The 1980s were a great time for “kids” movies. The decade saw the first signs that Disney would return to greatness emerged with the Great Mouse Detective and The Little Mermaid. Animator Don Bluth brought tears to the eyes of kids and grown-ups with his deep and poignant animated features An American Tale, The Land Before Time, and All Dogs Go To Heaven. There were also major blockbuster film franchises beloved by kids and grown-ups like Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Superman, Batman, Ghostbusters, and Back to the Future that would help define a movie going generation.
It was also during this time we saw great films that could be described as “children’s family adventures”. Normally these movies would be confined to cheap made for TV movies featured on the Wonderful World of Disney, fun films for all ages, but nothing overly deep. However, movies like The Goonies, Gremlins, The Never-Ending Story, and Home Alone would take the narrative of kids going on these simple high stakes adventures and thanks to filmmaking legends like Richard Donner, Joe Dante, Wolfgang Petersen, and John Hughes that only elevated the quality of the work.
Chief among these films, however would be the story of a boy named Elliot and his lost alien friend in Steven Spielberg’s now classic film, E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial. Their story is usually described as a “family fantasy adventure”. Despite that Spielberg found ways to ground it in just enough “reality” to make it believable, but still capture a sense of wonder. One of the ways he did this was in his depiction of the film’s hero: Elliot.
Elliot is introduced to us as a fairly typical kid. In fact our introduction to the stories hero is something all too relatable to any kid. He just wants to play a game with his big brother and his friends. They offer a lame excuse, that he can’t join a world in the middle, and only when he agrees to do an errand for the, would he be allowed to play. He even has a loyal and trust dog named Harvey who sleeps in his room. He has a favorite superhero, The Incredible Hulk, who was immensely popular thanks to the old TV series starring Bill Bixby and Lou Ferrigno as the iconic misunderstood monster.
As Spielberg himself recounted to Douglas Brode in The Films of Steven Spielberg,
“Elliot’s a normal, everyday kid, growing up in arcades, playing Asteroids and Galaga and PacMan…He’s at that stage where he’s just bored with everything around him. He watches a lot of television, doesn’t read, is starting to look at girls. Older girls, eleven or twelve. And he’s starting to have those feelings like I had when I was ten or eleven. Elliot’s not me, but he’s the closest thing to my experiences in my life, growing up in [southwestern] suburbia.”
Elliot also loves Star Wars based on the plethora of memorabilia strewn about his bedroom including Han Solo’s blaster, and action figures of Boba Fett and Lando Calrissian on his desk, and X-Wings and TIE fighters hanging from the ceiling. Along with his collection of Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers comics, this shows that Elliot, like Luke Skywalker in Star Wars, looks to the heavens and sees a world of adventure, and a place to which he can escape from the humdrum of his everyday life. As Bryan Young would noted in “The Cinema Behind Star Wars: E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial” for Star Wars.com that looked at the cameos and references that George Lucas and Steven Spielberg made to each other’s respective films,
“With enough time and distance between then and now, it’s easy to forget that the first time we heard Boba Fett’s name spoken in a movie theater wasn’t in Star Wars, but from the mouth of Elliot. Spielberg went out of his way to make childhood a realistic and believable thing for the setting, which was then contemporary. Of course, action figures would feature prominently in that landscape. What kid wasn’t obsessed with Star Wars? It’s no coincidence that Ben Affleck even used the same technique in 2012’s Best Picture, Argo.”
Thus, Elliot, was like every kid in 1980s America. Spielberg would hardly be the first story teller to have a child as his film’s protagonist. Robert Louis Stevenson chose the cabin boy Jim Hawkins as the narrator for Treasure Island, while Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn traveled the Mississippi to help Jim get to freedom. C.S. Lewis would choose the four Pevensie siblings to free Narnia, and Madeline L’Engle would have the young girl Meg Murray , her friend Calvin and her brother Charles Wallace travel to Camazots. In each of these stories it is through the eyes of children that we encounter the world of these respective stories.
Through them the danger seems worse, the thrills seem greater, and the heartbreak feels worse. We see this in Spielberg’s other Alien movies, War of the Worlds and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. In War of the Worlds, we get a greater sense of dread as Rachel Ferrier not only screams as the Tripods attacks but tries her hardest to remain quiet when the aliens are roaming through the basement of the house where she and her father, Ray, are hold up. Further when she asks “is it terrorists” after the first wave of alien attacks, it helps convey to the audience exactly what on the minds of every child in the few years following 9-11 that lived in the New York and New Jersey area when the aliens attack. For her, the first alien encounter only brings up memories of one of the darkest days in American history.
