E.T. Phone Home – Spielberg’s Personal and Powerful Masterpiece 40 Years Later

Spielberg’s career as a filmmaker is without parallel in the history of Hollywood.  Ever since emerging onto the scene in the early 70’s, Steven Spielberg has continued to remain the most powerful name in cinema, without ever losing his footing in all the decades since.  He’s one of the men responsible for creating the blockbuster era in Hollywood, as well as an acclaimed director who has been nominated for an Academy Award in that field at least once every decade since the 1970’s.  He’s capable of creating big crowd pleasing spectacles like Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), Jurassic Park (1993), and West Side Story (2021), but is also capable of creating intimate and gut-wrenching dramas like The Color Purple (1985), Schindler’s List (1993), and his newest feature film The Fablemans (2022), releasing this week.  But, with a resume as packed as the one he has, how do we we narrow all those movies down to what can be considered the quintessential Spielberg flick?  Steven Spielberg is a filmmaker that puts his very being into each movie he makes, but there are certainly those films that hit especially close to home for him.  He has tackled movies that appeal to his left-wing political beliefs, movies that address his roots in the Jewish faith, and movies that speak to the things that meant most to him in his childhood.  He’s often been criticized for being too sentimental in his movies, but it’s the movies that he makes that are the most sentimental that often are considered among his best.  And there is one movie of his in particular that checks all the right boxes, and can be best described as the movie that is the most quintessentially Spielbergian.  That movie is of course 1982’s E.T. The Extra Terrestrial.

The story of how Spielberg came to be involved with the story of E.T. is interesting in itself, and it finds Spielberg at a crucial cross roads in his life and career.  In the 1970’s Spielberg was the hottest name in the industry with two back-to-back box office hits.  Those movies were, of course, Jaws (1975) and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977).  Jaws is considered by many to be the first true Hollywood blockbuster, and alongside Spielberg’s friend and fellow filmmaker George Lucas with his film Star Wars (1977), the movie industry began to make a monumental shift.  With Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Spielberg proved that he wasn’t a fluke in the business, and he also demonstrated his skill tackling a more mature and daring subject on screen.  At this point, Spielberg looked like he would be the King of Hollywood for many years to come.  And then, reality came crashing into his world.  His follow-up to Close Encounters was the broad, slapstick WWII comedy, 1941 (1979).  While the movie does have it’s defenders, 1941 is considered to be Spielberg’s first flop, both critically and financially.  Steven took this blow hard and for the first time began to doubt his own talent as a filmmaker.  Today, Spielberg looks back on the disappointment of 1941 as the make-or-break turning point in his life; either he was going to weighed down by the embarrassment of his first failure and give up on Hollywood completely, or he was going to brush it off and try better the next time while sticking it out in the business.  Thankfully, Spielberg was pulled out of his slump by an old friend, George Lucas.  Lucas was eyeing a project based on old adventure serials of the Golden Age of Hollywood, and he wanted Spielberg to direct.  That action adventure project would turn out to be Raiders of the Lost Ark, and it would be the movie that introduced an icon known as Indiana Jones to the world.  This was exactly the movie project that Spielberg needed to pull himself out of his depression, because like Lucas, this was the kind of movie he grew up idolizing.  It allowed him to make something that was fun but also artistically pleasing.  And not only that, but it would offer him an unexpected bridge towards the next movie that he would work on; a movie that ultimately would be the defining movie of his career.

The star playing Indiana Jones, Harrison Ford, became good friends with Spielberg during the shoot, and through their interaction Spielberg also got to know Ford’s then girlfriend and future wife, Melissa Mathison.  Mathison was a screenwriter who had already achieved success with her script for the film The Black Stallion (1979).  Spielberg discussed with her the idea he had for a science fiction horror movie called Night Skies, and in those talks, he mentioned this concept of an alien that forms a friendship with a young child.  Mathison was so taken with the concept that she began to write a draft for a movie with that idea central to the story.  In less than two months, she had her first draft complete, just in time for Spielberg to see as he was wrapping up the shoot on Raiders.  The script, then titled E.T. and Me, completely enchanted Spielberg and was immediately interested in making it his next project.  He shopped the script around Hollywood, and eventually Universal Studios bought it for a hefty $1 million.  It took no time at all for Spielberg to move on.  Even while he was in the editing room for Raiders of the Lost Ark, he was simultaneously doing pre-production on E.T. and MeRaiders performed very well at the box office, which helped to put Spielberg back on the map as a filmmaker, and it also put him in demand in Hollywood as well.  Numerous projects were being pitched to him, perhaps the biggest one being his friend George Lucas offering him the directorial reigns of Return of the Jedi (1983).  But, Spielberg passed on all of them, because he knew there was something special about this one movie about a boy and his extraterrestrial friend.  Cameras began rolling in September of 1981.  The movie was comparatively modest in scale compared to films like Close Encounters and Raiders; shot in the relatively nearby L.A. suburb of Porter Ranch and with a cast of relative unknowns.  But, in the hands of Steven Spielberg, he would make this small little film into something grand.

