Notes on “E.T.,” now that we are both in our 40s

Let’s begin with the pre-history: the horror film that never was, John Sayles‘ script for “Night Skies,” Steven Spielberg’s first idea for a sort of spiritual sequel to “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” intended as a fright feature based loosely on the real-life 1955 Kelly UFO encounter in rural Western Kentucky, with its infamous little green men waging war on local farmers. Except maybe in reality they were just territorial owls dodging shotgun blasts, the supposed invading spaceships nothing more or less miraculous than a meteor shower. Who’s to say? One person’s terror is another’s farce.

The Kelly Encounter did get its movie, kind of, a few years after Sayles’ “Night Skies” script was scrapped (to be reimagined as the standalone story “E.T. the Extraterrestrial,” which premiered 40 years ago on June 11, 1982). The 1986 horror-comedy “Critters” borrowed some of its premise from the Kelly Encounter and became a cult classic, spawning four sequels and a TV series reboot.

In real life, the actual Kentucky community of Kelly now celebrates its notorious encounter every year with Little Green Men Days, a family-friendly festival featuring flying saucer-shaped bounce houses and enough green face paint to cover a barn: revision as reclamation, the likeliest war to break out started by a full funnel cake stomach invading the Gravitron’s spin.

* * *

In this homage economy, a lack of sequels doesn’t necessarily mean a story can be at rest.

There is no “E.T.” cinematic multiverse to keep track of. Spielberg considers it “a closed story,” which means no tortured sequels, no painful animated spin-off where the kids and the alien botanist, I don’t know, solve mysteries and thwart the hapless feds, no reboot starring a smart-alecky kid with cool hair. We don’t always know how to leave a good thing alone. But when the alien botanist tells Elliott, “be good,” what he means is, you are. End of story.

In this homage economy, a lack of sequels doesn’t necessarily mean a story can be at rest. For instance, E.T.’s bony fingerprints, including his iconic bicycle flight, are all over Netflix’s horror-nostalgia series “Stranger Things.” The currency chain of allegiance passes through so many hands: From Michael speaking in Yoda’s voice and Elliott walking E.T. through the “Star Wars” cast of action figures to Eleven hiding out in Mike’s house, wandering Hawkins, Indiana, in a wig and dress. Each of these bits carries the texture of its antecedents; together they operate under a grand unified theory of if you know, you know

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“Once we were young, and films were beautiful,” wrote TIME film critic Roger Corliss on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of “E.T.,” a feeling which is impossible to recapture as adults, and yet still we try, recycling motifs and borrowing images and collaging them into a map that will lead us back to that feeling. The industry has long rewarded this fidelity — sequel pressure predates “E.T.” — but I would be lying if I said the intensity of the dedication to franchise has started to feel like a never-ending school reunion: Class of 1990-Whatever, together forever, in hologram form even after death.

“We could grow up together,” Elliott pleaded, trying to convince E.T to stay with him instead of flying back to his home planet. But E.T. was already grown. Was he born knowing how to heal? Unlikely. Probably he studied, and apprenticed, and made a lot of mistakes, took what he learned and made it his own. Magic is just our word for the moment when sustained attention finally, suddenly, snaps into its intended shape. Maybe there’s no real harm in focusing much of that attention on small revisions to what has already been done, in trading discovery for comfort. But love demands we leave ourselves room to grow apart, a lesson we forget over and over, no matter Elliott’s promise, Eleven’s incandescent rage. We would rather revel in a curse: May you live long enough to see all your formative memories revised first into references, then into kitsch.

* * *

To get back to where I am trying to go, I have to wait, walk, ride, turn around, go again. 

Which is how I should feel about the E.T. Adventure dark ride at Universal Studios, but I confess I don’t. Riding it is a ritual that feels like stepping back in time, which is at least half the point of visiting a theme park as an adult. On my personal map of holy sites, it ranks somewhere between the Ryman Auditorium and the actual Muir Woods. This ride is more than 30 years old, does not require 3-D glasses, and features a lot of Day-Glo and a John Williams score. If they ever try to tear it down for a “Despicable Me” expansion, I will do my best to start a BMX riot.

