Cinemanalysis: E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982)

by Jason Flatt

E.T. (1982) is the perfect coming of age story – for the children who grew up watching it. There is a reason it scared so many kids while being one of the most beloved classics of all-time.

I have two specific memories of Steven Spielberg’s E.T. (1982) from when I was a kid. I remember my mom taking me to see it in theaters and being haunted by the astronaut-looking men draping a house in white tubes. I also remember an older cousin watching E.T. on a television. I was afraid of creatures and costumes at that age and E.T’s vacuum tube-looking neck was absolutely no exception.

E.T. is not scary though. It is the children’s classic that dominated the box office the entire year of 1982, topped Star Wars (1977) as the highest grossing film of the time, and inspired millions of people along the way. My fear of E.T. was not an accident though, and neither was my discovering why. The intentional horror elements the film employed are what made this layered classic. It is part of why E.T. works not only as an impeccable children’s movie but as one of the greatest stories ever told. The way that I came to understand this fear, where it came from, and why getting past it is so hard is all part of E.T.’s formula.

E.T. FamilyE.T.’s Family

The key to initiating any successful story is relatability. E.T. works so smoothly because it just feels like it could have happened to anybody. There is an all-too-familiar social hierarchy amongst E.T.’s cast of characters. Michael (Robert MacNaughton), and his friends bully his younger brother Eliot (Henry Thomas), who in turn, has a tendency to be mean to his younger sister Gertie (Drew Barrymore). They all love and respect their mother Mary (Dee Wallace), but also see her as a weak authority figure, especially in the absence of their now-estranged father. There is nothing out of the ordinary about this family structure and it is certain this causes one component or another being quite relatable to any viewer.

E.T. brings all of these otherwise unwilling family members together though, not just around their shared mission of protecting and saving the alien. E.T.’s (Tamara De Treaux, Pat Bilon, Matthew DeMeritt, and Pat Welsh) bond with Eliot and the creatures kind and caring nature turned him into a member of their family. Watching this family coalesce around E.T. and becoming a part of it through watching the movie is just pure goodness. So, when the family is attacked by the government and Eliot and E.T. are in trouble, it is impossible not to completely empathize with their fear and pain.

My lingering fear of the space suits and white sterile tubes is understandable. Eliot and the rest most certainly never gained any trust in the government people over the course of their invasion of his home and town. So, why should any kid watching the movie? Part of E.T.’s beauty is that it makes no difference whether at the end the scientists and doctors can be trusted. It is not just John William’s score or the absolutely beautiful flying bike scenes that draw out those feelings. It is because of the danger E.T. is in, whether real or a result of juvenility or careful directorial tricks, that everybody is brought together in a way nothing else could have.

E.T. Expectations and RealityExpectations And Reality

Spielberg’s first hit, Jaws (1975), was a horror movie. One of its most famous elements was the movie’s use of anticipation to increase its terror levels. The shark itself remained just out of sight until the time was just right to reveal it. This made Jaws even more terrifying when it finally appeared on-screen and caused havoc. E.T. feigned something similar to incredible effect. The alien E.T. was shown outright and upfront immediately. This helped make it unmistakably clear that he was a friendly alien, not the terrible or scary kind like Alien’s (1979) Xenomorphs, or even the Star Wars scoundrels that Eliot introduces E.T. to in his bedroom later on. The anticipation effect is still clearly being implemented in E.T. though. As E.T. is obviously painted as a friend, the anticipation effect is starkly used on the government men instead, especially the one with the ominously jangling keys.

Everything about storytelling tropes would make it seem obvious that the men who chase after E.T. in the very beginning of the movie are the film’s villains and that the key jangler is their mean, scary, kid and alien-hating leader. This is solidified by the fact that, like a horror movie’s monster, the men, especially their faces, are always off screen or shrouded in darkness. Though E.T. is certainly not meant to be a scary movie, the effect is all the same. Even when the government men and women finally are revealed it is in absolutely menacing space suits while grabbing at people through windows. Who could possibly blame a child, Eliot, Michael and Gertie included, for being mortified of those men and women? The now classic horror trope of anticipation subtly drives the expectation that these people are to be feared and reviled and that the key jangler is their chief.

