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.
Lights in the Woods
Anyone watching E.T. with no prior knowledge, however, could be forgiven for not recognizing it as such right away. Years later, when E.T. has become an almost universally recognized icon, it’s kind of impossible to put ourselves in the shoes of an unsuspecting viewer, but trying makes for an intriguing thought experiment. The film’s titles appear on a black screen accompanied by some some atonal music by John Williams that’s more reminiscent of Jerry Goldsmith’s music for Alien than the anthemic scores that made Williams famous. In the opening moments, we see dwarfish figures performing some mysterious task in front of a spaceship that’s landed in a forest clearing. And though the music starts to become lighter, the tone of the film remains unsettled, tension growing as a series of trench coat-clad men wielding flashlights shows up. Soon they’re chasing one of the figures through the woods, the flashlights’ beams cutting through the darkness. (Add The X-Files to the list of creations that would look much different without this movie.)
Spielberg has confessed to feeling less-than-confident that anyone would want to see E.T. prior to its release except “the Disney kids.” He knew he’d made a family movie and, at the time, family movies did not perform well financially. “Disney was a stigma in the early ‘80s,” Spielberg recounts in a making-of documentary included on the Blu-ray. “But I still felt that I had made a Disney film.”
Not that this was apparent in the film’s opening moments, or even until fairly deep in the narrative. E.T. takes up residence in the shed behind a suburban California house shared by recently divorced mom Mary (Dee Wallace), and her three children: teenage son Michael (Robert Naughton), his younger brother Elliott (Henry Thomas), and their sister Gertie (Drew Barrymore). For a while, E.T. remains an unseen, and occasionally scary, lurker, his gentle nature revealed only once Elliott lures him into the house with Reese’s Pieces. Spielberg didn’t make Night Skies, but it would take only a few tweaks for the opening moments of the film he did make to play like a horror movie.
Nor would E.T. himself need much work to look sinister. Designed by Carlo Rambaldi, whose previous work included Alien and Close Encounters, E.T. falls has a bulldog-like quality, living where cuteness and ugliness meet. There’s a reason virtually every character screams when seeing him for the first time. With smaller eyes, a less expressive mouth, or less elegant hands he might have resembled a monster.
It’s also worth noting that kids are quicker to accept him than adults and, since Spielberg sets the film so squarely in the world of his child characters, viewers of all ages are quick to accept him too. E.T. comes from beyond the stars — Spielberg has narrowed it down to Alpha Centauri in interviews — but the world of the film is much more limited. It’s set almost entirely in the kids’ home, with the kitchen table serving as the axis of a circle with a radius defined by what they can reach by bike.
What’s more, Spielberg keeps the camera close to the ground in most shots, often defining what we experience by what grabs the kids’ attention. In a particularly neat trick, Mary’s is the only adult face we see in full for much of the movie, a mom being able to demand the kids’ focus in a way teachers cannot. (If Elliott’s teacher spoke only in blah-blah-blah language his classroom would be virtually indistinguishable from Charlie Brown’s.) When, relatively late in the movie, the camera pushes in on the face of Peter Coyote’s character Keys — a government agent who’s been looking for E.T. — it comes as something of a shock. He’s an invader in Kidsville, and Kidsville is going through some troubled times.
E.T. is a film about an alien, sure, but it’s also a film about a broken home, and how its fissures threaten living within it. We don’t learn much about the particulars of the divorce, and much of what we do learn comes via offhand remarks. The kids’ father is visiting Mexico — which Mary notes, under her breath, that he hates — and while Elliott harbors hope his dad will return, Mike seems to know better. Mary is clearly doing the best she can, but if the children don’t want for love, they do want for attention. They’re latchkey kids who spend more time alone in the house than Mary’s generation did. Consequently, they’ve formed a world of their own, one made up of Dungeons & Dragons games, Atari 2600 sessions, and Star Wars toys.
Set in 1986 and 1989, respectively, Stranger Things and It both do fine jobs of recreating the look and feel of their particular era. They’re also acts of nostalgia, whereas part of what makes Spielberg’s suburbia-set films work is the ways in which they double as bits of cultural anthropology. Milwaukee-based filmmaker Mark Borchardt, the subject of Chris Smith’s great documentary American Movie, has said he didn’t see a ranch home on film until Close Encounters. Even if that didn’t mark an actual filmmaking first, it’s now easy to forget how groundbreaking it was at the time to portray cluttered, overcrowded suburban homes as they actually looked and felt, as places of tremendous warmth and noise and barely controlled chaos. And perhaps this has gotten a little bit lost over the years too: for those of us who grew up in such homes in this era, Spielberg was reflecting our world back to us and suggesting that unimagined possibilities could be found even on these grids of interchangeable houses situated on identical half-acre plots of land. Even in Kidsville, you could occasionally get a glimpse of a universe stretching far beyond the backyard.
“I’ve Been Wishing For This”
If the late arrival of Keys plays as one of E.T.’s more surprising moments, so too does his role. The kids of the film have spent much of it dodging the shadowy government forces — a staple of many movies after Watergate — and they’ll spend the climax dodging them again. But Keys is different. “I’ve been wishing for this since I was 10 years old,” he tells Elliott as both Elliott and E.T. lay suffering from an unknown illness. For a grown-up who’s spent his whole life hoping to find prove of life beyond the stars, even an ashen, dying E.T. represents a dream come true.
Over the course of E.T., Spielberg makes E.T by turns a pet, a friend, a playmate, a dress-up doll, and a drunken clown. But, as the film nears its end, those roles start to fall away as he’s revealed as a healer and a kind of wrinkly sage the movie consciously likens to Tinker Bell and Jesus — both too-good-for-this-world characters who die and return through the power of faith. Spielberg never pushes the point too far, however, nor does E.T. actually fix anything. Elliott and his siblings remain fatherless children of divorce (though the way Spielberg frames Mary and Keys after they meet suggests this might not last forever). The film ends not with an image of E.T. or a spaceship, but Elliott’s face looking to the stars. E.T. has left them nothing but hope, but maybe that’s enough.
What happens next, we’ll never know. Spielberg considered, then abandoned, the idea of doing a sequel. A flood of merchandise followed in the years to come, from toys to clothes to a widely reviled video game. 1985 saw the publication of E.T.: The Book of the Green Planet by William Kotzwinkle and E.T. has occasionally popped up in ads over the years. But, in an age of franchises, reboots, and remakes, E.T. has the increasingly rare privilege of being just a movie.
Sort of. The film started to inspire variations on its themes seemingly even before it was released. The Spielberg-scripted and produced Poltergeist hit theaters a week before E.T.’s release and now looks like a dark mirror version of some of the same story, its suburbia visited not by benevolent sci-fi creatures from above but hurtful beings from below. E.T.‘s inspiration would be evident in the years that followed in everything from Joe Dante’s Gremlins, a blackly comic small-town monster movie to blatant rip-offs like the notorious, McDonald’s-sponsored Mac & Me. The worst films inspired by E.T. have missed the point. The best took what they needed from the movie and made it their own. But 35 years on, for all E.T. has influenced and for as strong a hold as that influence has taken of late, it remains a singular film, a fairy tale in sci-fi dress set in an troubled American idyll unexpectedly finding hope from an unlikely source. It’s a wish made into a movie.