1. And a movie the Porchers can almost believe in.
2. It’s a movie that’s parts of lots and lots of movies about home, friendship, family, and ETs who just want to go home. It could easily be understood as Abrams’ suck up to Spielberg. But there is, after all, a good side to Spielberg.
3. The place, the town, is quite realistic. At first glance, there’s nothing more depressing than a midwestern milltown (in Ohio—but it was actually filmed in Weirton, WV). But it’s actually quite beautiful—the surrounding hills, the neighborhoods with all kinds of modest, quirky houses from various decades, and the run-down but still functioning downtown. Nostalgia inspired by the place is realistic. The kids aren’t being raised so well. The families are “dysfunctional.” (The one in-tact big family is a screaming mess crammed into s small house—that’s not to say that those parents aren’t doing their best in a responsible, loving way.) There’s no farming and no hanging out on porches—it’s an industrial, working-class town.
4. The movie has a lot of STAND BY ME in it—marginalized friends transformed by an improbable, genuinely dangerous adventure etc. The big difference is that the kids aren’t quite abandoned. Two of them have screwed-up single dads who aren’t paying real attention, but both those dads stand up for their kids in an heroic way before the film’s end.
5. The one kid who doesn’t come from a broken family with a sad dad is screwed up and alienated from his loving, relatively normal family because he’s fat and too smart and imaginative for a small town. The horror movie he gets done—despite it all—is quite the work of art.
6. The year of the film in 1979. It’s the time before internet but with the Super 8 and the Walkman. The kids had the technology to create for themselves but not the kind that would keep them stuck in their rooms. The kids are out and about, relatively unsupervised, and the town (until the showdown between the ET and the air force) was safe enough for that.
7. The defeat of the evildoers depended on the courageous ingenuity of both parents and kids. Kyle Chandler (who plays the most admirable character on TV—the coach on FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS) and his son are heroically working at the same time but not together. He’s out to save his son. And his son—in a most chivalric way—is out to save the woman he loves (a girl who’s undeniably kind, pure of heart, somewhat abandoned, and beautiful). (Coming-of-age love is displayed as love for the whole person, and for that reason alone this is a great movie for kids.)
8. But 1979 is not mainly some magical year. We’re reminded that it was in the midst of the Cold War. And paranoia about the ET is connected to paranoia about the Soviets, suggesting that a lot of war is caused by assuming beings are evil and out to get us when they’re not. More importantly, though, we see evidence of the devastation of the dazed-and-confused merely recreational drug culture of the 70s, what ruined the lives of many good-natured, working-class kids.
9. That some rogue air-force commander caused a lot of random devastation because he misunderstood the intentions of some ET is not a big indictment of our armed forces. There’s no serious suggestion that the whole air force was needlessly paranoid about the Soviets. It’s understandable that military men would be reluctant to listen to reports from some biologist about his telepathic communication with said ET. That part of the story is pretty confused and meant only as background.
10. That ETs, like us all, are mainly angry when they’re scared and homeless is surely a large part of the truth. That doesn’t mean we should trust them and count on mutual understanding to avoid violence if they really do come around.
11. We also learn that there’s nothing for a real man to do for a living in a small town these days but be a high-school teacher or in law enforcement. There’s no coach in the movie because the kids aren’t jocks. But I’m happy that the sheriff and the deputy are portrayed as real men who know what they’re doing.