So, the alien is the other, right? All that’s implied in the name. Alien = unknown, often scary, destructive, omnipotent, over-arching, all that jazz. There are a ton of movies that cover the implicit terror of the aliens taking over. The type of shows that thrive on large spaceships obscuring the skyline, on gray-green scales and tentacles and the sudden, spine-chilling gnashing of outcropping teeth. When we talk about aliens in movies, more often than not they’re standing in for the natural human fear of things outside our control. Something I cannot comprehend is out to get me. Something greater than myself is taking away my hard-earned security, and humanity is powerless against it.
Aliens serve as a great MacGuffin for human insecurity. Though that’s usually depicted with invasion, it’s not always the case. Sometimes, instead of using aliens to showcase the indomitability of mankind’s spirit, aliens can show the depth of mankind’s tenderness. Sometimes the alien is not powerful. It’s merely other. And in that innate otherness, it demands a protection.
The Grand Poobah of this sort of alien movie—not the first, but arguably the best and the catalyst for an entire spate
of Peter Pan, starry-eyed optimist films—is undoubtedly E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial. E.T. makes the aliens so benign and so wise, that instead of a looming threat they become precious. E.T. isn’t an eerie reminder of Elliot’s ultimate fallibility. He functions as a treasured jewel, something to be protected and valued and cherished throughout the years. He’s Elliot’s childhood, but with an elevation that serves to remind us of the power of innocence.
E.T. is not just otherworldly, he’s everything pure and good about humanity. What are his most distinctive traits?
- Curiosity. This can be extended to his entire species, if that’s the right word for it. (Civilization? Does that work better?). His kind are first introduced as scientists, collecting plants and functioning as passive but voracious learners. E.T. himself exhibits these traits as he interacts with Elliot and the rest of the world, mimicking movement and learning from that television set as diligently as any toddler sponging up Sesame Street.
- Innocence. At the same time, E.T. knows nothing of the world. The learning doesn’t happen with the edge of cynicism. It’s not the scholar studying in order to tear down a schema of thought. It’s the ingenue seeking to expand the limited knowledge of the world, and standing in wonder at it all. It’s almost like Spielberg is harkening back to childhood, extolling the virtue of an unencumbered view, isn’t it? Hmm. Interesting.
- Compassion. Partway through the film, it’s revealed that E.T. has strong psychic connections, a connection he foists on Elliot now that his entire clan is far beyond the stars. Now this might be a stretch, but stick with me here—I think that this addition of psychic connection is showing a type of superior community developed by the alien species, showcasing what might been seen as a childlike trust in each other and twisting it to make a strength. Because of this mindlink, the aliens care more about the members of their society. They’re fostering a utopia. And because Elliott tastes a little bit of this union, he is more loving and caring towards E.T. In return E.T. shares knowledge. Heck, he makes Elliott so powerful he can fly! Which leads to…
- Powerful. Just because there’s all this laudatory highlight of childish traits, doesn’t mean that these aliens are big ol’ dummies, or completely incapable and in need of humanity to show them the way. No, these aliens are bosses, with powers and understanding that far outstrip our own. They can bring life to that which was dead (smacks of some omnipotence there, eh?), make things float around, and essentially bend all the laws of physics to their will. No slouching there.
- Fragility. In spite of all that ultimate power, E.T. has weaknesses. He fades the longer he’s on Earth. Without the support of his people, his system, he’s stripped of his life force. It’s sort of a scathing commentary—the longer you live on the Earth, the more it robs you of those essential traits possessed in childhood. In short, the world is a dark terrible place and can destroy you if you don’t hold on to what’s good and pure. Subtlety, thy name is not Spielberg.
With E.T., saving this concept of the alien, which is really just the concept of childhood, becomes the ultimate goal. It drew in kids with the Reeses pieces, the hilarious underage drunken-ness, and the madcap adventure. It drew in adults by reminding them of something long ago lost, and renewing them with a vigor to protect that in the next generation. In the end, tears were had by all.
This are ideas developed and even mimicked in later movies. The film Paul, that Simon Pegg-Nick Frost-Seth Rogen vehicle that is the forgotten nugget in the Pegg-Frost oeuvre, completely builds upon the foundation E.T. established. And I even mean beyond the cherished joke that Spielberg has a direct line to captured alien Paul, and is using him to vet all his sci-fi movies.
No, Paul takes all the premium placed on youthful innocence from E.T. and sets it in a millennial world. Paul is the best (and most maligned) segments of humanity. He’s forever juvenile, irresponsible, and fun. He laughs his deep stoner laugh and bombs around the desert with nary a care, two nerds in tow. And yet, even with all the trappings of the eternally adolescent male, Paul is still wise, resourceful, and ten times smarter than the oppressive government seeking to drain his life force.
In both films, the emphasis is placed on preservation of the alien traits, traits that aren’t so unfamiliar to us after all. Elliott saves E.T., and Graeme and Clive help Paul elude capture, because they are all trying to preserve the best versions of humanity. Or at least what humanity should be. The impulse to protect the alien comes from the almost selfish urge to shelter our own promise, innocence, and instincts, long before the concepts of what we “should” be enter our lives. Humanity’s greatest moment isn’t conquering the alien invaders. It’s proving the goodness of humanity by recognizing and saving the best of what we are.