A Little Child Shall Lead Them

13 Jun

When film maker Steven Spielberg was a teen-ager, he was badly shaken by his parents’ divorce. In the process he created an imaginary alien friend, “a friend who could be the brother I never had and a father that I didn’t feel I had anymore.” This imaginary alien turned out to be E. T., the central figure in Spielberg’s 1982 movie, E. T. The Extra-Terrestrial, which I recently saw here at Montgomery Place, where I live.

Several themes underlie this film’s story. The main one is that aliens are not enemies, but friends. E. T. has been inadvertently left behind on earth by a team of alien botanists, who were conducting a study of plant life on earth. E. T. desperately wants to return to his home base. Most of the adults he meets on earth want to kill him.

Ten year-old Elliott, finds ET and conspires with his older brother and younger sister to hide him from their mother (the father is absent throughout the entire movie). Elliott and the alien establish an uncanny instant relationship. When, for example, ET comes across a cache of beer and overindulges, Elliott shows signs of drunkenness, too. The two think and feel as one person.

ET puts together a Rube Goldberg communication device that enables him to communicate with his home planet and express his wish to come home. The film comes to a climax that is both fantasy and suspense as ET, Elliott and his siblings, on bicycles, evade pursuing police and other adults. ET works his magic to enable the bike riders to ascend into the sky and make their way to a waiting space ship.

ET pleads with Elliott to come with him, while the boy urges the alien to remain on earth. Before they part, ET lays his finger on the boy’s forehead and says, “I will always be with you”—in your head.

We are left with a powerful message: the alien can be friend, not enemy. Thirty-five years after its release, the message has, if anything, gained in force. Of course, aliens today are not thought of only as extra-terrestrials—they are even more men, women, and children from other cultures, non-citizens.

Spielberg suggests very strongly that children, not adults, have the better grasp of this message. Before we dismiss this suggestion as “cute” or simply “family entertainment,” we might want to ask ourselves: Do children in fact have an insight into life that blasé adults overlook or dismiss? I entitle this article with a quotation from the prophet Isaiah in the Hebrew Bible. It refers to a vision that may be more real than we admit—that enemies need not be hostile opposites: “The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, The leopard shall lie down with the young goat, The calf and the young lion together. And a little child shall lead them.”

Children figure large in several of Spielberg’s films, particularly children who are on a quest—facing adults who espouse opposing values. A. I. Artificial Intelligence (2001) is one of my favorites: the boy is a human-like robot, who seeks to learn how to love, so that he can become genuinely human.

War Horse (2011) follows the life of a horse and an English boy who witnesses the horse’s birth. Both the boy and the horse end up in the British army during World War I. When the horse is captured by the Germans, the boy, now a young man, goes to heroic lengths to save the animal’s life and return him to England.

How many of us adults believe that the alien, “the Other,” is our friend, not our foe? Or that the essential human nature is love? Or that other animals are worth protecting, even at our own risk? Spielberg poses such questions to us—they are worth considering.

(c) Phil Hefner 6/12/2018

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