There comes a time in every young person’s life were they feel the need to step up to the plate more when it comes to their family. This is usually the case in a family where a parent is gone and the child, usually the eldest feels the need to fill the gap for their parents. This can be because the father is in the military and as sent over sees, or they are away on a business trip, and sometimes this can be for a much harder and more difficult reason.
In the The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe Peter and Susan take on parental roles to their younger siblings Edmund and Lucy when they are sent off to the country for safety during World War II. Something similar happened with Henry and Jessie Alden in the Boxcar Children books after their parents died and they took care of their younger siblings in their little boxcar until they were reunited with their Grandfather. Lexie Murphy in Jurassic Park and Zach Mitchell in its sequel Jurassic World take protective roles of their younger siblings Tim and Gray respectively as they try to survive on an island filled with
genetically engineered dinosaurs. In these moments the children are left with a burden they aren’t ready for, but end up rising to the occasion. It is through these moments that they are able to grow and mature and become young adults.
However, with the exception of Wendy Darling in Peter Pan who is clearly ready for an adult role and to leave the nursery, the other children are reluctantly put into this place by extreme circumstances. This is the case for Michael, Elliot’s older brother in E.T., who had moved into this role of “honorary parent” after their father skipped town with a coworker. As Ilsa J. Bick notes in “The Look Back in E.T.” from the book The Films of Steven Spielberg,
“Just as an Oedipal authority is absent, so too is a suitable male identification figure for Elliot. As the eldest, Michael is most clearly aligned with mother in his role as parentified adolescent. To Michael fall the duties to chide Elliot for his lack of empathy ( a quality lacking in mother herself), protect his …mother, and attempt to assume the paternal role. Along with mother, he is the one for whom Elliot calls when Elliot first meets E.T. Michael is too much Elliot’s contemporary, however, to become truly an adult or wield much authority; he can only drive backward…Yet Elliot’s ( and through him the film’s) conflicts over power are as mediated through Michael as the only other available male family member as they are through the other characters in the film…”
We see very quickly just how Michael tries hard to help his mother through the absence of his father. When he has his friends over on the night of his younger brother’s fateful meeting with the alien, Michael has his friends call into a radio station and request his mother’s favorite song, “Papa-Oom-Mow-Mow.”Later, when Elliot comes in and tells him about the thing he saw in the shed, he quickly tells his mother to stay back as he and his friends go check it out.
Then, out at the shed he studies the tracks and tells his mom that he thinks that a coyote has come back again. While he knows that his brother was startled by something, he doesn’t think it was anything ordinary. We see even further the next night at dinner just how strained not only the bond is between the family, but how Michael has tried hard to assume the role his father left behind. As Gershon Reiter notes in Fathers and Sons in Cinema,
“That for Elliot E.T. fills the space left empty by the father is suggested during the first family sequence at the dining room table. The four family members are around the triangular table, with Elliot in the middle, sitting, as it were, at the base of the isosceles triangle. The rest of the family sits on the lateral sides. Apparently the father’s place, now empty, was next to Gertie, opposite Michael….”
However, we also see that as they talk with Elliot about what he saw, while his mother gives him practical advice about what to do if he did see something, his brother can’t help but egg him on like any big brother would do, saying.
“Maybe it was an iguana…Maybe, um – You know how they say there are alligators in the sewers?…Maybe it was a pervert or a deformed kid or something…Maybe an elf or a leprechaun.”
This leads Elliot to calling his brother perhaps the best, and worst insult in cinema history. It even leaves his mother stunned. However the tone of the conversation takes a turn south when Elliot brings up the subject of his absent father. It’s Michael who quickly notices how this subject upsets his mother and asks her what’s wrong, hoping to help her feel better .Then when she turns to face her kids, eyes filled with tears, Michael grits his teeth under his breath and tells Elliot that he is going to kill him. Once his mom leaves he rebukes his brother,
“Damn it, why don’t you – grow up and think how other people feel for a change!”