On the converse to Rachel, Barry Guiler in Close Encounters is a barely out of the toddler years when the benevolent aliens arrive. He is amazed by the strange lights and actually thinks it’s hilarious when the electronics in the house start chasing him and his mom around. To him it’s one big game and these lights are just imaginary friends who’ve come to play with him. Further, unlike the adults were taken up by the aliens the government has no need to speak with him after his experience as he can’t fully comprehend or communicate his experience.
For the most part Rachel and Barry are passive players in the drama. On the converse, E.T. is Elliot’s story. Thus, as Douglas Brode notes in The Films of Steven Spielberg, in looking at what made Elliot such an ideal protagonist for what is seen as the crown jewel of Spielberg’s three stories of alien encounters,
“Elliot, of course always possessed good instincts, which were what led him to E.T. in the first place. “Elliot, you’re crazy,” he mutters to himself when, after hearing something “out there,” the child is moved to step out into the unknown. Older than Little Barry in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Elliot has learned enough about fear from his suburban society to be more hesitant. Still, he has not become so indoctrinated that, like an adult, he now sees the unknown as totally threatening. At ten, Elliot contains elements of each, and it is emotional journey back to a full embrace of childlike wonder that the film chronicles.”
Contrast this embrace of wonder on the part of Elliot with the reaction of aliens from with adult characters like Roy Neery in Close Encounters, or Louise Banks in Arrival. For Louise and the other adults in the film the Arrival of the seed like alien crafts isn’t filled with the same sense of wonder and astonishment as Elliot’s adventures with E.T. Louise and her collaborator, Ian Donnelly, both pursue the arrival of the aliens through the lens of their respective academic fields as something to be studied and possibly feared.
While Roy has a greater sense of wonder at the coming of the aliens than Arrival, Roy is insistent that he never wanted to see the aliens in the first place. The arrival of the aliens creates upheaval in his life, as he slips slowly into perceived madness over his encounter. We watch as this electrical engineer spirals out of control losing his job and his family, and we can tell it bothers him to go through all of this. He even admits over dinner that something is wrong with him. As Roy Neery says at a moment mid way through the film when he and others who have seen the lights in the sky gather in hopes of seeing it again and takes to playing in the dirt with the Barry and his mother,
“I know this sounds crazy, but ever since yesterday on the road, I’ve been seeing this shape. Shaving cream, pillows…Dammit! I know this. I know what this is! This means something. This is important.”
Roy even prefaces his first encounter with a claim to his sanity, saying,
“Honey… Ronnie… Wake up. You’re not gonna believe what I saw!… I never would have believed it( emphasis mine). There was this, uh, in the cab, there was this… it was a red whoosh… You know those pictures in the National Geographic about the Aurora Borealis? This is better than that! Come on! Ronnie, I need you to see something with me. It’s really important…Sylvia, come on. We’re going on a little adventure. Toby! Brad! Come on. Get up. Up!… It’s better than Goofy Golf! Come on!”
His only consolation comes at the end when he finally sees these creatures from another world in a the forest near Devil’s Tower, removed from most intrusions the outside world. This is one of the few things Roy and Elliot have in common. While most alien encounters, such as those featured in Arrival, The Day the Earth Stood Still, War of the Worlds, and Independence Day are huge public events that shake their respective worlds, for Elliot and Roy, the encounters happen in a very private manner by accident, and neither Elliot or Roy while doing some mundane task. Roy in Close Encounters was investigating a blackout when the ship passed over head, while Elliot was going to get the pizza for his brother and his friends.
Heading back inside Elliot heard a strange noise in the shed and immediately and logically assumed it was his dog. The dog was not in the shed, so he set the pizza down, picked up a ball and glove and rolls the ball through the door. The ball is thrown back, and in a panic, he tripped over the pizza and frantically told them in complete seriousness,
“Mom, Mom! There’s something out there! ..It’s in the tool shed. It threw the ball at me. …QUIET! …Nobody go out there!”
Like Lucy in The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, telling her siblings of Narnia, no one believes Elliot that he saw something in the shed, and is quickly the subject of ridicule due to his outlandish claims. In Elliot’s case the other boys not only mock him, they actually grab absurdly large steak knives and venture out, speaking in faux heroic voices to Elliot and Michael’s mom, telling her not to worry. Even Elliot’s mom laughs as they head out. They go outside, see the ruined pizza, and the prints but Elliot’s claims of the alien visitor are dismissed.
