“E.T. is the perfect balance between epic and intimate. It is an incredible example of how cinema can transport us into a world of limitless possibilities through imagination, and it showcases filmmaking at the highest level in its use of technology, skill, and craft.” — Brian Herzlinger, director of My Date with Drew
The Digital Bits and History, Legacy & Showmanship are pleased to present this retrospective commemorating the 40th anniversary of the release of E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, Steven Spielberg’s classic family film about the friendship between a boy and an alien visitor who is afraid, totally alone, and three million light years from home.
E.T. was the winner of four Academy Awards (visual effects, sound, sound editing, and John Williams’ original score) and starred Dee Wallace (The Howling), Henry Thomas (Cloak & Dagger), Robert MacNaughton (I Am the Cheese), Drew Barrymore (Firestarter), and Peter Coyote (Timerider). [Read on here...]
E.T. was for over a decade the industry’s highest-grossing motion picture, and in 1994 the Library of Congress selected the film for preservation in the National Film Registry as being “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant.” Its most recent home media release (on 4K UHD) was earlier this year and reviewed here.
For the occasion of this year’s anniversary of E.T., The Bits features a multi-page article consisting of a 22-chapter oral history-style interview segment with a diverse group of pop culture authorities, Spielberg biographers, film historians and filmmakers who reflect on the movie. The article also features noteworthy box-office data and statistics, passages from a sampling of original reviews, and a reference listing of its 70mm theatrical presentations.
CHAPTER 1: THE 40TH ANNIVERSARY
Mark A. Altman (co-producer, 1982: Greatest Geek Year Ever!): E.T. is a significant moment in cinema. It represents a demarcation between the dark, fatalistic, cynical films of the 70’s and really is the beginning of the 80’s filmmaking era... even if it was already 1982. It’s a beautifully constructed fairy tale which is the best Walt Disney film Walt never made.
William Kallay (author, The Making of Tron): E.T. still resonates with people even after forty years. The style of clothing, the cars, and the humongous headphones on actor K.C. Martel’s head are very dated, but the story of friendship and love will always capture us and E.T. was the perfect film for that.
Steven Awalt (author, Steven Spielberg and Duel: The Making of a Film Career): [For its 40th anniversary E.T. should be remembered] with great fondness, I hope, but also as an opportunity to introduce brand-new audiences to one of all of cinema’s greatest films.
Brian Herzlinger (director, My Date with Drew): E.T. is 40! I can’t believe it! There is a comfort knowing that as we all get older, so do our favorite films. Films that were poignant enough to have merged with our childhood memories and unleash limitless imagination will always hold a special place in the annals of cinema. Sometimes, when you revisit a childhood favorite film as an adult, the magic is gone, and the techniques of the craft reveal cracks that were previously unseen by our unknowing eyes. On the other hand, sometimes those childhood favorites happen to stand the test of time so beautifully, that they continue to influence culture and remain an unforgettable chapter in the history of filmmaking. Fortunately, the latter is the case with E.T. Forty years later, and it’s still as perfect, relevant, and unforgettable as ever.
Caseen Gaines (author, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial: The Ultimate Visual History): E.T. is a masterpiece, not only of cinema, but of storytelling. It remains one of the most beloved films of all time, which is quite astonishing considering how intimate it is. This became a summer blockbuster, but it doesn’t quite fit the description of what we think of when we hear those words, "summer blockbuster." It resonated because of the heart at the center of its story, Steven Spielberg’s masterful direction, Melissa Mathison’s brilliant words, the performances by the talented cast, and contributions of hundreds of people who made this film the uniquely special movie it turned out to be.
James Kendrick (author, Darkness in the Bliss-Out: A Reconstruction of the Films of Steven Spielberg): E.T. is a perennial classic that cuts across generational divides, so I think it will be remembered most for its enduring emotional power. A lot of films—including good ones—lose some of their edge, their effectiveness, their emotional intensity—with age and fail to connect with new generations. E.T. is not one of those films. Rather, it is a film that speaks to viewers today, young and old, just as it did in 1982. I had the great experience of watching it for the first time with my own kids (ages 7 and 9) just a few months ago, and they were utterly enthralled. They were scared at the scary parts, laughed at the funny parts, cheered for E.T. when he came back to life and rooted for Elliott and his friends to get away from the government agents and help E.T. get home. They—and I—were teary in the final moments. It is simply a movie that works.
