Friday, September 16, 2011

Flashback Friday: E.T. (and Elliott)

On September 8th, actor Henry Thomas turned 40. Who is Henry Thomas, you ask? He is the actor who played Elliott, the boy who befriended the abandoned extra-terrestrial in the classic movie from the 1980s: E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial. I had no idea that he was born the same year as me. That's pretty cool. When the film came out in 1982, my dad took the family to see it in the theater and he thought I would relate to it since it featured a boy the same age as me, who had an older brother and a younger sister (played adorably by Drew Barrymore).

Yes, I really did relate to the Elliott character. I was especially touched by the scene where Elliott freed the frogs from being dissected for science class. When I was in junior high school, I never looked forward to the dissecting portion of the class lesson. In 7th grade, I had to dissect a worm. In 10th grade, I had to dissect a crawdad. The only difference is that we did not have to kill the animals. They were already dead. I'm not sure if they still dissect animals in schools across America, but in this day and age of video and plastic models, there is no need to sacrifice animals in the name of high school biology!

After seeing the movie, I felt that had we gone to the same school, Henry would be a natural friend of mine. I had heard years later that he had a tough time in school and was a bit of a loner. He apparently got made fun of by the other kids because of his role in the movie E.T. He did not live in Hollywood or the Greater Los Angeles area, but in Texas where boys were expected to play football. I can imagine that a joke from the movie was probably a favourite to recite by other kids he went to school with. The line I'm talking about is when Elliott is waiting at the bus stop and a boy asks him where the alien came from, "Uranus?" Har-har. I heard that joke enough times as a kid, myself.

It's amazing to reflect that the cast member who went on to the greatest success was not Henry Thomas or the woman who played the mother, but Drew Barrymore, who also had a rough childhood. She was the adorable little sister who taught E.T. how to talk and dressed him up in girl clothes and a wig, much to Elliott's dismay. Though Henry Thomas has played in quite a few movies, including Cloak and Dagger a couple years later (I had watched this when I spent the night at my friend Ken Lord's house in our 7th grade year), the youngest brother in Legends of the Fall, the independent film 11:14, and others I can't recall at the moment. Nothing truly standing out. He will probably always be best known for playing Elliott. And no, he was not the actor who played the conscientious character in Saving Private Ryan who had a breakdown when he could not kill the German soldier that killed a member of his troop. I remember one lady telling me that the guy from E.T. was in Saving Private Ryan, but that is another actor. They could play brothers, though.

When Steven Spielberg released the "special edition" of the film for the 20th anniversary, I went to see it in theaters at Phipps Plaza in Atlanta. The politically correct version, though, was a bust. Changes included switching out guns for walkie-talkies in the police who chase after the boys on bicycles, and the mother telling her oldest son that he could not go out dressed the way he was because people might think he was a "hippie"! The original line was better. She had said that he looked like a "terrorist." The special edition also added a deleted scene, which was amusing, where E.T. is in the bathtub filled with water.

I have the film on DVD but I don't watch the special edition. I'm glad that Steven Spielberg released the original version in the same DVD release. He should have learned from his friend George Lucas to leave things alone. There's a reason why it became the biggest hit of all time (until Star Wars: Special Edition reclaimed the title in 1997 and then Titanic in 1998, and finally Avatar in 2010).

In 1982, when I first saw a picture of E.T. in a news magazine, I was scared. He looked kind of creepy. It was only after seeing the movie can you eventually think of him as "cute." Part of what scared me, though, was a picture from the Spielberg-produced movie Poltergeist. I had thought that they were the same movie, because it was one article about both films. Fortunately, my parents knew better than to take us to see Poltergeist. Even though it was PG, when I saw it on cable TV at someone's house years later, I was really creeped out with that film. To this day, I can't really watch it. I think it is far scarier than any of the slasher horror films because it deals with the realm of spirit and there are plenty of creepy stuff going on that we don't know about.

As for E.T., though, this film truly resonated with me. Sometimes I wonder if the awe I feel looking into a star-filled night sky comes from the awe I felt in watching this movie as a child. Spielberg considered this his most personal film, I guess because he was a bit of a loner growing up and this film is about alienation. An extra-terrestrial visitor who gets left behind and hunted by human adults who witnessed the UFO in the sky. A young boy whose parents are getting a divorce, with the father missing somewhere. Somehow, they find each other and have to learn how to trust one another and to communicate. The references to Star Wars were awesome (Elliott plays with the action figures, like every boy who was born in the 1970s; his older brother Mike talks like Yoda when he gives his promise not to tell the grown-ups about E.T.; and E.T. says "home!" when he sees a kid in a Yoda costume).

The film moves brilliantly, with some truly comical scenes sprinkled throughout. The emotional shifts are interesting. I remember feeling afraid when Elliott is speaking to his brother about being afraid or when E.T. creates a working model of the universe or when a government van is conducting electronic surveillance of the neighbourhood. I remember wanting to live in a house that looked like the ones that populated that California neighbourhood (I love the Spanish tile roof). I remember hating the sickly white E.T. and being scared when people in spacesuits break into their home. I also remember being inspired when a group of kids on bicycles managed to outrun the government agents in their van. Its simply an iconic film and I'm glad that it was very much a part of my childhood. The film still ranks in my Top Ten Favourite Films of All Time.

The scene above, with Elliott and E.T. flying on the bicycle through the air with the large moon in the background is an iconic image from the movie. One that Spielberg eventually adopted as his logo for his company, Amblin Entertainment. During the 2002 special edition release of the film, I thought about why this film was so popular. Then it hit me: E.T. is a metaphor for the Jesus story! No wonder why it was such a huge success! The storyline resonated with millions of moviegoers, even if they did not make the obvious connection.

When I shared this idea with some co-workers, they laughed at me like it was the most ridiculous thing they had ever heard. One guy wasn't too shy about saying that I was stupid for thinking that. Am I, though? E.T. heals a wound, he dies, he resurrects, and he ascends into the heavens in the end. Jesus did the same thing: healing people, dying, resurrecting, and ascending to heaven. What is so difficult about connecting the two? I wasn't saying that E.T. IS Jesus, but that this movie could be construed as a metaphor for the Jesus story, which is ironic because Spielberg is Jewish.

Despite pressure for a sequel, I'm glad he did not make one. There is no way it could be improved upon, even if it took place back on E.T.'s home planet. There was a novel that was released, called Book of the Green Planet or something like that. I bought it but never read it, other than a few lines. Its about E.T.'s return to his home planet and how he accounts for his time on earth and what he learned about humans.

In 1999, George Lucas returned the love when he featured three E.T.'s in a scene in his epic film, Star Wars: Episode I: The Phantom Menace. In the Senate scene when the delegates demand an immediate vote for no confidence in Chancellor Valorum's leadership, if you look close enough, you can see three E.T.s raising their arms in demanding for a vote. That was awesome.

So, anyway, Happy 40th Birthday, Henry Thomas! You seem like a cool guy. I hope you make some good movies and find a role that will reestablish you similar to Drew Barrymore's newfound success. Now, she's better known for rom-coms and being Adam Sandler's love interest in a few movies. But if you're destined to be remembered for one role, Elliott isn't a bad character to be remembered for. Henry Thomas does play in a band, now, so music is more a part of his life than movies. It's great to see another person born in 1971, the year of my birth. The year Starbucks and Powell's Bookstore began.

1 comment:

T said...

One of my all time favorite movies. I always wondered what happened to Elliot...now I know!