For one thing, you can’t really talk about a movie like E.T. without discussing the little alien himself.  The creation of E.T. is a masterclass in utilizing visual effects to create the illusion of life.  There have been plenty of creatures created through visual effects that have managed to garner emotion from an audience, whether it’s King Kong, or the many stop motion creatures brought to life by Ray Harryhausen, or the masterful puppetry from the Jim Henson Workshop, including the incredible work done to create Yoda in The Empire Strikes Back (1980).  But the creation of E.T. took creature effects to a whole other level.  To create E.T., Spielberg had a team led by effect wizard Carlo Rambaldi build an animatronic character that would be capable of a wide range of expression.  Rambaldi had already created the aliens for Spielberg in Close Encounters, but E.T. would be a far more challenging assignment.  They needed to have a creature that looked very alien, and yet was non threatening and in a way could be considered adorable.  And given the fact that he would be on screen for much of the movie’s run time, he had to be as lifelike as possible.  The head rig for E.T. alone featured dozens of individual functions in order to make E.T. come alive.  The hard work payed off as the E.T. animatronic not only moves in a very lifelike way, but it’s even remarkably capable of expressing emotion through performance.  This is crucial in the long run because you need to fall in love with E.T. just as the characters in the film do, and through the expert puppeteering of Rambaldi’s team and Spielberg’s careful direction, E.T. managed to steal all of our hearts.

Of course, where the heart of the story lies is with the bond that is built between E.T. and the boy who befriends him.  That role in itself was just as crucial to get right as it was to make E.T. come alive.  The role of Elliott needed to work with a young actor who could pull off all the emotional highs and lows that the story needed.  Spielberg managed to find that in a then 9 year old Henry Thomas.  Thomas compliments E.T. so perfectly in the film, managing to act with complete sincerity opposite what is essentially an animatronic machine in an alien suit.  Perhaps what drew Spielberg to casting Henry Thomas in the role was the expressive, wide-eyed wonder in his face.  There was a lot of Elliot that was drawn out of Spielberg’s own childhood, and it would stand to reason that Steven saw a lot of himself come through in Henry’s performance.  It’s in the most emotional beats, when Elliot has to shed some tears that Henry shows skills beyond his years, delivering emotional weight that leaves so many people in the audience balling tears themselves.  The remaining cast are also perfectly assembled in this movie, including Dee Wallace as Elliot’s over-burdened but well-meaning mother, Robert MacNaughton as his older brother Michael, and in her screen debut, a six year old Drew Barrymore as Elliot’s baby sister Gertie.  But, apart from the cast, the incredible E.T. animatronic, and Spielberg’s deft direction, there is one other major star of the film; the music.  Composed by Spielberg’s longest and most celebrated collaborator John Williams, the musical score for E.T. The Extra Terrestrial is what makes the film feel complete, and perhaps it’s what elevates it into legendary status.  Considered one of the greatest musical scores of all time, the music of E.T. takes this small, intimate story and gives it almost operatic weight.  The emotional beats feel all the more powerful with William’s score underneath it.  The emotional finale in particular will take your breathe away, as the orchestra swells up in an epic fashion, hitting those emotive beats hard.  Everything really worked together to make this not only a marquee film for Steven Spielberg in his early career, but also a movie that would forever cement his legend in the industry.

E.T. The Extra Terrestrial released in the Summer of 1982, which as I’ve written before here, was one of the most competitive summer seasons in movie history.  Going up against the likes of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982), Blade Runner (1982), and John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982) was not going to be easy, but Universal was confident in what they had with E.T.  Released in June, the movie not only excelled in competition, it dominated.  E.T. became the little movie that could and would end up smashing all box office records at the time.  E.T. ultimately even surpassed Star Wars as the box office king, and held that spot for 15 years, until James Cameron’s Titanic (1997) surpassed it.  The movie also went on to become an award season darling, garnering 9 Oscar nominations and winning 4, for the visual and sound effects and William’s score.  The success of the film also launched Spielberg into a different phase of his career, one where he began to branch out into different kinds of projects.  He would direct big crowd pleasers like a couple more Indiana Jones sequels, but he also began looking to more grounded dramatic stories as well; ones less tied to a supernatural element.  He created movies like The Color Purple and Empire of the Sun (1987), both of which helped him to mature towards the kind of filmmaker he needed to be in order to make movies like Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan (1998).  Even still, there is a bit of that sense of wonder that’s found in E.T. that permeates all of his films to a certain degree.  Spielberg’s gift as a filmmaker is to take his audience for a ride, often through the flow of his shot compositions, but also through the emotional journey of his characters.  When watching E.T., you see a filmmaker who already had the skills to be great story-teller figure out exactly how to use his talents to the fullest.  The Spielberg of the 70’s was a director caught up in the pressure of trying to prove his worth.  With E.T., he discovered what kind of director he wanted to be going forward for the rest of his career, and that was someone who could bridge two worlds together; the epic and the intimate.