Mike Matessino (restoration producer of numerous John Williams/Steven Spielberg soundtracks): My perspective has really changed over the past few years. What comes to mind now is that E.T. is a window into a very different world, one with its own problems, for sure, but overall a world that was simpler and more innocent and that I find myself missing. Star Wars was the dominant pop culture phenomenon of the period, but it involved space travel and was set in another galaxy. E.T. presents the same exact world as existed outside the exit door of the cinema, and for me, that remains one of the most powerful things about it. The anniversary is an opportunity to reflect on how much our world has changed in forty years. As for how to do so [remember or celebrate the movie]? We’re blessed with a fantastic looking IMAX version that allows audiences to experience the movie in all its cinematic glory.
Ray Morton (author, Close Encounters of the Third Kind: The Making of Steven Spielberg’s Classic Film): The picture deserved every bit of its success. E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial is a wonderful movie—filled with thrills, comedy, emotion, and magic, it is a supremely entertaining picture. Melissa Mathison’s script is just superb. This cast is too and the craftspeople above and below the line all deliver at the top of their games. But the film’s triumph ultimately belongs to Spielberg. He brought all of his remarkable gifts for visual storytelling—his unerring sense of composition, camera movement, staging, pacing, and editing—to bear on the project, along with his deep and nuanced understanding of life in the American suburbs, and his unparalleled ability to infuse a film with an authentic sense of wonder and awe. He also brought his heart—E.T. is an intensely emotional movie, filled with joy and pain and love. Spielberg puts all of these emotions up on the screen unfiltered and with a deep and genuine sincerity that allowed viewers to experience the story with the same intensity of feeling that he does. As a result, auditoriums across the planet were filled with sniffles and snobs as E.T. and Elliott said their final goodbyes, followed by peals of joyous laughter as the alien visitor rose into the heavens in his Christmas-ornament of a spacecraft, leaving a brilliant rainbow in his wake as a parting gift for his friend—and for us all.
CHAPTER 2: STEVEN SPIELBERG
Mike Matessino: No one else could have directed it. The movie was an extension of who he was as a person as well as a filmmaker. There’s almost no point in looking at any other of his films without E.T. as the main point of context. It’s the creative hub of his filmography.
Joseph McBride (author, Steven Spielberg: A Biography): I knew François Truffaut, whom I would see every time he visited Hollywood during that period. Truffaut told me he had urged Spielberg to make a movie about “keeds,” since he was so good at directing “keeds.” Finally I heard that Spielberg had made his movie about “keeds,” but it involved a kid and an alien. I told Truffaut about that, and he laughed uproariously. Truffaut was right that Spielberg was the ideal person to make E.T. because of his sensitivity to “keeds.” I later read Carl Jung’s 1959 book Flying Saucers: A Modern Myth of Things Seen in the Skies, which argues that for an age that is skeptical of the traditional conception of God, we want Gods from the machine, i.e., aliens from flying saucers. Jung also noted that UFO belief surges in times of social crisis, stemming from “an emotional tension having its cause in a situation of collective distress or danger, or in a vital psychic need." That was true when Spielberg conceived Close Encounters of the Third Kind as a UFO Watergate story and a response to the national trauma of the Vietnam Era. Gradually the political concept somewhat fell away, although Close Encounters shows how the government keeps the alien encounter a secret and puts out a cover story to hide it from the public. In E.T., we see the government swooping in secretly and basically killing E.T., although the UFOlogist “Keys” (Peter Coyote) is sympathetic with Elliott, saying he too dreamed of meeting an alien. Then E.T. is resurrected from the dead, in one of the film’s many parallels with the story of Jesus Christ. Spielberg’s work ironically is full of Christian iconography, which I recognize as part of his way to win acceptance from the majority, after being ostracized to some extent for being Jewish, as The Fabelmans shows us (although it oddly leaves out the anti-Semitism he experienced in Arizona, situating all of it in Northern California, the year in Saratoga he called “Hell on Earth”). Close Encounters and E.T. deal with Spielberg’s “vital psychic need” stemming from his family’s 1965 breakup, the trauma he deals with over and over in his films. Another psychiatrist who has studied the UFO phenomenon, Kenneth Ring, noted that when a child from a dysfunctional family learns “to dissociate in response to the trauma,” he is “much more likely to become sensitive to alternate realities.”
