In every childhood, there are game-changer moments, episodes that form the future person our tiny selves will eventually become.
One of the big game-changer moments of my childhood, and undoubtedly of many people’s childhoods, was seeing “E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial.”
The 1982 Steven Spielberg blockbuster, back in the headlines recently due to the celebration of its 30th anniversary and release of a new Blu-ray/DVD that capitalizes on that moment, made me fall in love really, really hard with the transformative power of movies. That love has informed my career as a writer, dictated many of the decor choices in my home and ensured that, during the past three decades, much of my free time has been spent watching and/or discussing films. In a way, were it not for “E.T.,” I would never have been motivated to sit through “The Oogieloves in the Big Balloon Adventure”in its entirety and describe it for the benefit of the movie-ticket-buying public. This is yet another thing for which we can thank Steven Spielberg.
If you had asked 9-year-old me in 1982 why she liked “E.T.” so much — enough to see it multiple times in the theater, buy every piece of E.T.-related merchandise imaginable, dress up for Halloween as a bag of Reese’s Pieces and record on VHS every televised interview with anyone connected to the story of cross-galaxy friendship— I probably would have said I thought it was really funny when E.T. drinks beer, or that I always felt a weird lump in my throat when E.T. comes back to life, or, if I was being super-honest, that I had a desperate, almost debilitating crush on Henry Thomas.
But that’s not why it touched me so much. Only now, as an adult three decades older than she was when she first heard E.T. say “Phone home,” am I beginning to understand why that movie’s gray alien finger reached into our collective souls and — bing! — set them alight.
When many people think of “E.T.,” they tend to remember it as a nice, heartwarming, pseudo-sci-fi suburban fairy tale. Which it is, in many ways. But it’s also sad, the kind of movie that technically ends happily but can still leave a person wracked with sobs long after the swelling John Williams score strikes its final flourish. That’s because it’s about the painful process of crossing over from child to adult, a transition guided in this case by a being from another planet with a green thumb, the capacity to levitate household items and a glowing, fluttering heart that’s perpetually on display in his sunken chest.
Much has been said, by Spielberg himself as well as others, about “E.T.” being a commentary on children dealing with divorce. As the New Yorker’s Anthony Lane wrote in a heartbreaking work of staggering film criticism published around the time of “E.T.’s” 2002 release, “The gap in the family's existence where a father used to be is an open wound, and one effect of E.T.— his unwitting mission — is to heal it, before he heads back to the stars. This sounds unmanageably mawkish, but ‘E.T.’ struck its first audiences with a directness and propulsion that nobody had ever associated with a sob story; we knew we were being manipulated, but we didn't care, because the treatment worked.”
E.T. literally does heal Elliott’s wounds. In a scene that blew by me when I was a kid, but now might be my favorite in the whole movie, he seals up a cut on Elliott’s finger while, just outside their bedroom-closet-world, Drew Barrymore and Dee Wallace read “Peter Pan.” In that moment, Gertie fervently affirms her belief in fairies and Elliott, the kid whose father is off in Mexico with some chick named Sally, starts to believe that a male figure really wants to take care of him.
That combination of comfort and wonder, with all its Spielbergian shafts of soft light, is the cinematic definition to me of what it means to be a kid. And in that moment, Elliott gets permission to really be a kid.
But as the movie continues — and I’d apologize for spoilers at this point, but this is “E.T.” so, um, no — Elliott focuses more of his time and energy on taking care of E.T. He helps him build his home-phoning contraption, selflessly giving up a perfectly functional Speak and Spell in the process. He swiftly ushers him away from the government agents who would happily perform an autopsy on the little guy if they could. He nearly gets into seven car wrecks, almost gets shot and pedals his bicycle into the stratosphere without wearing a helmet, solely to get E.T. back to his spaceship so he can go home. And he does all of this, despite the fact that Elliott really doesn’t want him to leave.
This is what being an adult is.
So when I watch “E.T.” now, in a lot of ways, what I see is a story about what it means to become a true caregiver for someone else. Because that’s what Elliott is, basically. Like E.T., he’s a father-of-sorts, too, just one who happens to wear a red hooded sweatshirt and insult people using “Dungeons and Dragons” terms. He’s an almost-man who learns that sometimes you don’t get to choose when to let go of someone, and other times you actually do have a choice, but the right answer still comes back: let go. So you do.
Because the universe is so, so much bigger than just one boy and his needs. It stretches far beyond a rainbow streak in the sky left behind after your best friend sails away, leaving behind nothing more than a promise that he’ll be right here.
It hurts, of course. It hurts Elliott. It hurts Gertie. I’m pretty sure it even hurts C. Thomas Howell even though, let’s be honest, he never got super-invested in the whole situation until the very end. But it probably makes them better people.
I certainly didn’t begin to grasp all that back in ‘82, when I saw “E.T.” the first time, or the second time, or the sixth. But that’s what I think now.
It still hurts a little to watch “E.T.,” or even to write about it. But as a 40-year-old woman who looks forward to one day watching it through teary eyes with my son, I definitely think it made me a better person.
P.S. This is what my desk looked like while I was writing this essay.