J.J. Abrams knew exactly how to market his latest picture, Super 8, to the geek community.
After teaming with executive producer Steven Spielberg, Abrams’ marketing squad went the extra step by leaking a rumor that the innocent-kids-versus-alien-creature feature was a throwback to Spielberg’s beloved Amblin days. Teaser clips reinforced the opinion without giving away much plot, suggesting the nostalgic tone and mysterious atmosphere of such sci-fi Spielberg classics as Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T., while also promising the updated effects Abrams polished with Star Trek and his underrated Mission: Impossible installment.
There’s no understating how influential Spielberg’s films from that period can be in establishing one’s appreciation of film. As we allow ourselves to hope that Abrams bottles even a portion of the Amblin magic for Super 8, I figured this was a great time for the “When Can I Watch” column to talk about E.T., arguably Spielberg’s most accessible and heartfelt film.
My only hesitation lies in the fact that the first few columns of this weekly series have been heavy on Spielberg and Lucas. And while those filmmakers certainly created iconic films that continue to influence us to this day, I promise you our conversation will head in refreshingly different directions in the coming weeks.
For now, though, grab a bag of Reese’s Pieces and your Speak & Spell. We’re about to phone home to figure out when you can watch E.T. with your kids.
The Discussion: Finish What You Start
I couldn’t wait to watch E.T. with my boys. I was 8 years old when Spielberg’s film came out in 1982 -- probably close to Henry Thomas’s age as he filmed it -- yet even now I recall the enormous impact it had on our culture. It went beyond the all-encompassing marketing push that placed E.T. on everything from lunchboxes to Trapper Keepers. “Phone home” immediately entered our lexicon. Chances are if you held out your index finger in 1982, someone else would reach out with theirs and whisper, “Ouch,” mimicking Elliott’s glowing touch with his extraterrestrial friend.
E.T. sat atop a short list of films I needed to experience with my own kids.
Half of that dream came true.
The night our family watched E.T., we paused the film after an hour. Gertie (Drew Barrymore) had figured out E.T. could talk, but Elliott (Henry Thomas) didn’t know yet how they’d contact the aliens who’d left E.T. behind.
While babysitting our boys the following evening, though, their grandmother innocently let them finish the movie. So I totally missed the second hour. I couldn’t laugh along with them during the comical Halloween excursion, where E.T. meets Yoda on an unassuming suburban street. I wasn’t able to explain to them what was happening to E.T. once Peter Coyote and his menacing government stooges discovered his whereabouts. I didn’t share in the elation my boys expressed during Elliott’s moon flight (enhanced by John Williams’ majestic score).
Film geek parents reading this will understand – those moments are everything.
So I did what any rational parent would do in this situation: I grilled my mother with the intensity Homeland Security reserves for suspected terrorists. I found out that the sight of a ghost-white E.T. unnerved the boys, but our 7-year-old, P.J., literally leapt from the couch and cheered when the kids’ bikes later left the pavement so they could soar over pursuing cars. Oh, I know. It’s a silly disappointment, and I’ll get over it in time. Maybe I’ll get to watch the second half of the film with my grandkids some day. Better remember to save a copy of this column so we can laugh about it later.
The lesson learned is this: If the film in question means a lot to you, and you hope it will mean a lot to your children, carve out enough time to watch the whole thing in one sitting. Pausing halfway through for a later date can cause problems. You might miss the second half, which is the focal point of this week’s “Red Flags” section.
Red Flags: Most Involve a White E.T.
“We’re sick. I think we’re dying.”
The second half of E.T. had me worried because, for those who haven’t seen it in ages (or, god forbid, haven’t seen it at all), E.T. dies. And it’s not a quick, painless death. It stretches out over the film’s final hour as E.T.’s homesickness leads to physical illness for Elliott.
