In was the summer of 1982. It was the summer that Speilberg’s E.T. was released. I would have been three. My mother took me to see E. T., though she remembers my brother being with us, which means that it was probably when the film was released in 1985. My mother remembers me watching intensely through the whole film. I was taking, she recalls, everything in.
I don’t remember going to see E. T. as much as I remember the E.T. doll I had.
Or that something sacred and spiritual can happen in a movie theater. My love with movies started with E. T. And frankly, it was a good movie to start that love affair, if you will.
Speilberg’s film is one of the most watched and beloved film of our time. In 1994 it was added the Library of Congress National Film Registry and is number 24 on the American Film Institute’s list of 100 Greatest Films.
The story is quite simple, actually. Elliott (Henry Thomas) and his family are hanging out one night. They hear something in the backyard, and think that it a coyote. Elliott, however, feels like there is something else going on. Using Reese’s Pieces candy, he lures the creature out. He comes face-to-face with E.T.
Elliott hides E. T. in his room for a few days before showing him to his older brother Michael. Elliott knows that not everyone is going to understand what he has encountered. At first Michael (Robert MacNaughton) doesn’t either, but he comes around. Perhaps one of the reasons that Elliott and E. T. connect is because they share similar views of the world. E. T., like ten-year-old Elliott, explores the world with a child-like curiosity. For a huge part of the movie, you never see above an adult’s waist, expect for Elliott’s mother (Dee Wallace).
This is why we can connect with Elliott. We have all been able to relate to Elliott. We have been too old to hang out with our older siblings or the grown ups, and too young to enjoy the play of our younger siblings. We know what it is like to be stuck between two worlds.
Enter E. T. A stranger from another planet. Immediately a man with a huge ring of keys pursues E. T. and his fellow aliens. The man with the keys and his people know of E. T.’s arrival. We are led to believe (and later mostly confirm) that their intentions are not good.
Elliott hiding E. T. in his room is a means of keeping E. T. safe from those who which to harm him (i.e. do scientific testing on him.) It is more than just Elliott bringing home a stray pet. He has encountered something almost divine.
To say that E. T. is a Christ-figure is not anything new. It has been said before. E. T. does a miracle when he points to a dying house-plant and it begins to grow again. He gives the plant new life. When he is watching Sesame Street and learning to talk, the first sentence he says is, “Be good.” I can’t think of a better way to put Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount as found in the gospel of Matthew. E. T., like Jesus, shares a message of being and doing good.
Elliott and E. T. develop a means of sharing telepathically their feelings. Some of the film’s most comical scenes. While Elliott is at school, E. T. is at home exploring the house. He discovered beer and enjoys it. While E. T. is getting inebriated, Elliott starts feeling (and acting) the way E. T. is, while he is dissecting frogs in his science class. E. T. reads a Buck Rogers comic strip that gives him an idea to contact his people (“phone home”). When this happens, Elliott gets the idea to release the frogs. It is symbolic of what will happen to E. T. and what Elliott’s role will be. It is an encounter that changes them both.
The season of Lent is a time when we contemplate our own encounters with Jesus. When we first encounter Jesus we aren’t sure what others will think. We take Jesus up in our rooms and hide him among our stuffed animals. We don’t know how our older brother will respond, but we are pretty certain our parents might freak out. When Elliott’s mother finds out about E. T., it is when E. T. is starting to get sick, and she rushes the children out of the house. Because E. T. and Elliott share feelings, Elliott is getting sick too.
As Michael opens the door, men in NASA suits make their way inside – more people who do not understand. They are coming to take E. T. away. E.T.’s sickness seems to be brought on due to his separation from his people. The scientists who come in, whose faces we mostly do not see, want to dissect E. T. Elliott is crying out to save him, but cannot.
Elliott is not the one doing the saving.
Earlier in the film, when Elliott is hiding E. T. in his closet, they are listening to his mother read Peter Pan to Gertie (Drew Barrymore). In the story Tinkerbell drinks poison in order to save Peter’s life. Gertie and her mom start clapping with Peter Pan to save Tinkerbell. As they listen to the story, Elliott and E. T. embrace. As a side note, the scene where Elliott and the other boys are riding bikes with the moon in the background, is homage to the scene at the end of the Walt Disney Peter Pan film where pirate ship sails across the moon.
The concept of Tinkerbell sacrificing her life to save Peter’s is mirrored by E. T. sacrificing his life for Elliott. Which is the theological idea of the Messiah – the Christ, whose life and death we remember during Lent. Jesus sacrificed himself “even to death on the cross” (Philippians 2) to save mankind. We, like Elliott, cannot save Christ, but Christ is the one who saves humanity.
Lent prepares us for Easter, when Jesus rises from the dead. The power of Easter is the promise of new life. As E. T. dies, Elliott comes back to life. Everyone comes to terms that E. T. has died. They place him in a coffin like container, to be dissected at a later time. Gertie is carrying the house-plant that E. T. healed earlier in the film. She sits near Elliott. When the plant comes back to life, Elliott knows that E. T. is alive! E. T.’s heart is glowing red inside the container. Elliott opens it, wraps E. T. in a white cloth, closes the container and pretends to cry over it. Enlisting the help of his brother, Michael, and his friends, they use one of the scientist vans to drive E. T. to the forest. Once the forest, they await for the space ship to descend, good-byes are said, E. T. boards the ship and the ship ascends.
John Baxter, in his book on Steven Spielberg, shares this quote from the novelist Martin Amis:
“Towards the end of E. T., barely able to support my own grief and bewilderment, I turned and looked down the aisle at my fellow sufferers; executive, black dude, Japanese businessman, punk, hippie, mother, teenager, child. Each face was a mask of tears. And we weren’t crying for the little extraterrestrial, nor for little Elliott, nor for little Gertie. We were crying for our lost selves.”
The good news is that at the end of the desert of Lent, there is the promise of Easter. Death gives way to Life. Grief gives way to Joy.