Note: This review contains spoilers required for an adequate exploration of the film’s themes.
"The story of a boy and his dog," writes one critic. "Close Encounters for kids," writes another. Still others focus on the Christological resonances, particularly in connection with another messianic sci‑fi film, The Day the Earth Stood Still, with its peaceful visitor from the heavens who dies and rises again.
Steven Spielberg’s E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial is all of those things, but it can’t be reduced to any of them. Its blend of wonder, emotional honesty and poignancy, humor, and innocence is unique. Try to think of another film that covers the same emotional and psychological ground. (The Iron Giant? The Indian in the Cupboard, also penned by E.T. screenwriter Melissa Mathison?) Nothing really fits the bill. E.T. isn’t simply the best film in its class — it’s the only one.
This film, so universal in its appeal, has been described by Spielberg as his most personal picture. Unlike Close Encounters, E.T. doesn’t overwhelm with gee-whiz effects and technological marvels. There are special effects, but it’s no big-budget extravaganza or roller-coaster ride. The pace is slow, the story intimate and human-scaled. In fact, child-scaled: The film is told almost entirely from a child’s point of view, and we see little if anything of the grown-up world through grown-up eyes. Most scenes are photographed from low angles, reflecting the point of view of the young protagonist and his child-sized alien friend.
Spielberg’s own childhood is mirrored by that of lonely young Elliot (Henry Thomas), abandoned by his father, raised by his hard-working mother, growing up in a suburban subdivision. This life is depicted affectionately but not idyllically: Spielberg shows us the chaos, the hugger-mugger, the rough edges. Some of Elliot’s escapades, such as the liberation of the frogs in biology class, come from the director’s own life. Spielberg may never have ridden on a flying bicycle, but that unforgettable image vividly expresses the soaring imagination behind this and other dazzling films; and we, like the neighborhood boys, are brought along for the ride.
The strong feelings Spielberg had for his story carry over into the breathtakingly transparent performances he was able to elicit from his young actors, Henry Thomas (Elliot), Robert MacNaughton (older brother Michael), and Drew Barrymore (kid sister Gertie). These are real kids, not movie kids; watching them, you don’t even think about acting or moviemaking.
What about E.T. himself? What feelings does this strange little creature tap into? Partly, as some have suggested, he’s a kind of outer-space pet — as is suggested by the famous scenes of Elliot luring E.T. into the house and his room with a trail of Reese’s Pieces, and by lines like "I’m going to keep him" and "He’s trying to tell us something" that evoke the likes of Benji and Lassie.
But E.T. is much more than that. He’s also a strange combination of wise old man, baby brother, and best friend. With his wrinkly face and large eyes (reportedly modeled on the faces of Albert Einstein, Ernest Hemingway, and Carl Sandburg), pot belly, and shuffling walk, he seems a kind of ancient guru or mentor. (In fact, he looks not entirely unlike a more alien-looking version of Yoda.) Yet he’s also a wide-eyed naive who (in a hilarious scene) listens intently to Elliot’s discourse on toys and action figures, and isn’t above taking an experimental bite out of one of them. And he shares a special, indefinable bond with Elliot, who wants the two of them to "grow up together."
There’s also a clear element of religious symbolism, emphasized in the familiar image from the poster art of E.T.’s glowing finger reaching out to Elliot’s like the hand of God reaching for Adam’s hand in Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam. Like Jesus, E.T. comes from above and possesses miraculous powers, including a healing touch. E.T.’s glowing heart evokes the familiar Divine Mercy image of our Lord with beams of light emanating from his sacred heart. E.T. undergoes a passion, death, and resurrection. When he finally ascends again into the heavens, it’s with a promise to Elliot to be with him always ("I’ll be right here") and a simple moral exhortation ("Be good").
It’s possible, I guess, to interpret E.T. as a kind of New-Age Christ-figure, a messiah from the stars bringing a vague cosmic enlightenment rather than salvation. More plausible, though, is to see E.T. as essentially the same kind of thing as the Close Encounters aliens, an awe-inspiring ambassador of peace from the universe. "We are not alone" is the tagline from the earlier film; expressed more fully, the idea behind both films is something like, "We don’t know what’s out there, but we think it’s on our side." E.T. isn’t as mysterious as the Close Encounters aliens, for the simple reason that we get to know him so much better; but the religious resonances help retain the sense of wonder and significance about the character.
On an even more important level, E.T. may be seen as a kind of alter ego to Elliot. It’s no accident that Elliot’s name begins and ends with the letters that form E.T.’s moniker; and the mysterious connection between the two leads Elliot to speak of them collectively ("We’re fine"). Elliot is also sure that E.T. is a boy, like himself.
Once again, a pop-spirituality interpretation is possible — E.T. might be seen as a kind of higher self, a New-Age guide — but not plausible. The key fact about E.T. is that he has to leave, that Elliot must lose him. The shadow of E.T.’s departure hangs over the whole film. Elliot’s hopes of "growing up together" are futile; he must face the fact that he has to grow up alone. Yet when the moment finally comes, E.T. touches Elliot’s forehead with his glowing finger, promising to be "right here."
This suggests another interpretation of E.T. as alter ego: E.T. is connected with Elliot’s childhood; he is something Elliot must leave behind in growing up. Elliot may go flying on his bicycle with E.T., but when invited to leave the earth forever by coming with E.T. in his spaceship, Elliot chooses to keep his feet on the ground.
Like Peter Pan, who also took children flying until it was time for them to grow up, E.T. represents the wonder of childhood, of a time that we must all leave behind, though we may continue to carry it inside, "right here," in our minds and hearts. This connection is strengthened by two direct allusions to Peter Pan in two related scenes of the film: In one, we see Elliot’s mother reading to Gertie the story of the collapse and revival of Tinker Bell, foreshadowing E.T.’s death and resurrection. Then, when E.T.’s death finally comes, we find Elliot promising him, "I’ll believe in you all my life, every day," echoing Wendy’s famous declaration, "I’ll always believe in you, Peter Pan."
E.T. is not without potential drawbacks for young viewers. For a family-themed film, there’s a relatively high level of coarse language (notably one infamous obscenity that, contrary to earlier reports, was not excised from the special-edition rerelease). Elliot’s parents’ divorce is a potential point of concern (Elliot comments at one point that their father is "in Mexico with Sally," upsetting their mother and angering his older brother), and children may be confused by a scene in which Gertie calls their mother by her first name (though Elliot calls her "Mom"). Then there’s Elliot’s feigning illness to stay home from school, and of course the children’s conspiracy to keep E.T. a secret from their mother. Some parents, too, may object to a scene in which E.T. inadvertently gets drunk, causing Elliot to share the symptoms by their telepathic link.
Yet there’s also a reassuring innocence to the film. The government agents, especially "Keys," who seem menacing at first, turn out to be basically benevolent, and there’s no real sense of menace in the climactic chase scene with the boys on bicycles hot-dogging away from the police cars — it feels more like a game than anything. The children’s mother (Dee Wallace) is lovingly and sympathetically portrayed, and their family life, while imperfect, is seen in a positive light.
E.T. is about wonder, loss, love, childhood and growing up. It’s a joyous, moving experience, funny and sad, bittersweet, hopeful. To see it as a child is to apprehend in a way, as so many fairy tales communicate, what it is to grow up. To see it as an adult is to revisit something we have lost; something we carry it with us, right here.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.