From its release in 1982, sci-fi movie E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial had a huge impact on the world of cinema. Directed by Steven Spielberg, compared to his previous blockbusters Jaws (1975), Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) and Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), E.T. was a very down-to-earth film. Set in a California suburb, it was protagonised by children, and unlike other movies of the time, spoke directly to its young audience, treating them with a respect usually reserved for adults.
E.T. tells the story of ten-year-old Elliott (played by Henry Thomas) and his siblings, younger sister Gertie (Drew Barrymore) and older brother Michael (Robert MacNaughton) who live with their recently-divorced single mother. Elliot struggles with the absence of his father and feels very lonely. One day, Elliot hears a noise in the backyard. He goes out to investigate and encounters a bizarre creature. The alien, who he later names E.T., is an intergalactic botanist who is stranded on Earth when his colleagues are forced to escape in their spacecraft.
Spielberg said that while the idea for the movie came to him in a flash, the political context at the time was influential. In the 1980s, US president Ronald Reagan reduced government spending on social and space programs and increased military expenditure instead. As with previous hit movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Spielberg wanted to re-inspire awe in the universe, and to make alien life seem approachable.
CHANGE OF HEART
Unusually, E.T. was shot in chronological order to encourage the young cast to give convincing performances. The camera was placed at their height allowing them to ad-lib many of the most memorable lines. While ambitious in scope — as reflected in John Williams’ inspirational score — the personal nature of the movie had a profound effect on Spielberg himself. In his mid-thirties at the time, he had decided that having a family would be incompatible with his career, but while making E.T., he changed his mind.
E.T. the character is a technologically-savvy vegetarian, who can heal and bring dying plants back to life. He shares emotional characteristics with adult human beings but also has a childlike curiousity and an openness to learn, create and communicate. E.T. is old-fashioned in his strictly-defined male gender, with its certain characteristics, such as dressing up in drag for comedy effect. Otherwise, though, he does seem very modern! The physical creation of E.T. was the work of Italian artist Carlo Rambaldi, who won an Academy Award for best visual effects for his animatronics. Rambaldi, who also created the creature from the movie Alien, envisaged something that did not look like someone in a costume.
OUT OF NOWHERE
The second highest-grossing Spielberg movie after Jurassic Park, E.T. The Extra- Terrestrial continues to move people of all ages and backgrounds. Though a sequel was never made, the 1982 film has been re-released a number of times. In an interview given for the film’s 40th anniversary, Spielberg recalled how the idea for E.T. came to him out of nowhere.
Steven Spielberg (American accent): I was in Tunisia making Raiders of the Lost Ark and we were setting up a shot, and I was picking up fossils in the desert, which used to be the bottom of the ocean millions of years ago. And I thought [of] the end of Close Encounters, when Richard Dreyfuss goes up into the mothership and the little alien comes down and does the hand signs to François Truffaut… and it just hit me. I thought,”What if the alien had stayed behind on Earth? What if he did a kind of foreign exchange, Dreyfus goes away and the alien stays?” And then suddenly this whole story hit me like a ton of bricks.
In 1980, Spielberg and screenwriter Melissa Mathison had attempted to write a screenplay based on an unrealised science fiction project called Night Skies. Mathison was initially reluctant to get involved, says Spielberg, but her screenplay, in which he also collaborated, earned her an Oscar nomination.
Steven Spielberg: It was really a story about my mom and dad when they got divorced, and how I felt as a kid wanting a friend like that to fill the void in my life, and all these things came pouring in. Harrison Ford’s wife Melissa Mathison was on the set, and I just wanted to get this thing written. And I said, “Hey, Melissa, you want to write this?” [but] she said, “No.” And then Harrison talked her into it and then she said ‘yes’ eventually, and she did a tremendously wonderful screenplay.
a rescue movie
Some of the most iconic images in cinema history originated in E.T.. A sequence involving flying bicycles was later adopted as the logo for Spielberg’s production company, Amblin Entertainment. While E.T. defies any one genre, says Spielberg, he sees it as a rescue movie.
Steven Spielberg: I like the idea that they’re like children. It’s easy for kids to relate to. E.T. came into Elliott’s life and after they start to bond with each other they’re inseparable. Both have needs: Elliott has a need that E.T. can fulfill and E.T. has a need that Elliot can help him with, to get home. And Elliott also needs to ‘get home’… Elliot doesn’t have a father, his father has divorced his mother and is off in Mexico. And he’s a lost child, he’s going to fall off the face of the earth if he’s not rescued. I always thought E.T. was a movie about a double rescue: E.T. saves Elliot, Elliot saves E.T.
Not everything associated with E.T. was a success: the E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial video game is often cited as one of the worst of all time. Renowned game designer Howard Scott Warshaw was hired to create the game for the Atari 2600 console, but negotiations over game rights took so long that he was given just five weeks to develop it in time for the 1982 Christmas season. The resultant game had low-quality graphics and a confusing gameplay. It was significantly criticised, and overproduction and returns nearly bankrupted the company. A large-scale recession in the video game industry followed as people abandoned consoles in favour of personal computers. Reports from 1983 stated that unsold cartridges of the game were secretly buried in a landfill in Alamogordo, New Mexico, and covered with a layer of concrete.