You enter and stand in line on a path ringed with fabricated redwoods and illuminated in alien green, then mount up on janky bikes designed to look like the ones we rode as children, a crate strapped to the front with a shrouded little body tucked inside. Attached to a track, we glide past NASA scientists in space suits and federal agents, up, up, over the tops of the cop cars, their red and blue lights spinning, into the trees and then breaking out of the forest, the town twinkling in miniature below, further, further, past the Amblin moon and through a blanket of stars, then into a hyperspace jump and now we’re on the botanist’s Green Planet, little dudes like him everywhere, and it’s lush and damp and ringed with gigantic psychedelic blooms. 

Manufactured as it is, the simplicity of the story, with its beginning, middle and end — a bike, a flight, the discovery of another world — is soothing and best savored on repeat, like re-watching a favorite movie. Exit through the gift shop to replay the ritual. To get back to where I am trying to go, I have to wait, walk, ride, turn around, go again. 

* * *

Elliott is a child in mourning, which nobody around him wants to talk about or help him through.

Although Spielberg decided against making a horror movie, enlisting the magical Melissa Mathison to write a screenplay about a friendship between a lonely boy and an abandoned alien that became “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial” instead, he still made a story built on pain. Spielberg says the movie was informed by his parents’ divorce; for my money, also it’s the best movie I’ve seen about a child losing a parent and no adults taking your grief seriously even though it disrupts every known rule of your universe. How the pain sneaks into your house and takes up residence in your closet without ever being acknowledged. How it can touch all your stuff, feed on little bits of you freely given because you can see yourself as well as some unknowable darkness in its wide, hungry eyes. How it comforts you when nothing else can. 

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Elliott is a child in mourning, which nobody around him wants to talk about or help him through. His father has disappeared, and he’s expected to carry on, not be selfish, not make it about what he has lost. Kids were supposed to be resilient. “He’s in Mexico with Sally,” but his father might as well be on the moon, might as well have landed on some distant planet in another solar system, not going to be home for dinner tonight or any other, working late for lightyears to come.

A parent, or an idea of a family, becomes extra-terrestrial like that — severed from the world, scattered into distant points you’ll spend the rest of your life connecting, dot by dot, into a constellation outline of a whole body, no distress signal powerful enough to reach.

* * *

Dissection isn’t always the best way to understand a body.

When Elliott shows the alien botanist where he is on the globe, it’s clearly Southern California. In the southwestern suburban desert I knew, with similar colors and textures woven through the landscape around the set of their family home, there was no Endor, no towering redwoods a bike ride away. Here, also, a dreamscape cornfield touching the edge of the nighttime yard. What scrubby desert cul-de-sac had such green for its borders? But the dissonance didn’t confuse me. Hadn’t I once woken up in a city facing skyscrapers and gone to bed in the shadow of the Gila Mountains? If the botanist could travel here from another planet, why couldn’t Elliott bike from the outskirts of Los Angeles to almost Oregon in a few minutes?

“Elliott thinks its thoughts?” the clueless adult asks.

“No. Elliott feels his feelings,” his brother answers.

There’s a video called “Everything Wrong with E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial,” made by the people who make those videos that count a movie’s sins, which is to say, story quirks we once accepted on faith. It has more than 1.3 million plays and counting. It’s fast and entertaining, but it’s also a model for how we can lose the distinction between criticizing and criticism, between the first and second definitions, walking into one and coming out the other.

Dissection isn’t always the best way to understand a body. To love is also to suspend disbelief in death for long enough to form a bond. “Be good,” the botanist says by way of saying goodbye. Loss, and what follows, can make tinkering monsters out of us all.

* * *

There is no trusted mentor adult in “E.T.,” just kids experiencing their world as it was and as it could be.

When “E.T.” turned 20, Spielberg made some adjustments. Gone were the FBI agent guns, replaced digitally by walkie-talkies. As if guns were the horror in the film and not the image of astronauts cresting the subdivision hill, their slow march to Elliott’s house backlit by the setting sun. The men in the moon suits, our heroes, invading with ill intent, the wonder we projected onto them inverted against us.

Among the many things about “E.T.” that feel too real to be included in a mainstream kid’s movie now because they were: insults like “penis-breath,” the invocation of a lurking pervert, haphazard home furnishings, casual classroom brutality toward animals, unintentional emotional neglect, the parentification of Michael. And there is no trusted mentor adult in “E.T.,” just kids experiencing their world as it was and as it could be and learning fast how the authorities would fight to preserve the power of the status quo. You could put pool noodles in the cops’ hands, and it wouldn’t change a thing about that.

