Loneliness. It’s what a young boy feels in his father’s absence, what a loyal wife endures in the aftermath of her husband’s betrayal, and what a mysterious visitor experiences upon being unceremoniously abandoned by its own family.
For a beloved children’s film, Steven Spielberg’s E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial is unusually heavy. It is definitely not for the stoic. In all the years I’ve been watching movies, few have consistently wrecked me as much as this one. And yes, I’m talking about both theatrical versions here.
The remarkable Henry Thomas plays Elliott, the middle child of his broken California family. When we first meet him, he’s desperate to convince older brother Michael (Robert McNaughton who should never ever sing publicly again) and his jerky teenage friends to join them in their night-time board game. After a brief bit of obligatory mockery, he’s invited to play as soon as he brings back the pizza they just ordered.
But on his way back to the house, he hears something in the backyard. It sure sounds like someone’s messing around in the shed. After putting down the pizza he takes a ball and throws it directly into the shed’s opening. Someone or something catches it and throws it right back. Completely freaked out, Elliott accidentally steps on the pizza box as he bolts back inside warning everybody including his beautiful single mom (Dee Wallace Stone) to not go out there.
So, naturally they all go out there. But it’s too late. The noise has stopped and all they find are unusual footprints. Absurdly, Michael thinks they’ve got a coyote problem.
That wildly off-the-mark speculation doesn’t deter Elliott. He keeps going outside, his curiosity overriding his common sense. (“You’re crazy, Elliott,” he mutters to himself on one of his private excursions.) Despite his initial terror, what he ultimately finds is an unlikely kindred spirit, an advanced alien life form just as sensitive, inquisitive and alienated as himself. He finally meets someone who completely understands what he’s going through emotionally.
This wasn’t supposed to happen. If everything had gone according to plan in the film’s opening scene, the quirky creature and its brethren would’ve all gotten back on their nifty spaceship undetected after a night of gathering vegetation from a California forest. But the sudden arrival of insistent men in pick-up trucks ruins all of that. (Despite a valiant effort, the creature is too far away from the ship to get back on it in time.)
Once Elliott and the alien establish trust through Reese’s Pieces (the long-necked critter can’t get enough of them), the kid invites it into his family’s home. After Elliott cleverly fools his mom into believing he’s too sick to go to school, he spends the following day deepening their bond.
There’s a lovely, charming scene where an engaged Elliott tries to have a conversation with his new friend as he shows it his Star Wars action figures, among other items. The wide-eyed E.T. hangs on his every word. In the 2002 20th Anniversary Edition, there’s an exclusive sequence set in the family bathroom. As the alien has way too much fun lying underwater in the bathtub, Elliott takes a call from his concerned mom at work. Eager to get off the line, he repeatedly pretends he’s on the verge of puking. The pay-off is hilarious.
Eventually, Michael and baby sister Gertie (funny Drew Barrymore at her most adorable) meet E.T. themselves and come to feel equally as protective of their unexpected guest who fascinates them all at every turn. (He can make objects levitate and has the power to heal. Eventually, he picks up some English, too.) Their mother, still reeling from their father leaving them for another woman, is too distracted to notice. A bit of a contrivance (it takes her forever to meet the alien despite obvious clues of his existence in the house) and a lost opportunity for additional comic and emotional bonding.
Meanwhile, those men from the forest are closing in on the family as they grow ever more excited that they’re about to make a huge scientific discovery. They have to hurry because E.T. has made a makeshift communication device out of ordinary household items and has already used it to contact its own family who left it behind so suddenly.
The close bond forged with this alien and this little boy has always been the beating heart of this film. And more than 20 years after I last screened it as a child, I feel that bond even more intensely as a grown man approaching 40. After watching both theatrical versions within three months of each other recently (the original being slightly preferable to the still very fine 20th Anniversary Edition), I remain devastated by its third act. From the moment a scarily pale E.T. is discovered in a severely weakened state by Michael down by the forest river far from his makeshift communication set-up, the tears start flowing.
They continue to flow when E.T. openly feels the rejection of the family’s startled matriarch when, in an unintentionally cruel, impulsive manner, she removes the kids from his vulnerable presence. (Elliott isn’t the only one with abandonment issues.) And yet more tears are created when the only way to save Elliott is to make an incredible personal sacrifice. The young lad’s speech to his friend following that sacrifice is so heartbreaking I’m starting to relive the deep sorrow I felt in that moment as I write this. (Keep it together, D-Man.)
Of course, that sense of loss is temporary. E.T.’s sudden resurrection is filled with such joy and humour you immediately forget how awful you just felt a moment ago. You also tend to forget how unlikely it is that Michael & Elliott could ever have gotten their alien friend away from the authorities so easily to the point where they completely abandon their pursuit of them altogether. (Why would these scientists give up their whole purpose for existing in this movie?)
But that obvious flaw is purposeful. Without it, the last tearful moment can’t happen. In an ironic ending that always leaves me distraught, two lonely, wounded souls brought together by circumstance urge the continuation of their sweet friendship. “Come,” the alien pleads, referring to a ride on his spaceship. “Stay,” his human friend counters, never once considering the risks of it accepting such an offer.
A sigh and a single word signify reality. It can never happen. And what follows is the most touching embrace I’ve ever seen in a film, so moving in fact that once again I’m reliving that moment emotionally while recounting it. (Damn you, Spielberg.) The alien’s gentle hand movements reveal so much unconditional love.
And once again, the young child, so hurt by his father’s selfishness, will now have to cope with another loss, the even larger absence of the only being that knows exactly how he feels.
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Friday, February 7, 2014