When looking back on E.T., 40 years after it’s release, you can’t help but see it through the lens of everything else that Spielberg has made.  It becomes an even more interesting film in his filmography now after the release of his most recent movie The Fablemans.  Up until now, many have considered E.T. to be the closest thing to a self-portrait for Steven Spielberg.  Like Elliott, Steven was a child of divorce and he had to learn to grow up very quick as his life was turned upside down by the break-up of his family.  This is reflected in the story of E.T., as much of Elliott’s character is defined by his desire to have more control over his life.  That’s why he takes such a nurturing approach to helping E.T. find his way back home, because he wants desperately wants to help E.T. not lose his family after being left behind.  It certainly starts as an escape, but ultimately Elliott learns that he bears responsibility to be there for his family too, leading him to the heart-breaking reality that he’ll ultimately have to say goodbye  to E.T.  Spielberg of course never met an alien himself, but he found his own escape in those tumultuous times through his movies.  He not only spent a lot of time watching movies, but also making them with his friends.  That was his adventure as a youth, and it helped to shape him into the master director he is today.  This is far more explored in The Fablemans, which while it’s a fictionalized account of his life story, it nevertheless delves into the kinds of experiences that shaped him as a person.  After seeing The Fablemans, it’s interesting to examine it’s story in comparison to E.T., which shares a lot of parallels.  It’s clear to see that E.T. was the most personal movie for the longest time for Spielberg, and the one where he let us in to his soul for just a little bit.  It comes far more into focus now with The Fablemans giving us a more in depth look into Spielberg’s life.  It’s kind of fitting that this more auto-biographical film is making it into theaters just as E.T. is hitting this important milestone.  They are not exactly linked narratively or thematically, but you can feel the heartbeat of E.T. pumping throughout The Fablemans, making it feel like a spiritual successor, minus the alien.

Now 40 years later, E.T. The Extra Terrestrial continues to a cinematic classic celebrated the world over.  Even as the world has changed significantly, E.T. still has the power to enchant.  It’s a real testament to Spielberg’s abilities as a filmmaker that the movie does not feel dated at all.  Sure the outfits and appliances in the movie are definitively early 80’s, but the pace of the story and the emotional beats it hits makes this movie feel just as fresh as the day it was released.  The E.T. animatronic still manages to impress, even as we are still in an age of CGI dominance.  And I don’t think there is a more iconic image ever committed to the silver screen than that of Elliott’s bicycle flying across a full moon with E.T. sitting in the front basket.  It’s to this day the image used for the logo of Amblin Entertainment, Spielberg’s own production company located on the Universal Lot.  It’s a movie that is often imitated, but rarely matched, with maybe a movie like Brad Bird’s The Iron Giant (1999) coming a little close.  But, more than anything, it is the movie that forever positioned Spielberg into the direction that most satisfied him as a filmmaker.  He was always a filmmaker torn between wanting to stay young at heart, while also setting out to prove he could be taken seriously as a director.  E.T. The Extra Terrestrial proved that he could do both at the same time.  The story is an innocent modern day fairy tale, with a boy becoming friends with an alien, but it’s told with absolute sincerity and emotional weight, taking on serious subjects like divorce and the perils of life and death.  Grown adults can still cry when watching this movie alongside their children, and it’s an experience now that has passed on to multiple generations.  That’s definitely true in my case, as I was born only a month after it was released in theaters, meaning it was likely still playing to audiences as I came into this world.  I have only known a world where E.T. has existed, and like a lot of my generation, it’s a movie that has followed us as we’ve matured over the years, helping to define us as well.  Spielberg has gone on to define himself with many more movies both big and small, bombastic and serious, but as great as most of them are, I don’t think they will be seen as the most quintessentially Spielbergian film as E.T. has become over the years.  It’s that personal mark that sets the movie apart amongst his other films, showing us how well he can blend the fantastical with the personal, and deliver a movie unlike anything we have seen before.  As E.T. says to Elliott as the two say their goodbyes, “I’ll . . .be. . .right. . . here,” and he has continued to be there for all of us for 40 years, and hopefully for many more to come.