The next night, Elliot is defiant in saying that he saw something out there, insisting that it wasn’t an iguana, a pervert, or a deformed kid. But then, when his brother really dug into him saying it could have been an elf or a leprechaun, Eliot let loose with a very colorful insult to his older brother. After his mother diffused the situation, Elliot made problems even worse by muttering,
“Dad would have believed me.”
Were E.T. an older movie or TV show from an older time, then perhaps the absence of the family patriarch would have been ignored. For example no one knew, or cared what happened to Mike and Carol Brady’s first spouses before they met each other on the Brady Bunch. They were simply two single parents who got together. For something more serious, like E.T., it could have been that he was killed in the Vietnam War. However, when his mom tells him to call his father and tell him about it, Elliot rips of the band-aid over the families whole life as he says,
“I can’t. He’s in Mexico with Sally.”
Elliot’s statement isn’t borne out of any malice against his mother or ill-will, he’s just a little boy who was pointing out the obvious. He doesn’t quite understand yet how sensitive these topics can be. This whole exchange happens within the first ten minutes for the audience to learn that Elliot’s home life is far from what was seen as “typical” for the early 1980s, at least as far as entertainment went.
As Anthony Magistrale notes in “Innocence Unrewarded: A Note on “E.T” and the Myth of Adolesence” from the Journal Science Fiction Studies,
“Early in E.T. W learn that the movie’s young protagonist, Elliot is disconsolate over the departure of his father-throughout the film a faceless figure who has separated from Elliott’s mother and is currently persuing another woman in Mexico. Although Elliot still lives with his mother, older brother, and younger sister, it is clear that his affluent life in suburban California is painfully incomplete without the paternal influence….This scene is important not only for the its emotional impact in illustrating the void that exists in Elliot’s life, but also in preparing the audience for E.T.’s symbolic emergence in the temporary role as a partial substitute for Elliott’s absent father. In fact, it is through the extension of the baseball metaphor that the child is initially introduced to E.T; playing a one sided game of catch with the invisible “presence’” behind the garbage cans. “
Elliot became determined to prove the veracity of his claims. The first thing he does is follow the tracks the alien left out to the woods and leave a trail of candy, in this case Reese’s Pieces, for E.T. to follow. Then, bundling up in his Hulk blanket Elliott set up camp in the backyard for E.T. to come. The alien shuffled in, returning some of the candy, and Elliot leads him up stairs and their friendship begins
The boy decides rather than go to school the next day, he’s going to stay home and teach his new friend everything he can about Earth. In order to do this, Elliot fakes sick by first holding a heating pad to his forehead to make his face feel warm, and then when his mother walks out of the room while taking his temperature, Elliot holds the mercury thermometer under the light just long enough for it to spike.
Then he lead the alien out of hiding where he had been tucked in among the stuffed animals he shares with Gertie and Michael, and showed him a few small items around his room to explain everything from food, drink, toys, to the whole “circle of life” as they called it in The Lion King, saying,
“Coke. You see, we drink it. It’s a, it’s a drink. You know, food. These are toys, these are little men…This is Greedo, and then this is Hammerhead, see this is Walrus Man, and this is Snaggletooth and this is Lando Calrissian See…and look, they can even have wars. Look at this…. Look fish. Fish eat the fish food, and the shark … eats the fish, and nobody eats the shark. See, this is PEZ, candy. See you eat it. You put the candy in here and then when you lift up the head, the candy comes out and you can eat it. You want some? This is a peanut. You eat it, but you can’t eat this one, ’cause this is fake. This is money. You see. You put the money in the peanut. You see? It’s a bank. See? And then, this is a car. This is what we get around in. You see? Car. …Hey, hey wait a second. No. You don’t eat ’em. Are you hungry? I’m hungry. Stay. Stay. I’ll be right here. Okay? I’ll be right here.”
The two of them would spend an entire day bonding with each other, as Elliot taught him more about life on Earth. This would later lead them to forming a psychic connection. Like Roy Neery’s “connection’ to the aliens it doesn’t manifest itself clearly. It appears to any on-lookers that Elliot is acting out, perhaps due to his father’s departure. In fact, in biology class Elliot begins to receive messages from E.T. about going back to the river, and go home that leads him to freeing the frogs they are about to dissect. He even burps when E.T. gets drunk and even helps Elliot land his first kiss with his school yard crush when seeing a romantic scene from the John Wayne movie The Quiet Man.
