E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (review)

An Alien and His Boy

I told myself I wasn’t gonna cry. It’s a silly kids’ movie, and I hadn’t seen it since I was a kid, so it doesn’t matter that I bawled my eyes out when I was 13. That was then, this is now — I’m a hard, cold, cynical grownup now, and that wasn’t gonna happen this time.

I bawled.

I did not bawl, though, at the, you know, Big Moment, which I won’t reveal for those who haven’t already seen E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, but if you haven’t already seen E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, what the hell are you waiting for? The rest of us shouldn’t wait, either, for the chance to see E.T. again on a big screen — if nothing else, this 20th-anniversary rerelease just points out how badly revival houses are missed — because you may have forgotten, as I did, exactly how triumphant E.T. is, how it envelopes us in a world in which love and friendship and gentleness conquer all.
Maybe it’s because the hard, cold, cynical me now realizes how precious and rare things like friendship and gentleness can be that the film touched me in different ways than when I was 13. So I almost lost it right at the beginning of the film, when little ET, squeaking in terror, watches his spaceship blast off into the night sky, leaving him behind, on a strange planet, all alone. We’d already seen how small and vulnerable ET and his fellow explorers were — their tiny egg-shaped spaceship is so organic, so harmless looking, resting peacefully in the California woods while its occupants collect Earthly plants. And why does ET get left behind? He wanders so far from the ship, gawking in awe at the beauty of the redwoods and even at the city lights twinkling in the valley below that he is too far away to make it back when the visitors are in danger of being discovered by humans. So his friends are forced to leave without him.

I don’t remember this bit particularly upsetting me as a kid — I wasn’t a lonely kid and fear of abandonment wasn’t something that I had to worry about, thankfully — but now I find the opening of the film not only sad but also deeply touching in a way that speaks to the sense of cosmic loneliness that I think lots of scientifically and science-fictionally minded people share. Are we it? Are we alone in the universe? I’m sure I’m reading my own hopes into ET’s seeming sense of satisfaction as he looks down into the valley to see obvious signs of what is, to him, an alien civilization. He knows the answer to that big question now: His people are not alone.

And that feeling also lends itself to something else I’d forgotten about E.T.: the human adults are not the evil creatures I recall them being. It made sense, as a kid, to feel that way: Steven Spielberg shot the movie almost entirely from a child’s-eye point of view, which is also the tiny ET’s point of view. All grownups but Mom (Dee Wallace-Stone) are not seen until the end of the film except from the chest down — they’re just Charlie Brown-esque voices droning on about adult concerns. The government agent known only as Keys (Peter Coyote: A Walk to Remember), is a menacing figure, the jangle of keys at his belt threatening in the same way that adult cigarettes held carelessly down at arm’s length threaten to burn the smaller people down there. So we, as kids, instinctively identify with ET, and with Elliot (Henry Thomas: Moby Dick), of course, the human boy who shelters the visitor from adult eyes, including Mom’s. The grownups — especially by the point at which safety-suited government types invade Elliot’s house — want to take ET away, do bad things, “give him a lobotomy,” as Elliot so eloquently puts it. Of course they’re evil.

But even all those white jumpsuits aren’t so bad after all, newly seen through my own adult eyes. There’s the moment when we finally sees Keys’ face, when Elliot and ET are being poked and prodded by top-secret government doctors (who are far gentler and more concerned than I remembered), and Keys tells Elliot, in a wistful way, that he’s been waiting his whole life for ET. And me, with my own cosmic loneliness, now I identify with Keys: He’s jealous of Elliot, of the time Elliot got to spend with ET, and of course, so am I.

I can still see, though, that Spielberg’s point, and screenwriter Melissa Mathison’s, is that ET’s experience on Earth was better for having met Elliot before he met Keys. The official government response to ET is still, even with my new sympathy for the adults, by far an overreaction to a friendly and peaceful visitor. And that point gets undercut, just a bit, but some unfortunate “sprucing up” this anniversary edition of E.T. has undergone. Cleaning up some special effects and remastering the soundtrack is fine — that doesn’t change anything substantive about the film. But replacing the rifles that government agents chasing Elliot and ET are holding with walkie-talkies is ridiculous — of course it’s out of proportion for guns to be drawn on a child and his little alien friend, but that was the original point, and it’s lost now. And altering a line of dialogue in which Mom refuses to allow her eldest son to go trick-or-treating as a terrorist goes from offensive — what’s wrong with a mother being aghast at the idea of terrorism as a joke? — to absurd: Now Mom refuses to allow him to dress as a hippie, because of what the neighbors would think. In California?

I refuse to allow these minor alterations to affect my love of E.T. (The original version will show up on the DVD anyway, apparently.) Though I do think Elliot passes up the chance of a lifetime when, at the end of the film, the departing ET says “Come,” and Elliot shakes his head and replies, sadly, “Stay.” *sniff*

AFI 100: #24
unforgettable movie moment:
ET’s first meeting with Elliot’s little sister, Gertie (Drew Barrymore), results in screams all around.

previous AFI 100 film:
23. The Grapes of Wrath
next AFI 100 film:
25. To Kill a Mockingbird

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