E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial might seem like a strange choice for this series. One of the most successful family movies of all time, the Spielberg directed film is not generally considered in the company of the horror films I have previously covered in “Cinematic Childhood Traumas.” But in the same way that Fantasia frightened my friend and fellow blogger, Alyx, in spite of its kid-friendly content, so did E.T. scare me when I first saw it at a young age.
I remember the night my family rented E.T. It must have been in the mid- to late-eighties, well after the initial release, but to us kids, the film seemed brand-new. I have a feeling my father had hyped it up, because I remember very clearly waiting in my family’s mini-van in the parking lot of Albertson’s and dad accompanying my older brother excitedly bringing the video out to the car, piquing my interest in the movie.
Of course, the story goes downhill from here with the events that transpired now a part of family legend. Intensely engaged in the film, I found the scenes in which the sick E.T. comes under medical surveillance and dies heartbreakingly sad and alarming in their implications. As my siblings watched, I snuck out of the family TV room and into my bedroom where I attempted to cry discretely. Of course, a child’s subtlety is typically fairly obvious to an adult. My father found me in my room and attempted to console me. I told my dad I was upset that E.T. had been captured and died, but my dad reassured me that in fact, E.T. would live and escape their clutches. With this reassuranced, he was able to coax me out of my room for the remainder of the screening.
Unfortunately, the film’s final scenes left me no less emotional: I remember a sniveling young Drew Barrymore saying goodbye to E.T. as he flew off in his spaceship and being even more upset by this result.
In the intervening years, I somehow avoided the film in spite of its popularity. I’d see it on television and make it no further than the scenes in which the kids first discovere and become acquainted with E.T. My negative associations were so strong that when theatrical promos for the 20th anniversary reissue appeared, I immediately felt tense and on the verge of tears, much to my family’s amusement. Keep in mind that I was born the same year as the movie, putting me into adulthood when these trailers screened.
Soon after I started the “Childhood Cinematic Traumas” series, the idea occurred to me that I should finally rewatch the film in earnest. Upon doing so I discovered that the film continues to resonate for me in spite of the many years that have passed since I first watched it. While I found some of the familial melodrama a bit obvious, the film’s portrayal of childhood wonder defying the modern impulse toward scientific scrutiny retains its power.
Like any good kid’s film, E.T. is all about the absurdity of the world as adults run it. From the very first series of shots, grown-up characters tend to be framed from the torso down. There are a few exceptions to this rule, of course: the overworked single mom (Dee Wallace) and the scientist (Peter Coyote) who seems to identify with Elliott’s awe over E.T. are both humanized through close-ups on their facial expressions. Several scenes of the scientists and government agents also film these characters’ faces for pragmatic purposes. Otherwise, the film represents teachers, scientists, and government investigators as faceless authority figures.
By contrast, E.T.’s short stature lowers him to the height of the child protagonists, making him physically relatable. In other words, E.T. is less alien to Elliott and company than the majority of adult figures that populate the film. The scene in which government officials donning space suits invade Elliott’s house drives home the point that E.T. poses little threat by comparison to adult-created and maintained institutions.
The scene that struck me most during my recent viewing was the frog dissection scene. I had not thought of it for ages, but as I watched it, I suddenly remembered it. While in science class, Elliott (the impressive Henry Thomas) impulsively frees the frog he is about to dissect and inspires his classmates to do the same. The scene crosscuts to E.T. watching television, specifically a scene in which a man grabs a woman by the hand and pulls her in for a kiss. The film jumps back to Elliott doing the same, and even stepping upon a classmate to rise to the appropriate height to do so, once again drawing our attention to stature.
That scene foretells the disturbing intrusion of the scientists, who use medical apparatuses to study E.T. and preserve him as a specimen just as the science teacher instructs the students to anesthetize and cut open their frogs. It also anticipates Elliott’s efforts to free E.T. with the help of his brother and friends, which easily prove to be the most affective in the film. John Williams’ score, the gorgeous shot of the kids biking across a sun-filled sky, and fast-paced, high-energy mood all prime you for the emotional kick in the ass that is E.T.’s departing thereafter. This is where I lost it: E.T. and Elliott, face-to-face and confronting the realization that E.T. will depart never to return; E.T. touches Elliott’s finger and says “ouch,” knowing this to be a painful exclamation, and Elliott repeats it also.
Of course, none of this is to say that E.T. is a perfect film. In the context of the Reagan Era, one might read the film as a neo-liberal critique of government interference in our lives, a pretty conservative message. To compound that, the product-placement throughout the film reminds us that multi-national corporations run the culture industry. For that reason, the moments when Elliott introduces E.T. to the name brands that compose his world make me cringe. I also hated the CGI adjustments made to the 20th Anniversary Version–just like George Lucas, the re-issue mucks with a good thing in order to advertise this version as “new and improved”–not necessary.
Still, the film suckered me in with its gorgeous cinematography, amazing performances by child actors, and touching moments. Watching it again proved to me that my emotions as a kid were strong because the film itself was designed to illicit such a response. While I am better able to control my response as an adult, E.T. remains a film that pushes all of my sentimental buttons in spite of receiving an education in the mechanics of film in the intervening years.