It is Christmas Day, still morning, the presents all unwrapped, one of my sons playing a video game of Bionicle and the other putting together Bionicle figures. My wife, too excited about Christmas morning to sleep much Christmas Eve is taking a nap and I’m sitting here watching E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial. My mind reels back nearly a quarter century ago to the hot summer afternoon in 1982 when E.T. premiered and I was in the audience for the first showing, along with my best friend Mark Kochinski who had dreams of being the next Spielberg and is now a well respected visual effects artist and co-founder of the 48 Hour Film Festival. After walking out of theater that night, I knew I’d witnessed pure artistry, as well as a film that rooted its way down into the deepest parts of my psyche. What I didn’t understand at the time, and only half understand today, almost 25 years later, is that E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, far from being a kid’s movie, is a deceptively dark guy movie; more specifically, it is a guy movie for dark guys.
My wife has never liked E.T. At the time I met her, just two years after it was released, this revelation stunned me. What is there not to like about E.T.? I have discovered in the years since it was released that more males than females seem to connect with E.T. This should probably not come as a surprise considering it was directed by a man and is a coming-of-age story about a young boy. Still, technically the screenplay is credited to a woman, Melissa Mathison. (The woman who proved that Harrison Ford really did have taste in women before he met Calista Flockhart.)
E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial seems to hit more closely to the bone with men than women I think, at least in part, because it is a story about growing up as a young boy. But that’s only part of the appeal. It is certainly not by accident that Elliott’s divorced father is not present in the film. (And lest you think I’m heading in the direction of the lovable little alien being a father figure, I’m not; remember that after E.T. is rescued from the woods and lays dying in the house, he looks up at Elliott’s mother and call outs “Mom” and that is certainly not by accident either. And it is not by accident that Elliott may well be the most neurotic preadolescent male in movie history. That little dude is struggling with some issues. There is a certain darkness within Elliott that is not to be found in the other characters. I think whether you really and truly “get” E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial depends greatly upon the depth of your own neuroses when you were a child.
I was a deeply neurotic kid, filled with conflicts and battling demons and so I immediately attached to Elliott even though I was nearly twenty when the film hit theaters. The story of Elliott and E.T. has been described as magical, a fairy tale, a fantasy and even a comedy. To me, E.T. is at least as realistic a drama as Spielberg’s other masterpiece, Schindler’s List. I’m not sure which of those movies brings more tears to my eyes. But as powerful as Schindler’s List is, I can’t really connect to those characters like I connect to Elliott. As much as I’d like to think I’ve got the best parts of Oskar Schindler within me, I will never understand him quite the same way I understand Elliott.
E.T., the alien, is every neurotic kid’s imaginary friend come to life. Really, in some ways, E.T. is nothing more than Elliott’s imaginary friend; they feel the same things and share a symbiotic relationship that is in every way the same as the rest of us share with our imaginary friends. And the more complex the relationship with that invisible little dude, the more profoundly complicated the neuroses. I think it may be a testament to the profundity of my own that I still have my imaginary friend with me. Perhaps friend isn’t the right word; he often got me into trouble. If you know what I’m talking about, chances are you “get” E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial.
But as I hinted, this is a dark “guy” movie. It isn’t just about a confused kid needing someone in his life, it’s about a little boy. There is a phrase that is bandied about often: He’s all boy. Well, Elliott isn’t all boy. He expresses little interest in sports, he’s not an unfeeling douche bag like his older brother’s friends; he’s complicated. He has a soul much older than his scrawny little body would suggest. The fact that Elliott spends most of the movie fighting to separate himself from E.T. by sending the little fella back home speaks volumes about how Elliott is not “all boy.”
Elliott’s father is absent, but in a way aren’t most fathers absent? At least historically speaking? They get up in the morning and they go to work and when they come home they are tired and just don’t have the energy-or even sometimes the interest-in establishing a connection with their sons. With a kid who is all boy and father who was all boy, it’s easy; just talk about sports and don’t worry about things like feelings. Imagine growing up as a boy like Elliott with a father who was “all boy.” Fortunately, that wasn’t my particular case. Mine was a bit more complicated.
But the particularities don’t matter. E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial is, when you strip away the alien story and the fantasy trappings, a movie about what happens when sons and fathers don’t connect. It is not a light family movie and it is most certainly not a fantasy and try as you might you will fail if you attempt to turn it into a just another silly science fiction flick. E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial famously lost the Academy Award for Best Movie of 1982 to Gandhi.
That deadheaded epic was considered “serious” and “important” and so received edification via the votes of actors who should’ve known better. The subject of Gandhi was confused with the execution; there is nothing serious at all about the movie. By contract, E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial may very well be one of the most serious and important movies of all time to never win the Oscar. It is a serious examination of the psychology of childhood and that element flew right over not only the movie’s critics but most of its fans, too. Even the most diehard of E.T. fans generally tend to praise the movie on the level of a fantasy and fairy tale, forgetting that most fairy tales are among the penetratingly serious of all genre of literature. Fairy tales don’t exist for their narrative, they exist to give us-in their unabridged, un-Disneyfied versions-painful lessons in the wickedness that awaits us when we reach adulthood.
But E.T. is no Grimm’s fairy tale; nobody is moved to cut off their toes in order to make sure the shoe fits. Steven Spielberg and Melissa Mathison leave us with hope. I’m sure that little girls can be just as neurotic as little boys, but historically, in a generalized way, most little girls have grown up having at least the opportunity if not the reality of connecting with their mothers. Society and economics conspired to keep most little boys from even having a genuine opportunity to connect with their fathers. Watch the scene near the end when Elliott and his brother and E.T. are making their getaway from the house and the black man shows up outside the driver side window of the van. Notice carefully his choice of words as he tries to connect with Elliott’s brother through a glass window and a locked door: “Open the door, son.” E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial is all about little boys trying to connect with fathers of one sort or another through obstacles. And, more importantly, it is about who or what little boys connect with when those fathers are absent. In Elliott’s case it was a benevolent alien.
Just ask any group of Catholic choirboys and you are unfortunately very likely to find that the connection that is made does not always turn out so nice.