In comparison to other movie aliens, E.T. is a bit of an oddity. While the aliens in Close Encounters are certainly benevolent they retain the sterile and immaculate resemblance to the 50’s stereotype of the grey man. The ones in War of the Worlds are almost a hybrid between the Raptors in Jurassic Park and snakes, and it is more than obvious by their rampant wave of destruction these guys are not out to make friends and influence people. The “squids” in Arrival are inhuman and struggle through their communication barrier with humans. Add to it the paranoia and dreaded they are perceived with this leads to problem upon problems until a near cataclysm. The Xenomorphs and other H.R. Geiger creatures for the Alien franchise are nothing short of the stuff of nightmares , while the aliens of Independence Day have sinister intent written all over them. Even the more comedic aliens of Mars Attacks clearly look like mean spirited jerks before they shoot down a gesture of peace.
E.T., however is warm and friendly, and much of this has to do with his eyes. While the
aliens of Close Encounters are benevolent, their faces cross over into the uncanny valley. E.T.’s charm was nothing short of a collaborative effort between director Steven Spielberg, screenwriter Melissa Mathison and production designer extraordinaire Carlo Rambaldi who not only designed E.T., but the aliens in Close Encounters, and helped bring H.R. Geiger’s designs to life in Alien. As Ian Freer noted in the “Genius of Carlo Rambaldi’,
“There was never a literal description of what the title star looked like in Melissa Mathison’s E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial screenplay, the final character being a fully-fledged collaboration between director and special effects technician. The pre-visualisation process took in the familiar — concept drawings by storyboard artist Ed Verreaux, ten inch tall prototypes sculpted in clay — and the not so familiar (Spielberg cutting and pasting a picture of the chin and nose of a five-day old baby onto the eyes and forehead of an Albert Einstein image to create a mixture of the innocent and the wizened). Yet Rambaldi’s input into the design process was crucial. The technician had a Himalayan cat whose eyes fed into the creature’s peepers.”
There was something instantly inviting about E.T. He looked and seemed like he could be your best friend. He even tilts his head in a fashion that seems to indicate that he is listening, much like how a dog or a cat would do with their human friends to show that they are listening. The only space aliens in recent years to come close to being like E.T. in terms of being warm and friendly are Chewbacca the Wookie in Star Wars, the talking Flora colossus known as Groot from Guardians of the Galaxy, and ALF in the eponymous sitcom that pits his alien fratboy personality against the straight laced human Willy Tanner in a sci-fi version of the Odd Couple.
However, despite how different these alien stories may be, at their core, one thing is consistent: Communication. Wither it’s the musical tone and hand signals in Close Encounters, deciphering the alien writing in Arrival, Groot communicating with his friends with three words and an assortment of gestures, the invaders in Independence Day and Mars Attacks responding to the friendly greetings from Earthlings with hostility, Groot and Chewie’s teammates learning to understand them despite the fact they can’t speak English, or E.T. building his device and the bond he forms with Elliot, at their core every understanding and misunderstanding between humans and aliens begins with an attempt to communicate.
Space aliens are the other, so it makes since for them to be frightening. Even Chewie and Groot can be frightening if provoked. Because they aren’t human, they can make for an easy enemy, perhaps much better than any people group as you are not likely to offend anyone.
As Spielberg said, in Steven Spielberg: A Retrospective,
“I think the greatest thing is when people at least make an effort to communicate, reaching out, focusing on the other person, making eye contact with the person they are trying to communicate, and that person isn’t getting it, and when that person doesn’t get it, you have to try harder and be resourceful and inventive in trying different ways to get your message across… The more people spend time in a locked room, forced to bridge a language barrier, the deeper those souls connect. Deep friendships are forged when people work hard because they care enough to express to you how they’re feeling about something.”
Of his three alien films, Close Encounters and E.T. tend to match Spielberg’s worldview far more then War of the Worlds. He often recounted growing up how his father always told him that if there was anything out there it was more likely to be benevolent then a hostile invader. The young Spielberg with his father, looked up at the stars and saw it filled with wonder and magic, not dread and terror.