Unlike his brother who misses his father, and his sister who doesn’t’ seem to fully understand what happened, Michael perhaps bares the most anger over their parents situation. Like Brad, the eldest child of the Neery clan in Close Encounters, Michael probably watched much closer as his parents fell apart and understood much more what was going on with his family. Like Michael tends to react in anger to some of the agitation in the family. While Michael calls Elliot out for his lack of empathy, Brad calls his father out for being a “crybaby”. In contrast to Brad second child of the Nerry family notices more how cool it Is that they get to dump dirt in the house, and the youngest, the daughter is oblivious about what’s going on. Michael, like Brad, knows more than Elliot how hard their mother tried to make things work between their father, and doesn’t appreciate their mothers hard work being tossed in her face or his brother hurting her. In fact the Neerys have the exact same number of children three, in the same combination, two boys and a girl, that composes the family in E.T.
Unfortunately, this means Michael is caught between two dichotomies. He is trying to not only be Elliot’s brother, but his father as well, and failing at both tasks. At this moment what his brother needs most is a friend and he can’t even seem to manage that. In fact when Elliot asks to play Dungeons and Dragons with his brother and his friends, Michael offers the same flimsy excuses as the rest of the gang. He even defers the decision to let Elliot play to his friend Steve who is the Game Master ( which is in accordance to the rules of the game, but comes across as a snub to Elliot).
To his credit, Michael can tell that his brother was putting his mother on and faking his sickness so he can stay home from school. As the oldest brother he probably taught Elliot that same tricks as a kid, and probably pulled it a few times himself. In fact he seems to be a master of pranks and gags as is evidenced when E.T. tells him that their visitor came back. Upon hearing the news, Michael gets a panicked look and says,
“He came back? He came back? Oh, my God!”
Then Michael grabbed himself by his own neck, pretended to choke and screamed as he walked out the door, only to smirk at his brother at how clever his gag was. That is when he saw how serious his brother was about his news. He agreed to Elliot’s demands to turn around, close his eyes and take off the shoulder pads ash e questioned him,
“What have you got? Is it the coyote?…Don’t get so heavy. I swear…Don’t push it, Elliott… O.K., they’re closed. Mom is going to kill you…”
He even repeated Elliot’s demand to say that the younger brother had “absolute power”, albeit in a Yoda impression to continue to mock him. That was when he turned around and saw the alien for himself. It is key that Elliot get t his promise from Michael. Early on in the film, Michael affirmed that n the decisions regarding the game he and his friends were playing were left up to the game master as he was the one with “absolute power.” In this instance, Elliot is setting himself up as the game master over his brother and whatever Elliot decides regarding their visitor is going to be what they will do.
Michael was stunned by the creature, but not afraid as the younger siblings would be. In fact it was only when E.T. and Gertie screamed upon meeting each other that Michael got scared and backed into a wall, knocking over a series of shelves from the wall and very quickly he became his co-conspiritor. However, it takes a while for him to accept that E.T. is an alien, and might just be a regular creature. As he says when he is helping Elliot and Gertie try and explain Earth to E.T.,
“Maybe he’s some animal that wasn’t supposed to live; kind of like those rabbits we saw. He could be a monkey or an orangutan.”
Michael needs proof, and until E.T. makes a series of spheres not only levitate by orbit each other like planets around a star, does he see that this is not some bald money. In many ways this choice to have Michael and the teen boys play D&D serves to foreshadow the eventual camaraderie that would develop between the brothers and their quest to help the alien. As Tom Henthorne notes in “Boys to Men: Medievalism and Masculinity in Star Wars and E.T. : The Extra –Terrestrial” from the book The Medieval Hero on Screen : Representations from Beowulf to Buffy,
“Spielberg signals the film’s neomedivalism by introducing the man characters in the context of a raucous Dungeons & Dragons game that is being played in Elliott’s kitchen by his brother and three of his brother’s friends. Ideally, in D&D players work together so their characters can overcome obstacles, acquire fame, fortune, and power, and complete quests. Michael and his friends , however, are anything but cooperative; they complain, squabble among themselves, and even throw things at each other.”