It turns out though, that the government folk, Keys (Peter Coyote) especially, were neither actually villains nor should they have been scary. The government’s methods and motives may have been mediocre, but Keys showed he was just like Eliot: somebody who wanted to believe E.T. was good, to help him stay alive, and to get him back home. Eliot and the other kids never understand this though. Perhaps when they are older they will, but, that is E.T.’s whole point.

E.T. Coming Of AgeComing Of Age

If ever there was a perfect coming of age story, E.T. is it. Eliot himself does have somewhat of a coming of age story arc. He has to cope with life’s realities throughout the film with the abandonment by his father and its impact on his family, the apparent death of E.T., and the sudden thrust to a sensation of adulthood he has to endure. This artificial elevation of Eliot’s sense of maturity is based on an immature distrust of adults who are genuinely trying to help him. Keys and the rest of the government folk are intimidating and Eliot’s reason to trust them is deservedly minimal. Yet, it led Eliot to believe he had done something no adult was willing to do, even if it was not necessarily true.

No, Eliot is not really the one coming of age over the course of E.T. It is the children who over the course of decades, returning to the timeless classic again and again. Seen through a child’s eyes, E.T. might be a bit confusing and a little scary at times. E.T. is clearly a friend though, and getting him back home, sad as it may be, is clearly the right thing to do. That is what being a kid is all about though. Not everything always makes sense, whether because the adults do a bad job explaining or because the kids do a great job assuming. Things that, as adults are much more clear, can be inexplicably and irrationally terrifying. In the end though, wonder never ceases and the drive to do what they think is right is the epitome of childhood. So, even if people grow older and they can see the ploys Spielberg used to cause the confusion and Keys can be seen as a hero, E.T. does a masterful job of putting its audience right back into the mind of the children who have loved it for generations.

E.T. It Isn't Any WonderIt Isn’t Any Wonder

E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial has wider appeal than most movies could ever hope to achieve. It captures children and teenager’s imaginations by putting them in the shoes of their peers as they went on an unbelievable adventure. Whether during the clutch of the Moral Majority’s fear over the dissolution of the nuclear family or today, American culture has long had a phobia of dysfunctional families. Few other movies besides The Goonies (1985) from this era showed, with such picturesque, how well siblings could get along, even in struggling households. Eliot’s family may be somewhat broken, but they appear to be neither rich nor poor. Many coming of age movies in the early and mid-80s either reflected the economic stress of the era, such as The Outsiders (1983) or The Goonies. Or, by later in the decade, they provided escapism via outlandish settings and lovable yet fallible characters, such as Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986) or Dirty Dancing (1987). E.T. did not try to appeal to any particular economic or social sensitivity or make clear that its central family was any better or worse off than the average movie-goer. As a result, it was prime for mass enjoyment.

E.T.‘s wide appeal goes further. It perfectly straddles the science fiction genre and the coming of age story. The film’s John Williams score, alien premise, and numerous homages to the ongoing Star Wars franchise squarely places E.T. in the “genre film” box. Yet, E.T. is not about conflict; it has no villain to overcome, no threshold to cross, and no weapon to collect in the traditional Hero’s Journey sense. If it follows any familiar formula, it is the Christ parable. E.T.’s death and resurrection, the miracles he performs, and the way he saves, in a sense, Eliot and his family would not go unnoticed by the initiated viewer. The sheer hopefulness of a coming of age story via a Christ-esque tale was the perfect marriage with a science fiction film during the waiting period between Star Wars films. E.T. bore all of the hope and inspiration of A New Hope with none of the cynicism and fear of The Empire Strikes Back, the next year’s Return of the Jedi, or, most noticeably, the Vietnam and Watergate riddled previous decade.

This movie practically made BMX bikes and teenage rebellion the staple of the 1980s that they are. It is absolutely no wonder that its magic shaped a decade and remains one of the most important films of all-time. Every single person who watched the movie then or who watches it now can find themselves in its tale. Not only this, but its meaning grows more mature as its viewer does. Not everyone always understands each other. E.T cannot communicate with words at first, and he clearly has a different understanding of what “B, good” means than Gertie does at first. Similarly, Eliot may not have understood Keys, but, he, like I, may come to understand each other at least a little bit better. Understanding is an imperfect art that only can get better with time, age, and distance. No matter the details though, and no matter what different conclusions are drawn and appreciations come to by the end if E.T. one this is universal: in its pure, beautiful, timeless way, everything turns out exactly the way it should.

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