Another significant anniversary has rolled around for a classic movie, this time for Steven Spielberg’s E.T.: The Extraterrestrial. There have been a lot of people writing about visiting the film again after having seen it as a child, and how it still made them cry like they did when they were a kid.
I was not a child when I first saw the film, I was already an adult (just barely). I cried then, I cried when I watched it again this morning.
After the huge box-office successes of Jaws, Close Encounters Of The Third Kind and Raiders Of The Lost Ark, E.T. was supposed to be a small personal film for Spielberg, something he assumed almost nobody would want to see. It turned out to be another ginormous box-office success, running for over a year in some movie theaters.
Critics back when it premiered (and some even to this day) slammed Spielberg for making movies that were too sentimental. In my opinion, Spielberg earns the tears fairly with E.T., by focusing on both the indignities and wonders of being a child, especially in a modern world.
The protagonist Elliot is a child whose father has abandoned his family. Not only is he fatherless, he is a middle child who feels ignored. When he tells his siblings and friends that he’s found a “goblin” they just laugh at him. Luring the “goblin” to his home (famously with some Reese’s Pieces) he discovers he has found a being from another world who has been accidentally left on Earth by his companions.
The friendship with E.T. briefly fills the void in Elliot’s life caused by his father’s absence. At first, E.T. is treated by Elliot and his siblings like another child. When they discover he can do many things that seem magical to them, the relationship changes. Elliot finds he feels everything that E.T. feels. Even though he loves E.T. and wants him to stay forever, Elliot knows he must help him return to his home.
One thing Spielberg did to create a child’s-view of the world is keep the story almost entirely in the children’s point of view. One way he achieved this was to not show the faces of adults (except the children’s mother) for about two thirds of the film. The film’s iconic image of Elliot flying on his bike across the backdrop of a full moon could have been plucked right out of a child’s dream.
His use of sound is also superb, particularly the sound of the keys of one of the adults trying to capture E.T., which becomes very ominous, as is the sight of faceless adults (in hazmat suits) who invade Elliot’s home when they know he has been hiding E.T.
The “us” against “them” feeling of the children doesn’t last through the entire film, as “Keys” tells Elliot that he’s been wishing for this since he was 10 years old.
Not hoping, not wanting–wishing.
Meeting an alien being a child’s wish come true again reinforces the notion that there is something magical and wondrous about being a child. It also shows how the child we were remains inside us to some extent all our lives.
There has been a lot written over the years about the mythic and possibly even religious subtext of the film (i.e. E.T. dying and coming back to life), but to me it will always be a story about the magic and pain of childhood–and of love. For Elliot, the moment of letting E.T. go is his first very early step on the road to adulthood. It’s an achingly bittersweet image, and one worthy of a hanky or two, no matter how old you happen to be.