So we’re back on death, a subject we broached in the Star Wars column thanks to the loss of Ben Kenobi. But the approach is completely different with E.T. Young audience members watching A New Hope aren’t conditioned to love Obi Wan as they are with the gentle, inquisitive E.T. (And kudos to the brilliant Carlo Rambaldi for creating such an expressive and kind alien visitor for Spielberg’s coming-of-age story.) This loss doesn’t just shock. It physically hurts.
My boys aren’t strangers to death. But we haven’t lost a pet or suffered a larger tragedy (knock on every piece of wood I can find), so I wondered how they’d handle the temporary loss of this character they’d grown to love. During the tougher sequences, my mom says P.J. repeatedly asked if E.T. would be OK, and reiterated something I taught him a while back while watching movies: “The good guys always win.” Truthfully, that knowledge -- while common sense to adults -- has helped P.J. through a couple of questionable scenes when it looks like the hero he’s pulling for in a particular story meets near-insurmountable odds (and for E.T., death certainly qualifies). P.J. will tell me, “The good guys always win, dad.” And thankfully, for the films we’ve watched together, that has been the case.
E.T., included. P.J. certainly picked up once Elliott figured how to get his alien friend on the road to recovery. Prepare your kids that E.T.’s death is coming, and don’t be afraid to tell them it’s temporary (spoilers be damned!), because in our favorite movies, the good guys always win.
Oh, one other thing: P.J. covered his eyes when Elliott kissed his pretty, blonde classmate. I wonder how much longer that particular attitude towards girls will last?
Green Lights: Bringing the Extraordinary Home
E.T. is one of those films, though, where the avalanche of inspiring moments outweighs the small sampling of scenes that would make a parent worry.
Spielberg figured out how to take the awe-inspiring quest for alien contact that drove Close Encounters and bring it to the safety of our suburban homes and backyards. (He’d pull a similar trick with ghosts as producer of Tobe Hooper’s Poltergeist, as well as with dinosaurs in the third act of Jurassic Park: The Lost World.)
E.T. is warm and familiar in all of the places that Close Encounters was aloof and clinical, and that’s part of the reason I strongly prefer this alien adventure to Spielberg’s 1977 effort.
I also can’t say enough about the outstanding performances from young actors Drew Barrymore and Henry Thomas, who stand in for every kid watching and dreaming that they’ll one day be able to interact with a visitor from another planet. “Elliott feels his feelings,” we are told about the boy’s connection with E.T., but the line of dialogue is redundant because of Thomas’ compassionate, beyond-his-years performance. It is one for the ages.
Talking Points: Are We Alone Out Here?
On a basic level, E.T. should inspire a discussion about befriending someone strange, and standing by them through thick and thin. Then again, tolerance and acceptance are traits we tend to lose as we get older, so our kids will probably be able to help us improve on these skills after a screening of E.T.
On a more cerebral level, talk to your children about the possibilities of life on other planets. Take books out of the library on astronomy. If your kid is particularly creative, how them write a story about what would have happened had Elliott chosen to board E.T.’s ship. Where would they go? What would happen in this story if E.T. ever returned to Earth?
And as a parent, this is one of those rare opportunities to validate your worth in your child’s eye. Point out that when Elliott, Michael (Robert MacNaughton) and Gertie really needed help, they were able to open up to their mother (the wonderful Dee Wallace). Reinforce to your children that while it’s natural to keep some secrets, you are always there to listen, and always eager to help. Even if they have a sick alien hiding in their closet.
Steven Spielberg’s E.T. is appropriate for your average 7-year-old, when they’re still young enough to appreciate the innocence, whimsy and thrilling adventure of Elliott and E.T.’s special friendship but also old enough to comprehend the stirring emotional ties that bind the alien’s unplanned vacation on our planet.
When your kids are ready, E.T. will be waiting. As the interplanetary best friends reiterate during their goodbye, “I’ll be right here.” Just make sure tissues are right there, as well.
Previous “When Can I Watch” Columns:
The Indiana Jones series
The Star Wars Saga