You don’t expect movies to change.
Let me correct that, you don’t expect movies to change unless they are made by George Lucas. Then the rules are thrown out the door. I didn’t even buy the last version of the original Star Wars trilogy. Why? I didn’t like that he changed Obi-Wan’s scream to scare off the sandpeople and added in Darth Vader shouting “No!” during the end of Return of the Jedi. Didn’t we have enough of Vader shouting “No!”? At least he didn’t add more scenes of him walking around like Frankenstein’s monster.
I’m sorry, I had a point here when I started.
The fact is most movies are locked in. So you assume the experience will stay the same with each viewing. For example, I can tell you which parts in To Kill a Mockingbird and Casablanca I will cry during each time (each bloody time), and I can tell you which moments of Monty Python and the Holy Grail always make me laugh… because I am a very silly and predictable man.
So when I decided to watch E.T. for the first time since I was a kid, showing it to my own children, there was a lot I was assuming going in.
Elliott, the alien, some scary grownups, flying bikes, Drew Barrymore, classic Spielberg- got it.
The shock for me was how much different the experience was as a grownup watching the film. I’m not saying I forgot the movie. No, I’m pretty sure I saw it four or five times in the theater (I was the target audience then), the scenes I remembered were all there. It was just different. And I walked away actually loving the film more now than I did then.
Here are three reasons it really hit me and I recommend you check it out.
Boo! Men! Boo!
Spielberg pulls a fast one on the audience with this one.
All of the adult men are filmed in shadows, we never see their faces (not even Elliott’s science teacher). They are the other, the forbidding mystery. The dark presence that will impact your life. They even want you to kill and cut up frogs! And when you add in the fact that the family’s father has run off to Mexico, men don’t come out very well in this film… at least at the start.
Here is the thing, when I watched this as a kid the adults were the enemy. I assumed—mainly because of how Spielberg films them and how the children react to them—that they were to be feared.
The man with the keys is the main threat. He is following behind Elliott, listening into his phone calls. He even eats Reese’s Pieces off the ground. Granted, they aren’t meant for him, but they were on the ground. So yeah, a little gross. Yet when Peter Coyote’s character, the man with the keys, finally shows his face and speaks to Elliott, you realize that he isn’t a bad guy. Coyote’s conversation with Elliott is sweet, almost loving. It ends with this point:
I’ve been wishing for this since I was 10 years old, I don’t want him to die. What can we do that we’re not already doing?… Elliot, I don’t think he was left here intentionally, but his being here is a miracle, Elliot. It’s a miracle and you did the best that anybody could do. I’m glad he met you first.
Not the typical speech of a bad guy, is it?
Then when the kids run off with E.T., he drives their mom. And when they make it to the ship, does he try to stop E.T.’s departure? Not at all, he just watches. No one stops the big blast off, and they certainly had time to try and stop. There is not even one plane in the sky. He could have easily made a move when one of those hugs was going on. No one would have seen it coming!
What about the guns though you ask? Spielberg does film the cops and the officials with the guns in a threatening manner, but they never point them at the boys. They are simply trying to stop the kids from running off with E.T. And for all they know they are stealing him and he is still a corpse. They really don’t know he is alive.
Then there is this, look at the doctors when they think E.T. is dead. There is real emotion there, right on down the line.
There are no villains in this film really. None at all, and that to me in storytelling is really impressive
…. Well, maybe Elliott’s dad. Honestly, he sounds like a jerk.
The Mom as the Heroine
I have no real memory of the mom when I was watching the film as a kid. She was there merely, the story wasn’t about her.
Yet, as a grownup with my own children, the film is really almost her story now in the viewing. Her husband has left her, and it was such a severe break that she doesn’t even know what is going on with him. She is surprised and emotional to discover he is in Mexico. When she recommends Elliott call her dad at one point, it almost feels like she is trying to bring him back in her life. Is it a desperate move on her part?
She is overwhelmed by life, broken. There is a scene of her on Halloween sitting alone in a costume eating candy. It is so, so heartbreaking now as an adult to watch. Oh, and she has Coors in her fridge. That is just sad too. No happy single person has Coors in their fridge.
In many ways she is falling apart. Her young daughter calls her by her first name. (Are they losing respect for her?) She is very distracted by her responsibilities and job. The scene of her putting away groceries and not seeing E.T. around her, may be played for comedy, but for me I see her just struggling to focus, keep her depression at bay and her mind on the tasks ahead.
When NASA arrives she runs to protect her children, saving them from the alien in their midst and the forces around her. “This is my home!” she screams. Damn straight it is, Mary!
Yet, she is strong enough of character to let her kids say goodbye to the strange little alien. She is not holding them back then. Many would feel fear to see their children are talking to an alien in front of a ship, but she doesn’t. So… yeah… I think we can also state that the runaway dad is an idiot.
The Real World
One of the things I really appreciated in rediscovering the film is how naturally it is shot. Night looks like night, day is not perfectly lit. This is our world and this could be happening in any neighborhood, any house. Spielberg saves the “wonder” majestic shots for the big moments. But for 99 percent of the film, it is personal and, oh, so very real.
These aren’t the best-dressed people, their clothes are worn, and even their bikes don’t look new.
And I can’t say enough about the script. It is so natural. The fact it didn’t win the Academy Award is now almost shocking to me. When Elliott shows off his toys to E.T., it feels like a hundred conversations I have had with my own son or seen him have with his friends.
Oh, and where was Henry Thomas’s Oscar trophy? That is off topic here, but something worth mentioning.
Then there is the relationship of the family. They aren’t perfect. They can be kind and mean to each other, sometimes in the same conversation, but underneath it is still love.
Usually films are captured moments in a life. You struggle to imagine a person’s life before it and what it will be like after, but with this film and this wonderfully captured family, I can easily see how things were before E.T., and also how it will be after. It seems weird to say this but for a film I now love, I’m glad there isn’t a sequel. And reading Spielberg’s treatment for a possible return (you can check out here), which involved evil aliens, one feels that the great director probably agrees with me.
During the 20th anniversary of the film there was some controversy over Spielberg making little changes to the film. He replaced guns with walkie-talkies and corrected a few special effects. So some could argue I was wrong in my opening bit. Yet, Spielberg has regretted his corrections, and the version I watched with my little ones was still the classic. So I stand by my original statement.
This film changed for me in other ways, and even if I saw the version with those tweaks I don’t think it would have changed this reaction I had to it.
When the film ended my son looked over at me with a big smile on his face, declaring it one of his favorite movies. After I wiped the tears off my face, the tears I usually save for Casablanca and To Kill a Mockingbird, I had to smile and agree.
My latest novel Permanent Spring Showers was just published by 5 Prince Books. You can find out more about my novel as well as my other books (including A Jane Austen Daydream and My Problem With Doors) and grab a copy via my author page on Amazon.com here.