Let’s Talk About ‘E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial’ (1982)

All it takes is one iconic shot to forever cement a film in pop culture history. For E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, that shot is Elliot riding his bike, with E.T. in the basket, and E.T. lifting the bike up so they are essentially flying in front of the moon. The shot became so memorable that Amblin Entertainment made it into their official logo. Spielberg, the master that he is, actually used that scene to pay homage to one of his favorite films, Miracle in Milan. I’m always fascinated to hear about the types of films that inspire directors like Spielberg since it is his films like E.T. that inspire us to pursue our own dreams.

What E.T. Means to Us

I saw about half an hour of E.T. when I was eight years old. That’s about how far my family made it into watching the film before we had to shut it off because my brother was scared of E.T. (and rightfully so). Revisiting it properly years later made me understand why my brother was frightened. The first fifteen minutes play out like horror movie openings of the era. The music is ominous, the opening credits have a horror tinge to them, and the E.T.s roaming through the forest could be considered creepy or stunning. However, what continues to get me every time I sit down to rewatch E.T. is just how damn good it is. I always think, “Eh, time to watch E.T. and then the film opens on the E.T.s in this beautiful forest and I’m instantly giving my full attention to the cinema magic Spielberg has crafted before my eyes. I may never understand why people will buy E.T. plushies, but I will always understand why people keep coming back to E.T. the film. It’s damn fine, and one of the greatest films ever made.

– Marmaduke Karlston


I usually prefer my movies dark and gritty, with a good helping of violence. In saying that, there are definitely times when I need what I’m watching to be a comfort blanket. E.T. fits that particular need. This wasn’t always the case as initially I was creeped out by the strange little alien. But that didn’t last long and eventually the desire to reach out and hug the plodding creature I was watching on screen was immeasurable. Viewing it as a youngster I’m pretty sure it was the first time I was emotionally affected by a film. Today, I still enjoy rewatches with any young relatives I can convince to take on a near 40-year-old film, and it’s always a pleasure to see them go through the same emotions I did. Through my adult eyes, I still think it’s an excellently crafted piece of entertainment with Spielberg DNA apparent throughout. It has it’s fair share of laugh out loud moments and is a great example of feel-good cinema done right. 

– Lee McCutcheon

Background

The idea for E.T. came from director Steven Spielberg’s childhood. In Steven Spielberg: A Biography, it’s revealed that after his parents divorced, Spielberg created an imaginary alien companion who could be “the brother [he] never had and a father that [he] didn’t feel [he] had anymore.” These childhood memories later resurfaced in Spielberg’s mind during filming of Raiders of the Lost Ark. He began to work with screenwriter Melissa Mathison, and the two began to develop a subplot from the abandoned film Night Skies, itself a pseudo-sequel to Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Mathison wrote the first draft, then titled E.T. and Me, in eight weeks. Despite Spielberg considering the first draft perfect, two more drafts followed which wrote in popular scenes like E.T. getting drunk (personally, one of my favorite scenes), and the epic chase sequence at the end.

Spielberg developed E.T. expecting Columbia Pictures to release it, as it evolved from Night Skies, which was intended to be the studio’s follow-up of Close Encounters. However, the higher ups at the studio didn’t think the film had much potential to be a success, with then Columbia Pictures CEO Frank Price calling it “a wimpy Walt Disney movie” (which is weird considering E.T. gets drunk and the kids call each other “penis breath” and “douchebag”). Spielberg took it to MCA Inc. (the parent company of Universal at the time), and they acquired the script from Columbia for $1 million. However, Price managed to snag a sweet deal that would allow Columbia to retain 5% of the film’s net profits. Rumor has it that E.T. made more money for Columbia than any of their other 1982 films.

Story & Characters

In my mind, there is a reason so many films from the ’70s and ’80s are deemed classics. First, they were original ideas that took audiences to astounding new places. Second, the plots were clean-cut and straightforward. Nowadays, most movie plots attempt to do way too much or explain way too much in too little of a runtime. E.T. gets to the point right away. E.T. gets left behind. He befriends a boy. The two share a connection. E.T. grows sick from being away from his species. The boy also grows sick because of this connection. E.T. breaks the connection so the boy can live. E.T. dies. E.T. then comes back to life as his species is coming back for him. The boy and his brother stage a breakout. The brother’s friends tag along. They get chased by the police. They avoid them and make it to E.T.’s mothership. E.T. says his farewells and boards the ship. Happy ending. The plot is straight to the point and doesn’t worry about unnecessary subplots. Sure the film has some, like with Elliot’s parents’ separation (“He hates Mexico”), but these details are there to enrich the movie’s universe. The added tension the family is dealing with right now makes Elliot falling sick even more stressful for the mother. Another part that could have easily been expanded was the character Keys. However, the character remains cloaked in mystery and we only see his face near the film’s end. He’s a character that, if E.T. was made today, would be primed for a prequel spin-off. Why was he waiting for E.T.? Did a similar incident happen to him as a child? We wonder, but we don’t necessarily need to know. We get a taste, but not the whole meal. The best meals are the ones that leave you wanting more.

