss of his father’s presence after his parents’ divorce; second, that any Christian thematic parallels were purely coincidental from this Jewish director. While ostensibly coincidental, parallels of E.T. to Jesus are impossible to miss. Love, death, sacrifice, faith, and resurrection are central to the structure of this movie. This superpowered entity from the heavens, a being that is able to perform incredible feats like restoring a plant’s health, healing injuries, levitating objects, and flying, is a presence whose brief time among mortals enriches the lives of all he comes into contact with. “His being here is a miracle,” Keys tells Elliott. The power of faith, first shown in a tender moment as E.T. and Elliott listen to Mary reading Peter Pan to Gertie, is echoed when Gertie wishes E.T. to come back, a wish that Mary seconds. Allegories of death and resurrection within literature and performance aren’t exactly novel, but the wholesomeness of its presence in “E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial” makes the power of this theme incredibly heartwarming to watch, even for a non-Christian like myself.
But throughout the years, it was the loss of a father figure for Elliott that I had the hardest time understanding. Because Elliott’s father wasn’t in the movie and only mentioned a handful of times, I never gave much thought about how his absence affected the characters; if he wasn’t there, he wasn’t important. As a kid, when Michael and Elliott find their dad’s shirt in their garage and smelled it, I found it a cute scene, but ultimately unnecessary, really only there to show how the government found E.T.’s location. Now, I completely understand what Spielberg was trying to show: the giant hole in his life that Elliott now had because his father wasn’t there. Michael was older and could understand: his outburst of anger at Elliott for upsetting their mother by bringing up their missing dad and “Sally” is not coming from an insensitive older brother but from a dutiful eldest son defending his mother. “Think about how other people feel for a change!” is not something you’d expect to hear from a teenage boy, but from a young man, now the default man of the house. Gertie was too young to understand what was missing: all she knows is that her father is “in Mexico.” It’s Elliott, the middle child, that is hit hardest. He has no one to turn to for support. Gertie is the baby, so she is the one that is taken care of. Michael has his friends for support, but Michael and his friends won’t waste time with emotional nonsense from Elliott, who is (in their eyes) a “douchebag” and a “wimp.” This boy needs his father, and the bond that Elliott forms with E.T. takes that place.
The bond that E.T. and Elliott share is obvious, but as a kid, I perceived it to come gradually. Watching it with new eyes, the bond is immediate. It’s a bond created for survival, and examining the bond more closely, it is clear that it is unfortunately parasitic. That is not to say that E.T. is consciously harming Elliott, but Elliott’s loss of self is disturbing to watch as the movie progresses. When the scientists discover that E.T.’s and Elliott’s brainwave patterns are perfectly synced, the implication that Elliott’s words might actually be E.T.’s is profound. When Elliott repeatedly tells Keys that “he wants to go home,” it’s not that hard to hear E.T. saying through Elliott, “I want to go home.” Later, Elliott inexplicably starts to recover, while E.T. starts to deteriorate. As their bond breaks, E.T. says “Stay,” to Elliott. This exchange, which I had once thought was E.T. saying one of the few words he knew, takes on a more poignant tone when interpreted E.T. as telling Elliott to “stay” as E.T. willfully releases Elliott from a vital bond, sacrificing his own life in order to spare Elliott from a conjoined death. Elliott’s recovery, in other words, is no longer inexplicable.
In the middle of the movie, Elliott tearfully pleads to E.T. to stay, that they “could be happy” together and they could “grow up” together. At the end, when E.T. asks Elliott to “come,” Elliott sadly but apologetically answers “stay,” telling E.T. that he will stay home with his own loving family. It’s a decision that hurts, but it’s one that Elliott makes completely on his own as an individual. When E.T. tells Elliott “I’ll be right here” and points a glowing finger to Elliott’s head, I felt the reassurance coming from E.T. for the first time, while simultaneously feeling Elliott’s sadness and resolve as he whispers, “Good-bye.”
“E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial” is unique not just because it is a movie that can be seen and appreciated by all ages, since all ages (except for the very old) are represented, but also because there are no villains in this story. It is a story that is best told through the medium of film, with all the visual and aural magic that only film can provide. It is a product of its time, yet the humanity of all the characters makes it timeless. Think about when Michael comes home from football practice to raid the fridge. As he’s singing Elvis Costello’s “Accidents Will Happen,” he scans the fridge and mumbles, “nothing but health shit.” A timeless sentiment.
These sentiments transcend time. No movie has ever shown how the same miraculous encounter could affect different people of different ages in the same way. “E.T.,” both the movie and the character, came to me when I was a boy. E.T. came to me as a teen. E.T. came to me as an adult. E.T. came to me as a father.
E.T. is here for everyone.