A Last Summer Vacation - Part One

E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (original 1982 version)

Darren Slade and Nigel Watson

Talking Pictures alias talkingpix.co.uk






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Steven Spielberg's desire to make a low-budget film, more expressive of his personal attitudes than those he had directed before, ironically led to his greatest box-office triumph. A fully-blown statement of the ideas about childhood and escapism that had been present in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, E. T. The Extra-Terrestrial is the tale of the fulfilment of a young boy's greatest wish; the arrival of a creature from another planet whose magic can compensate for the harshness and loneliness of pre-adolescent experience. Spielberg clearly saw the film as the culmination of the escapist streak in his work: 

“I'm probably going to be married. I'm probably going to have kids. Maybe E.T. represents my last summer vacation before going back to school.“ 1 
This phenomenally popular last summer vacation arose from an amalgamation of ideas that took place in the Tunisian desert during the filming of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Characteristically looking ahead towards new projects, Spielberg spent much of his time re-reading two scripts he planned to produce for release in the summer of 1982, Poltergeist and Night Skies. Night Skies had originated as a sequel to Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and had been written by John Sayles with Ron Cobb scheduled to direct. The plot was loosely based on a reported UFO encounter in Kentucky and told of a backwoods family besieged by aliens. 

This is known as the Kelly-Hopkinsville case. On the night of 21 August 1965, a UFO was seen by one witness near his farmhouse. When he reported this to other members of his family they ridiculed him. A few minutes later everyone in the house saw a small, glowing being, with large eyes and long arms. The occupants of the farm shot at this and similar creatures that appeared outside. To their dismay the creatures fell over, scurried away, and then re-appeared again! 

Spielberg became fascinated by the ending of Sayles' script, in which the one benevolent alien among the marauding clan was left behind on earth. The idea began to merge with Spielberg's plan to direct a small-scale film about the experiences of a group of schoolchildren, a project which had been variously entitled Growing Up, After School and A Boy's Life. Spielberg was by now so taken with the project that he decided to direct it himself.

Also present on the Raiders location was Melissa Mathison, the screenwriter responsible for The Black Stallion (1979), who was visiting the set to see her boyfriend Harrison Ford. After discussing the idea with her, Spielberg asked Mathison to write the film. She refused at first, since the experience of re-reading some of her earlier work had persuaded her to give up screenwriting. Spielberg persisted, and Mathison finally agreed. Each week during the editing of Raiders of the Lost Ark, she would bring Spielberg new pages of the screenplay and review with him the existing material: 

"on the whole, it was not hard to write. I found it terribly moving when I was writing it. When I got the last page, I was in floods of tears." 2 
Now that the project no longer resembled the original Night Skies idea, Columbia Pictures, who had intended to produce the film, began to develop cold feet. Spielberg was not reluctant to point out that he was under obligation to make his next film as director for Universal, and so Columbia lost the most lucrative film package of the decade. Directing for Universal for the first time since Jaws, Spielberg began assembling his production team. John Williams was inevitably hired as composer, and Spielberg's former secretary and production associate Kathleen Kennedy was chosen to co-produce the film with Spielberg. The choice of director of photography was crucial, and after considering William A. Fraker, Vilmos Zsigmond and Vittorio Storaro, Spielberg finally decided upon the virtually unknown cinematographer who had photographed his first semi-professional short Amblin', Allen Daviau. Spielberg had found himself watching the 1981 TV movie The Boy Who Drank To Much and being impressed by the lighting; when he discovered that the cinematographer was Daviau, he immediately called him and offered him the chance to light E.T. Another little-known craftsman, James D. Bissell, was chosen as production designer. With Michael Kahn committed to cutting Poltergeist, Spielberg chose a new editor, Carol Littleton, enthusing, 
"She's a genius at rhythm, adding a frame here or there." 3
The film's cast was similarly composed of untried talent. In the key role of Elliott, Spielberg cast Henry Thomas. The ten-year-old actor had debuted in Raggedy Man (1980) as one of Sissy Spacek's sons. The editor of Raggedy Man, Ed Washilka, showed a scene to Kathleen Kennedy, who had been looking for the right actor for six months. Kennedy summoned Spielberg from the set of Poltergeist and Thomas was given a scene to read. This initial reading was reputedly a disaster, but when asked to improvise the child brought those present near to tears and Spielberg immediately gave him the part. Dee Wallace, mainly a television actress whose film appearances had included Blake Edwards' 10 (1979) and Joe Dante's The Howling (1981), played Elliott's mother Mary; Drew Barrymore, granddaughter of John Barrymore and daughter of John Jr., played the younger sister Gertie; and Robert McNaughton made his debut as Elliott's older brother Michael. 

