Revisiting E.T. as an Adult

When E.T. was released on June 11, 1982, I would have been three, almost four, years old. My mom took me to see Steven Spielberg and Melissa Mathison’s ode to gentle extraterrestrials and childhood wonder amid parental chaos. E.T. has stuck with me since largely because the story is led and performed by children, and unlike other films from my childhood, the storyline and its essential truths still hold up, even in adulthood.

This Wednesday I decided to share my favorite Halloween movie with my 19-month-old daughter Lucinda after a short walk around the block trick-or-treating. Luci did not really “get” the idea of trick-or-treating so much as she just grabbed as much candy as humanly possible from whichever bowl was offered. She was much more enamored of the dogs neighbors held on blanketed laps or who greeted us, tails wagging, from beyond strange doors. Even the act of walking up a sidewalk to a new house proved scary at times (understandably so), so some visits Luci would put her head down on my shoulder or her father’s and hold out her pumpkin, wanting to participate in the weird ritual of neighbors giving her candy, but also weary of the eye contact and effort required.

So, we called it a night from trick-or-treating and returned home to watch E.T., an annual tradition, I hope. My husband was dubious about this plan, but as soon as the legendary composer John Williams’ “Three Million Light Years from Home” began to play and we saw E.T.’s spaceship in the California redwoods, my daughter was rapt, and so were we.

What we remembered from this childhood film—Henry Thomas using peanut-butter candies like Hansel and Gretel to lure an alien out of hiding, Drew Barrymore dressing E.T. up in a wig and dress and teaching the kind alien language (“Be good,” a 36-year-old reminder worth repeating), and, of course, the iconic image of Thomas’ bike flying past a full moon with E.T. in the bike basket—missed so much of the nuance of Mathison’s script and the spellbinding believability of the young actors.

More specifically, I had not realized when Elliott is at school preparing to dissect a frog, he too begins to feel E.T. getting drunk on cans of Coors in the family’s kitchen. The visceral telepathy between the two characters were completely lost on me as a young child. Connection, the movie seems to argue, is what makes us human, what makes life worth living, especially when presented with the fraught sterility of studying life forms from the vantage point of a chloroformed jar or in a cordoned-off house on a cul-de-sac with ominous, faceless men in space suits at your door. Even E.T.’s classic flashlight finger reminds us of the power of touch to heal and mend what is broken, what is dying.

Like children’s literature that endures, movies that do not flinch from the hardship and the hurt of childhood are the stories built to last. Elliott (Henry Thomas, who now wows audiences in The Haunting of Hill House), Gertie (Drew Barrymore), and Michael (Robert MacNaughton) witness their parents’ separation, their mother’s grief at finding out her estranged husband is in Mexico with another woman, and while E.T. is visible to adults, when her brothers tell young Gertie adults cannot see E.T., that is not entirely a lie. So many times, adults tell children something is not real simply because we do not have the imagination, inclination, or patience to try to see and feel whatever it is too.

My husband remarked most audiences these days would not sit still for a film made in 1982. “It’s too slow,” he said. I understood where his complaint was coming from, but I disagreed. It was a sweet relief to enjoy a movie without constant motion and special effects for special effects’ sake. That is not to say that Industrial Light & Magic’s special effects were not good; even for the time period, what ILM created still stands. Moreover, E.T. was not like Mr. Rogers taking an egg timer and letting a minute play out on camera without any words or action. The forward movement of E.T. in many instances is in the easy back-and-forth of the dialogue, a gift the late Mathison gave to both Spielberg and her audiences. The scene between Michael (MacNaughton) and his younger brother Elliott (Thomas) gives us one of the most charming and silly movie comebacks ever: “It was nothing like that penis-breath.”

E.T. is the first movie I ever saw in the theater, and it is also the first movie I cried during. My mother told me I was inconsolable when I thought E.T. was dead. Luci does not know what death is yet, and so E.T.’s first death did not faze her, but when she saw E.T.’s body begin to glow red, a cinematic resurrection of sorts, with the insistent repetition of “home,” she understood undeniably what E.T. was saying. While she never uttered the words, home is where Luci also wished to return to after celebrating her second Halloween.