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‘E.T.’ holds profound adult lessons

By Jen Chaney

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  • ‘E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial’

    New release: High-definition master for the much-loved Steven Spielberg film of 1982, decked out with loads of supplementary material. “There are some subtleties in the narrative toward the end that, I suspect, only a child will fully grasp,” Vincent Canby wrote in The New York Times in 1982.

    (Universal, Blu-ray/DVD combo $34.98, DVD $19.98, PG) New York Times



One of the big moments of my childhood, and undoubtedly of many people’s childhoods, was seeing “E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial,” the 1982 Steven Spielberg blockbuster that’s been back in the headlines recently because its 30th-anniversary Blu-ray/DVD has been released.

If you had asked 9-year-old me in 1982 why she liked “E.T.” so much – enough to see it multiple times in the theater, buy every piece of E.T.-related merchandise imaginable and dress up for Halloween as a bag of Reese’s Pieces – I probably would have said I thought it was really funny when E.T. drinks beer, or that I always felt a weird lump in my throat when E.T. comes back to life, or, if I was being super-honest, that I had an almost debilitating crush on Henry Thomas.

Only now, as an adult, I am beginning to understand why that movie’s gray alien finger reached into our collective souls and set them alight.

Much has been said, by Spielberg as well as others, about “E.T.” being a commentary on children dealing with divorce. As the New Yorker’s Anthony Lane wrote in a heartbreaking work of staggering film criticism published around the time of “E.T.’s” 2002 release, “the gap in the family’s existence where a father used to be is an open wound, and one effect of E.T. – his unwitting mission – is to heal it, before he heads back to the stars.”

E.T. does heal Elliott’s wounds.

In a scene that blew by me when I was a kid, but now might be my favorite in the whole movie, he seals up a cut on Elliott’s finger while, just outside their bedroom-closet-world, Drew Barrymore and Dee Wallace read “Peter Pan.” In that moment, Gertie fervently affirms her belief in fairies and Elliott, the kid whose father is off in Mexico with some chick named Sally, starts to believe that a male figure really wants to take care of him.

That combination of comfort and wonder, with its Spielbergian shafts of soft light, is the cinematic definition of what it means to be a kid.

As the movie continues – I’d apologize for spoilers, but this is “E.T.,” so, um, no – Elliott focuses more of his energy on taking care of E.T. He helps him build his home-phoning contraption, selflessly giving up a perfectly functional Speak & Spell in the process.

He swiftly ushers him away from the government agents who would happily perform an autopsy on the little guy if they could. He nearly gets into seven car wrecks, almost gets shot, and pedals his bicycle into the stratosphere without wearing a helmet, solely to get E.T. back to his spaceship so he can go home. And he does all of this, despite the fact that Elliott really doesn’t want him to leave.

This is what being an adult is.

When I watch “E.T.” now, what I see is a story about what it means to become a true caregiver for someone else. Because that’s what Elliott is, basically. Like E.T., he’s a father of sorts, too; just one who happens to wear a red-hooded sweatshirt and insult people using Dungeons and Dragons terms. He’s an almost-man who learns that sometimes you don’t get to choose when to let go of someone, and other times you actually do have a choice, but the right answer still comes back: Let go. So you do.

Because the universe is so, so much bigger than just one boy and his needs. It stretches far beyond a rainbow streak in the sky left behind after your best friend sails away, leaving behind only a promise that he’ll be right here.

Chaney is a pop culture writer for The Washington Post
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