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E.T.: this now-adult's perspective

There's plenty in E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial I didn't remember, or only remembered very selectively. It took me years to register that Elliott's family was dealing with a separation: even now, divorce has rarely hit me closely. My folks have been married since 1968. In 1982, my 8-year-old mind probably just thought They're in Southern California with no dad; maybe he's on a Navy ship.

There's still plenty I do remember, because life reinforced it. E.T. and Poltergeist, two weirdly kind of paired films which were released almost on top of each other, are among the few 1982 films we geeks remember fondly that are set in a world a lot of us recognize. They're time capsules as well as fantasy stories (neither's quite science fiction): fairy tale dreams or nightmares set in circa 1981 suburbs and schools, not the ancient world of Conan, the other world of The Dark Crystal, the 23rd century of Wrath of Khan, the post-apocalyptic Road Warrior, or Antarctica in The Thing. (Tootsie, An Officer and a Gentleman, 48 Hrs. and Rocky III were of course big hits that year, but more for adults and more specific in what worlds they depicted.) That's where I lived back then: suburban San Diego; Camarillo, CA (in Ventura County, where the Poltergeist house is); then, when E.T. came out, Virginia Beach, VA, which is so spread out it's basically its own suburb. Lots of us lived in those suburbs. We had our bikes and parks, and new construction usually close by. Elliott's toys were our toys; his issues (learning how to survive school, trying to assert himself around people who don't listen to him, starting to figure out who he thinks is hot) were our issues. His were just complicated by a walking penis-turd with a heartlight and a sweet tooth showing up in his backyard.

Like a lot of people my age, I identified with Elliott notably. I absorbed a lot about his perspective. The government employee characters, not so much: E.T. reinforces that by showing almost no adults' faces in the first half, but even in the second half, Kid-Me was so focused on the rising stakes for E.T. and Elliott that I didn't pay much mind to the adults, other than thinking OH NO THEY WANT TO TAKE E.T. AWAY OH NO. Except my 38-year-old self on Friday night could see that, while they're doing what we and the family don't want them to do, they're doing it out of genuine curiosity and, when E.T. and Elliott are clearly in bad shape, the hope that they can help. They're businesslike about it, especially the doctors at the end, but they're trained to be businesslike in extreme situations. But Keys, Peter Coyote's character, feels that hope more personally. He tells Elliott that he's lived to know that life beyond Earth exists, and here's proof in front of him; and Elliott's connection, reaching such a deep level so quickly, with said alien is life-affirming, something wonderful. Keys doesn't want to ruin that, and when it looks like he has, it weighs on him. He also knows he'll never connect with an unearthly being the way Elliott did; had that vessel arrived a couple of decades earlier, the kid who'd grow up to be Keys may have. May.

So there's weight (which 8-year-old me didn't get) to Keys's line "I'm glad he found you first." And the wish that maybe the government officials, in their cars never labeled anything more specific than "U.S. Government," would not have found E.T. It's good Keys sees that there's still a happy ending afterwards, a happy ending thanks to what the kids did out of love and fondness for this creature.

So much of the film plays to how we remember youth -- I remember how often it seemed that adults just couldn't see what was right in front of them -- that it's smart to tie in how Keys reacts, and why he reacts this way, to his youth. It wouldn't have added much to explain Dee Wallace Stone's character that way; she just has to be The Mom, with her own issues that Elliott's only going to sort of get. Kids don't think of their parents ever being kids. (Her character also doesn't strike me as someone who dreamed as a kid about meeting aliens, come to think of it.) After Elliott briefly thinks of E.T. as something like a pet, he then treats E.T. as a fellow kid, when E.T. almost certainly is not; but it's how they can relate. (Elliott treating E.T. like a father figure might, in fact, have been kind of creepy. Maybe really creepy. I'm glad that's not where the film went.)

I'm glad and a little relieved E.T. still works on me, 30 years after 8-year-old me saw it, and that I can still feel the emotions of a creature that sounds kind of like a Taun-Taun. E.T. has a more organic story than a Spielberg film I've since cooled on, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, which had at least six writers and feels to me like a mismatched stew instead of the epic it's trying to be. Just Spielberg and Melissa Mathison wrote E.T.'s story, with Mathison fleshing out the screenplay, and kind of like Coraline (the Neil Gaiman novel, not so much the film adaptation), each story element seems almost fable-like inevitable: I like that bikes become significant, in a unique way. They hadn't been used that way before, and they can never be used that way again except in blatant homage. And my hunch is that my fondness for 1999's The Iron Giant, which consciously evokes E.T. at so many points, made me more ready to still like E.T.

And yes, I teared up. There. One last admission in this entry.