Steven Spielberg’s tale of a lonely boy and his pet space alien won nine Oscar nominations back in 1982. E.T. was a massive, international blockbuster that earned nearly $12M in 1982 dollars on its opening weekend on just 1103 screens. It stayed at Number One for an unheard of sixteen weeks. E.T. ranked in the top five of the most successful films of all time, for a record ten years. It was a touchstone for Hollywood and moviegoers and it spawned endless catch phrases and iconic images.
The film opens as a group of shadowy men wielding flashlights run through the woods chasing something. They’re led to a spaceship about to ascend from the mountain forest floor back to space, but without a tiny shuffling alien who was not been able to find his way back after exploring on his/her own. He – for brevity – finds refuge in a garden shed of the house closest to the forest, where Elliott (Henry Thomas) lives. They find each other in one of the all-time cute meets, establish that they are safe together and head to Elliott’s room to hide from mom (Dee Wallace). The idea of an adult finding them was terrifying – it would mean separation and the end of a beautiful new friendship.
They bond and are able to communicate telegraphically; they read each other’s emotional and mental states, and subtly signal each other when there might be an adult invasion. Eventually Elliott introduces him to his dumbstruck older brother and younger sister (Robert McNaughton and Drew Barrymore) who understand that adults must never know about “E.T.”. It’s up to them to help him get home. That’s his greatest desire, to “go home”.
A strange shadowy man starts to appear, watching the house, following the kids on their bikes. He was on that mountain when the spaceship took off and we think is trying to get his hands on E.T. Telltale keys – in repeated closeup – on his belt suggest that someone is going to be taken away and locked up. The tension mounts as he gets closer.
Soon the gig is up. The adults know and the inter-species idyll is about to end. What to do?
The heart-tugging third act in which the little alien and his faithful companion can’t be watched without a major lump in the throat. The film title was shorthand for crying at the movies at the time and it has the same effect 30 years later.
E.T. and Spielberg made stars of Drew Barrymore and Henry Thomas. Spielberg, with Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Raiders of the Lost Ark and E.T. to his credit erased any doubt that he was a master filmmaker, one of the best of his generation, a whiz kid. It was a commercial and critical success, a huge story on a huge canvas that people could relate to. And yet it was also a personal film, an amalgam of his recollections of a childhood imaginary friend and a horror script called Night Skies. He simply removed the horror and transformed the alien to a friend.
E.T. was radical in many ways. It revolutionized children’s films by taking them and their complex emotions seriously. It expressed their reality and emotional states honestly and at an arms-length from adults, giving them credit for their own innate humanity. They didn’t need an adult’s prodding to operate with compassion and civility and to experience life’s great milestones with resilience and wisdom. The filmmakers were close to their own childhood experiences and shaped them into a story that spoke primarily to children, then to the others.
Spielberg shot on a half-built suburban tract in Southern California, an image common in the well-off ’80s when Americans expected their own dream homes, even if they were part of an endless field of identical homes that swathed the country. The use of nostalgic golden light on the hordes of biking friends, the roads that took imaginative turns for not reason, but to add visual appeal and the openness of the skies not only created a heart-warming environment, these things also helped drive the plot. The town has no name, of course, it’s “Everytown”. Instead of sneering at suburbia, it somehow made it magic. It was an accessible nostalgia.
E.T. is coming to Blu-ray for the first time on October 9 with a release that features rich background extras, excerpts from the journals kept by cinematographer John Toll, a new interview with Steven Spielberg, deleted scenes, a cast reunion, the story of John Williams’ score, and oodles of 2012 extras like the pocket BLU App, UltraViolet storage for multi-platform viewing, and a digital copy for use online.
Images from E.T. courtesy Universal Home Entertainment.