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E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982)
Written by Melissa Mathison
Directed by Steven Spielberg
Elliott is a boy living in northern California who doesn’t seem to have any friends. He tries to join in on his older brother’s Dungeons & Dragons game but is seen as too little. One night, Elliott discovers a creature living in the shed in the yard, a small brown alien who has been stranded on Earth. The two create an empathic bond so that they feel each other’s emotions and sensations. This bond allows Elliott to understand that the creature, whom he nicknames E.T., is going to die unless he can contact his people and return to his world. Elliott lets his brother and little sister in on his secret and the trio work to help their new friend. However, in the background government agents are searching the woods after seeing the aliens leave initially. Slowly but surely they are circling closer and closer to Elliott and E.T.
I can’t say I remembered everything about this film, the last time I watched it was probably distracted in the early 1990s. I was able to recall the main plot beats, but there were so many details and subtle performances that were lost on me as a kid. I don’t think I could recapture the full sense of magic that I would have experienced as a child, I did come away with wistful happiness about what a great picture this is. I really can’t think of another movie like this that has been made in recent years.
While people talk about Steven Spielberg’s work as maudlin broad audience material, there are many elements in this movie that I don’t often see in contemporary children’s/family films. Foremost we have the pretty honest way kids are shown as real people, kind and cruel, sweet and profane. Their mother is having a hard time with their father leaving the family, and the kids aren’t shielded from this. We see her struggle as a single parent but not in a way that overtakes the core story of Elliott and E.T. The kids and the house are a bit of a mess, and that helps convey the mother not having the support she needs but also makes this world look lived in. The details in Elliott’s room make it feel like a real child’s bedroom of the era, I noticed the Incredible Hulk light switch cover as something that felt very genuine.
The themes in E.T. are not the most complex on the surface but are very pure in their presentation. For a young audience, these ideas about death and empathy are ones you don’t see addressed so directly in film. They aren’t dressed up or hidden away behind something cutesy. E.T. is not overtly adorable, he’s pretty strange looking and sounds odd. But through the character development in the script he becomes someone the audiences love by seeing the alien through the eyes of Elliott, we have our empathy synced up with the protagonist’s.
I recently rewatched The Fox and The Hound with my class for an assignment about Theme, and I noticed children’s movies in the 1980s seemed to be tinged with more sadness and bittersweet endings. The 1970s seems like a darker time through the consumption of their media and looking at the news. This appears to have manifested in children’s entertainment into the early 1980s as a sense of melancholy. I personally feel the sort of endless exuberant enthusiasm of modern kid’s fare to feel disingenuous, out of sync with what children are really experiencing and feeling. My students enjoy watching popular media like Sing and The Secret Life of Pets on those last days of school movie events, but this year I had My Neighbor Totoro as the choice. I felt the kids engage with it in a very different way than they did modern movies, with its slowed down pace and absence of gags. I am wondering how a modern audience of children would react to E.T. Would they still see the magic in it that kids in 1982 did? Would they be moved emotionally? Would they walk away thinking about friendships and empathy in a different, more profound way?