August is widely regarded as the sexiest month of the year and because of that indisputable fact I was born at a pretty good time for cinema, five days after the first Star Wars was released in May 1977. So I grew up watching the excellent American cinema offerings of the 1980’s before everything went to shit with an abundance of cheap, straight to video bullplop in the 90’s. I was lucky. And my first memory of being profoundly emotionally moved by a piece of art was watching Steven Spielberg’s E.T. The Extra Terrestrial when I was five years old. It may actually be my earliest memory. I really can’t recall anything from my initial half decade.
I saw a lot of good shit in the small, one screen cinema in my hometown. I suppose you could call it a fleapit. You’d pay the man who lived in a slot in the wall your thrupence and before you knew it you’d be caught up in the adventures of Marty McFly or being genuinely frightened by Ghostbusters or laughing at The Three Amigos or watching Martin Short scream “I’m possessed” in a doctor’s office in Innerspace or just being surprised when The Neverending Story actually ended. But nothing affected me more than E.T.
The last film I remember seeing in that old cinema before it closed down (it’s now a warehouse) was Crocodile Dundee. I was intrigued by the poster, I was always intrigued by the poster as the poster was all we had to go on back then. This was an era of painted, beautiful works of art that sold you the entire concept of the movie in one image, not necessarily the plot but the tone and spectacle of the movie. Judging by the poster for this particular blockbuster I was really looking forward to seeing a giant Australian man destroy New York and was slightly disappointed to see it was just an entertaining, fish out of water, love story adventure.
I don’t really have a memory of seeing the poster for E.T. when it came to town, I was too young. Looking at it now it seems very quaint almost. It was a very simple concept, the Earth seen from above and a homage to the creation of man, a much more palatable concept than the original design which would have seen E.T. holding his lightbulb finger to Elliots head like he was committing some form of non-consensual probe.
The first film I can actually remember seeing on the BIG screen in Birr, Co. Offaly was The Jungle Book. This was when television sets were about as big as a medium sized child’s head. It didn’t really have much of an impact on my tiny brain at the time, I think because it was essentially the same as the cartoons I had been watching on television. But E.T. was set in the very real world of America which was like my world but way cooler. The different yet familiar suburbia of childhood.
My Mum had brought me to the flicks that day, she was almost nine months pregnant so I think her motivation was to get off her feet for a few hours. I remember instantly being captivated by the opening scene where E.T. and his buddies are collecting samples of plant life in the woods like a bunch of intergalactic Charles Darwins. The chase through the woods and abandonment of E.T. was something that really scared me. Throughout the film Spielberg deliberately uses low angles to mimic the feeling of seeing everything from the perspective of a child or indeed, a childlike creature. The Government man chasing E.T. down is only identified by the keys hanging from his belt. In fact, his character is named in the end credits as, simply, “Keys”.
The emphasis is always squarely on the kids in this movie, so much so that, with the exception of the children’s Mother, no adult’s face is actually clearly seen until the last half hour of the film.
Henry Thomas, who plays Elliot with a real conviction and truth throughout is a boy from a broken home with a little sister and a big brother who finds an Alien in the garden shed and it becomes his pet. The five year old me was completely invested in this scenario, and, as far as I was concerned, an absolutely real Alien was walking around this kid’s kitchen, putting on wigs and getting drunk watching telly. What a cool thing, imagine that? Your own Alien?
After E.T. attempts to phone home using junk he drunkenly cobbled together earlier, the Government men finally track him down, “Keys” and his cohorts put up strange tubed tunnels and enter the family home in spacesuits making them seem like they are the alien invaders terrorising the innocent earthlings. Once we actually see “Keys” and he shows himself to be a good intentioned sort who has no desire to dissect Elliots new friend he becomes a real person and not an abstract G-man. The childlike fear of the unknown is eased at this point and watching the film as a five year old I was relieved.
But then E.T. is very pale, he’s extremely pale, he was out all night without a jacket lying in a river. He’s not dying is he, I thought. My Mother reassured me that he would be fine and I’m sure she thought that he would, that no film for children would kill off it’s loveable, benevolent star. But then he died. And I, in the parlance of our modern times, couldn’t cope. I started bawling, my Mother reassured me that he would be fine but I could see the doubt in her eyes.
And then he came back to life, foreshadowing Neo from The Matrix and a thousand illuminati conspiracy theorists. Mum was surprised, I was on the edge of my seat as he flew all the BMX bandits into the air and made good his escape.
But then he leaves and I found that just as hard to take as his death. And I have continued to feel stirred up by that final scene. Even when I watched the pointless special edition in 2002 with all that walkie talkie nonsense I found Drew Barrymore’s genuine tears, John Williams perfect score and Elliot’s bittersweet farewell a really profound combination.
I don’t personally like the resurrection theory of E.T. as it just shows how limited we are as a species, attaching our human mythologies to everything and anything. It can sometimes be a lot simpler than we think. Spielberg has stated before that he always considered the alien to be like a sexless plant type organism so his whole life cycle of death and rebirth could be viewed much the same as a perennial flower that blooms and fades only to flourish once again when the season comes around. So, really, the extra terrestrial is no more special than a daffodil.
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