Ray Morton: With his work in both Close Encounters and E.T., Spielberg created the most accurate depictions of middle-class, suburban American life ever put on film. Unlike most cinematic portrayals of the ‘burbs, Spielberg’s depictions were not idealized, not condescending, and not cynical. They were simply and genuinely real.
James Kendrick: E.T. is one of Spielberg’s greatest films and no one else could have made it as he did. It was a deeply personal film for him, embodying as it does so many of his own childhood emotions, fears, longings, and resentments. His name is nowhere on the writing credits, but his fingerprints are all over the story, which is autobiographical in its emotional content.
Brian Herzlinger: The visual language of Spielberg is its own master class of filmmaking, and E.T. showcases that talent unlike any of his other endeavors. Spielberg’s ability to tell a fantasy story while anchoring it in the most human of emotions and experiences (loss, alienation, exploration, exhilaration, love, family), and to explore these themes through a child’s perspective requires a masterful hand. It’s rare for a film to have audiences of all ages to be wholly moved by the story and its characters the way E.T. so skillfully does. While Spielberg’s entire body of work has been the singular inspiration for my own film career, E.T. remains my favorite film, and I consider Schindler’s List to be the best made film of all time.
Steven Awalt: There was no other person who could’ve directed E.T. as well as Steven Spielberg. It came from his heart and dreams extending back to boyhood. One could rightly say the same about Poltergeist, as Spielberg has, only that comes from his very personal yet relatable childhood fears.
Caseen Gaines: Spielberg is the only person who could have directed the film because it’s so personal to him. It’s largely inspired by his real life and definitely grounded in his emotional truth. He has a phenomenal way of making the unbelievable seem real, and I think E.T. stands out among his body of work as the best time he’s done that on screen.
Mark A. Altman: It was absolutely the perfect marriage of material and director. It’s hard to believe that its origin as a dark, ominous, scary film in John Sayles’ script for Night Skies was something he was serious about directing. E.T. is so on-brand for Spielberg and in his wheelhouse at the time. I think it’s one of his best films right after Jaws, Close Encounters and Raiders. Although I’d put Munich, Schindler’s List and Bridge of Spies ahead of it subsequently as well, but given his batting average, that’s quite impressive.
Saul Pincus (director/editor, Nocturne): Close Encounters of the Third Kind was one of my most formative cinema experiences, and remains so—but with E.T. Spielberg found a way to plug directly into kids by wisely restricting the film to their point of view. Permission to be a kid is a key hallmark of early-career Spielberg; here you can argue that impulse and follow-through was at its purest, most accessible, and most universally effective. It also served as a proof of concept for the backyard adventure—perhaps the primary conceptual backbone of the Amblin Entertainment brand.
William Kallay: Steven Spielberg is perhaps our most powerful film director when it comes to getting an audience engaged in a story. Certainly George Lucas, James Cameron, John Carpenter, Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola changed how we see and experience films in the modern era. Spielberg, though, had the ability to go from action and scary films to utterly emotional films. E.T. was a combination of his instincts as a director to delve down to the core of being human. His film was one of those rare events that truly brought audiences together.
Bill Hunt (editor, The Digital Bits): Spielberg has made so many great films over the years that it’s easy to forget how stirring his early successes were; each project seemed to come out of nowhere and they were all unique. Obviously, critics today justly regard Jaws and Raiders of the Lost Ark two of his best films, but for my money Close Encounters of the Third Kind is still his most audacious and uncompromising effort. And that’s what makes E.T. so fascinating—released just five years later, it’s another look at the disruptive impact the discovery of extraterrestrial life has on an average American family. Yet they’re very different films. And I would argue that E.T. is the most personal of Spielberg’s early works.
CHAPTER 3: THE CONCEPT
Ray Morton: E.T. began its journey to the screen as a sort-of-a-sequel to Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Spielberg’s 1977 epic about the first contact between humans and extra-terrestrials. Close Encounters was a major hit and soon after its release Spielberg and Columbia, the studio that financed and released the picture, began talking about doing a sequel. Spielberg eventually opted not to do a direct continuation (he chose instead to revise the original—by re-editing it and adding some new scenes—and re-releasing it in 1980 as The Special Edition of Close Encounters of the Third Kind), but he did come up with an idea for a spin-off called Night Skies. Based on a supposedly true story that Spielberg learned about when he was researching CE3K, Night Skies was to be a horror film about a family living on a remote American farm that is invaded by hostile aliens. The visitors raise all sorts of havoc (including dissecting livestock) as the family members barricade themselves in their home and fight off the aliens. Columbia liked the idea and agreed to develop the project with Spielberg producing. Acting in this capacity (with his former assistant Kathleen Kennedy as his co-producer), Spielberg hired John Sayles to write the script, Ron Cobb to direct, and Rick Baker to create the alien creatures before he headed off to North Africa to direct Raiders of the Lost Ark.
