E.T. the activist

So I’m flipping through a book about E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial and I’m reminded of something that occurred to me earlier this year when watching the 20th anniversary edition with my kids, who hadn’t seen the film before.

I think that it might just be possible that a part of the distrust many Americans today have our government is due to seeing E.T. as a kid. At least for the twenty- and thirty-somethings that were five to fifteen years old when they first saw it.

Think about it for a minute.

A boy finds the best pet in the world and it follows him home. They bond in a way that defies explanation. His little sister falls in love with it. His older brother looks up to him, maybe for the first time, due to the entry of the little alien into their lives.

Then the government enters from stage left. Space-suited, faceless federal minions invade the private home of the single mom and her family. Men in sunglasses and bad suits blockade the entire neighborhood. They transform the cozy, safe house into a maze of plastic and machines filled with adults who don’t listen to the only people who know what’s happening.

In its mad, blundering way, the government fails to save the dying citizen from another (and apparently better) world. When they use the defibrillator paddles, watch the little girl. As far as she knows, they’re KILLING her friend. And, after all that horror, he dies. That squealing tone from the heart monitor signifies a broken promise. And flatlined trust.

Never mind, for the moment, that E.T. returns to life later. It’s in spite of government efforts that he survives to live happily ever after, not because of them.

And the little boy is forced to defy his country to save his best friend. Who does he turn to? His mom? The police? The one official (Keys) who listens to him? No. He’s been betrayed by them. In his hour of need, he turns to his friends. They team up, daring to fight back against the monster that has invaded their world and turned it into an unrecognizable place where fear is the primary power. Does little Elliot view his acts as rebellious? Probably not. He’s only interested in helping someone who’s lost and afraid. He knows who the good guys are and who the bad guys are. Although digitally edited out in the re-release, those men in the bad suits had guns, and they were pointed at the group of kids trying desperately to do the right thing despite the law and the machinations of men who should have known better.

That E.T. was a great film is undeniable. Its greatness isn’t in it’s special effects or in its acting or even in its plot. Its greatness is in the way that it touches those that watch it. Why does it touch us so? The themes of family, of friendship, of helping those in need? The idea of finding the coolest new buddy in the whole world? The simple ways that the love between E.T. and those that met him pull on our heart strings?

Yes. All of the above.

But I don’t think that all of us who saw it when we were seven or ten or thirteen have forgotten the terror we felt when those men came to the house. If we were really as affected by that movie as I think we were, some of that fear must still be within us. Our mind was opened to the idea that those men in those bad suits might not be nice. Whatever synapses complete the circuit of distrust for authority closed forever when we saw those adults do what they did. The seed was planted. It certainly wasn’t Vietnam or Watergate for us.

I think we feel the way we feel, at least in part, because of what we saw happen when the government “helped” a little boy and his friend.

You think I’m kidding. I’m not.