What if Elliott were a grumpy old man?
E.T. is not a movie about first contact. It's a movie about preteenhood, and about how growing up makes you feel alien to yourself. For the past four decades, the parallels between E.T. and his human friend have been discussed at length from dozens of interpretive perspectives.¹ But director Marc Turtletaub's new film Jules presents an interesting twist on those ideas. The plot follows the same model: a lonely male character stumbles upon a stranded alien and hides him in his house until he can return to his planet. But this time the human, Milton, is a stubborn widower with more than a few regrets. And, just like E.T., the story is not really about first contact. It's about the need for companionship and closeness in the final years of life.
Jules is very aware of its ties to E.T., and addresses them openly. The fictional town where it's set has picked as its motto "A great place to call home," and it's a recurring joke that our protagonist attends town hall meetings every day to petition for it to be revised because the ambiguous meaning of "call home" may cause confusion.
This type of wink at the audience is best appreciated in very tiny doses, and Jules knows it. Nonetheless, the way the film treats the theme of old age all but demands a reading in conversation with the theme of growth in E.T. When E.T. uses his superpowers, his unmistakably phallic finger extends and shines, and things that were damaged regain their vitality. Conversely, when Jules uses his superpowers, his skin turns a sickly blue, like a blood-deprived organ, and living things die. While E.T. serves as a tangible reflection of Elliott's disorientation and attachment issues, Jules is a perfectly unexpressive sounding board for Milton's frustrations with not being taken seriously. At times it feels like Jules is meant to represent the company that is missing in Milton's life, but another possible reading is that Jules is a harbinger of death. In fact, the changes he provokes in Milton's everyday routine resemble the radical decisions made by someone who knows their end is coming.
This is where Jules achieves a poignancy similar to E.T.'s, but from the opposite direction. Despite its sci-fi vestments, E.T. belongs to the tradition of fantasy where a child has a brief yet intense encounter with the extraordinary and then returns to the normal world with a fuller appreciation of its hidden charms. You can list The Wizard of Oz, Alice in Wonderland, The Neverending Story, Spirited Away, Labyrinth, Coco, Mirrormask, Coraline and the Wayward Children series of books as examples of this tradition. What Jules does is transplant that moment of wonder to the final chapter of life, one quick look at the extraordinary after decades of uneventful normalcy. Think Wilfred or Graham in Doctor Who, kind grandfathers who at the beginning of their stories can't imagine there's still anything spectacular left to happen. The tug at the viewer's heartstrings comes from the contrast with the same type of whimsical adventure when it happens to a child protagonist: in a sense, even the most serious child secretly expects the world to hide something fantastical, while a grandfather can be justified in believing he's seen it all.
If the heart of a hero's journey lies in how the experience changes the character, Jules suggests a painful question: when you're so close to the end of your allotted time, what's the use of going through a transformative adventure? Does it really matter if you're a different person at the moment of facing death? In this beleaguered world of ours, we can be excused for having shed all hope for a moment of transcendent beauty. But Jules insists that there's value in remaining open to that kind of experience, at whichever point in life it comes to you.
Nerd Coefficient: 7/10.
POSTED BY: Arturo Serrano, multiclass Trekkie/Whovian/Moonie/Miraculer, accumulating experience points for still more obsessions.
¹ Bick IJ. The Look Back in "E.T." Cinema Journal 1992;31(4):25-41.