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E.T. The Extra Terrestrial

  • compiled by Jeffrey Overstreet Copyright Christianity Today International
  • 2002 1 Jan
E.T. The Extra Terrestrial

from Film Forum, 03/28/02

Perhaps Steven Spielberg wants to introduce a new generation to one of his favorite creations. Or maybe he wants to win back audiences disillusioned by his last sci-fi outing, A.I. (Artificial Intelligence). Then again, he could be trying to nudge this family favorite back into the all-time box office Top Ten. Whatever the reason, E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial has landed again. What many call Spielberg's masterpiece is back where it was meant to be—in a darkened theatre on a big screen, with a top-notch sound system. Following George Lucas's Star Wars Special Edition lead, Spielberg is offering an update for E.T.'s 20th anniversary. Some details the filmmakers considered rough have been "improved"—now a digitally animated E.T. runs like a frantic monkey through the trees, and his face is more expressive. The soundtrack has been remastered. And some clippings from the cutting room floor have been reinserted to give us a few surprises.

The spiritual parable at the film's heart has made it a favorite among religious audiences, some of whom argue that E.T. is a Christ figure. (Originally, some religious leaders warned audiences away from the film for what they described as New Age messages, but those protests seem to have blown over.)

Holly McClure (Crosswalk) says the digital additions and extra scenes "only add to the pleasures of this classic film. I love this movie: the music, the adorable children, the sweet relationship E.T. has with Elliot and the fantasy elements." She adds, "Many Christians have taken issue with the spiritual messages in this film. These topics are important to discuss with your younger children, giving them your spiritual perspective, but I don't believe those plot points ruin this movie or give Christians a theological reason not to let [their] children see it."

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' critic is less worried: "Spielberg fashions an inspiring image of youthful innocence and courage in a story that some may find overly sentimental. Nevertheless, the childlike fantasy conveys some genuine emotion and a message of trust and peace that the family might enjoy sharing."

Bob Smithouser (Focus on the Family) meanders happily down memory lane: "I first met the little brown guy with the glowing finger in June of '82, just as I was graduating from high school. … It was a magical time and E.T. was part of it. So it's possible that my memories of the film are a bit idealized." He wasn't alone: the rest of Smithouser's audience—mostly adults—was enraptured by it.

For John Evans (Preview), a few careless words from the mouths of the children in the movie "prevent a wholehearted recommendation of this fascinating film."

Ken Priebe (Christian Spotlight and Hollywood Jesus) says the film "speaks to us on another level, a deeper one in our subconscious and our souls. It deals with everyday emotions and experiences like broken families, loneliness, friendship, and love. It also points to a hunger we all have for a relationship with a being outside our world. … We are all incredibly lonely." He then expounds upon how our loneliness cannot be redeemed by aliens, but by Christ.

Phil Boatwright (The Movie Reporter) also recognizes "an allegory with similarities to the story of Christ. Think about it. A sacrificial being comes to earth, giving love and his life for others, dies, comes back from the dead, ascends into the heavens and promises to remain in our hearts. Wow."

While it is easy to see the symbolism, it would be wrong to oversimplify the reasons for the film's appeal. Other critics, like Tom Shone (, highlight additional relevant truths: "John Williams's score … reveals the film as the love story it was always meant to be: boy finds true love, loses true love, finds him again, before finally losing him to the heavens. It's The Way We Were, with the love interest played, not by Robert Redford, but by a four-foot stack of wrinkly rubber. (Same difference.)"

In The New York Times, screenwriter Melissa Mathison recalled, "I always thought of E.T. as very, very old, and Steven [Spielberg], I think, always thought of him as young. We were striving to achieve ideas about responsibility, about unconditional love, about the unimportance of appearance, and communicating on a deeper level."

For grownups, the appeal of Elliott's childlike faith is undeniable, unstained by cynicism and selfishness. We fear for his fragile love and his ability to communicate with the alien; adolescence approaches. Elliott's older brother is already struggling to hold on to his faith, and the grownups are almost uniformly hard-hearted, evil, and brutal toward children and harmless aliens.

For me, the film appeals to our basic human desire to defy one of Mom and Dad's primary rules: "Don't talk to strangers." Sure, the folks meant well—they wanted me to be safe in case a villain came hunting children in the neighborhood. But how many friendships did I fail to establish as a result? How much warmth, truth, and love have children missed because they have been taught to fear strangers or people who are different? As grownups in the city, we pass each other without eye contact or greetings, scurrying like ants (to borrow a metaphor from Richard Linklater's recent animated work Waking Life).

But in E.T., Elliott ventures out into the back yard at night to offer candy to a homeless person, striving to discern his needs. The boy has needs too. The movie never names them, but the absence of Elliott's father makes a strong suggestion. Most of Spielberg's films, in fact, show families without fathers, or fathers who are cold, distant, manipulative, and jaded. In A.I., there is an undercurrent of anger, as the fatherly inventor of a child robot justifies his callousness by describing God as the first neglectful father. E.T., on the other hand, is the friend, savior, and father figure who stays faithful.

The friendship of alien and boy will last forever, we're told, but instead of making an earthling of E.T., the relationship makes an alien of Elliott—he becomes more aware of the cruel world around him, and desires to escape the terrifying, claustrophobia-inducing evils of grownup rationality, suspicion, fear, and violence. When Elliott watches E.T. heading home, we know he wishes he were going along. We feel the tug as well. We're strangers in a strange land.

from Film Forum, 04/04/02

Last week, Film Forum featured a menu of critical responses to the reissue of Steven Spielberg's classic sci-fi fable E.T. The Extra Terrestrial. Raves continued this week. Steven D. Greydanus (Decent Films) sums up a number of possible interpretations of the film, and explores its theme of childhood innocence lost: "Like Peter Pan, who also took children flying until it was time for them to grow up, E.T. represents the wonder of childhood, of a time that we must all leave behind, though we may continue to carry it inside, 'right here,' in our minds and hearts."

from Film Forum, 04/18/02

At Canadian Christianity, Peter T. Chattaway notes the special edition DVD release of Tron and the theatrical special edition of E.T. The Extra Terrestrial by exploring how both films work as Christian allegories. He begins, "The summer of 1982 was a great time to be a science fiction fan, especially if you were a young Christian who was just beginning to explore the relationship between faith and film. It is … fascinating to see just how strong an influence the Christian story has on our culture, even—or especially—if the parallels were unintentional."