As he related in an interview with the late film critic Roger Ebert, featured in “The Movie Maker STEVEN SPIELBERG” from Time Magazines look at the most influential people of the 20th century,
“My dad took me out to see a meteor shower when I was a little kid…and it was scary for me because he woke me up in the middle of the night. My heart was beating; I didn’t know what he wanted to do. He wouldn’t tell me, and he put me in the car and we went off, and I saw all these people lying on blankets, looking up at the sky. And my dad spread out a blanket. We lay down and looked at the sky, and I saw for the first time all these meteors. What scared me was being awakened in the middle of the night and taken somewhere without being told where. But what didn’t scare me, but was very soothing, was watching this cosmic meteor shower. And I think from that moment on, I never looked at the sky and thought it was a bad place.”
=Thus for Spielberg, the cosmos could only be filled with wonder. It’s perhaps part of the reason for some critics and audience members that Spielberg’s adaptation of War of the Worlds rang hollow. Aside from the fact it stayed true to the plot-line of the book, and depriving viewers of the standard multiple plot lines that we see in alien invasion movies, something about evil hostile aliens felt out of Speilberg’s wheelhouse. Aliens blowing up cities had been seen in films before, and will be seen again. What movie goers got with E.T. was something else.
E.T., like Star Wars, is not a straight up sci-fi film. Like his friend George Lucas’ Star Wars, Spielberg’s E.T .veers more towards the realms of a magical fairy tale. The science of Close Encounters , Independence Day, and Arrival feel far closer to “reality” than E.T. The Government is quick to intervene in the opening acts of both films, whereas in E.T., they operate in secret, making them like the wolf or the pirate lurking in the woods in the fairy tales. This alien is a character that can levitate bikes and heal wounds with a magical touch like a wizard.
As Dave Duprey notes in his analysis of the scene from E.T. where he heals Elliot’s wound in, “Deconstructing Peter Pan and the Ouch In E.T.: The Extra-terrestrial” for film website That Moment In,
“To us, E.T. appears to be magical, a purposeful intent by Spielberg, which serves two-fold in the context of the story: a) the alien possesses abilities beyond human progress or evolution by which we can, at our present development, not duplicate nor understand and b) re-inforces the position that E.T. is ‘magical’, thereby enhancing the fantastical precept of the imaginary friend. The wonder of the moment is its sheer simplicity, the point of a finger, something we can all identity with as an instrument for engaging technology, for E.T. the same, Basically, in modern times, it’s point and click.”
Because of these powers, E.T., at first glance has very few parallels in sci-fi aliens. Typically, the most benevolent and powerful aliens like Spock in Star Trek, Klaatu in Day the Earth Stood Still, Superman, and Marvel’s Thor look like humans. The Aliens in Close Encounters and Arrival send telepathic images to humans, no different than the apparent bond E.T. and Elliot form, but other than that they don’t display any other abilities beyond that of mortals. To date, the only alien in science fiction that has powers close to that of E.T. is the three foot tall, backwards talking Muppet sage from Star Wars known as Yoda. They both demonstrate telepathy, and telekenisis, and it’s not hard to assume that a Jedi, like Yoda would be capable of healing someone like E.T.
Humorously during the trick-or-treating scene in the film, E.T. actually tries to follow a trick-or-treater dressed as Yoda home, hoping the Jedi Master can take him back to space. Everything else about Halloween seems to frighten and puzzle him, but not Yoda. The two characters are cut from the same fantasy cloth. Later, George Lucas would return the favor to Spielberg and put three little E.T.’s in a senate pod in the Galactic Senate of the Republic in The Phantom Menace. Then, much like how E.T. would utter the name Boba Fett before Return of the Jedi, it would be Star Wars that would give E.T. and official species name, Asogian, in Star Wars Insider number 161, further leading to implications that E.T. comes from the Star Wars galaxy.
This strange synergy between Yoda and E.T. is appropriate, and not just because of the fact that their respective creators were friends and collaborators. As Susan Mackey-Kallis notes in The Hero and the Perennial Journey Home in American Film,
“E.T., like Yoda in the Star Wars trilogy is a particularly compelling mythic character in that he combines the child archetype with the archetype of the old man and the elf/dwarf. According to Jung, the old man archetype ‘represents knowledge reflection insight, wisdom, cleverness, and intuition on the one hand, and on the other, moral qualities such as goodwill and readiness to help which make his ‘spiritual’ character sufficiently plan’. In folklore the child motif appears in the guise of the dwarf or the elf as personification of the hidden forces of nature. E.T. looks like an old man, a dwarf, and a child while epitomizing the qualities ascribed to these figures in myth and folklore.”
