Aliens and Goonies: Friendship in Children’s Adventure Movies
This weekend, Earth to Echo will attempt to capture the hearts of both kids and adults everywhere with its attempt to breathe new life into the world of the childhood adventure movie by using a found footage format. This film tradition is a challenging one to break into successfully, and unfortunately, the bar was set so unattainably high a few decades ago that most recent efforts seem flat. There’s an art to crafting a cinematic experience that strikes the delicate balance of the heart, emotion, imagery and excitement that makes these movies special. What’s the secret to that balance? Let’s break it down by taking a look at some of the works either created or heavily influenced by the one man who has left the most indelible impression through filtering youthful imagination through film artistry: Steven Spielberg. Although he set the high watermark of cinematic magic in 1982 when he produced and directed the beautifully endearing masterpiece E. T., Spielberg has managed to continue to contribute to this genre in a vital way with stories that have more in common than just the age of their characters.
Even though these adventure films often revolve around a group of kids, a common thread of isolation runs through them, which often lends room for the fervent imagination to blossom. It is a common thread that runs through young adult literature and movies that strengthens not only theme but function. The kids need to be alone. I remember being jealous of Elliott when I watched him first meet E. T., baiting him into his house with a trail of Reese’s Pieces. I was an only child with a single mother who worked full time, and I relied heavily on my imaginary friends to keep me company. My jaw dropped in awe as I watched my idea of an imaginary friend come to life. Why couldn’t that happen to me? Elliott just craved a connection. He didn’t see an alien, he saw a friend.
In 1985’s The Goonies, Spielberg delivered a story about a group of friends who face the isolation of being separated and forced from their homes. In a frantic attempt to make the best of their last days together and escape the reality of the future, they embark on a treasure hunt. Their adventure is preposterous, and frequently dances the line between fantastic and cheesy (truffle shuffle anyone?) but it works. The premise seems trivial: some bratty kids don’t want to be split up so they take off in order to delay and forget the inevitable. But these misfits have a bond. They’ve found each other, and you can’t just be anyone and be a Goonie. That’s a friendship you come across a couple times in a lifetime, if you’re lucky, so it’s really not so childish to hang onto it with all you’ve got. And after all, don’t we all still wanna just take off and go treasure hunting when life sucks?
This theme was touched on again as recently as 2011 in J. J. Abrams’s Super 8, (produced with the help of Spielberg) where we meet Joe, a young teen who recently lost his mother. Following the events triggered by a train crash he and his friends witness while making a zombie movie, Joe is able to harness the death of his mother into an appreciate of life that’s beyond that which most of us are capable of as adults. Joe doesn’t just convince an alien that life can go on after something tragic happens; he learns it himself and teaches it to everyone watching too.
As children, the isolation and vulnerability that comes from losing something or someone, or just simply not fitting in can lead to not only some of the biggest adventures, but also the most genuine relationships in film. Elliott’s bond with E. T. is so strong they develop a physical, physiological, and psychic connection. Mikey, Chunk, and crew further cement their friendship with their common fear of change. Joe’s friendships and budding romance with Alice mature as he deals with the loss of his mom. These moments, although buffered and padded with aliens, treasure, explosions, and even a Sloth to keep everyone entertained, are as real as it gets. Sometimes filmmakers get caught up in the idea of keeping the audience excited and glued to the screen with special effects. Or sometimes they think the key must be hidden in a lesson, a moral of the story to keep the parents happy. These elements all contribute to an exciting and educational family-friendly movie. But it’s usually much simpler than that. Human (and sometimes Extra-Terrestrial) relationships and connection are really what matter most, whether we grownups always realize it or not.