Happy Halloween! Today I’m posting about that terrifying Halloween classic, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (dir. Speilberg, 1982). E.T. is the tale of a parasitic alien from the darkest depths of space that infiltrates a family home and attaches itself to a small boy, forming a symbiotic relationship that drains the boy’s life force. A brave group of government agents must battle to save the boy and defeat the monster…before it’s too late! Okay, that might be the story told from an adult character’s point of view, but E.T. is not a story told from an adult’s point of view. E.T. is a story about empathy, an attribute we see facilitated through childhood innocence and impeded by adult ignorance and misplaced authority that must be rebelled against. Immediately upon being stranded, E.T. is hounded by a group of adult hunters, viewing his otherness as dangerous to their way of life and something to be extinguished. He is able to find refuge with a child, Elliott (Henry Thomas), who hides him from adult persecution. Elliott does not see E.T. as a monster, but as a person in need of help who has been separated from their home and family. He is able to empathise with E.T., having recently had a split in his family, with his father leaving his mother (Dee Wallace). Before the arrival of E.T., Elliott is insecure and lonely, being picked on and excluded by his older brother Michael (Robert MacNaughton) and his friends. He is also immature and inconsiderate, bringing up the fact his father has run off with another woman in front of his younger sister, Gertie (Drew Barrymore). This upsets his mother and angers Michael (“Damn it! Why don’t you grow up? Think how other people feel for a change”). The arrival of E.T. sees Elliott take Michael’s advice, as having to care for someone in a similar position, sees him mature and gain confidence and purpose.
E.T. does indeed form a symbiotic relationship with Elliott, but there is nothing sinister about it. Instead, it is used to emphasise the importance of empathy. E.T. and Elliott share emotional and physical experiences; getting hungry, scared and ill together. Seeing them share these experiences reminds us that although E.T. is different to us, he still feels the same and should be treated equally. E.T. and Elliott’s empathy goes beyond consideration for intelligent life, as an affinity with all nature, including animal and plant life, is displayed. E.T. is able to live in harmony with all living things, caring for them as though they were part of him. This is shown through his ability to heal, as he mends a cut on Elliott’s finger and brings a flower back to life. Thanks to his relationship with E.T., Elliott develops empathy for other life, freeing the frogs that are about to be dissected in science class and starting a youth revolt against the ruling adult teacher (Richard Swingler). The teacher is another example of adult cruelty and detachment. He treats the frogs as just things to be experimented on; just as Elliott fears the ‘adult’ authorities will treat E.T. (“they’ll give it a lobotomy or do experiments on it”).
The film expresses the importance of family. Separated from his family, E.T. grows ill, but he recovers upon their return. The family home is used to symbolise an ideal empathetic environment; there E.T. is safe and cared for by those who treat him as kin. Childhood is used as a symbol of virtue, as E.T. is taught about the world through the use of toys, watching kids TV shows and reading children’s books, and his idea to “phone home” is inspired by a children’s comic. He is also, at one point, mistaken for a soft toy, an item that is a focus of childhood love and care but later abandoned by adults. This shows the importance of carrying childhood empathy into adulthood and bringing the love and care shared within a family home into the outside world. When the government agents track down E.T. to Elliott’s home, we see the devastating effect a cold-hearted ‘adult’ view of the world has. They transform the warm, empathetic environment into a sterile laboratory; intending to experiment on E.T. just like the frogs in the science class. They believe they want to understand E.T., but unlike Elliott, they do not try and communicate with him; their lack of empathy means they only know how to take apart and destroy. Again, a youth revolt saves the day, as Elliott, Michael and his friends rescue E.T. and return him to his people.
E.T. is a messianic figure. He comes from the heavens, heals the sick, dies and is resurrected. Upon his resurrection, we see him dressed in white robes. And finally, he ascends back into the heavens. Unlike most messianic figures, his message is simple, as simple as his last words to Gertie: “Be good”. A message of empathy. Spielberg has described E.T. as a “minority story”. E.T. is a minority on Earth. Elliott is also a minority, beginning the story as a loner. Through empathy, they are able to ignore their surface distinctions and join together to overcome adversity. That is the film’s message to the world, to put aside our difference, embrace our commonality and have compassion for one another. As E.T.’s spaceship departs, it leaves a rainbow in the sky: a symbol of universal harmony, unity and hope.
- Elliott has rainbow curtains in his bedroom, symbolising his empathetic outlook.
- I don’t like that the girl Elliott kisses in class (Erika Eleniak) is seen standing on a chair, screaming when the frogs are freed. It’s a sexist stereotype (girls are fragile little things, afraid of creepy critters). It would make much more thematic sense if the large boy who struggles with Elliott to keep his frog in his jar were scared of the frogs: cruelty comes through fear and ignorance.
- Gertie is read Peter Pan. Specifically, the scene where Tinker Bell is brought back to life by children’s belief in fairies. This fits with the film’s theme of the virtue of maintaining childhood innocence. Later, the children fly on their bicycles and are silhouetted in front of the moon; another nod to Peter Pan.