Many have noted parallels between E.T. and Christ. It’s not hard to see the similarities, E.T., like Christ, heels wounds, brings peace and comfort to those in trouble, is pursued by the government, dies, rises again, and ascends back into the heavens after promising to always be with his friend. He even signs his promise with a rainbow, a call back to the promise that God made to Noah in the book of Genesis after the Flood. There are also moments that call back to classical art representations of God and Christ. The teaser poster that features E.T. and Elliot’s fingers touching intentionally invokes the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, while the moment where E.T. stands in the back of the van , with a blanket draped over his shoulders and his heart light glowing calls to mind the image of the image of the Sacred Heart, which would usually depict Jesus with a glowing heart.
Spielberg would even admit to Richard Scheckel in Steven Spielberg: A Retrospective,
“I mean for me, E.T. is the most spiritual movie I ever made, and that was no accident. It was something I always felt.”
However, Spielberg would go onto say elsewhere that it is not meant to be a Christian allegory. He went on so far as to say, as recounted in Spielberg : A Life in Films,
“If I ever went to my mother and said, ‘Mom, I’ve made this movie that’s a Christian parable,’ what do you think she’d say? She has a Kosher restaurant on Pico and Doheny in Los Angeles.”
He had gone on record to say further that the being himself was based on an imaginary friend he thought up as a child. He had been bullied as a child due to his Jewish heritage, and his family moved around a lot. Then when his parents split up, he had few sources of comfort to guide him through the process. To that end, like the young Jerry Siegel thinking of his pain of his father’s death in a robbery and wishing and hoping for a man who was bullet proof to come down and stand up for ordinary joes like him and dreaming up Superman, another alien with Christ-like metaphors attached to him, Spielberg tapped into the pain of his parent’s divorce to think up the ultimate friend from another world.
As he related to Frank Sanello in Spielberg: The Man, The Movies, the Mythology,
“I remember wishing one night that I had a friend. It was like when you were a kid and had grown out of dolls or teddy bears or Winnie the Pooh, you just wanted a little voice in your mind to talk to. I began concocting this imaginary creature, partially from the guys who stepped out of the Mother Ship for ninety seconds in Close Encounters. Then I thought, “what if I were ten years old again, where I’ve sort of been for thirty five years anyway. What if he needed me as much as I needed him? Wouldn’t that be a great love story?’”
One thing that perhaps makes the story of this little alien so different beyond his cuddly appearance and his magical capabilities, is the fact that he doesn’t really have that much interest in studying humans. When we first meet E.T., he is part of a team of alien botanists who have come to Earth to study plant life. Klaatu in Day the Earth Stood Still and Abbot and Costello in Arrival may have an important message for humans, Superman and Thor may be Earth’s defenders, the Grey-men in Close Encounters wish to stop by and say “hi”, and the aliens in Independence Day and War of the Worlds want to harvest our world, but E.T. and his family don’t want to visit with the humans, because they are aware of how they will be perceived.
As the novelization for the movie E.T. relates as the little traveler is wandering around the forest, collecting plant samples,
“However, it was not a form that Earth folks could readily take to, these large webbed feet coming almost directly out of a low-hanging belly, and long hands trailing in ape-like fashion beside it. For this reason, he and his colleagues were several million-year sky, and never had the inclination to make contact with anything other than plant life on Earth. A failing, perhaps, but they’d monitored things long enough to know that to Earthmen their beautiful ship was first, of all a target, and they themselves material for a taxidermist to display under glass.”
This was routine for them, as they had been to Earth centuries to collect and study earlier plant forms. In many ways their ship is almost like an arboreal version of Noah’s Ark from the Bible, as the novelization describes,
“They moved unconcernedly through its pulsing corridors of technological wonders, and into the central wonder of the Ship: a gigantic inner cathedral of Earth’s foliage. This immense greenhouse was the core of the Ship, its purpose, its specialty. Here were lotus flowers from a Hindu lagoon, ferns from the floor of Africa, tiny berries from Tibet, blackberry bushes from a backcountry American road. Here, in fact, was one of everything on Earth, or nearly everything –for the job was not yet done…Everything flourished. Were an expert from one of Earth’s great botanical gardens to come into this greenhouse, he would find plants he’d never seen before – except in fossil form, imprinted in coal. His eyes would certainly pop, to find, alive, plants the dinosaurs dined on, plants from Earth’s first gardens, incalculable ages ago. He would faint, and be revived with herbs from the Hanging Gardens of Babylon…”
Spielberg joked that part of the reason E.T. got left behind was he was too focused on his job that he was distracted. It’s easy to see just how he could get so distracted. The opening shot establishes that E.T.’s Mothership land somewhere in the woods of the California. Here is this alien creature, standing amidst the giant Red Wood trees that are estimated o be thousands of years old. For him, it’s like a faithful Catholic being in the Sistine Chapel. He would have to soak in all the wonder and grandeur around him.
