Spielberg’s era-defining masterpiece remains as awe-inspiring as ever, going against the alien invader grain to forge one of modern cinema’s most endearing creations
Few films are as iconic, universally beloved or powerfully influential as Stephen Spielberg’s emotional concerto E.T. the Extraterrestrial, a landscape-shifting production that sparked the hugely popular ‘kids in peril’ concept of the 1980s. Setting the template for a decade of blockbuster tween adventures, the movie that triggered the Amblin revolution was the driving force behind a magical era for mainstream cinema, a splash panel of period nostalgia that courses through the hearts and minds of a generation still drunk on enchantment. If it were not for Spielberg’s impulsive tonal digression, childhood favourites such as The Monster Squad, Stand By Me and The Goonies, films that would shape the memories of millions, would not have existed in quite the same way, nor would countless other films and TV shows that have tapped into the filmmaker’s brand of child-led magic. Even today E.T.’s influence is front and centre, shaping the current multi-billion dollar Stranger Things-led revolution and a fondness for all things 80s. In short, this was no ordinary movie.
It’s somewhat peculiar to think of E.T. the Extraterrestrial as a tonal digression, but the idea that Spielberg softened during the 80s is something of a common myth. In fact, despite the obvious charms of learned adventurer Indiana Jones on a generation of wide-eyed rapscallions, Spielberg has directed more adult pictures than he has kids movies. It doesn’t seem that way, partly because he would produce and creatively influence a slew of adolescent pictures for the likes of Richard Donner (The Goonies) and Robert Zemeckis (Back to the Future), movies with their own cultural stratospheres that were scorched onto our memories and carried that same Spielberg energy, but even his more child-friendly projects erred on the dark side, 1984’s Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and Gremlins both contributing to the founding of the PG-13 rating due to content that was uncommonly risqué for traditional 80s standards. Those movies may have felt diluted to older audiences wowed by the likes of Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, films with more adult themes. His 80s run will always be defined by the Indy series, but Poltergeist, The Color Purple and Empire of the Sun are hardly indicative of a filmmaker who surrendered to the peewee formula, even if his thumbprints were all over it.
Interestingly, E.T. was almost a very different movie. Derived from an idea about malicious aliens who terrorise a suburban family, the nucleus for what would become Spielberg’s second-highest grossing film was a much darker follow-up to ‘Close Encounters’ titled ‘Night Skies’ that failed to come to fruition. It was while experiencing feelings of isolation on the set of Raiders of the Lost Ark in Tunisia that Spielberg developed a subplot to his failed project, a semi-autobiographical tale centring on the relationship between a benevolent alien and an autistic child. Again, the project fell by the wayside, but the script’s final scene, which saw the alien abandoned on Earth, inspired the E.T. concept. Originally titled ‘E.T. and Me’, a first draft, completed in 8 weeks by E.T. screenwriter Melissa Mathison, didn’t go down too well with Columbia Pictures after head of marketing and research development Marvin Atonowsky raised concerns regarding the film’s marketability. In an era dominated by horror and darker adventures such as Spielberg’s own ‘Raiders’, Columbia president John Veitch echoed his colleague’s concerns, selling the script to Universal’s Sid Sheinberg for $1,000,000 and a 5% share of the film’s net profits. According to Veitch, Universal made more from that 5% (approximately $39,645,000) than any of their own films in 1982.
Released on June 11, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial opened at number one at the US box office with a gross of $11,000,000. Remaining there for six weeks, it would fluctuate between first and second, even reclaiming the top spot in December during a brief holiday season re-release. Usurping Superman II, the movie would record the highest-grossing second weekend of all time. Two weeks later it would surpass Rocky III‘s $16,706,592 with the highest-grossing weekend of all time, remaining at the top of the box office for a then record-breaking 16 weeks. Unsurprisingly, and with returns of $359,197,037, E.T. became the highest grossing movie of 1982 by a considerable margin. In 1983 it even surpassed Star Wars to become the highest-grossing film of all-time, managing $359,000,000 in the United States and Canada and $619,000,000 worldwide. When the film was finally released on VHS in 1988 with a $24.95 registered retail price — an all-time low for a a major movie at a time when tapes sold for around $89.95 — it shifted a whopping 15,000,000 units in the United States alone, grossing over $250,000,000. Add to this 6,000,000 rentals and over $1 billion in merchandise sales by 1998 and you have to believe that someone got their ass fired over at Columbia Pictures.
