Child-Like Wonder at E.T.

Child-Like Wonder at E.T. June 11, 2014

E.T.: the Extra-Terrestrial, directed by Steven Spielberg

The only thing better than watching E.T. when you are five years old is watching it with a five-year-old. Rewatching Steven Spielberg’s tale of a gentle alien trying to get back home with the help of a fatherless boy and his friends–some three decades after I had last seen it, this time with my kids–was movie magic.

Here is a rough transcript of my son’s running commentary.

“What’s this movie? Is that a spaceship? Is this Star Wars? What was that? Is it a gremlin? Who are those people? Are they good guys or bad guys? What are the looking for? Are they looking for that thing? What is that thing? What’s that sound? He sounds like a dog.

“Eww, look at him. What is he? He’s slimy. Is he a good guy or a bad guy? Is he like Yoda? He makes funny noises. HE CAN TALK! Daddy, daddy, the gremlin can talk! I think he’s a bad guy.

“What’s wrong with Eliot? Is he okay? He’s acting funny. Eww, he’s kissing a girl. I think he’s a good guy. The gremlin just healed Eliot’s finger! He must be a good guy too.

“E.T. wants to go home daddy! He just said it. He said ‘E.T. phone home.’ He’s trying to get home. E.T. phone home!

“Who are the people looking for E.T.? Are they bad guys? I think they’re bad guys. Why do they want to find E.T.? He just wants to go home.

“How are the boys getting away? Can I have a bike? I want a bike. Ooooooh. E.T. MAKES BIKES FLY!

E.T. is magical!

My son has not seen very many live-action movies. He was enraptured by this one. There is a reason this is AFI’s 24th greatest film of all time.

Let’s get one thing out of the way: E.T. is a rather obvious messiah figure–an otherworldly being from above with healing powers who brings people together in love, but who dies unjustly at the hands of the authorities before resurrecting to new life and ascending to the heavens. That doesn’t mean E.T. is a “Christian film,” whatever that means. It means Spielberg knows how to exploit storytelling archetypes, effectively putting them to use to give his otherwise unique story a grander, timeless feel.

The genius of E.T. is that the story is told entirely through the kids’ perspective. Eliot’s mom is the only adult face we see until very late in the movie. Spielberg keeps the adults’ heads above the camera frame so that the teachers, scientists, and G-men are faceless bodies who float above the kids and their world. Which is fitting, since this is how kids see life.

This gives E.T. its deeper spiritual themes. E.T. invites us to see the world with a child’s eyes, through which everything is magical and new. The middle act of the film lets us watch E.T. through Elliot’s eyes, and discover the world anew through E.T.’s eyes, a double-helping of awe.

Which makes Elliot’s coming of age almost painful. We don’t want to leave behind the simplicity and enchantment of childhood. But when E.T. dies, the scientists take off their hoods and we and Elliot see their faces for the first time. As a kid I remember disliking this part of the movie; it made me uneasy and afraid. We are in an adult world now. Childhood, which we might define as having trust in the goodness of life, cannot survive the recognition of the reality of death.

That sheds a bit of light on Jesus’ comment that “whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it,” (Mark 10:15) and “unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven,” (Matthew 18:3). How can we trust in the goodness of God when we know the awful realities of death that await us? If death is the final reality, the magic of childhood is a cruel farce made the worse by the long life of cynically aware adulthood that follows it. But if Jesus has conquered death, then we can re-enter a spiritual childhood and look on life anew.

This, I think, is what we see in E.T.’s final act, in which the visitor literally dies, resurrects, and ascends and, more importantly, Elliot and his friends despair before experiencing a rebirth of hope. If this was just a story about an alien returning home, the last scene, with John Williams’s bombastic score, would be ludicrously overdrawn. But as a depiction of apotheosis and childlike hope, it is breathtaking.

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