He probably would have made it too, had Keys and the other Government scientists not interrupted when they did. This leads to an inversion of the usual fairy tale trope of the adventure beginning with a blunder. Typically it’s the human hero who stumbles upon the adventure, whether it be falling down a rabbit hole for Alice, Wendy capturing Peter Pan’s shadow, Dorothy getting smacked on the head during a tornado and going to Oz, or Lucy Pevensie wandering through a wardrobe into Narnia. Here, it is E.T. , the strange creature, that the one stuck in a strange world with weird denizens, in a place that is probably hostile.
E.T. knew enough to avoid the more heavily trafficked roads in order to avoid trying to come in contact with people of Earth. The only reason he settled upon Elliot’s house was due to their Vegetable garden. In the novelization of the movie, E.T. , even carries on several delightful conversations with the vegetables to learn about the world. It’s only the noises form the house that draw him out, and much as the case for an animal in their interaction with humans, he is more afraid of Elliot then Elliot is of him and heads back into the woods.
Elliot follows his tracks and leaves him a trail of candy to follow. E.T., at his core is a scientist. Elliot’s offering of Reese’s Pieces lures him out of hiding and the next night he comes to him, returning some of the treat. E.T, understood that this was a peace offering and it was the boys way of welcoming him to Earth. Due to his own telepathic abilities he was able to sense that Elliot’s house would be a safe haven for him until he could figure out a way to go home.
Because of his more friendly looking appearance E.T, is able to blend in seamlessly into the plethora of plush toys and dolls that Elliot, Michael, and Gertie store in their closet. Considering the ages of the kids rage from almost 16 to 5, they had accumulated a lot over the years, to the point that their frustrated and overworked mother can’t even keep count of them. This creates the perfect camouflage for E.T. until Mary and the rest of the family leave so he and Elliot can bond.
It is later discovered in the young adult sequel novel The Book of the Green Planet that E.T. actually considered this a great honor. As he relates in his mission report to the Mothership’s computer, when asked if Elliot and his siblings paid any acknowledgment to his advanced intellect,
“They kept me in what is called a closet, where the most prized possessions are kept among them Kermit the Frog, and a collection of illustrated works on the life of the great Flash Gord On.”
It’s through the course of the next morning together, that E.T. learns about Earth culture, at least about Earth through the eyes of a ten year old boy. Much like him learning about Earth from a vegetable, Elliot’s perspective is somewhat limited. This makes the relaying of Earth information much easier for the two of them. Due to them being educated adult professionals, Louise and Ian have a much harder time explaining Earth concepts to Abbot and Costello in Arrival then Elliot has with E.T. The only reason E.T. tries to eat a toy car is because he is hungry and Elliot immediately takes steps after reprimanding him to feed his friend real food instead of candy.
\This doesn’t eliminate all cultural misunderstandings between them. In seeing Michael’s Halloween costume, that includes a fake machete going through his skull, E.T.’s first inclination is to try and heal what would be in most normal circumstances a mortal wound. It’s an easy mistake to make. The machete, though plastic looks as sharp as any other cutting object and E.T. can see what looks like blood coming from the injury, and this was not something Elliot covered in their instruction time. This nearly spoils the entire plan that E.T. and his siblings have conducted as they have to scramble to obscure the light before their mother sees it.
Even when Elliot is not around, he learns, like any scientist, through observation. For example much like a human toddler, Elliot learns his letters and how to talk from Gertie. In watching a clip from the movie This Island Earth, seeing a coming beacon send a distress signal in a Flash Gordon comic, and an AT&T add for calling long distance E.T. is able to piece together how to communicate to Elliot that what he wants most is to “Phone home.”
