by Brandie Ashe
I was two years old when the Steven Spielberg-directed E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial debuted in theaters. I was six years old when I saw the film for the first time, which my parents had taped from television along with two other movies (the titles of which I can no longer remember) during a free preview weekend of whichever premium channel we could not afford to indulge in full-time. And I was perhaps ten years old when that videotape became no longer watchable due to the sheer number of times I rewound it to play E.T. over and over and over again.
Mom and Dad eventually bought the film on tape, and the obsession continued. And even today, the Blu-ray is on regular rotation ’round these parts, because it’s one of those movies that remains just as magical and fresh and revelatory today as it was more than thirty years ago.
To say that E.T. had a profound affect on young me would be an understatement. Next to the animated films and classic cartoon shorts that I adored (and still do) above all else, E.T. was something truly special–a film where the focus was on the kids, kids who were smart and brave but also flawed, who strove to do the right thing and yet weren’t perfect paragons of cinematic characterization. They were, in essence, real kids, and I identified with them as much as I longed to actually be them, and to have an adventure with a cuddly alien all my own.
That focus on the children is not a mere by-product of the film’s central science-fiction storyline; it is the entire purpose of the film. Indeed, Spielberg, himself a child of divorce, had long sought to make a film about the myriad ways in which divorce affects kids. Told from the perspective of a family of three kids–two boys and a girl–E.T. is ultimately less about the titular alien than it is about the dynamics of a broken family, and how that damaged unit dusts itself off and learns to function as a smaller whole.
When we first meet the family (relaxing in their relatively isolated house on the edge of a suburban neighborhood, bounded by a dense forest), oldest brother Michael (Robert MacNaughton) holds court in the kitchen with a group of friends, while middle child Elliott (Henry Thomas) sits on the fringes, continually asking when he will be allowed to join in the fun. The kids’ mother, Mary (Dee Wallace), putters around the kitchen, somewhat oblivious to the goings-on in her own house (she has no idea that the kids have ordered pizza without permission); youngest child Gertie (Drew Barrymore) is presumably fast asleep in bed. The unnamed father is nowhere to be seen; as later carelessly pointed out by Elliott, Dad is “in Mexico” with another woman.
It is evident from the start that this is far from the picture-perfect suburban household that its setting might otherwise indicate. Mary does not function particularly well as a single mother; though she obviously cares deeply for her children, she is preoccupied throughout much of the film, and operates more as a peer than a parental figure. The kids refer to her interchangeably as “Mom” and “Mary” and, being self-sufficient latchkey children of the 80s, do not seem to view her as having much authority. Because of her obvious distraction, Michael (as older children are wont to do in similar circumstances) has taken on something of a “man of the house” role; he tries to shield his mother from reminders of his father, and chastises Elliott for bringing up the split (“Damn it, why don’t you grow up and think about how other people feel for a change?”). And while, like most older brothers, he takes advantage of every opportunity to tease his younger siblings, he does not hesitate to protect both them and his mother–and, later, surrogate family member E.T.–when necessary.
The central figure of the story, Elliott, is perhaps the most unanchored of the three children. He seems to have taken the parents’ split the hardest, and has a certain level of resentment toward Mary; when she questions his story about the “goblin” he spotted in the shed, he mutters that “Dad would believe me,” and somewhat spitefully reveals his father’s whereabouts in Mexico without a thought as to how that would affect his mother. He is actively searching for a father figure, and so it is wholly appropriate that he is the one who actively seeks out E.T., and takes him into the household with no hesitation, and gives himself so fully to this new friend that they become psychically linked. In the end, E.T. is as much about Elliott’s personal journey as it is about the healing of the family unit. Through Elliott’s bond with the alien, we see him open up to new possibilities, shed the intrinsic selfishness of childhood, and recognize that there is much more of importance in the world than just himself.
As a child, I identified greatly with the kids, particularly the attention-seeking Gertie (I, too, was the only girl among two brothers, and even though I was the oldest, I was nonetheless the stereotypical tomboy who always wanted to play with the neighborhood boys). But as an adult, I strongly identify with “Keys” (Peter Coyote), the enigmatic government agent who spends much of the film searching for E.T. Keys is a curious figure in the film, distinctly different than most of the other adults present throughout the action, and much of that is due to his own childlike mindset–not in a developmental sense, but in his acceptance of the weird and marvelous, and his professed and demonstrated desire to protect E.T., much like Elliott himself. “He came to me, too. I’ve been wishing for this since I was ten years old. I don’t want him to die,” Keys tells the boy, and the sincerity of this proclamation stands in marked contrast to the other adults in the room. It’s a pleasant surprise, considering the first two-thirds of the film builds up our expectation of a calculating hunter: recall that we never see Keys’ face until he appears in the quarantined house; all previous shots of him focus on the keys dangling from his waist as he scours the forest for signs of the alien. When Keys finally glimpses the alien he’s been seeking, he gazes at E.T.’s prone form with barely-concealed awe; he is not coldly assessing, but openly curious and respectful of the creature and the self-described “miracle” that brought them together for that brief moment. In a certain sense, Keys functions as a stand-in for the adult audience of the film, reflecting that inescapable pull of wonder that we feel in watching the story unfold.
That self-same sense of wonderment permeates the film, from its mysterious opening scenes to its heartbreaking yet entirely hopeful ending. For, by the time E.T. boards his ship to return to his home planet, we are left with the sense that the formerly broken little family he leaves behind will be just fine. Though the loss of their new friend is a sad one, they are newly, tightly bound by the shared experience, one which few others could even understand. And in the end, there is a particular sense of beauty in their loss, because when you stop to think about it, aren’t some of the very best things in life–a beautiful chrysanthemum, a splendid day with a loving friend, even childhood itself–marked by how precious little time we are granted to cherish them in the moment?