Steven Awalt: The beautiful thing about E.T. is that Steven found the perfect collaborator in the late Melissa Mathison, who he hired to write the screenplay from his story after he told her the tale of this lost alien and boy while they were in Tunisia shooting Raiders. (Ms. Mathison was Harrison Ford’s girlfriend at the time and went overseas to visit him.) She had only written one produced screenplay to that point, for the Francis Ford Coppola-produced The Black Stallion, which is the story of a boy and his friendship with a special horse. I don’t know if it was a simple one-for-one in Steven’s mind: boy-horse story to boy-alien story, but he was a big admirer of what Melissa brought to that film and his choice of a screenwriter was clearly dead-on. Many have said over the decades, starting with Steven and E.T. producer Kathleen Kennedy, that Melissa’s script was a rare, near-perfect piece of work, ready to go before cameras on her first draft. That meeting of hearts and minds between Steven and Melissa was practically kismet based on Steven’s keen instinct for people and Melissa being in the right place at the right time.
Ray Morton: As good as Mathison’s script was, Columbia decided not to go ahead with the project. Unwilling to spend $10 million (the projected budget) on a film one of the studio’s executives described as “a wimpy Walt Disney movie,” Columbia put E.T. and Me (Mathison’s original title) into turnaround, choosing instead to proceed with another, more adult-oriented friendly-alien-stuck-on-Earth project called Starman (which John Carpenter directed in 1984 with Jeff Bridges and Karen Allen starring). Spielberg took E.T. and Me to his mentor Sid Sheinberg at Universal and Sheinberg agreed to make it.
CHAPTER 4: THE CAST
William Kallay: The performances Spielberg coaxed out of Henry Thomas and Drew Barrymore are nothing short of astounding.
Mike Matessino: To a great degree you have to cast children who are actually the characters you’re looking for, and Mike Fenton really did a fabulous job of finding the kids for E.T. They all feel like real kids of the period. The movie was also helped tremendously by having screenwriter Melissa Mathison as Associate Producer, which allowed her to be on set every day, working with the kids, coming up with new pieces of business or tweaking dialogue that kept it all feeling natural. It should also be noted that there was no way that the same performances could have been captured if E.T. himself was a digital creature added later. The fact that E.T. was a physical character in the scene with them is what makes it work. The rest of the cast are also perfect. Dee Wallace has just enough of a childlike vibe about her to make it work that she’s the only adult seen for the first two-thirds of the movie. I also think Peter Coyote’s performance is underrated. I love the moment where his face is revealed and the music is threatening, and then we find that he’s a very sympathetic and compassionate regular guy.
Brian Herzlinger: The performances from adults and children alike in E.T. is perfection. The word real is immediately what I think of in describing their acting and its effect on the story. Peter Coyote as Keys and Dee Wallace as Mary are both natural, engaging, and real in their roles, and Henry Thomas, Drew Barrymore and Robert MacNaughton all felt real as the children of this family. This, in turn, made E.T. feel real. In a film that at its heart is fantasy, and with the film’s namesake an abandoned lonely alien from another world, real from the other actors is vital for the film to connect with audiences. At no point does the audience not believe Henry Thomas has befriended a real alien. Even at such young ages, these actors were incredible. The casting is a testament to Spielberg, and the impeccable dialogue is a testament to screenwriter Melissa Mathison.
Steven Awalt: Of course Henry Thomas, Robert MacNaughton and Drew Barrymore couldn’t be more perfect in their roles; they complete inhabit Elliott, Michael and Gertie respectively. They were such appealing, emotionally available kids to the material and for the audience to connect with, and I think that certainly extends to the wonderful Dee Wallace playing Mary, the Taylor kids’ mother. They feel like a real family, and far too many families, “breaking” or “broken” families in the audience, could associate with the state of their family, their feelings of an absent father from divorce, and the gap he left being filled in ways by this completely improbable visitor from beyond the stars. There are such profound feelings of loss, but in turn, deeper love through E.T., and the cast deserves every bit as much credit for that as Steven and Melissa do for their work.