In the January 2002 Harper’s magazine, contributing editor L.J. Davis traces “modern” science fiction’s roots to the cultural environment that produced Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Shelley, it seems, was driven to write Frankenstein, at least in part, after reading about scientist Luigi Galvani, who had been the first to make a frog leg twitch by applying electricity to it.
In retrospect, Galvani’s seems a pretty humble achievement, but at the time, neither electricity nor the origin of life was particularly well understood. Galvani at first concluded that the experiment had partially reanimated the frog and that electricity was therefore the elixir of resurrection, and a number of other things besides. Overcome with enthusiasm, he subsequently “festooned his shrubbery with frog body parts,” hoping in this way to predict approaching electrical storms and at the same time tap into the spark of life that supposedly crackled invisible in the air around us all. Needless to say, Galvani’s experiment failed. And imagine how he must have felt when, in a calmer frame of mind, he looked at what he’d done to his yard.
But if the science of Galvani’s experiment fell a bit flat, his hopeful ideal that life can be broadcast through the air shows remarkable durability. With the 20th anniversary rerelease of the sentimental fable E.T., it has persisted for nearly two centuries now; the doe-eyed, other-worldly goblin of the movie’s title exudes all manner of life-giving energies, from his glowing heart and healing fingertip, to the way the bloom returns to wilting sunflowers whenever he waddles by. Were he around today, Galvani might be pleased that in the scene that establishes Elliott (Henry Thomas) and E.T.’s supernatural life-force connection, frogs and misbegotten science figure highly. The dream, however corny, lives on.
The classic frog scene comes, of course, some time after E.T.’s egg-shaped starship takes off without him at the movie’s opening, leaving him stranded on Earth and one step ahead of sinister federal agents who want to experiment on him. He finds sanctuary in the bedroom of all-American suburbaboy Elliott, who quickly debriefs him on Western civilization by feeding him Reese’s Pieces, showing him a Coke, and enacting a brief, violent playlet with Star Wars action figures.
All goes well with the new friendship until Elliott has to go to school and leaves his alien behind for the day. (“How do you explain school to a higher intelligence?” he asks rhetorically.) Killing time alone at the house, E.T. demonstrates an innate knack for middle-class American lifestyle by downing a six-pack of Coors and watching This Island Earth on television. In the classroom, meanwhile, Elliott begins to feel a reflexive empathy with E.T. — E.T. drinks, Elliott burps; E.T. hits a wall, Elliott rubs his nose; E.T. collapses in a drunken stupor, Elliott slides out of his chair, and so on. All this transpires in a biology class where Elliott’s teacher (Richard Swingler) is explaining the parameters of an upcoming frog dissection experiment. The teacher is filmed almost exclusively from the waist down so that he floats anonymously above and outside the scene’s action.
The trick is familiar to the audience by this time, since Spielberg has been filming his federal agents at the hip as well, their presence indicated not by searching gazes but by flashlights and key rings. In the movie’s visual language, this sort of shot indicates that someone is up to no good, and Elliott intuitively understands this just as well as we do. Shortly after the teacher explains that the frog hearts will still be beating as the students dissect them, Elliott — miscuing on his reception of E.T.’s desire to return home — “rescues” the frogs from their impending doom by shaking them out of their jars and setting them free. The other students join in and soon the dissection lesson is a complete bust. Although Elliott’s impromptu protest action gets him into heaps of trouble, we know that he has done the right thing: his burst of empathy also enables him to recognize a romantic spark between himself and a co-student (Erika Eleniak), both of whom are subsequently rewarded with the most torrid movie kiss involving preteens since 1979’s A Little Romance. Talk about peace and love.
The note sounded by aligning the teacher with the feds (and rewarding resistance against them both) is an echo of the warning note Shelley sang so well in Frankenstein. The study of the phenomenon of life has gone quite a spot too far by the time the living body’s consciousness is being evacuated and its mechanics recreated simply to scrutinize them.
Or, to put it another way: killing something to see how it lives is the height of soulless stupidity. “They won’t feel anything,” the teacher assures his students as they apprehensively poison their frogs with chloroform. “They won’t be hurt.” The students only need Elliott’s leadership to see through this farce. The frogs won’t be hurt, they’ll be dead, and afterward, any hope of learning something useful from them will be gone. Elliott’s avenue of interrogation, though maybe a bit less practical, is more to the point of how one should study living things. Earlier, he taps the jar containing his frog and asks gently, repeatedly, “Can you talk?”
E.T.‘s rerelease reminds us of this subversive theme of connection and life-affirmation, and, alas, that its cynical cross-market product placements have long since become commonplace. E.T. debuted as a fledgling Reagan-Bush administration was beginning a protracted drama of nerve-racking U.S.-Soviet nuclear brinksmanship, hideous military interventions in Central America, and “police actions” such as Grenada, Libya, and Panama that culminated in the slaughter of hundreds of thousands in the Persian Gulf War. In 1982, no one could have known where the Reagan presidency would lead (in retrospect, it could hardly have turned out worse), but many were concerned. Spielberg seems to have been among them, with his dangerous and unscrupulous federal agents — so different from the largely beneficent government of Close Encounters of the Third Kind — who in E.T. damn near ruin everything.
2002 is similar to 1982 in that both are periods of political transition, but the rerelease of E.T. raises questions that underscore the difference between the Reagan-Bush years and the years of Bush Jr. and Dick Cheney. We are now being told, once again, that killing “others” is the answer to all of our problems, but this time, views dissenting from the current drumbeat for war are being covered up, publicly vilified, or actively suppressed. Even a movie as ultimately mainstream as E.T. is not immune. For this release, the federal agents’ guns are erased by computer in favor of walkie-talkies, to make the feds seem kinder, gentler, and more compassionate. Also, during the Halloween sequence, Elliott’s mother, Mary (Dee Wallace-Stone), nags his brother Mike (Robert MacNaughton) about his costume. In the original movie, she tells him he looks like a “terrorist”; this time around, he looks like a “hippie.”
As an attempt to marginalize today’s ongoing peace movement, this couldn’t be more obvious. In his Washington Post review, Desson Howe refers to these moves as “digital airbrushing” and charitably attributes to them a motive of “political correctitude,” when what they are is historical revisionism. Despite his coyness, Howe allows that some viewers may find these alterations “cringe-inducing,” and his use of the word “airbrushing” calls to mind the notorious rewriting of history by a particular authoritarian Soviet regime that since, thankfully, has vanished from the face of the earth.
If there is room for optimism here, it lies in the fact that these obnoxious revisions are extremely ineffective. The label given Mike’s costume can be changed, but the costume itself cannot: when he adjusts it by adding a shaggy wig and a fake knife through his head, he certainly seems an odd sort of hippie — as he must, in 1982, have seemed an odd sort of “terrorist,” being disguised neither as a practitioner of violence nor a resister of the violent impulse, but simply as another of its victims. Tarnish the good name of hippies all you like; when they show up with knives through their heads, they will seem sympathetic nevertheless.
Mike’s hippie tendencies turn up a bit earlier, as well, when — in a detail that, inexplicably, nobody airbrushed out — he comes into Elliott’s room wearing a “No Nukes” T-shirt. Thus Spielberg (or someone) subtly perpetuates a long-forgotten peacenik slogan of the 1980s, one reminding us of the pervasive anxiety about nuclear war during the Reagan years. In the weeks and months to come, no doubt, many people will recall this anxiety more and more vividly. Since Galvani’s time, we’ve learned of so many other horrors that can be broadcast through the air.