Let’s Talk About… ‘E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial’ (1982)

Film #29 in FilmExodus’ AFI 100 Movies

Every week FilmExodus does a review/analysis of a different cinematic masterpiece from AFI’s 100 Movies 2007 updated list. For a complete overview and how you can participate, click here.

A lot of classic films have that one iconic moment that forever cements them in pop culture history. For E.T., it is the shot of Elliot riding his bike, with E.T. in the basket, in front of the moon. The shot is so popular shot that Amblin Entertainment made it their official logo. That whole flying scene in the movie is, in fact, an homage to Miracle in Milan, one of Spielberg’s favorite films. So, without further ado, let’s dive into E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, ranked #24 on AFI’s 100 Years… 100 Movies (10th Anniversary Edition).

My First Experience with E.T.

I saw about half an hour of E.T. when I was eight years old. That’s about how far my family made it into watching the film before we had to shut it off because my brother was scared of E.T. And rightfully so. Watching the film again for the first time since that experience, it is easy to see why my brother was scared. The first fifteen minutes of the film play out almost like a horror movie. The opening credits have that horror vibe, the music is ominous, but above all that, E.T. is just one creepy little dude. I can’t believe they make plushies out of this guy. Anyway, the movie slowly drops that initial horror vibe, but a lasting impact was definitely imprinted in the minds of my brother and I. Heck, I wasn’t even scared back then, and as I recall, being slightly disappointed we stopped watching it, but I wouldn’t have watched this movie again had I not picked it for an AFI review. It’s funny how our brains work, subconsciously making us avoid things that we otherwise might enjoy.


The idea for E.T. came from Spielberg’s childhood. In Steven Spielberg: A Biography, it’s revealed that after his parents divorced, Spielberg created an imaginary alien companion who could be “the brother I never had and a father that I didn’t feel I had anymore.” These childhood memories later resurfaced in Spielberg’s mind during filming of Raiders of the Lost Ark. He began to work with screenwriter Melissa Mathison, and the two began to develop a subplot from the abandoned film Night Skies, itself a pseudo-sequel to Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Mathison wrote the first draft, then titled E.T. and Me, in eight weeks. Despite Spielberg considering the first draft perfect, two more drafts followed which wrote in popular scenes like E.T. getting drunk (personally, one of my favorite scenes), and the epic chase sequence at the end.

Spielberg developed E.T. expecting Columbia Pictures to release it, as it evolved from Night Skies, which was intended to be the studio’s follow-up of Close Encounters. However, the higher ups at the studio didn’t think the film had much potential to be a success, with then Columbia Pictures CEO Frank Price calling it “a wimpy Walt Disney movie” (which is weird considering E.T. gets drunk and the kids call each other “penis breath” and “douchebag”). Spielberg took it to MCA Inc. (the parent company of Universal at the time), and they acquired the script from Columbia for $1 million. However, Price managed to snag a sweet deal that would allow Columbia to retain 5% of the film’s net profits. Rumor has it that E.T. made more money for Columbia than any of their other 1982 films.

Story & Characters

In my mind, there is a reason so many films from the 1970s and 80s are deemed classics. First, they were original ideas that took the audiences to astounding new places. Second, the plots were clean-cut and straightforward. Nowadays, some movies suffer from their plots attempting to do way too much or explain way too much. E.T. gets to the point right away. E.T. gets left behind. He befriends a boy. The two share a connection. E.T. grows sick from being away from his species. The boy also grows sick because of this connection. E.T. breaks the connection so the boy can live. E.T. dies. E.T. then comes back to life as his species is coming back for him. The boy and his brother stage a breakout. The brother’s friends tag along. They get chased by the police. They avoid them and make it to E.T.’s mothership. E.T. says his farewells and boards the ship. Happy ending. The plot is straightforward in that the audience doesn’t have to worry about subplots. Sure, Elliot’s parents’ separation could have been stretched into one, but all we need is just a taste of it to realize the added tension the family is dealing with right now. The role of “Keys” could have been expanded as well; but instead, his character is surrounded in mystery and we only see his face near the film’s end. Even then there’s still mystery surrounding the character. Why was he waiting for E.T.? Did a similar incident happen to him as a child? Again, we get a taste, but not the whole meal. A film (and a meal) almost always works better when you’re left wanting more.

That being said, I did find some issues with the film, and some of them border on extreme nitpicking. Henry Thomas, who plays Elliot, annoyed the hell out of me at the beginning of the movie. I thought to myself, “If I have to sit through two hours with this brat I’m not going to be happy.” Luckily, the kid turned it around. He’s quite good at naturally conveying emotion. Fear, Shock, Trauma, Sadness, the kid’s got range.

I had a slight problem with E.T.’s powers, but as the film went on they started to make more sense. He’s got telekinesis, that one makes sense. It took me a while to realize E.T. and Elliot share a connection and that what happens to E.T. happens to Elliot. I’m not quite sure what that had to do with Elliot stopping a frog dissection, but props to him kissing that girl. I was sort of disappointed we never got a follow-up with that. Also, connecting, what I’m going to call, E.T.’s life force to the flowers was a good idea. After all, his species seems to intergalactic botanists, and it was a nice visual aid for the audience to keep track of E.T.’s health.

