My older boys watched Steven Spielberg’s E.T. with me. It was an experiment of mine to see how they might appreciate the movie completely out of cultural context, meaning, when I was nine years old, the bicycle silhouetted against the moon was iconic; we lived and breathed E.T. for years, knew all the tropes, memorized most of the dialogue, collected the E.T. stuffed toys, played the terrible Atari video game, and so forth. As far as my investigations could gather, Tom and Jack hadn’t even heard of E.T. They were tabulae rasae.
Therefore, I was surprised by my own reactions. First of all, as a critic, I was surprised by how many stories are being told, and, moreover, how the main story was told so subtly. For a kids’ movie, Spielberg took an enormous risk with symbolism and framing cues (if you know what I mean). In other words, there was no cabbie explaining the plot to the lowest common denominator in the audience, practically ruining the mystery and imagination. Do we have kids’ movies told so subtly nowadays? My impression is no, but I’d love to see something to contrast the thick stream of broadly told kiddie adventure movies loosely tied to minor character attributes such as loyalty, honor, friendship, or whatever tertiary trait we might want to see develop in ourselves or our children.
Secondly, as a real grown-up with kids of my own, I was struck by the spectacular emotional arc. The man-cave got awfully dusty. The movie is about separation, most importantly, about severance of the home and family. “Dad” is a major character in the movie because he’s not there; he ran away to Mexico with Sally, and this fact drives so much of the movie’s symbolism, character development, theme, etc. Elliot mercilessly pushes this point home near the beginning of the film, driving it deep into Mom’s broken heart.
Are we even allowed to tell stories like this anymore? Divorce was practically a brand-new feature of the American middle class, and it was at that time viewed as entirely and selfishly self-centered, especially with children involved, and we hadn’t yet rationalized away the immense pain created, which yields to rage. I have these memories (perhaps I’ve shared elsewhere) of riding skateboard in brand new residential subdivisions, such as were featured in the movie, talking with my friends about our parents’ divorces. The emotional wreckage was a seed planted to blossom later. How does divorce rank lately? Because we are enraptured by solipsisnormativity, crimes against home and family have been marginalized, so I don’t know that E.T. could have been told today.
Michael, Elliott’s older brother, owns the movie. Naturally he is overshadowed by the puppet and the marvelous performance of Henry Thomas as Elliott, but the story hinges on his own yearning for a father figure, someone who might teach him how to be a man. Spielberg cues us to think to this effect now and again, mostly in the numerous scenes of his mustering up manhood in defense of his mother, but later, more subtly, in the care and protection of E.T., the newest, most vulnerable member of the family, perhaps a father figure himself, though cast in weakness. At the end, Michael, a new man, has gathered to himself a vindication that he has reunited the family around his own courage.
E.T. says to him, “Thank you.”