Favorite Fictional Characters, #216: E.T.
For those of my vintage, it's hard to overstate what a big deal E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial was. It was 1982, a vastly simpler time, with no internet or cell phones, just the beginning of VCRs or Ataris. We read comic books and watched cartoons on Saturday mornings, in a childhood far more similar to that of our parents than that of our children. We were the Star Wars generation, growing up with imaginations fired by George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, seizing on that mythic wonder as both escape from and alternative to a real world haunted by Soviet nukes and Reaganomics. When E.T. came to the cinema screen, it was pure magic. This wasn't a long time ago. This wasn't in a galaxy far, far away. This was adventure in our own suburban neighborhoods, with familiar streets and buildings and junk food we ate and games we played. We were Elliott, and something fantastical had come into our lives.
At its heart, E.T. was a story about friendship and our capacity for love and courage. Both Elliott and E.T. were lost and lonely, isolated and unusual, and in each other they found strength and hope. Spielberg's gift was to film this movie in such a way that adults are not featured and almost never seen (unless, like the mother and dogged alien-hunter "Keys" they retain some childlike traits). He was speaking to children, and those with young hearts, capable of suspending judgment based on standard criteria and perceiving the value in all life, even that resembling a waddling rutabaga.
And let's admit it - E.T. was a strange little spud of a Jedi. (Long aside: Yes, a Jedi. Botanist? Nice cover story. Look, we know E.T.'s race exists within the Star Wars universe. He recognizes Yoda on Halloween. And the dude can move stuff with his mind. Case closed.) He's a curious guy, discovering the thrills and pitfalls of booze and Reese's Pieces. He's wants more than anything to get back to his ship and his people, and yet he is willing to forge a connection with an alien boy that both risks and saves them both. Heady stuff to see at the age of seven, but deeply formative. We were rooting against those largely faceless grownups (including a scene featuring Harrison Ford as Elliott's school principal that ended up on the cutting room floor), and siding with this strange creature because we understood him and felt that he understood us. Here, then, was the antidote to a decade that was rapidly becoming about untrammeled adult success and the relegation of children and childish concepts like tolerance and altruism to the margins of society.
We all wanted that taste of magic in our own lives, something other than dreary delivery pizza and droning biology teachers and the rampant scoffing at imagination by those in power. Just once to ride our bikes across the face of the moon, to soar, to be special. To be a hero. Not as a Rambo in the jungle or even as a Jedi with a lightsaber, but just as us, as a kid, trying to save our friend.