Film Dunce is a weekly series in which one of our writers finally succumbs to the lure of a movie that has long been a big part of our culture that they have never seen. Seen through fresh eyes, we evaluate, enjoy and sometimes get bored by these titans of mental real estate.

E.T pointing

There’s an old video release poster that simply says “E.T. IS HERE” and for a long time I felt like that sentence should end with “…TO KICK YOUR ASS.” E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial may be a singular American cultural entity but it can also be an intimidating one. Like Moby-Dick or King Kong the title explains the content in big iconic terms. One of the reasons I didn’t see it for so many years was that its aura of hugeness scared me off a bit. Another is that I’m firmly a child of the 1990s, having been born two and a half years after this film was released. Our big Steven Spielberg film was Jurassic Park, an adequate spectacle that truthfully captured our imaginations at the time along with the colorful marketing bonanza The Lion King. They were Clinton-era stories, like many of my favorite children’s films growing up, explaining how we could find our way back to the abundance and safety of home. The one contact I had with E.T. culture was one of its numerous rip-offs, Disney’s Flight of the Navigator, which seemed to air on a loop on the Disney Channel. E.T. was less a movie to me are more of a distant continent that I put off exploring year after year.

But what I believed about this movie was wrong. Instead, I was delighted to find a small scale fairytale buried beneath the tract houses of suburban childhood. Rather than telling a story similar to an interstellar episode of Lassie, Spielberg decides to show how the inner-lives of children prepare them to embrace fantastic possibilities and become bold in the face of change. Refreshingly, there are no villains, only obstacles that young people are better equipped to handle with their knowledge of bicycles, comics and Dungeons & Dragons. Psychologists often state that how children at play develop a greater understanding of patience, compassion, and problem solving. In that sense Elliott (Henry Thomas), the middle child of a single mother, views his time with E.T., the wayward alien who longs to return home, as the ultimate test of his faith and intelligence.

E.T. and Drew Barrymore

Spielberg shot E.T. in sequence to better accommodate his childhood actors on their emotional arc and it was a marvelous decision. You can see how Henry, his old brother Michael (Robert MacNaughton) and baby sister Gertie (Drew Barrymore), form the dynamics of a real family; picking on one another only to become closer as they face down terrible trials. Each of them represents a different strata of adolescence but they flesh out their characters through a very intelligent script by Melissa Mathison. For instance, when Gertie boasts of E.T.’s speaking ability she’s quick to take credit: “I taught him how to talk. He can talk now.” It’s not only adorable but said with a fidelity that many adult actors can’t accomplish. They not only speak like kids but also people who believe in the gravity of every scene. My favorite line is spoken when Michael is pressing Elliot for directions to the playground and Elliot yells in exasperation, “I don’t know streets! Mom always drives me!”

Even if you couldn’t conclude that this is Spielberg’s best film, it’s certainly his most complete visually. The crucial scenes where Elliott and E.T. form their bond are shot and framed with a fidelity to understated silent comedy. Indeed, the puppet was involved in so many subtle and expression-heavy scenes that, after awhile, the cast and crew didn’t even think of him as being synthetic and that suspension of disbelief translates to the viewers very powerfully. On the action front, Spielberg perfects his love for old covers of the magazine Boy’s Life by filming a phenomenal bicycles vs. cars chase sequence that got my heart pounding even though I’ve seen how it ends on countless movie highlight reels.

Spielberg often tells the story of how E.T. was inspired by the confusing and lonely aftermath of his parents’ divorce. Unlike many of the ’90s films I grew up with, the status quo of Elliott’s existence is also on the same shaky ground Spielberg walked in real life. He feels misunderstood in school and his family is preoccupied with very adult concerns about scraping by. In the process they sidestep many of his grade school anxieties entirely. Pleading for E.T. to stay, Elliott says, “We could grow up together,” and I think at that moment I realized a small part of why this film has come to earn its huge reputation. Through this sensitive creature trapped in a strange place, Elliott doesn’t see a pet or a sibling or even a stand in for the father who has left him behind. He sees another lost child. One who could face the scariness of the future with him. Even into adulthood, it’s a form of companionship we still long for.

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