Not so once the boys start working together regarding their new alien friend. In fact, because of it, we see Michael’s role as Elliot’s protector begin to grow as even though he is willing to defer to Elliot’s “Absolute Power”, Michael, as the oldest and the closest to adulthood still asks the more grown-up level headed questions. While he knows that his brother cares for their new alien friend, he is also aware that they don’t know who this character is or where he came from. Elliot is much too close to the situation and too excited about this to be objective enough to take a step back and think each step through carefully.
In any quest, it is key to have someone who is level headed in these circumstances. This comes about when the two of them are heading off to school the next day. Michael wondered if Elliot explained “school” to the little guy, to which Elliot dismissed as there was no way that he could figure he could explain school to what he perceived as “higher intelligence.” Michael, very logically points out that E.T. may not actually be intelligent by human or alien standards and could only be a drone.
Later after E.T. learns to speak to them, and Elliot and Michael are going through the garage trying to find scraps to build the communication device, it’s Michael who starts to E.T. is starting to get sick. Again, Elliot, is too myopic about their quest to help Elliot to notice something so obvious. He also notices the strange connection forming between the alien and his brother. Further, despite having “Absolute power” Elliot still looks to Michael for help in figuring out what makes a communication device. When Elliot asks him what they should use, Michael responds,
“How the *heck* do I know? You’re the genius here. You have absolute power, remember? I found him, he belongs to me! You know, Elliott, he doesn’t look too good anymore…What’s all this “we” stuff? You say “we” all the time now. Really, Elliott, I think he might be getting kind of sick.”
Elliot blows off his concerns, forcing Michael to drop the subject and continue rummaging through the garage. Later, Elliot feels vindicated as they watch as E.T. assembles his communications device. However, while Michael is certainly impressed by what he sees, he notices that E.T.’s health is failing fast as he tells him,
“I’m worried, Elliott. He could blow up the house… Listen to how he’s breathing. What’s he feeling now?”
In the process, however, the search for the parts, helps become a catalyst for a key conversation between Michael and Elliot that hints at what was lost between them when their dad left town. As Elliot grabs a dust buster he finds one of their father’s old flannel shirts and says,
“Dad’s shirt. Remember when he used to take us out to the ball games…and take us to the movies, and we had popcorn fights?”
In this moment we see that despite his best attempts to “be a man” and take responsibility for the family , that Michael longs for the way things used to be too, not only because his dad is gone, but because the departure created rift between the brothers. He offers his brother an assurance that he and Elliot will do those things again, but Elliot doesn’t fully believe him. The absence of the father altered heir bond in such a way, that instead of Michael becoming Elliot’s friend when he’d need one the most, he had to try and be his father.
Thus some of the more care free aspects of having a brother were also lost. Simply the fun of goofing off, going to see a movie or catching a ball game had been changed. In the 80s’ perhaps more so then today, sporting events and movies were quintessential bonding experiences for kids with their older siblings and parents. Michael acknowledges that they no longer have a very normal childhood, and tries his best to say that they can and still will have those times again.
Oddly enough, of the two of them, Michael is a bit more willing to still participate in Halloween festivities. We see early on in the film in the infamous conversation prior to Elliot inviting E.T. into the house, that among the topics of conversation is what costumes they were going to pick for the day. Elliot marinated that he wasn’t doing “Stupid Halloween”, a hint that perhaps that had been yet another thing he used to share with his father.
Michael has his all set, even if his mother doesn’t approve of the choice, as she tells him,
“You won’t get four blocks in this neighborhood dressed like that. I mean it. You are not going as a terrorist!”
Michael gets his way, and during their time trick or treating he is the one to help wrangle E.T. when he sees “Yoda”, and even reminds Elliot to be back by a certain time, no later and promises to do his best to cover for him. The next day, when Elliot returns, Michael agrees to help his brother find E.T. and heads out to the woods and finds the visitor from the stars nearly dead by a creek, and chases a way a raccoon.
Despite making his “most excellent promise as Elliot’s only brother on their lives” and deferring to his brother’s absolute power, Michael, knows when E.T. and Elliot are in serious trouble, that the promise he made is rendered moot. This is where his maturity and level headed thinking comes in handy. A kid, Elliot’s age would say under no circumstances should Michael break such a promise. But Michael, as a teenager, knows differently.
