E.T. – The Extraterrestrial: In his most personal film to date, Spielberg portrays children as an imaginative and important group of society – in short: a beacon of hope. In E.T., children set an example by practicing what was only indicated at the end of Close Encounters (1977): peaceful coexistence of creatures who come from different worlds with different views.
Spielberg shoots his film from a children’s eye level and shows adults only from the waist down. Beneath the surface of a seemingly simple story the movie tells us about the – sometimes painful – process of growing up and touches issues such as government surveillance and increasing environmental problems, a topic that is also addressed in Poltergeist (1982).
Screenwriter Melissa Mathison visits her then-boyfriend Harrison Ford in Tunisia, on the set of Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981). Steven Spielberg intends to make his next movie more intimate and closer to his heart, with a plot inspired by his suburban childhood. During shooting breaks he shares his ideas with Mathison and persuades her to write the script. In just eight weeks, she delivers a draft called E.T. and Me. As Spielberg recalls:
“Melissa delivered this 107-page first draft to me and I read it in about an hour. I was just knocked out. It was a script I was willing to shoot the next day. It was so honest, and Melissa’s voice made a direct connection with my heart.”
The script goes through two more drafts in which a couple of scenes are removed while others are added, such as the famous chase sequence at the end of the film, and the hilarious scene where E.T. gets drunk.
Spielberg sums up his thoughts on E.T.:
“I don’t like picking a favorite of my films, because it’s kind of like saying you have a favorite child. The most significant film I’ve made is
Schindler’s List, but the most personal film I’ve made is E.T. It’s now
become a cliche to say that a movie is for the child in all of us. But I
think that E.T. is for the people we are, the people we have been, and
the people we want to be again.”
wanted to tell the story of a lonely boy in a relationship with
siblings, and I also wanted to tell the story of the divorce of my
parents. Elliott’s not me – but yes, he’s the closest thing to my
experience in life, growing up in suburbia. […] The house in E.T. is
very much like the house I was raised in. That’s my bedroom!”
The famous alien is brought to life by Carlo Rambaldi in the form of a mechanical puppet (in some cases, little people act in an E.T. costume). Sound designer Ben Burtt creates E.T.’s croaking voice by experimenting with voice recordings of (among others) Pat Welsh, Debra Winger and Spielberg himself.
For the first time, Spielberg waives his beloved storyboards and shoots most of the scenes chronologically in order to encourage the child actors to improvise. As a result, Drew Barrymore as Gertie and Henry Thomas as Elliott play the roles of their lives.
In an extended version of the school sequence, Elliott can be seen furiously drawing
space communicator circuitry across a classroom wall until he is stopped
by Melissa Mathison as the school nurse who brings him to the faceless principal played by Harrison Ford. These scenes unfortunately end up on the cutting room floor.
Phrases like “E. T. phone home” and poetic images such as the flying bike in front of the full moon (brilliantly photographed by Allen Daviau) are now a part of global culture. Spielberg selects the image of the moon for the logo of his film production company, Amblin Entertainment.
In the “All Time Box Office”, E.T. moves to No. 1 and replaces Spielberg’s own Jaws (1975). Today, E.T. is still on No. 4 (adjusted for inflation). Despite the enormous financial success Spielberg rejects all offers to do a sequel.
Spielberg is invited by President Ronald Reagan to attend a private E.T. screening at the White House. Parts of the film industry resent Spielberg for his alleged proximity to Reagan.
At the world premiere in Cannes, François Truffaut sits in the audience. He sends Spielberg a telegram with the message “You belong here more than me” – a phrase from Spielberg’s pen, written for Truffaut’s role as Lacombe in Close Encounters expressing his admiration for the childlike mind of Roy Neary.
Variety praises E.T. as the “best Disney film Disney never made“.
However, the film’s melodramatic intensity polarizes audiences and critics. Some reject E.T. for the same reasons that fans appreciate.
At the Academy Awards ceremony, E.T. is nominated in nine categories (including Best Picture, Director, Photography, Editing, Screenplay) and receives four Oscars for Best Music (John Williams), Special effects and Sound Effects Editing. In all other categories, the film loses against another peace-loving outsider: Gandhi.
In reply, Spielberg casts Gandhi actor Ben Kingsley in Schindler’s List (1993), Gandhi director Richard Attenborough in Jurassic Park (1993) and Gandhi’s supporting actors Amrish Puri and Roshan Seth in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984).