Why ET goes the extra mile for me
Spielberg’s film about an alien stranded on Earth is so good, I’ve never made it to the end
Most early childhood memories involve learning to ride a bike without stabilisers, or that magic moment when you suddenly work out how to tie shoelaces. Perhaps it was finding 20 pence under your pillow in the morning, deposited there by the tooth fairy.
Or maybe it involved trying to stay awake in the hope of catching a glimpse of Father Christmas. A quick straw poll of the people in my office revealed that the most common recollection was a feeling of insane jealousy when their younger sibling was born.
But my earliest, most vivid childhood memory involves an alien from outer space and buckets of snot. I should point out now that I wasn’t the victim of some strange extra-terrestrial abduction.
No. My memory involves my mother carrying me out of the Hammersmith Odeon weeping and wailing, my cheeks bright red from crying, my nose snivelling from the sheer emotion of the film ET: the Extra-Terrestrial.
I had gone with Katie Orme and James Benbow, my best friends from school and, while they had taken it all in their stride, the experience had been far too much for me. The part where ET is seen on the banks of the river, all pale and dying? Good grief, I had never felt so sad in all my five or so years on the planet.
By the time he and Elliott are seriously ill in the quarantine tents set up by nasty government agents, I was a complete mess.
My guttural sobs were such that my embarrassed mother had to remove me from the cinema so I didn’t disturb the rest of the audience. She tells me I cried for the rest of the day.
I mention this because ET has just been voted the greatest family film of all time, beating Mary Poppins and The Wizard of Oz in a poll by the Radio Times (magical nannies and munchkins have nothing on wrinkly brown aliens, it would seem).
But actually, I would go one further and say that it is not just the best family film ever made — it’s the best film ever made.
Apocalypse Now? Pah. The Godfather? Whatever. The Birds? Close, but no banana. ET: the Extraterrestrial, by Jewish director Steven Spielberg, still has the power to move me to tears. When that John Williams score strikes up, I am reduced once more to the snivelling five-year-old girl being carried out of the cinema.
I’m not even sure I have ever managed to get to the part where ET finally gets to phone home.
What is it about Spielberg’s creation that makes it so enduring, so wonderful, so able to speak to people of all ages?
The fractured family that take in ET was way ahead of its time; critics have noted its darkness, while others have said that it is essentially an autobiographical film, drawing on Spielberg’s experiences as a child whose parents are divorced.
Some have even gone as far as to liken it to a religious parable, and suggest it was marketed specifically to Christians.
To which Spielberg responded: “If I ever went to my mother and said, ‘Mom, I’ve made this movie that’s a Christian parable,’ what do you think she’d say? She has a kosher restaurant...”
I reckon it is the theme of friendship that runs through ET that makes it such an utterly lovely film.
Wouldn’t we all love an ET in our lives? Oh dear. I think I’m getting choked up again...