Lastly, a few minor blurbs on a couple scenes. First, between Ferris Bueller and E.T., kids of the 80s should have had no trouble faking sick. Thermometer against the light bulb; genius! Second, although E.T. hiding in Elliot’s bike basket and that whole accompanying scene is iconic, I do find it hard to believe that E.T. wouldn’t have made the bike top heavy. Granted, I don’t know what an E.T. weighs, but I just feel like E.T. would have caused the bike to tip-over. (I did warn you about nitpicking in advance).

Oh, and Drew Barrymore acts circles around everyone else. And I’m chalking that up to childhood innocence and Spielberg telling her E.T. was real.

Shooting on Location/Practical Effects

As I mentioned in my AFI for Raiders, shooting on location and practical effects can give a film that added sense of realism, even if the film delves into fantasy. E.T. has these scenes shoot in a beautiful redwood forest, where the trees seem to never end. It’s a beautiful environment, and one that you couldn’t even begin to create through CGI. I loved when the story would take the characters back to the forest, as it was almost a magical environment that swept you up in the story. It’s a beautiful area that makes E.T. all the more beautiful. The cinematography is breathtaking.

There were numerous E.T. puppets made for the film. Most of them were animatronic, but when E.T. was seen moving around in full body shots he was brough to life by three different actors. For wide shots featuring E.T. walking around, Tamara de Treaux and Pat Bilon wore specially created E.T. suits. Other scenes, like E.T. drunkenly falling on his face, were performed by Matthew DeMeritt, a twelve-year old actor who was born without legs. He walked in the suit with his arms in the spots where E.T.’s feet would be.

Beyond the simple fact that a fully-rendered CGI E.T. would have been damn near impossible, the use of animatronics and puppetry make E.T. seem all the more real. Whether it is his big eyes opening, or the child actors visibly touching or holding him, it adds that extra layer of realism. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets showed that child actors are capable of acting opposite a pair of floating tennis balls (stand-ins for the later CGI character, i.e. Dobby), but for the personal and emotional moments this film has between E.T. and Elliot, it is easy to say that having an animatronic was the right choice. Hell, Spielberg has revealed that he shot the film in almost chronological order so that the kids’ bond with E.T. would develop naturally. You can’t form a bond with a character that isn’t there.

Although, I will say that E.T. looks much better when the puppeteers extend his neck. He’s just plain creepy when he’s all bunched together.

The Cancelled Sequel

Spielberg has only directed sequels to two of his prior works: Raiders of the Lost Ark and Jurassic Park. However, after the success of E.T., a sequel was put into development. Titled E.T. II: Nocturnal Fears, it focused on Elliot and his friends getting kidnapped by “an albino fraction (mutatation) of the same civilization E.T. belongs to.” Luckily, Spielberg came to his senses and realized that a sequel to “E.T. would do nothing but rob the original of its virginity.”

If you’re interested in learning more about the E.T. sequel that never was, check out Birth.Movies.Death.’s coverage of the screenplay. Or, for a full outline, click here.

Final Thoughts

I liked E.T. It’s not my favorite 80’s movie, nor does it even make the top 25. But, it’s a solid, action-packed adventure that everyone should see at least once. The acting is on point, the cinematography is beautiful, and the story is damn near perfect. There was a reason Spielberg was called the Box Office King for the most of his career, the man knows how to craft astounding blockbuster films.

And, despite the fact that he’s creepy, I’d totally want to be E.T.’s friend if the opportunity arose. If anything, so that I could fly my bike through the night sky and be silhouetted against the moon. That’d be nice.

Fun Facts/Trivia

  • The film was nominated for 9 Academy Awards, including Best Picture, winning 4 for Best Original Score, Best Sound, Best Sound Effects Editing, and Best Visual Effects. Best Picture winner Ghandi‘s director, Richard Attenborough, said, “I was certain that not only would E.T. win, but that it should win. It was inventive, powerful, [and] wonderful. I make more mundane movies.”
  • It surpassed Star Wars to become the highest grossing film at the time of its release. It held the record for 11 years. In 1993, Jurassic Park (also directed by Spielberg) surpassed it.
  • After Mars Incorporated turned down the chance for M&Ms to appear in the film, Spielberg struck a deal with Hershey. Instead of the requested usage of Hershey Kisses, Hershey wanted to give exposure to their newest treat, Reese’s Pieces. Within two weeks of the film’s premiere, the company reported a 65% increase in profits on the candy.
  • Steven Spielberg revealed that Kathleen Kennedy,  “gave [him] the b******ing of [his] life” after his unfair treatment of the crew two weeks into filming.
  • E.T. features numerous nods to George Lucas’s Star Wars. Lucas eventually returned the favor by featuring the extra-terrestrials in The Phantom Menace, forever opening up the door for fan theories on how the two films share a universe.
  • Spielberg says the scene where E.T. disguises himself as a stuffed toy was suggested by his friend and colleague Robert Zemeckis, after Zemeckis read a draft of a screenplay.
  • The film is credited with the creation of 1988’s Mac and Me, considered by many to be one of the worst films ever made; and for some reason, Paul Rudd’s favorite movie to torture Conan O’Brien with.
  • In 1994, the United States National Film Registry selected the film for preservation.