One of Atonowsky’s concerns was that E.T. would only appeal to small children. Little did he know that Spielberg would go on to produce arguably the purest, most unaffected children’s film of all time, one that refuses to condescend like so many of its contemporaries and in doing so ignites the inner child in all of us. The film communicates so earnestly with children thanks to universal themes of loss and alienation, but also because Spielberg and cinematographer Allen Daviau capture events almost entirely from a child’s perspective, both physically and emotionally. The movie begins and ends by focusing on children. Adults exist either as peripheral shadows who threaten our alien protagonist’s safety or worried parents who fear the unfamiliar, lacking the trust or belief to do the right thing. The film’s concept was based on an imaginary friend created by Spielberg as a child following his own parents’ divorce as a coping mechanism for his absent father, a concept that the filmmaker would continue to revisit, and E.T. manages to remain invisible to adult eyes for the longest time, becoming camouflage in a closet full of toys, fooling the entire neighbourhood under a Halloween costume and, most startlingly, while wandering around the family kitchen in plain sight. Mrs Taylor (Dee Wallace) is too wrapped up in her own divorce and keeping the family afloat to notice the alien shuffling around her, but she also lacks the imagination to accept something so peculiar, an ignorance we all suffer from as the laws and constraints of adulthood gradually strip us of our innocence.
You could be happy here, I could take care of you. I wouldn’t let anybody hurt you. We could grow up together, E.T.Elliot
Such attitudes are tackled here. With ‘E.T.’, and ‘Close Encounters’ before it, Spielberg went against the grain when dealing with extra-terrestrial entities in American culture, which, going all the way back to industry innovator Orson Welles’ infamous 1938 radio broadcast ‘War of the Worlds’, had typically painted aliens as invaders intent on the Earth’s destruction. An episode of The Mercury Theatre of the Air, a series narrated by Welles himself, ‘War of the Worlds’ became famous for inciting mass hysteria among listeners who had tuned in late or without knowledge of the broadcast’s context, many of whom genuinely believing that the planet was under attack from an actual Martian invasion. The scale of that panic has since been disputed based almost entirely on the station’s relatively scant listenership, but Spielberg, who would have been eight years old at the time, certainly bought into it.
The broadcast also arrived between the first and second Red Scares and just prior to World War II, a time when nationalism and xenophobia were rife for obvious reasons, so the notion of invasion was forever at the forefront of society’s fears and imaginations. Welles’ commercial eureka was based on the 1898 H. G. Wells novel ‘The War of the Worlds’. This was a time before television, an era when cinema was still very much in its infancy. Literature was still the central source of entertainment from a storytelling perspective, and sci-fi, more speculative than science-based, was its freshest, most cinematic genre. Put succinctly, the thought of an alien invasion may not have been so far-fetched back in 1938.
Spielberg, who would finally pull the trigger on a War of the Worlds adaptation in 2005, rethinking his friendly alien approach for a post-9/11 climate, was certainly affected by Welles’ broadcast and the idea of other life in the universe, a topic that would remain at the forefront of human inquisitiveness for the remainder of the 20th century and beyond. “I can’t imagine that anyone in the world thinks that we are the only intelligent creatures in any universe,” he would opine at a War of the Worlds screening room in New York City just prior to the movie’s release. “However, do I think aliens have made contact with earth? In the 70s I thought so, for sure. I am much more sceptical now. There are millions of video cameras in the world now, and yet with the millions of people who claim to have seen aliens, UFOs and/or have been captured by aliens, there is not one image captured on any video camera to prove (as) such.”
Nostalgia is cyclical. Right now we’re in the throes of 80s homage, but the 80s were very much sentimental for the 1950s, an era politically characterised by Cold War paranoia in America and McCarthyism, defined as ‘the political practice of publicising accusations of disloyalty or subversion with insufficient regard to evidence,’ and ‘the use of methods of investigation and accusation regarded as unfair, in order to suppress opposition.’ In response to the warring communist and capitalist ideologies American horror cinema was suddenly sci-fi infused during the 1950s as the golden age of Dracula and Frankenstein’s Monster grew passe. Red scare movies such as 1951’s The Thing From Another World, Invasion of the Body Snatcher‘s (1956) and 1958’s The Blob dealt with foreign invaders who attacked, consumed and/or impersonated American citizens with the aim of conquering them, a thinly veiled nod at the threat of Eastern ideologies as the notion of nuclear war reared its ugly head, unleashing the kind of widespread paranoia that Welles would craftily exploit. Cinema is inherently fascist, but compared with the blatant propaganda films of yore, cinema had grown much more sophisticated by the 1950s.
