Every Cynic's Kryptonite
Around the same time that movies like The Day After (reviewed here) came out and traumatized kids across the country with real fears of an apocalypse, another movie actually designed for children would come along and traumatize youth in a different, more emotional, and ultimately more devastating way. For many in my generation, Steven Spielberg's E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial was the first movie we'd see in a movie theater (and for later generations, it was often the first non-animated feature film that those kids would see on VHS and later DVD). The 6th biggest movie of all time (4th, if adjusted for inflation), has heightened children's fears of abandonment for nearly three decades now. For many of us, it also taught us the shame of weeping in a public movie theater. Indeed, my first movie-theater experience would end in something not far short of my own personal tragedy: My seven-year-old self wept uncontrollably following that screening, on the way home in the car, and for several hours following the movie. Moreover, men in white suits would forever carry the negative connotation created in E.T. of mean strangers who would barge into our homes and steal our extra-territorial soulmates. Fuck those creepy astronaut looking assholes.
Rewatching the film now, in what must be the first time in at least 20 years, I was surprised by a couple of things: 1) That it's not as intense as my 7-year-old brain remembered it, and 2) it actually holds up remarkably well. It is not plagued by an '80s sheen, cheesy effects, dated fashion trends, or synth-heavy music (it's been updated and enhanced over the years, but not so much as to be that noticeable). It's a movie, I suspect, that would play just as well in 2010 as it did in 1982 (which is hopefully why it hasn't been re-made ... yet). I honestly don't believe that all of the CGI animation in the world could improve upon the animatronic alien that Carl Rimbaldi created for E.T.. It was remarkably ugly, and all the more endearing for being as such (in fact, the reason Reese's Pieces are used in the film is because Mars wouldn't give Spielberg the rights to M&Ms, under the belief that E.T. would scare the behonkers out of little children). Every facial expression, eye movement, neck-raise, and gesture is perfect, and somehow that hideous-looking troll can still manage to warm any black heart, regardless how many decades of reality it has been beaten down by.
I had no idea, 28 years after its release, that I could still love E.T. The Extra Terrestrial .
It's a simple story, really, one -- like many of Steven Spielberg movies -- that was borne out of the director's own childhood, in this case his experiences with an imaginary alien friend after his parents divorced. It follows an alien creature who gets separated from his alien-family and left behind when his spaceship hastily leaves to get away from a group of government botanists collecting plant species. The alien subsequently stumbles upon a suburban home where a young boy, Elliot, discovers him. The next day, Elliot stays home to hang out with E.T., and they ultimately bond before Elliot introduces the alien to his siblings, Michael (Robert MacNaughton) and Gertie (Drew Barrymore at her cutest). Elliot also manages to develop a psychic connection with E.T., and when E.T. gets ill and begins to die, the illness manifests itself in Elliot, too. The movie comes to a head when Elliot's mom discovers the dying alien and a group of scientists invade the home.
For a lot of adults, E.T. is like a popular song during your childhood -- listening to it brings back a flood of memories, of time and place and of circumstance. I was overwhelmed by early memories of the film while watching it again, and of mis-remembrances so powerful that they will probably supplant my newly formed impressions of the film within days. Watching it again is like filling in the empty spaces of a fever dream -- the Reese's pieces, the space suits, the flying bicycle, E.T. drinking a beer, and especially Elliot kissing that girl after releasing the frogs, a memory so profound that seeing it again resurrected 1st grade crushes I'd long forgotten about.
It takes seeing E.T. again to realize what a powerful hold it's had over me for the last 25 years. Its greatest accomplishment, indeed, is in its ability to resurrect not only those feelings of childhood singular to me, but the general feelings associated with so many of our childhoods: spells of loneliness, days alone sick from school, the dream worlds we imagined for ourselves, and, yes, those fears of abandonment (my parents would separate soon after the release of E.T., and the two experiences are inextricably linked). It's a magical film, one whose magic is not limited to a particular audience, but extends to all audiences. Good, bad, or otherwise, we all experience childhood, and E.T. has a way of allowing us to visit the enchanting parts of it again. The best part, perhaps, is that now I understand why Elliot had to let E.T. return home; it makes it no less sad, of course, but it no longer feels so unfair.
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