In the past year, we haven’t had to watch E.T. The Extra Terrestrial, Steven Spielberg’s 1982 science fiction classic, in order to see E.T. The Extra Terrestrial. A prominent part of the pop culture gene pool for the past 35 years, the film’s DNA has lately asserted itself in everything from the Netflix series Stranger Things to the current hit Stephen King adaptation It. Yet as inescapable as its easiest-to-replicate-elements — suburbia at twilight, kids on bikes solving mysteries while dodging shadowy figures, lens flare — have become, E.T. remains, in many respects, impossible to imitate. The soul of the movie resists such attempts.
For his seventh feature film (throwing in the TV movie Duel, because it’s terrific), Spielberg made one from the heart, drawing on his childhood fantasies of a creature from space and the childhood trauma of watching his parents’ marriage shatter. Now seeing re-release via a handsome new Blu-ray and 4K edition (and playing, briefly, in theaters this weekend), E.T. at 35 remains a stunning achievement, bringing wonder from beyond the stars crashing down into mundane suburbia — and with it a sense that even the most ordinary lives could be touched by the extraordinary.
Out of Darkness
But it almost wasn’t that. After the success of Close Encounters of the Third Kind in 1977, Spielberg first made the oversized (and largely disastrous) World War II comedy 1941 then teamed with George Lucas for Raiders of the Lost Ark, another earthbound film set in the Greatest Generation era. But he hadn’t forgotten about space, and the door remained open for another science fiction project. During this period, Spielberg developed a film called Watch the Skies, later renamed Night Skies, a sci-fi horror movie about aliens who visit Earth and terrorize an unsuspecting family. In the broad strokes, it would have been the anti-E.T..
Night Skies almost happened. There’s a finished screenplay written by no less than John Sayles and special effects master Rick Baker started working on prototypes for the creatures. Even after he lost interest in making it himself, Spielberg maintained an interest in seeing it made by others, at one point eyeing Texas Chain Saw Massacre director Tobe Hooper to helm the project.
Regardless of who directed, Night Skies would have fit right into the summer of 1982, a season now spoken of in hushed tones as the high-water mark of post-Star Wars genre filmmaking, one that saw the release of everything from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Conan the Barbarian, Blade Runner, Tron, John Carpenter’s The Thing, and The Road Warrior. They’re all quite different films, but each possesses a drive for bigness and boldness, with most also sharing a willingness to push the boundaries of violence. (Even Star Trek II is more intense and violent than anything the series had produced to date and Tron is downright brutal by Disney standards.) And it’s easy to imagine the Spielberg who mastered otherworldly effects with Close Encounters and turned chaotic action into kinetic filmmaking with Jaws, Raiders, and the best parts of 1941 making a gripping thriller from the premise. Given his talents and interests, it’s hard to believe Spielberg resisted. (A sample from Sayles’ screenplay: “They begin to make love again. We slowly pan away from their till we are looking into the trees. Something moves almost imperceptibly, leaving a branch shaking.”)
But he did, and turned his attention elsewhere inspired in part by Night Skies‘ final scene, in which one of the aliens remains behind, and a conversation Melissa Mathison, the screenwriter of The Black Stallion, on the set of Raiders. “I began concocting this imaginary creature,” Spielberg told Rolling Stone in 1982, “partially from the guys who stepped out of the mother ship for ninety seconds in Close Encounters … Then I thought, what if I were ten years old again … and white if he needed me as much as I needed him?” And from there, a gentler tale began to take shape. He convinced Mathison to write a screenplay and then, in a summer in which seemingly every other film went big, Spielberg sought smallness, gentleness, and intimacy.