Those movies had an effect on future filmmakers as cinema, and its politics, evolved even further. All three were rebooted for modern sensibilities by filmmakers who took inspiration from horror of the 1950s as the threat of cold war once again gripped the nation, the west locking horns with the former Soviet Union. Thanks to movies such as Philip Kaufman’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978), John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982) and Chuck Russell’s The Blob (1988), audiences were able to relive the whole red scare era with thrilling practical effects heavy efforts that made such notions more literal and ironic. In a post-Watergate, post-Vietnam climate of scepticism and distrust, many Americans were less susceptible to government propaganda and war rhetoric, taking such films with the proverbial pinch of salt that the likes of Carpenter gleefully dished out. With Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T. the Extraterrestrial, which, thanks to the kind, gentle and fragile nature of its eponymous star, would become fondly referred to simply as E.T., Spielberg was able to take things a step further, portraying alien beings as comrades who were more curious than motivated by all-conquering rage, and, more importantly, audiences were willing to accept it.
Similarly, E.T. the Extraterrestrial was able to convey its message thanks to huge advancements in practical effects, the kind that were, at least in respect to Carpenter’s critically panned future masterwork The Thing, rejected by traditionalists weaned on the non-explicit horror of past generations. Thanks to the stellar work of special effects artist Carlo Rambaldi and Kenneth F. Smith, and visual effects artist Dennis Muren, Spielberg’s era-defining creation had no such problems. E.T. isn’t exactly pretty. He doesn’t have the overt cuteness of a character like Gizmo, sporting an elongated neck, a wrinkled, misshapen head and the tough flesh veneer of an elephant. He’s by no means scary, but peculiar enough to be disconcerting to younger audiences at first glance, something reflected in the initial reactions of the Taylor children. The character’s elusive introduction may have been somewhat frightening too, particularly during those opening POV moments in which a mysterious creature escapes a pursuing human rabble, or the moment in which a 10-year-old Elliott Taylor investigates a strange and elusive commotion in the back yard, a scene which is very much staged like a traditional horror picture.
Of course, the most lovable characters are often the most misunderstood, and it is E.T.’s inquisitiveness, as well as the clumsy enthusiasm of his initial adaptation period, that endear us to him so strongly. He may possess otherworldly powers that dwarf those of any mortal Earth dweller, but thrust into a completely alien environment he is basically reborn with a child’s naïve enthusiasm, every last detail a brand new experience previously unimagined. From the moment the creature is lured into the Taylor household thanks to a trail of strategically placed candy, E.T. is unaffectedly curious, so enthusiastic that he dwarfs the Taylor kids, who, even at such a young age, already have plenty of reason to understand that life on Earth isn’t as wonderous as it may initially seem. Elliot handles the situation in the tenuous shadows of an imperfect domestic life, becoming angry when people don’t listen to him. Beneath the wide-eyed eagerness of a brand new friendship, he lives with the fear that, as with his absent father, it’s only a matter of time before E.T. and the bond they share will be abruptly snatched away from him.
Thanks to a species who are less than accustomed to the threat of unfamiliarity, E.T. will discover that Earth, and those who fill it, are not quite as openminded or as accommodating as the peewee clan who were caring enough to adopt him, shielding him from the potential hysteria of a generation in the clutches of suburban complacency and foreign suspicion. A minor itself, E.T. is as sensitive and vulnerable as his human allies, but also as curious and open-minded. Described by Spielberg as a plant-like creature who is neither male nor female, E.T. is a shining symbol of life-giving empathy, filled with a sentient glow that is bursting with compassion and healing power. An intimate communicator with all forms life, E.T. is able to synchronise emotions with his closest Earth ally, allowing Elliot a vital emotional intelligence that can become lost in adulthood. It is from this connection that Spielberg mines the film’s most hilarious, touching and despairing of moments.
The bond formed between the movie’s two protagonists is sweet, touching and ultimately heartbreaking. It is simple and innocent in a way that’s exclusive to children, but also surprisingly mature and emotionally sophisticated. Elliott may be a small boy with very little influence, but without his understanding, ability to accept and willingness to shield and care for his alien friend, E.T. would be completely at the mercy of a civilisation intent on capture and exploitation for the good of scientific advancement. Over the course of the film, E.T. will return that favour and then some, providing catharsis for his intergalactic friend, but Elliott understands exactly what it is like to feel abandoned, and exactly how cruel life can be. If it were not for the simple confines of Elliot’s bedroom closet, it’s doubtful ET would have made it to the end of the family driveway without eating a face full of buckshot.
For a while it’s all fun and games. When E.T. raids the refrigerator and gets loaded a on six-pack, Elliot’s own inhibitions are smashed, leading to a moment of empathetic defiance and all-out peewee rebellion involving a class of rambunctious 4th graders and a group of soon-to-be-dissected frogs. He even plucks up the courage to instigate his first kiss, mimicking the alien’s reaction to a romantic film on TV. It’s one of many magical scenes that emphasise themes of empathy without becoming saccharine or overtly moralistic.
