When you’re a child, you have no idea what you’ll remember forever. Your elders may try to “create” memories in advance for you, by staging elaborate birthday parties or planning faux-rustic camping trips. But the things we remember best from childhood—flopping down in a nighttime backyard and trying to make sense of the majesty of stars, watching a caterpillar’s fuzzy back ripple at the touch of a finger, bike-riding around and around the neighborhood in nowheresville circles—seldom emerge from planned events. No matter how good-meaning adults might be, our future memories will have an inclination to evade the control of others.
E.T. ExtraterrestrialThe movie captures the essence of these iridescent memories in film form. It’s one of the finest fantasy films ever made, and the most tender of all Steven Spielberg’s movies, showing a purity of emotion and intent that’s distinctive even among all the films he’s made in his long and fruitful career. E.T. was loved by most critics. E.T. was released in 1982 and most critics loved it. Others were enamored. It was a first big-screen-movie experience for lots of kids born in the 1970s, and countless others have watched it—via videotape, DVD or streaming—in the years since. Like any cultural work, there are critics. Some call it sentimental.
Universal Pictures/Everett Collection
However, some of this is just too-cool-for school hindsight. This comes from revisiting something deep-rooted and misreading it to be simply common. It was because at that time E.T. appeared, there was nothing quite like it, no movie that worked so effectively on two parallel tracks: as a story kids could warm to and relate to, but also one that, for adults, captured the essence of those childhood things—fears and longings, but also a sense of awe at all the possibilities of the natural world, even beyond our own planet—that stick with us forever.
Consider the deftness with which Spielberg—and screenwriter Melissa Mathison, who deserves much of the credit for the movie’s fine-grained swirl of joy and wistfulness—sketches the amorphous shape of the loneliness felt by the young hero, Elliott (Henry Thomas). He’s not allowed to hang out with his older brother, Michael (Robert MacNaughton), as he and his friends sit around the kitchen table, playing an old-school fantasy card game. What’s more—and we don’t learn this until later—Elliott’s father has recently left the family, leaving Elliott’s mother, Mary (Dee Wallace), to soldier on. Though Elliott, Robert and their preschool-age sister, Gertie (Drew Barrymore), try to bolster her, they’re as bewildered and hurt as she is. Elliott doesn’t just need a friend; he needs a change in perspective, a way of opening his vision to the greater world. It’s possible to have a friendship with an alien.
Universal Pictures/Everett Collection
When we first meet the squat, greenish-brown figure known as E.T., he’s wandering through a forest bordering a California suburb—Elliott’s suburb—gazing with wonder and curiosity at our earthly plants and animals, appreciating all the things we who live here so often take for granted. It is his curiosity, reflected in his longing for a small pine tree, that leads him to being unintentionally forgotten. While he wanders off in his own beauty reverie, his fellows have to retreat quickly as G-men chase them.
Elliott and E.T.—this gentle, thoughtful being with wrinkly skin and alert, wide-set eyes—will forge an emotional bond so strong that each experiences the feelings of the other. This is perhaps Spielberg’s sly way of introducing children not just to the concept of empathy, but to the idea of the sympathetic imagination, the foundation of all great literature—the act of reaching across a void of difference to understand other people’s lives.
Childhood is a world of secrets, and Elliott’s friendship with E.T. At first, it was a complete secret. However, this movie also features family and the stress factors that either make or break them apart. Elliott’s family is what we might carelessly call a broken one. E.T.’s arrival and eventual, necessary departure urge us to rethink the distinction between “broken” and merely “evolving.” E.T. meets Elliott’s intense loneliness—and, by extension, the suffering of his whole family—and finds kinship in those feelings of loss, because he too is missing his brethren. That’s a lot of meaning for a movie to hold. But E.T. But E.T. That’s why people who saw it as children remember it to this day, and people who first saw it as grown-ups can revisit it today and see something new. E.T. is a renewable resource, as alive as a pine tree—or a childhood memory, seeded in a time before we had any idea how valuable those memories would become.
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