His first instinct in the afternoon following his time teaching E.T. is to include Michael in on their new visitor. Between the game, dinner the night before, and his need to show the alien to Michael, it becomes clear that when his father left, something was lost in Elliot’s own bond with his brother. We see this clearly through the promise he makes Michael make before introducing him to E.T., as he says,
“One thing. I have absolute power. Say it. Say it!…No. Look. O.K. Now. Swear it. The most excellent promise you can make. Swear as my only brother on our lives…O.K., stand over there. You’d better take off your shoulder pads. You might scare him. And close your eyes.”
Later when Gertie arrived and met the alien, we see the two of them back to their old antics as they tortured their baby sister like in the old days. Then once E.T. learned to talk and they begin to plan to find a way to send him back home, E.T. brings back their co-conspirator capabilities. It even leads Elliot to going back on his word about not doing Halloween as he knows it would be the perfect night for the alien to try and contact his people. Everyone would be out and about, they could disguise the alien, and no one would be the wiser.
After their long journey, which included a mesmerizing flight through the forest E.T. and Elliot found a clearing to assemble the communications device. While the device works, no response appears to come. Here we see another shade to Elliot’s relationship with E.T. Along with being Elliot’s friend, E.T. is responsible for helping Elliot grow as a person. Through their link, Elliot begins to learn how another person might be feeling. More importantly he knows just how much it can hurt to miss a loved one and want them back.
This caused him to become a father-figure to E.T. Along with doing all he can to protect the alien, Elliot does what he can to try and make sure E.T. doesn’t get his hopes up about his alien family hearing the message. Thus, Elliot tells him,
“You could be happy here, I could take care of you. I wouldn’t let anybody hurt you. We could grow up together, E.T.”
This in many ways makes Elliot’s journey one into the threshold of manhood. He starts out as a hurting boy, motivated by his own desires and grows to care about and think of the needs of others. However, along the way he must also deal with one of the harsh aspects of growing up, something he has had a difficult time with since his father left: letting go. As Michel Le Gall and Charles Taliaferro note in “The Recovery of Childhood and the Search for the Absent Father” from Steven Spielberg and Philosophy: We’re Gonna Need a Bigger Book, that analyzes some of the deeper philosophical considerations for Spielberg’s filmography,
“In his role as father and protector of E.T., Elliott internalizes the fears and discoveries of the lost extraterrestrial. … after all, that is what father’s hope for in an ideal world: to grow old in the company of their children and grandchildren. Likewise, that is the dream of childhood friends: never to part, but always be together, safe from the threats and harsh realities of the adult world…”
This last stage of the journey comes into play towards the films climax. No sooner does Elliott make his offer, and E.T. try to comfort him, then the machine started working, sending it’s signal to the stars. He woke up the next morning, only to find his friend had gone missing. Returning home, and burning with fever for real this time to find his mother and siblings fanatic as they tried to find him.
While his mother and sister are occupied he feebly tells his brother,
“You’ve got to find him…In the forest. At the bald spot. You’ve got to find him.”
The two of them were growing very sick, and as Elliot realizes, they are dying. It is at this moment when government scientists arrived to quarantine the entire house, examining both Elliot and the alien. At this moment one of the scientists, the one who has been pursuing them since the beginning speaks to Elliot, asking him if he knows what the device in the woods is and what it means. The scientist, known only as “Keys” reveals to Elliot that he has been waiting his whole life for a moment like this, after all contact has been made with an alien being from another world.
In many ways Keys becomes a father figure to Elliot. Much like the absent father mentioned earlier, Keys genuinely believes not only in E.T. but in everything Elliot has to say. We even see him bonding with the rest of the family and striking a cord with Elliot’s mother and sister. At the end we even see him standing in the father’s position with the rest of the family as they watch E.T. leave. More importantly, he reassures Elliot that he wants to help save the alien’s life and has no desire to hurt him or cut him to pieces or give him a lobotomy as Elliott feared. Elliot can only reiterate to him how the only thing his friend needs is to go home and be reunited with his family.
Keys affirms to the hurting young boy, as anyone would encourage someone struggling with caring for a terminally ill loved one, that he did all he could, telling him,
“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.”