That being said, I did find some issues with the film (which come pretty close to nitpicking). Henry Thomas, who plays Elliot, annoyed the hell out of me at the beginning of the movie. I thought to myself, “If I have to sit through two hours with this brat I’m not going to be happy.” Luckily, the kid turned it around. He’s quite good at naturally conveying emotion. Fear, Shock, Trauma, Sadness; the kid has range.

I was originally confused about E.T.’s powers, but as the film went on they started to make more sense. It took me a while to realize E.T. and Elliot shared a connection and what happens to E.T. happens to Elliot. I’m not quite sure what that had to do with Elliot stopping a frog dissection, but props to E.T. for being the best wing man ever. I also appreciated the filmmakers connecting E.T.’s life force to the pot of flowers. Since his species seems to be intergalactic botanists, it was a nice visual aid for the audience to keep track of E.T.’s declining (and later improving) health.

Lastly, Drew Barrymore acts circles around everyone else. And I’m chalking that up to childhood innocence and Spielberg telling her E.T. was real.

Shooting on Location & Practical Effects

As I mentioned in my Canon post for Raiders, shooting on location and practical effects can give a film that added sense of realism, even if the film delves into fantasy. E.T. has these scenes shoot in a beautiful redwood forest, where the trees seem to never end. It’s a beautiful environment, and one that you couldn’t even begin to create through CGI. I loved when the story would take the characters back to the forest, as it felt like a magical environment that swept you up in the story. It’s a gorgeous area that makes E.T.‘s cinematography all the more breathtaking.

There were numerous E.T. puppets made for the film. Most of them were animatronic, but when E.T. was seen moving around in full body shots he was brought to life by three different actors. For wide shots featuring E.T. walking around, Tamara de Treaux and Pat Bilon wore specially created E.T. suits. Other scenes, like E.T. drunkenly falling on his face, were performed by Matthew DeMeritt, a twelve-year old actor who was born without legs. He walked in the suit with his arms in the spots where E.T.’s feet would be.

Beyond the simple fact that a fully-rendered CGI E.T. would have been damn near impossible, the use of animatronics and puppetry make E.T. seem all the more real. Whether it is his big eyes opening, or the child actors visibly touching or holding him, it adds that extra layer of realism. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets showed that child actors are capable of acting opposite a pair of floating tennis balls (stand-ins for the later CGI character Dobby), but for the personal and emotional moments this film has between E.T. and Elliot it is easy to say that having an animatronic was the right choice. Hell, Spielberg has revealed that he shot the film in almost chronological order so that the children’s bond with E.T. would develop naturally. You can’t form a bond with a character that isn’t there.

Although, I will say that E.T. looks much better when the puppeteers extend his neck. He’s just plain creepy when he’s all bunched together.

Legacy

E.T. was a monumental box office success. It surpassed Star Wars to become the highest grossing film at the time of its release. It held the record for 11 years before being kicked to #2 in 1993 by Jurassic Park (another Spielberg film). It also garnered plenty of awards love at the Academy Awards. The film received nine nominations, including Best Picture, and won four (for Best Original Score, Best Sound, Best Sound Effects Editing, and Best Visual Effects). Best Picture winner Ghandi‘s director, Richard Attenborough, said, “I was certain that not only would E.T. win, but that it should win. It was inventive, powerful, [and] wonderful. I make more mundane movies.” That’s quite the compliment, and no doubt secured Attenborough the role of John Hammond 10 years later in Jurassic Park. It was also selected for preservation by the United States National Film Registry in 1994.

The film greatly benefited the sales of Reese’s Pieces. Spielberg originally wanted M&Ms to appear in the film, but Mars Incorporated turned down the offer. Spielberg then struck a deal with Hershey who chose Reese’s Pieces over the requested Hershey Kisses as the company wanted to give exposure to their newest treat. It definitely worked since two weeks after the film’s premiere Hershey reported a 65% increase in profits on the candy.

At one point, a sequel titled E.T. II: Nocturnal Fears was in active development. The film would have focused on Elliot and his friends getting kidnapped by “an albino fraction (mutatation) of the same civilization E.T. belongs to.” Luckily, Spielberg came to his senses and realized that a sequel to “E.T. would do nothing but rob the original of its virginity.” However, 27 years later, a sequel did arrive in the form of an extended Xfinity commercial featuring E.T. returning to Earth to celebrate Christmas with Elliot and his family. The extra-terrestrials also appeared in 1999’s Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace as members of the Galactic Republic. George Lucas included the species to return the favor to Spielberg since E.T. features numerous nods to George Lucas’s Star Wars Original Trilogy.

And finally, the film is credited with the creation of 1988’s Mac and Me, considered by many to be one of the worst films ever made; and for some reason, Paul Rudd’s favorite movie to torture Conan O’Brien with.


What are your fond memories of E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial? Do you have any facts or pieces of trivia on the film? Share them in the comments below!

Author: Marmaduke Karlston

"Wait a minute. Wait a minute Doc, uh, are you telling me you built a time machine... out of a DeLorean?"