But perhaps the most crucial form of communication he is able to form comes with his bond that he forms with Elliot. Typically in science fiction this bond is telepathic. The aliens in Close Encounters use their lights to transmit to Roy Neery that he should go to Devil’s Tower in Wyoming to make contact. In Arrival, by making a connection with Louise Banks, they are able to give her visions of the future that are imperative to helping her and Ian not only solve the equations and crack the alien code. In Independence Day the invaders force their way into the minds of President Tom Whitmore and Area 51 scientist Dr. Okan. Loki in The Avengers uses his staff to take full control of the mental faculties of Dr. Eric Selvig and the Avenger known as Hawkeye. Unless they can be fully “cognitively recalibrated” as is the case with Hawkeye, Louise Banks, or Roy Neery this link often becomes detrimental to the person in question, bringing them often to the brink of insanity.
With E.T. however, when the government scientists interview Michael about this bond, they initially assume that Elliot can think his thoughts, but Michael describes it more as something akin to empathy, or the ability to read not each other’s minds, but their hearts. The doctors and scientists working on them even note that their vital signs are in perfect sync with the other. It’s a bond he really only shares with Elliot, as even the family dog Harvey sees E.T. as more of a nuisance. This bond allows E.T. to experience life on Earth through Elliot and vice versa.
However, this bond comes at a cost. Already E.T.’s health has been failing while on Earth and after spending all of a Halloween night in the forest Elliot comes down with a bad cold. Whether or not their bond includes the two getting sick at the same time, one thing is for sure E.T. lacks the natural antibodies in his system that would make him immune to such a benign illness. In fact when Michael finds E.T. he looks practically dead and his skin looks putrefied, not unlike the Martians at the War of the Worlds.
As H.G. Wells would say of the Martian invaders when they would succumb to the same illnesses at the end of War of the Worlds,
“For so it had come about, as indeed I and many men might have foreseen had not terror and disaster blinded our minds . These germs of disease have taken toll on humanity since the beginning of things… But by the virtue of our natural selection of our kind we have developed resisting power; to no germs do we succumb without struggle, and to many-those that cause purification in dead matter, for instance- our living frames are altogether immune.”
E.T. is aware of just how deadly this connection he shares with Elliot is as their lives are quickly fading. Elliot begs E.T. to say with him, but that is not something E.T. can allow. The alien is aware that despite their great knowledge the human scientists can do nothing to save both of them. The only way for Elliot, and the Earth, to live is for E.T. to make a sacrifice. As we learn in the novelization that E.T.’s race has the ability to tap into some kind of “Force” one they have long since mastered and it is very possible that if E.T. weren’t careful, he could destroy the entire planet.
As the E.T. Novelization narrates,
“But where the creature was going, non could follow…E.T. clung at the edge of the void , on a last thin thread of energy. A roaring filled his ears, and the mouth of the dragon was open below him; awesome black tongues of cosmic fire licked upward, eager to consume a planet, a solar system, whatever might come its way. E.T. felt the envelope of his nature rupturing and star-knowledge funneling out, faster and faster…An electrical device was applied to E.T.’s chest. They zapped him, injected adrenalin, pounded on him..The old space voyager’s heart had ceased. E.T. had found are least one of the formulas he sought. That of a shield, cast behind him as he swooned into death, so the boy could not follow.”
The doctors pronounce him dead and prepare the body for transport. Michael, Mary, Gertie and Elliot, like children reading peter Pan wish as hard as they can for the little space alien to return to the land of the living. Whether it was their wishing or, his advanced science that borders on magic of E.T.’s race that revived him and allowed him to learn that his people were coming for him, E.T. came back, much to the delight of his young friends. He even performed one last magic trick for them as he helped them on their escape from the federal agents by lifting not only one, or two but all five bikes in the air, allowing them to reach the forest just as E.T’s ship arrived. Long Dorothy in oz, the Darling’s in Never-land, or a Pevensie in Narnia, E.T.’s time on Earth had come. Like Dorothy he gets the chance to thank each friend for their part in his adventure, and give them some parting wisdom. He had taught them, and us, so much in his short time with them.
Perhaps the greatest gift E.T., and his human friends gives to a cynical and jaded age is the ability to believe in magic and adventure once again, and to stoop every now and then and embrace a since of childlike wonder and love by opening our heart. E.T.’ shows us how to work our pain, and how to reconcile with those we love. We see through his adventures the importance of empathize and communicating with each other. E.T.’ also reminds us of one of life’s hardest and most important lessons we can learn: at some point, we will have to say good bye to those we love, and let them go, as hard as it can be. But when it comes to those we love, he promises Elliot, and in fact every person who has fallen under his spell since 1982, when he points his finger light at Elliot’s heart at the end of the movie,
“I’ll be right here.”
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1982 Amblin Entertainment/Universal Studios.