I awoke at 4 a.m. thinking about “ET: The Extraterrestrial,” Steven Spielberg’s 1982 movie about a boy and his alien — specifically the line where a scientist says jubilantly, “He’s got DNA.” Spielberg said later ET has no gender. I’d been mulling my Sunday sermon, which had the usual tropes about universal sibling-hood. But Father’s Day had something to do with it, too.
“ET” is not unlike “The Martian,” where Matt Damon plays a botanist stranded on Mars by his crew. Also a botanist, ET is stranded on earth until they MacGyver a communications link with their people, as Damon does with NASA.
ET is probably the most satisfactory alien in the history of the genre. Good natured and doing the best they can, just like us most of the time. If creation uses the same genetic components for all organic life, as the movie proposes, we would expect that, assuming they have their basic needs met and live under some form of just authority, most creatures would be essentially benevolent, fallible yet redeemable. Andy Weir’s novel “Project Hail Mary” also has aliens like us. They breathe superheated ammonia and look like spiders made of blocks, but they’re fiercely loyal and have a great sense of humor, once you translate their language of whistles and musical chords and get to know them.
As for ET and fathers, this, for me, is the heart of the movie. Everyone else probably noticed it 40 years ago, but for me, it had to be Father’s Day when I’m 68. ET’s friend Elliott and his mom and siblings have been left in chaos by his father, who’s run off to Mexico with someone named Sally. Until the end, when we realize, again, that everyone’s doing the best they can, the men in the movie all are photographed at waist level, their faces invisible, suggesting the menace of their sexuality.
The dad doesn’t even like Mexico, but now Sally’s here, and his kids are left trying to pick up the pieces of their lives and a whiff of his scent from his work shirt in the garage. Breaking our promises is one of the worst things we can do to the people we love. That’s actually where the commandments came from — not to make us feel guilty, but to force us to understand the agony we are capable of causing one another. At the end, when ET touches Elliott’s face with their glowing finger and says, “I’ll be right here,” it’s exactly what a child needs to hear, and since it’s a movie, you know it’s a promise ET will keep.