E.T. All Rights Reserved.E.T. himself was a mechanical creation designed by Carlo Rimbaldi who had worked on Close Encounters, the remake of King Kong and Alien (1979). Rimbaldi's three E.T. models were capable of eighty-six movements and reactions between them. In scenes in which the alien was required to walk, he was 'portrayed' by the late Pat Bilon, by Tamara de Treaux (during the final walk up the spaceship gangplank) and by Matthew de Merritt (the scene in the family kitchen). Schoolteacher Pat Welsh provided the voice of E.T. and not, as some reports suggest actress Debra Winger . 

E.T. was shot over sixty-one days at Culver City High School, in the Los Angeles suburbs of Northridge and Tuguna and at Laird International Studios in Culver City. For the first time in his career, Spielberg abandoned his practice of storyboarding each shot, instead allowing improvisation and filming all first rehearsals in order to preserve spontaneity. The film was completed for 10.5 million dollars (half the cost of Close Encounters or Raiders) two days ahead of schedule, and went on to become the most successful movie of all. 

E.T. And The Audience

The success of E.T. astonished a gleeful film industry and amazed of the film's harsher critics. As with Star Wars before it, the film's images and dialogue quickly passed into the popular mythology and became repeated, parodied and merchandised to a huge extent. In the face of such an enormous public response, it is perhaps best to begin any study of E.T. by attempting to account for its popularity. 

Perhaps the keynote to any understanding of E.T.’s appeal emotional intensity which the film presents. Audiences across the were invited to weep as the film approached its climax, and even the First Lady of the United States, Nancy Reagan, was reported to have been in tears. Hard-bitten New York film reviewers such as Pauline Kael and Reed were moved to describe the film as "a classic tale of enchantment” and "A fabulous masterpiece that leaves all who see it with a warm and radiant glow of optimism and joy." 4 What perhaps drew audiences more than any other factor is the heightened emotional experience that E.T. entails; the film emphatically rejects emotional repressiveness.

Beginning with E.T.‘s abandonment, the film takes us through a succession of emotional high and low points: the early meeting with Elliott; their triumphant bicycle flight through the skies; E.T.'s sickness and apparent death; his sudden resurrection; and finally the characters’ separation as E.T. returns to his own planet. 

Interestingly, British critics were less enthusiastic about the film, perhaps bearing out the contention that E.T.’s anti-repressive emotionality is its most striking feature. Middlebrow reviewers in Britain tended to respond to E.T. by either damning it for sentimentality or by accusing it of being insincere and calculated in its presentation of emotion. Hence, Richard Combs in the Monthly Film Bulletin refers disapprovingly to the "high spirited kids-and-indestructible-families ethic of Disney" and adds: 

Spielberg is ready to sacrifice any logic of plot or character, and certainly of theme, for his celebratory climax. 5 
Epitomising the second attitude, that of questioning the film's sincerity, the opinionated British film encyclopaedist David Shipman claims that:
"this movie is about as innocent as the World Trade Center in New York.” 6 
If the traditional horror and science fiction movie narrative is based around the intrusion into everyday life of a monster representing repressed forces of mankind's darker instincts, E.T. interestingly represents the optimistic side of the same coin. In a world depicted jaded and lacking in emotion, the alien comes to re-awaken love and wonderment in the characters: the dispirited fatherless boy, his cynical and macho peer group and older brother and the embittered divorcee mother. It is this gleeful defiance of the repressive aspects of modern culture, which seems to have variously enthralled and antagonised critics.
In portraying an alien that represents positive instincts - love, wonder, compassion - which human society represses, rather than negative or disruptive impulses, E.T. thus seems to take the traditional form of the science fiction tale and turn it on its head. The film also presents a sort of science fiction narrative in reverse in the way its early scenes establish the alien. As the film begins, we are identified with the alien's point-of-view as he surveys the mysterious new landscape of the Earth, and this identification establishes the arrival of human scientists as an intrusion instead of a salvation. The rest of the narrative consists largely of an endeavour to repel the intrusion of the human scientists. In the traditional Hollywood science fiction film of the Cold War era {the kind of movie Spielberg says he felt unhappy with, since he always sympathised with the extra-terrestrials), an alien force would intrude into human society, to be eventually repelled by the forces of science. Yet E.T. represents completely the opposite position. For those who believe that the form of the conventional science fiction narrative is inherently conservative, E.T. provides a startling reversal of generic conventions. 

