Forty years ago this month, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial was released in theaters and captured the collective hearts and minds of moviegoers everywhere in 1982. To say it was a cultural phenomenon is certainly an understatement, yet it can be hard to believe for those who were too young to remember or were alive at that time. That is because unlike other culturally relevant properties from that time period like Star Wars, Star Trek, Alien, etc. E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial did not have the staying power in our collective minds.
Regardless, the sci-fi film by legendary director Steven Spielberg is a bonafide classic that knows just how to hit a viewer in the feels. Spielberg was in top form (and remains so to this day) and received a well-deserved status as a master storyteller with his tale of a stranded alien being in the forests of California who befriends a lonely boy, Elliott (Henry Thomas). As Elliott introduces the being he calls E.T. to his suburban lifestyle and pop culture, he does what he can to keep E.T. hidden from the outside world while E.T. tries to contact others of his kind to rescue him. The film boasted many classic Spielbergian tropes and themes, such as a reverance for middle-class childhood while exploring family trauma, examing a magical sense of wonder about the world through the use of lighting, pop cultural references, and of course, those famously long natural takes that define a Steven Spielberg film.
E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial is a fairly simple tale about an unlikely interstellar friendship or as a sci-fi version of a boy and his dog tearjerker, but the film excels in emotion and Spielberg pulled out all of his skills to wrench our heartstrings. He was aided by an exemplary filmmaking team which included special effects guru Carlo Rambaldi, a deeply emotional script by Melissa Mathison, genuine acting by the cast, breathtakingly beautiful cinematrography by Allen Daviau, and John Williams brilliant score. The master composer won a well-deserved Oscar for the film as the film won several technical Oscars. Unfortunately, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial failed to win the major Academy Awards like Best Picture or Director because by the time the awards ceremony came around, the allure of the film had worn off and the Academy instead bestowed the major awards to more standard fare like Gandhi. Go figure.
Perhaps if E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial had won the major awards it may have been more remembered these days. Another reason could be because the film was overhyped by media and in-your-face marketing and merchandising during that time and it finally burned out its good will after some time. It may be hard to imagine today but think of the constant merchandising of Star Wars, the Marvel and DC films, and Jurassic Park and picture that for one film that dominated the box office for 16 weeks straight. This is something that would be nearly impossible to pull off today in our fractured society. Many films released that summer in 1982 fared poorly because E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial sucked out all of the air from the competition. What is ironic is that many of those films are better remembered today and are considered classics in their own right. These include Blade Runner, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Tron, and The Thing.
Yet, another factor that probably impeded E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial’s legacy is that no sequel film or reboot was ever made to keep the film in the public consciousness. The closest instances it received for follow ups were a sequel novel by William Kotzwinkle called E.T.: The Book of the Green Planet, a well-received 2019 Xfinity commercial featuring a now-adult Henry Thomas, who is reunited with E.T., and then introduces the alien to his family, and a theme-park ride at Universal Studios Florida, Japan and Hollywood (the Hollywood and Japan versions closed down years ago).
As to why Spielberg did not adapt this novel or went ahead with a film sequel, the answer is that E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial holds a special place in his heart and he did not want to dilute it with follow ups. However, he did consider it. He and Mathison wrote a treatment in 1982 called E.T. II: Nocturnal Fears, which would have had Elliott and his friends kidnapped by evil aliens and E.T. rescuing him. But as we all know, Spielberg abandoned the idea and moved on to other projects. The last time E.T. was actually seen in theaters was when he and members of his race appeared in a gag cameo during Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace.
Even though the film is not in the forefront of the public these days, it is still fondly remembered and still commands attention as seen with the positive word of mouth from the 2019 commercial and successful re-releases in theaters and home media. During its 20th anniversary the film was re-released and Spielberg altered the film with improved special effects, deleted footage and digitally altering a scene where federal agents who originally brandished guns and threatened E.T., Elliott and his friends, now had walkie-talkies instead. Spielberg has changed his mind about the alterations and encourages that only the original film be viewed.
With so many properties commanding our attention these days, it is so easy to overlook E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, which would be foolish. The film is a cinematic wonder that should be required viewing for film buffs, genre fans and families. Simply put, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial is a perfect showcase for the artistry and magic of Steven Spielberg.