E.T. home phone.E.T.
Oftentimes, kids films suffer from heavy-handedness or overindulgence in this regard, handling child actors in a way that makes their characters borderline annoying, but with E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial its all so openhearted and earnest. We relate to the likes of Elliot and Gertie, the latter forming her own bond thanks to adorable bouts of dress-up and symbolic gifts from the heart, as emotionally intelligent beings rather than superficially adorable ‘little people’ armed with quasi-rebellious smiles and patronising dialogue. Arriving in an era of cutesy Reaganite sitcoms in unrealistically virtuous environments, E.T. was a breath of fresh air that refused to pander to the status quo of dubious idealism. Just look at a young Henry Thomas’ audition, one so spellbindingly earnest that Spielberg famously announced, “Okay, kid. You got the job,” with an impressed, almost disbelieving chuckle. It was clear from the beginning the level of emotional authenticity that the filmmaker was aiming for.
Later events grow considerably more tragic, E.T. and Elliot’s bond becoming a source of life-threatening danger. As E.T. grows homesick, wilting along with Gertie’s geraniums, so does Elliot. While temporarily validating the notion that alien threats have to be neutralised for fear of unknown side-effects, it also opens us up to the idea that all creatures are equal, susceptible to the same weaknesses and bound to the same mortal fate, despite appearance, culture or creed. The reactions to E.T.’s near-death experience, particularly from Elliot and Gertie, are emotional tearjerkers that still prove a tough watch. For all the humour, magic and nostalgia, the film has an uncanny ability to hit you where is hurts with powerful bouts of emotional turmoil. This may be a kids film in theory, but it doesn’t placate to younger audiences. It has an emotional maturity that educated a generation.
But if anyone can lift us out of the emotional quagmire, it is Spielberg and long-time collaborator John Williams, here delivering a typically majestic and evocative score that soars along with E.T.‘s fist-pumping finale. Elliot and the gang’s spirited BMX escape, peaking as a recovering E.T. launches them airborne to safety, is one of the most iconic scenes in all of cinema, shaping a generation of films that aspired to the same magic. While many of them ultimately fell short, Spielberg’s influence was both vital and indelible, redefining the role of kids in kids movies, E.T. a mature family drama expertly wrapped in the decorative wish-fulfilment of fantasy adventure. Here, Spielberg finally lets rip, allowing younger audiences the kind of traditional comic book magic that they invariably clamour for, but while E.T. finally uses his special powers for purely entertainment purposes, he does so in a way that liberates children from the hand of adult constraint. Sometimes life is so morally questionable and transparently unfair that, as a kid, you wish you could fly away, disappear, or simply take control. It’s such an empowering moment.
Finally come the inevitable goodbyes, but unlike the breakdown of his parents’ relationship and the sudden departure of his father, Elliot is able to better process the situation, understanding that sometimes a parting of ways is best for everyone. Having successfully “phoned home”, it’s time for E.T. to return to his own planet, a place free from the inherent dangers of Earth and its often heartless, self-serving machinations. Dialogue such as “Beeee good.” and “Stay” still devastate, but an irrevocable bond, 3,000,000 light years in the making, has been formed, not just between E.T. and Elliot, but for the millions upon millions watching in cinemas or at home, generation after generation. Though it has no literal connection with the festive season, I tend to revisit one of Spielberg’s finest achievements at Christmas, which I suppose speaks to its magic and ability to conjure unusual levels of emotion along with feelings of family and togetherness. Few films take your breath away like E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial.
Ultimately, E.T. is about dealing with loss at a formative age. I grew up without a father, but you don’t have to be fatherless to relate to Spielberg’s magical, often heartbreaking study of empathy and alienation ‒ a word that takes on a much more literal sense thanks to a similarly abandoned extra-terrestrial who shares many parallels with his human ally. The fact is, adults, and the world they inhabit, are scary; as adults ourselves we now understand that more than ever. A world built on power, corruption and control can be terrifying for kids high on the heady wonders of pure imagination, as can the thought of loss, loneliness, neglect and sadness. But with sorrow comes the inevitable highs of human emotion, the fulfilment of a bittersweet ending well earned. Of all the movies that taught us right from wrong, that separated reality from fiction, very few achieved it with such fantastical endeavour. E.T. is a timeless ode to the magical powers of pure cinema, a long-distance call to the unyielding, all-conquering faculty of friendship. For a generation of wide-eyed tweens lost in a world of blockbuster wonderment, it’s a friendship that will last forever.