E.T. THE EXTRA TERRESTRIAL: Unraveling The Mysteries of Childhood

With E.T., Spielberg improved a million childhoods while coming to terms with his own.

A little over a decade after E.T.’s release, Spielberg came out with another wonderful sci-masterpiece that acted as both antithesis and perfect companion. Jurassic Park is as much about dinosaurs as it is about Spielberg himself, and in it, John Hammond and Alan Grant are his avatars. One speaks of wanting to bring joy and wonder to the world, specifically to the world of children, while the other represents the fear of wanting to be a parent. And while these perspectives might seem in opposition to one another, they each represent aspects of Spielberg’s journey as a filmmaker and as a father, a journey that hit an important milestone in 1982.

According to the biography penned by Tom Powers, it was Spielberg’s experience working with the child actors on E.T. that made him want to have children. This was also the same year that he first came across the story that would go on to become Schindler's List, his other 1993 masterpiece, but Spielberg waited to make the film because he felt it would first require him to “figure out [his] place in the world” according to another biography by Joseph McBride, and the path to doing so, at least in his mind, was to start a family.

Many say that the first time they truly feel like adults is when they hold their newborn child for the first time. In that sense, E.T. belongs to the pre-adult Spielberg oeuvre (his son Max was born in ‘85), and it feels very distinctly like an attempt to understand his own worldview, as a man on the precipice of growing up but with one foot planted firmly in childhood. The presence of the titular extra terrestrial is no doubt a metaphor for young Elliott’s absent father, but the reality of his relationship to the alien is far more complicated. Its introduction, and every moment of wonder hence, is seen through an atmospheric haze, often coupled with several lens flares. It’s a bold stylistic choice, but rather than distancing Elliott (and the audience) from E.T., it draws both him, and us, towards it like a mystery. The creature is what eventually allows Elliott to channel and understand his feelings about his father, and even as he speaks to it after its “death,” it’s enveloped entirely in fog.

The other instances where we see people obscured by light and atmosphere often involve the faceless adults on the hunt for the little alien. Initially, Peter Coyote’s nameless character is identified only by his heavy key ring, as if the responsibilities of adulthood have weighed him down. While he and the other men are introduced much like the concept of “man” in Bambi, a malicious force acting in contention with nature, Coyote’s first exchange with Elliott is about his own childhood, and how he’s longed to be enamored with an alien like E.T. ever since he was ten years old. He’s an adult who’s been forced to leave his childhood behind, working for the very government that now hunts E.T., but part of him still wants to recapture that innocent wonder.

The presence of fog offers a certain clarity to Spielberg’s perspective on childhood and adulthood, both mysteries to him at the time. Mysteries that, while scary, are also exciting, and mysteries that he would eventually go on to solve as his career progressed. The divorce of his own parents is an undeniable influence on the characters’ complicated domestic lives, but his eventual reconciliation in the form of Elliott’s goodbye is presented as simply as possible.

“Stay.”

The final conversation between Elliott and E.T. is a touching distillation of Spielberg’s thoughts and feelings on this defining element of his childhood, one that perhaps forced him into a grown-up world sooner than he would’ve liked. Children don’t often have the means to contextualize emotional pain outside of physical injury, and so the equating of an injured finger with Elliott and E.T.’s impending separation is perhaps the easiest way for both character and director to contextualize their emotional injuries. It’s expressed in one simple word that we can all relate to: “Ouch.”

Elliott’s fake sobs to distract the scientists are loud and boisterous, as one often expects from children when it comes to trivial matters. However just moments earlier, his honest goodbye to a friend he believed dead came in the form of the quietest of lamentations (sold by an incredibly mature performance from young Henry Thomas), allowing him to finally bring to the surface his long-internalized pain of abandonment. During this moment, even Elliott’s brother Michael, a teenager dealing with his own fears of stepping out into the world, finds comfort in a room full of stuffed animals.

Childhood is meant to be filled with wonder, but it can also come with complications that we’re not yet equipped to deal with. Our ability to do so comes with age and experience, but it doesn’t seem like Spielberg’s mission statement involves letting go of that wonder in order to brave the tribulations of adulthood. Quite the opposite really, as he places Peter Coyote amongst the handful of characters looking up at the sky as E.T.’s spaceship flies away. If anything, he believes in holding on to wonder, and to childhood, returning to them when we need them most.

Before he says his final words, E.T. points, not at Elliott’s heart, but at his head, as his finger lights up like the spark of imagination. “I’ll be right here.”

 

E.T. screens at the Alamo Drafthouse this month. Check drafthouse.com for listings.

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