In this moment, the role of “game master” has shifted from Elliot to Michael temporarily. Michael leads their mother up stairs to the bathroom where Elliot and E.T. are near death, and still trying his best to not only protect his mother’s feelings, and care for his brother but try to keep the dire situation as calm as possible, even repeating Elliot’s earlier request for her to make a promise.
“Mom, would you come with me?…Mary, just come with me…Mom, remember the goblin?… Swear the most excellent promise you can make.”
Only moments after showing E.T. to his mother, the government arrives and sets up their make shift hospital in their home. The entire house quickly becomes a cold, sterile environment, no longer the place where they shared family dinners and tried to continue a normal life. Most telling in this moment is how cut off Michael is from the rest of the family during this moment of the film. At the opening, he was the one surrounded by friends, while Elliot was left out Now, while the doctors work on Elliot and E.T. and Mary tries to comfort Gertie, he’s the one alone.
While Elliot’s journey is to becoming a man, Michael is the one who rediscovers his inner child. This is perhaps best seen in where he chooses to sleep that night. John C. Lyden notes in Film as Religion, Myths, Morals and Rituals,
“That night, Mike sleeps in the room where E.T. slept, a closet full of stuffed animals, and he seems to have returned to his own childhood setting, just as the adult viewers have.”
As John Harris noted for the British film magazine Empire, in his review for E.T.,
“In the midst of it all, however, childhood remains inviolate. Indeed, the character of E.T. has the power to pull people back from the brink of cynical adulthood; in that sense…big bro’ Michael is one of the movie’s more overlooked masterstrokes. He begins the film in a fog of cigarette smoke, ordering Elliott to fetch Pizza and affecting the pose of a grown-up. By the end, he and his younger brother see the world through identical eyes.”
It is perhaps most telling that for much of the movie, save for their mother he is the only one seen on film who comes close to even being close to an “adult”. Yet between playing a role playing game, doing a Yoda impression, and wanting to go Trick-or treating, he still has a faint connection to childhood, despite being forced into a more adult role. In fact the only adult who speaks to Elliot free of jargon and without a muffled voice, is “Keys” and he displays this same childlike sense of belief that Michael and even Mary demonstrate.
It’s no wonder then that so much of the action of the films climax focuses on Halloween. When you’re a kid, the two most loved holidays tend to be Christmas and Halloween. With Halloween it’s the costumes and candy. Thus the “goblin” nickname that Michael gives to Elliot, and even the shape of the ship convey this connection. As Nigel Morris notes in The Cinema of Spielberg: Empire of Light,
“Spherical, lit through portals that form a face, the spaceship is also a Jack O’ lantern, in accordance with the Halloween setting…This in turn constitutes a further allusion, to the Peanuts newspaper strip, which, like E.T., represents children’s experience, with adults relegated to speech bubbles originating out of frame: specially every Halloween one character awaits “ The Great Pumpkin in the Sky.”
The similarities are certainly there, and not just because of the lack of grown-ups. Elliot, like Linus waits patiently all Halloween night for his big miracle to come. A seemingly antagonistic sibling show some sympathy and kindness to the younger, as Lucy does with Linus and Michael with Elliot. However, while Linus only gets scorned by his friends, Elliot has his faith rewarded. Further, while Charlie Brown receives a verbal lashing from Linus for dismissing the Great Pumpkin as “stupid”, Michael gets to witness this Halloween magic for himself.
The next morning, Michael is the first to wake up and he sees that the geranium that E.T. revived has died, right at the same time that E.T. flat lines. Later, Michael, becomes the first to learn that E.T. is alive and in his elation bumps his head when he leaps for joy. Unlike earlier, when he questioned his brother at every turn, he doesn’t demand proof. He immediately joins his brother in hatching one final plan together.
Once E.T. is loaded into the government van, the two of them commander the van with Michael driving. It’s noteworthy that he tells his brother he has only driven backwards as his mother will only allow him to back the car out as far as the driveway. Much like how E.T. helped initiate Elliot into adult hood, Michael receives his full initiation through the ultimate symbol of adulthood to most children, driving a vehicle on his own.