The next morning Elliot awakens to find his best friend flat lining. The boy can then only find solace in the loving and waiting arms of his mother. Later, after E.T. has been properly put into a body bag and a cooler for transport, Keys allows Elliott some time to say good bye to the alien. In this moment the grief stricken boy tells his best friend,
“Look at what they’ve done to you. I’m so sorry. You must be dead…because…I don’t know how to feel. I can’t feel anything anymore. You’ve gone someplace else now. I’ll believe in you all my life. Every day. E.T…I love you.”
He is so caught up in his grief that he doesn’t notice that his friend’s heart light is glowing. No sooner is he ready to leave his friend that he notices on a shelf that the geraniums that E.T. carried around were blooming again. Earlier, E.T. restored the plant when it was wilting, forming a similar bond to it and when E.T. died, so did the plant. The fact they are blooming could only signify one thing to Elliot. Hurrying back to the case, Elliot finds that his friend is alive.
Upon learning from E.T. that his ship was coming,Elliot launched another plan upon finding his brother to get the alien to the forest. Gathering their friends they lead the governments on a spectacular bike chase that culminates in E.T. not only flying Elliot’s bike but the bikes of their entire group through the skies over their sleepy suburban town as the sun sets behind them.
Landing in the forest they saw the ship arrive and the door open for E.T. to climb aboard, just as Elliot’s mother, Gertie and Keys arrive. After saying good bye to Michael and Gertie, Elliot and E.T. share a tearful good bye, and Elliot extends to him an offer similar invitation that is given to Roy Neery at the end of Close Encounters by the Grey men. Elliot, like Roy before him is asked to come to the stars, the dream that has captivated humanity since they first turned their gaze heavenward.
Both times the aliens bid the starry-eyed dreamer to come, but the response is different this time around. In Close Encounters after his family has fallen apart and his life is turned upside down, Roy goes with the Grey Men to their ship and is carried away to space. Kaitlyn Mason recounts in “Steven Spielberg’s Quest for Both Fantasy and Reality”, for the website the BeardedTrio that celebrates the collaborative work of Steven Spielberg, George Lucas and John Williams, that Spielberg admitted,
“I wrote the story in my late twenties, and I don’t think today, being a dad with seven kids, I would have let my Richard Dreyfuss character actually get on the mother ship and abandon his family to this alien obsession and leave the planet…it was something that absolutely would have been my choice — get me on that mother ship. I want to explore along with those guys.”
At the end of E.T., however, Elliot refuses the offer. For Roy Neery, there wasn’t much to tie him down, especially since he lost his job and his family. After all, Elliot, is a young boy with no responsibilities or obligations ( save maybe taking care of his dog Harvey). Further, unlike the Grey Men, with Roy, E.T. is actually Elliot’s friend. However, Elliot is the one who makes the more “grown-up” choice to stay behind.
What would compel him? Because in his own special way, E.T. helped restore something Elliot lost: his family. He and his brother had become friends once again, and in taking care of E.T. he now can understand just how much his mom loves him. His sister may still be a pest, but he has even grown to appreciate her too, especially since she was the one to teach the alien to talk. Now that he has them again, he wouldn’t trade them for anything. He knew that his mom and brother and sister love him. For him, that’s worth staying.
More importantly, as Gershon Reiter noted in Fathers and Sons in Cinema,
“Just as E.T. healed his wounded finger, now he heals his wounded psyche. Holding back the tears, no longer a child, Elliot parts from E.T. with a simple ‘Bye’…Elliot is no longer alone. Though he parts with E.T., he no longer feels abandoned. Just as E.T.’s advent initiated the advent of the father, his departure makes room for the father. At the end of the movie, Elliot is a boy who got his wish- his wish for a friend and a father.”
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Independence Day. Dir. Roland Emmerich. By Dean Devlin and Roland Emmerich. Perf.Will Smith, Bill Pullman, Jeff Goldblum, Mary McDonnell, Judd Hirsch, Margaret Colin,Randy Quaid, Robert Loggia, James Rebhorn, Harvey Fierstein. 20th Century Fox. 1996. DVD.
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War of the Worlds. Dir. Steven Spielberg. By Josh Friedman, and David Koepp. Perf. Tom Cruise,Dakota Fanning, Justin Chatwein, Miranda Otto, Tim Robbins, Rich Gonzalez, Yul Vazquez,Lenny Venito, Lisa Ann Walter, and Ann Robinson. Amblin Entertainment/Dreamworks SKG/Paramount Pictures. 2005. DVD.
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1982. Universal Studios/Amblin Entertainment
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