Ten years later, Spielberg restored the guns with a mea culpa, saying he realized “I had robbed people who loved ‘E.T.’ of their memories of ‘E.T.'” The revision was a betrayal of a kind, however well-intentioned. But it’s not that we loved or even needed the guns themselves. It’s just a different kind of horror to be told by the man in charge that we didn’t see what we knew we saw.

* * *

I lost that toy like I lost my own father: here one day, gone the next.

ET figurine holding the beer, hanging out in a houseplantET figurine holding the beer, hanging out in a houseplant (Photo provided by Erin Keane)

There is nothing left to say about the transfiguration of M&Ms in the script to Reese’s Pieces. (M&Ms have controversial individual personalities now, as we all regret to know, but “Everything Wrong with Literally Everything” is not-great SEO.) Let us instead talk about Coors, about E.T. downing a can right out of the refrigerator and sending his buzz straight to Elliott in school.

As a kid I had a tiny figurine of E.T. frozen in that moment, which in the ’80s must have seemed OK but might not be found in the toy aisle today. The botanist’s pose: can in hand, head turned to see where that racket was coming from, wearing that blue flannel shirt. A father conjured slant, made small enough to fit in a kid’s hand.

I lost that toy like I lost my own father, just a couple of months before “E.T.” premiered: here one day, gone the next. I replace him, I lose him again. But there is eBay. This is what the internet excels at — never forcing us to move on. Over the course of my bidding, I have picked up other figurines, too, when packaged as a set: E.T. wrapped in the blanket, toting a Speak & Spell; E.T. in the wig and dress disguise; E.T. holding the blooming flowers. I tuck them inside the pots of my own plants which are always in need of something I can’t figure out how to give: more or less light, drier or damper soil, the right food.

The tropical maranta leuconeura — the prayer plant, we call it — is native to Brazil, but I make myself believe it can thrive in my home office, that I can give it what it needs to grow. When water lifts its leaves from their drooping torpor, the minor act of resurrection makes me feel like I have powers. When I try to picture a prayer plant growing in the wild ground, my mind instead puts me back on the Universal Studios E.T. Adventure ride, gliding past an oversized plastic version, neon green with pink slashes, growing out of the fabricated rock, always thriving, always the same each time I pass it on the bike track. 

* * *

A family is never a closed story; there’s always a revision waiting for the original script.

When I watch “E.T.” now, in my 40s, I think about that six-pack of beer and how Elliott’s mother probably looked forward to cracking one open after a long day in a ruffled blouse navigating her stupid sexist office politics, the kids’ bickering following them to bed. I can finally see how tired and scared and beautiful and young she is, how madly she is scrambling to hold her family together as it frays.

A family is never a closed story; there’s always a revision waiting for the original script. “He hates Mexico!” she cries, a shitty memory of her shitty ex stuck playing on a loop in her head while he lives out his sequel with Sally. How she snaps when Elliott cries, “Dad would understand!” I get it now. I have been Elliott, nursing my hurt. I am relieved that I can watch the movie now and not feel his pain in the same way. 

A slight fudge on the question of a sequel: In 2019, there was an extended cable-internet ad showing E.T. returning to Earth to visit Elliott, played once again by Henry Thomas, for the holidays. There is snow on the ground where Elliott lives, in a polished, ordered suburban home with a wife and two sweet, cheerful kids, to whom E.T. first reveals himself. Toys still befuddle the alien botanist; candy delights. It’s fine for a commercial. All the fun beats remain — blink and you’ll miss that Elliott still plays D&D — but the fear has been carefully excised, even though there’s an ominous thing called the internet now, which the short movie slash long commercial is trying to sell by reminding us of when we were young and movies were beautiful, as if we are ever allowed to forget.  

This is only a commercial, and maybe I should be offended by its egregious pandering to my cohort’s nostalgia. But do you know what is missing in Elliott’s serene adult cable internet-promoting home? There are no “Star Wars” action figures E.T. once touched in display cases, no vintage Speak & Spell mounted on the wall, no conspiracy-map of reported UFO encounters since 1982. This is a choice, to go against the mood of the moment to deliver on the promise of Spielberg’s original hopeful ending. Elliott has not become a bitter, broken crank, critically wounded by his brief encounter with magic abandoning him before he was ready, casting about for meaning, on a mission to deaden or redeem his pain. He has not, as far as we can tell, repeated the mistakes of his father or spent the last several decades years pining for a time before he left. He just grew up; he found his own ways to heal. Maybe it’s still a fantasy, this one designed to sell us comfort in middle-age. But it is also an adulthood Elliott deserves. 

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