“We’re all going to die and they’re never going to give me my license!”
Michael makes a quick stop to tell his friends who had been watching everything from outside their house to meet them at the play ground just in time to take off before the scientist catch up to them. Arriving at the park, they introduce their friends to the alien. Giving them their simple quest, that they have to get this man from outerspace back to the park. Naturally one of them, Greg who has been a smart alec and the biggest antagonist of the group remarks “can’t you just beam him up?” To which he is quickly told, “This is reality Greg.”
What is perhaps most telling is that, much like when Michael first meets the alien, the boys don’t question anything. They go right along with the adventure, defying and outrunning the authorities. not so much out of a need to do right, but for the same reasons that Tom Sawyer, Huck Finn, the Artful Dodger and Oliver Twist would have defied the authorities in their day. This was a hallmark of Spielberg films, as film critic Roger Ebert noted, in talking about the most formative experience in the director’s childhood being when Steven, watched a meteor shower with his father.
“There are two important elements there: the sense of wonder and hope, and the identification with a child’s point of view. Spielberg’s best characters are like elaborations of the heroes from old Boy’s Life serials, plucky kids who aren’t afraid to get in over their head. Even Oskar Schindler has something of that in his makeup–the boy’s delight in pulling off a daring scheme and getting away with it.”
It doesn’t take long for the bike chase to become an elaborate shell game as the kids go over huge hills, leap over cars, and even separate. Through it all, Michael remains by Elliot and E.T.’s side, now firmly in his role as his brother’s keeper, and all of them playing along with their new “game master”.
As Gershon Reiter notes in Fathers and Sons in Cinema,
“In their saving E.T. by kidnapping, Michael is the one who drives the van, but Elliot is giving the orders…In a complete turnaround of Elliot’s first appearance around the Dungeons & Dragons game, now he is the game master who includes the other boys in saving E.T.”
While he may have started out his brother’s antagonist, through his time with the alien, Michael allowed himself to not only be a kid again after being forced to grow up, but learned how to be a friend to his brother. It was something they both needed all the more, especially because Elliot needed someone level headed like Michael to keep tabs on him and look objectively at the adventure they faced. As Michael asked him when they were searching in the garage for things they could use to build the communications device,
“Maybe he’s not that smart. Maybe he’s a worker bee who only knows how to push buttons….All right. I just hope we don’t wake up on Mars or somethin’ surrounded by millions of these squashy little guys.”
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Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Dir. Steven Spielberg. Perf. Richard Dreyfuss, Francois Truffaut, Melinda Dillon, Teri Garr, Cary Guffey, Bob Balaban, Josef Sommer,Lance Henriksen, and Roberts Blossom. Columbia Pictures. 1977. DVD.
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E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial. Dir. Steven Spielberg. By Melissa Mathison. Perf. Henry Thomas,Robert MacNaughton, Drew Barrymore, Dee Wallace, Peter Coyote, K.C. Martel, Sean Frye, C. Thomas Howell, and Erika Eleniak. Amblin Entertainment/Universal Pictures. 1982. DVD.
Harris, John. “EMPIRE ESSAY: E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial.” Empire, Empire, 24 Aug. 2016,www.empireonline.com/movies/empire-essay-et-extra-terrestrial-2/review/.
Henthorne,Tom. “Boys to Men: Medievalism and Masculinity in Star Wars and E.T. : The Extra –Terrestrial .The Medieval Hero on Screen : representations from Beowulf to Buffy. Jefferson, N.C. : McFarland, 2004.Pg. 75-76. Print.
Lyden, John C. Film as Religion, Myths, Morals, and Rituals. New York, NY: 2003,New York University Press. Pg. 198. Print.
Morris, Nigel. The Cinema of Spielberg: Empire of Light. West Sussex, NY: Walflower Press ,2007.Pg. 86. Print.
Reiter, Gershon. Fathers and Sons in Cinema. Jefferson, NC, MacFarlandand Company: 2008. Pgs. 116, 125. Print.
1982. Universal Studios/Amblin Entertainment
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