Without doubt, E.T.'s success is also due in part to its narrative structure, which Spielberg has compared to the stories of Rudyard Kipling, 

"...where you really sort of knew what the story was going to be about, where the story was going to end and who was going to be in it quite quickly. But then all the homework of exposition was out of the way and you took a very pleasant ride with a lot of surprises in the storytelling process". 7 
This is essentially the way the plot of E.T. develops. Within the first reel the film establishes all the characters (Elliott, E.T., Gertie, Michael and the scientist Keys), sets out the basic narrative problem (that E.T. has been abandoned by his own people), and suggests the major source of narrative suspense (the scientists who are searching for the alien). The plot concerning the scientists continues to interrupt the scenes in which the children get to know E.T., effectively as Spielberg notes, putting “a metronome in the film, that ticks faster and faster until the climax". 8

The film disregards narrative complexities and plot devices. The audience knows that scientists are pursuing E.T., but their specific purpose is not known; the film establishes that E.T. is dying on Earth, but does not specify the reason; we know that the return of his people revives E.T. from death, but we do not know specifically how. In all these cases the audience fills in the gaps in the exposition, and does so gladly because the film is basically structured as a succession of emotional peaks, with the narrative serving essentially as the means of travelling from one of these peaks to another.

A further interpretation that has been offered to explain the success of E.T. has been that the film presents a number of parallels with the Gospels. This theory has been advanced by more eccentric writers, such as AI Millar in his pamphlet E. T. -You're More Than A Movie Star (9), and by film periodicals. Its validity has been somewhat undermined by the insistence of both Spielberg and Melissa Mathison that no religious allegory was intended. (Spielberg is Jewish; Mathison is Catholic but maintains she only noticed the religious parallels in the script during filming.) Nonetheless, critics have defied Spielberg to deny the significance of incidents such as E.T.'s discovery in Elliott's shed (taken as an approximation to a stable), the name of the alien's earthly mother (Mary), the message of love that falls on deaf ears among those in authority, and E.T.'s death, resurrection and final ascension to the heavens. Such theory seems too often to take the religious interpretation as a starting point and then select and distort textual evidence to support the assertion. Some of the religious parallels in the film are indeed striking, but to suggest that the film is a specifically Christian allegory or that its success is a result of its religious message would be to wildly exaggerate. 

It has been suggested that E.T. may have struck a deep psychological chord with audiences. Spielberg's assertion that he wanted E.T. to be “a creature that only a mother could love" has been concurred with by those who have suggested that the film's popularity among women is due to the resemblance between E.T. and a human foetus. A more serious psychological study of the film was embarked upon by Jeffrey L. Drezner, who has argued that the film speaks of the problems of "Iatency age” children, i.e. those who are starting to become independent of support and making their own sense of the world. 

At latency age, Drezner notes that children are struggling to choose between rational thinking and magical thinking. Elliott, a latency age child, trying to cope without a father, regresses to magical thought; discovering E.T., he knows he must keep the creature safe from the forces of rational thought. Drezner notes perceptively of the non-latency age children in the film that; 

Michael takes longer to believe in the magical thing, yet Gertie is immediately terrified by E.T. Her fantasy world consisting of inanimate objects being subject to her total control, E.T. challenges her prelatent omnipotence. She reasserts her omnipotence by dressing E.T. as a doll. 10

Drezner argues that audiences are attracted to E.T. because they recognise Elliott's traumatic situation; since all adults have experienced the loss of our "omnipotent and magical thinking", we completely empathise with Elliott. Drezner's argument is convincing and lucid; yet put crudely it seems to suggest that audiences appreciate E.T. because they long to recapture a sense of wonder and belief that belongs only to children. This is a very similar explanation of the film's success to that which Universal's publicists would have the world believe. 


1. Spielberg interviewed by London Weekend Television’s The South Bank Show, 1982.

2. Cited in Crawley, Tony, The Steven Spielberg Story, Zomba Books, 1983, p. 114.

3. Ibid., p. 143.

4. Kael, Pauline, New Yorker and Reed, Rex, New York Daily News, cited in E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial Movie Special, Movie Publishing, 1982, p. 14.

5. Combs, Richard, ‘E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial’  in Monthly Film Bulletin, vol. 49, no. 587, December 1982, p. 282.

6. Shipman, David, A Pictorial History of Science Fiction Films, Hamlyn, 1985, p. 154.

7. Spielberg interviewed by London Weekend Television’s The South Bank Show, 1982.

8. Cited in Crawley, Tony, The Steven Spielberg Story, Zomba Books, 1983, p. 115.

9. Privately published, 1982.

10. Drezner, Jeffrey L., ‘E.T.: An Odyssey of Loss’ in The Psychoanalytic Review, vol. 70, no. 2, Summer 1983, pp. 271-272.

Web Reference


This unofficial site contains up-to-date news about Spielberg's films and productions. Contains essays and information about most of his output and aims to be a complete database.

Part Two

In part two we will look at E.T. in the context of Spielberg’s other work and influences, and we will look at the critical backlash to E.T.

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