This had always been a film that I knew about, had seen as a kid a couple of times, but wasn’t one I cared too much about. Possibly because my parents never bought the VHS and I only ever caught it on tv. Most likely, I never even watched it in its entirety. It’s one of Steven Spielberg’s most iconic films (his company Ambling Entertainment takes its logo from the film), with an instantly recognizable John Williams theme to go with it.
But unlike some of Spielberg’s other films (Indiana Jones, Jurassic Park, Jaws), this is a tale less focused on action and adventure, and more focused on the finer points of the human spirit. The film explores the different reactions to E.T. and how those thoughts and feelings play out. Elliot’s initial fear, then quick caring and protection, the older brothers scepticism, the younger sisters innocence and kindness, the Mothers disbelief and subsequent obliviousness, and Keys, who, like Elliot, is initially afraid, but eventually gains understanding.
E.T. doesn’t differ that much from Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan. Both characters are stranded in strange and unfamiliar lands where the governing creatures are not like themselves. Both are discovered by characters that are loving and willing to offer protection. Both have some language barriers to overcome and struggle to have their charge accepted into their family group. Both make friends and enemies in their new habitats, and In the end, both are finally rescued by their native peoples and brought back to where they belong. Tarzan is a little more adventure based, and E.T. a little more drama, but both have adventures along the way and the basic concepts are still there. There are some obvious differences, like in that Tarzan becomes the leader of the apes, AND is the Lord of a ridiculously wealthy english Estate, and the narrative is from opposing views, but the building blocks are the same. I would compare it to a story of a boy finding a dog, and it being accepted into the family, but the friendship and connection that E.T. and Elliot share goes quite a bit deeper than boy and dog. In the end, for both E.T. and Tarzan it is learned that while the time they had with their new families has deeply changed them, they still belong with their own people.
Because both are tales of fantasy and imagination, there are abilities that the titular characters are able to develop, which add a texture to the material and further allow us to lose ourselves in it. Tarzan allows us to dream of swinging through the treetops, speaking with elephants and apes, and wrestle with threatening lions. E.T. allows us to dream of flying through the skies on our bikes, levitate objects, and escape from “the evil eye of the government”.
However, as a film, E.T. plays with visuals in a way that Tarzan doesn’t, and couldn’t. There are some particularly striking visuals. For example, E.T. himself is an unmistakable creature, and the image of him and Elliot flying through the sky is so iconic. E.T. as a bedsheet ghost at Halloween is as hilarious as it is memorable. Spielberg really plays with your fears as well. Even as a grown adult, the image of a dying E.T. emotionally haunts me, and the image of astronauts coming through the bright lights outside into the dark house is a picture I’m sure frightened many children 33 odd years ago.
I noticed that for an early 80s movie, it does have a lot of 1950’s dime comic elements, I figured this could be attributed to 2 things. First, this could be because Spielberg would have been growing up in the 50’s and taken elements from the things he loved as a child, or that we have come so far in the past 35 years that looking back at the 80’s I recognize more in common with the 50’s than I do with this day and age. Something for me to think about.
Watching it now, the film is definitely of high quality, but its got to be in the right company and the right timing. Sarah and I watched it while cooking and eating crab legs. We were more focused on getting the meet out of the legs, (which Sarah is terrible at). It is definitely more of an Oscar season thinker than a summer blockbuster you can be watching in the background. In rewatching it as I type up these thoughts I find myself investing more time in it than in this. It’s no Star Wars that I can watch every year again and again, but it is something I need to bring myself back to more often.