E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial is a 1982 American science fiction film produced and directed by Steven Spielberg, and written by Melissa Mathison.
It tells the story of Elliott, a boy who befriends an extraterrestrial, dubbed “E.T.”, who is stranded on Earth.
The film stars Dee Wallace, Peter Coyote, and Henry Thomas, and features special effects by Carlo Rambaldi and Dennis Muren.
A small group of alien botanists secretly visit Earth under cover of night to gather plant specimens in a Californian forest. When government agents appear on the scene, the aliens flee in their spaceship (or UFO), but in their haste, one of them is left behind. In a suburban neighbourhood in the San Fernando Valley, a ten-year-old boy named Elliott is spending time with his brother, Michael, and his friends. As he returns from picking up a pizza, he discovers that something is hiding in their tool shed. The alien promptly flees upon being discovered.
Despite his family’s disbelief, Elliott leaves Reese’s Pieces candy to lure the alien to his house. Before going to sleep, Elliott realises the alien is imitating his movements. He feigns illness the next morning to stay home from school and play with him. Later that day, Michael and their five-year-old sister, Gertie, meet the alien. They decide to keep him hidden from their mother, Mary. When they ask him about his origin, he levitates several balls to represent his planetary system and then demonstrates his powers by reviving dead chrysanthemums. Already starting to pick up the English language he demonstrates his signature power, revealed through his glowing fingertip by healing a minor flesh wound on Elliot’s finger.
At school the next day, Elliott begins to experience an empathic connection with the alien, including exhibiting signs of intoxication (because the alien is at his home, drinking beer and watching television), and he begins freeing all the frogs in his biology class. As the alien watches John Wayne kiss Maureen O’Hara in The Quiet Man on television, Elliott then kisses a girl he likes in the same manner, and is sent to the principal’s office.
The alien learns to speak English by repeating what Gertie says as she watches Sesame Street and, at Elliott’s urging, dubs himself “E.T.” E.T. reads a comic strip where Buck Rogers, stranded, calls for help by building a makeshift communication device and is inspired to try it himself. E.T. receives Elliott’s help in building a device to “phone home” by using a Speak & Spell toy. Michael notices that E.T.’s health is declining and that Elliott is referring to himself as “we”.
On Halloween, Michael and Elliott dress E.T. as a ghost so they can sneak him out of the house. That night, Elliott and E.T. head through the forest, where they make a successful call home. The next day, Elliott wakes up in the field, only to find E.T. gone. Elliott returns home to his worried family. Michael searches for and finds E.T. dying next to a culvert. Michael takes E.T. home to Elliott, who is also dying. Mary becomes horrified when she discovers her son’s illness and the dying alien, just as a group of government agents led by Keys invade the house.
Scientists set up a hospital at the house, asking Michael, Mary, and Gertie, if they have met E.T. while treating Elliott and E.T. Their mental connection disappears, and E.T. then appears to die while Elliott recovers. Michael discovers a dying chrysanthemum, the plant that E.T. previously revived. Noticing his recovery, the scientists bring him back to Mary, Michael and Gertie. A grief-stricken Elliott is left alone with Mary, Gertie, Michael and the motionless E.T. when he notices the dead chrysanthemum, the plant E.T. had previously revived, coming back to life. E.T. reanimates and reveals that his people are returning. Elliott and Michael steal a van that E.T. had been loaded into and a chase ensues, with Michael’s friends joining them as they attempt to evade the authorities on bicycles. Suddenly facing a police roadblock, E.T. helps them escape by using his telekinesis to lift them into the air and towards the forest, like he had done for Elliott before.
Standing near the spaceship, E.T.’s heart glows as he prepares to return home. Mary, Gertie, and Keys show up. E.T. says goodbye to Michael and Gertie, as she presents him with the chrysanthemum that he had revived. Before boarding the spaceship, he embraces Elliott and tells him “I’ll be right here”, pointing his glowing finger to Elliott’s forehead. He then picks up the chrysanthemum and boards the spaceship. As the others watch it take off, the spaceship leaves a rainbow in the sky.
- Dee Wallace as Mary.
- Henry Thomas as Elliott.
- Peter Coyote as Keys.
- Robert MacNaughton as Michael.
- Drew Barrymore as Gertie.
- K. C. Martel as Greg.
- C. Thomas Howell as Tyler.
- Sean Frye as Steve.
- Erika Eleniak as Pretty Girl.
- Pat Welsh (uncredited) as the voice of E.T.
After his parents’ divorce in 1960, Spielberg filled the void with an imaginary alien companion. He said that the imaginary alien was “a friend who could be the brother [he] never had and a father that [he] didn’t feel [he] had anymore”. In 1978, he announced he would shoot a film entitled Growing Up, which he would film in four weeks. The project was set aside because of delays on 1941, but the concept of making a small autobiographical film about childhood would stay with him. He also thought about a follow-up to Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), and began to develop a darker project he had planned with John Sayles called Night Skies in which malevolent aliens terrorise a family.
Filming Raiders of the Lost Ark in Tunisia grew a sense of loneliness in Spielberg, far from his family and friends, and made memories of his childhood creation resurface. He told screenwriter Melissa Mathison about Night Skies, and developed a subplot from the failed project, in which Buddy, the only friendly alien, befriends an autistic child. His abandonment on Earth in the script’s final scene inspired the E.T. concept. She wrote a first draft titled E.T. and Me in eight weeks, which he considered perfect. The script went through two more drafts, which deleted an “Eddie Haskell”–esque friend of Elliott. The chase sequence was also created, and he also suggested having the scene where E.T. got drunk.
In early summer 1981, while Raiders of the Lost Ark was being promoted, Columbia Pictures met with Spielberg to discuss the script, after having to develop Night Skies with the director as the intended sequel to Close Encounters of the Third Kind. However, the head of Columbia Pictures’ marketing and research development, Marvin Atonowsky, concluded that it had a limited commercial potential, believing that it would appeal to mostly young kids. The President of Columbia’s worldwide productions, John Veitch, also felt that the script was not good or scary enough to draw enough crowd. On the advice of Atonowsky and Veitch, Columbia Pictures CEO Frank Price passed on the project, thus putting it in a turnaround, so Spielberg approached the more receptive Sid Sheinberg, president of MCA, the then-parent company of Universal Studios. Spielberg told Sheinberg to acquire the E.T. script from Columbia Pictures, which he did for $1 million and struck a deal with Price in which Columbia would retain 5% of the film’s net profits. Veitch later recalled that “I think [in 1982] we made more on that picture than we did on any of our films.”
Carlo Rambaldi, who designed the aliens for Close Encounters of the Third Kind, was hired to design the animatronics of E.T. Rambaldi’s own painting Women of Delta led him to give the creature a unique, extendable neck. Its face was inspired by those of Carl Sandburg, Albert Einstein, and Ernest Hemingway. Producer Kathleen Kennedy visited the Jules Stein Eye Institute to study real and glass eyes. She hired Institute staffers to create E.T.’s eyes, which she felt were particularly important in engaging the audience. Four heads were created for filming, one as the main animatronic and the others for facial expressions, as well as a costume. Two dwarfs, Tamara De Treaux and Pat Bilon, as well as 12-year-old Matthew DeMeritt, who was born without legs, took turns wearing the costume, depending on what scene was being filmed. DeMeritt actually walked on his hands and played all scenes where he walked awkwardly or fell over. The head was placed above that of the actors, and the actors could see through slits in its chest. Caprice Roth, a professional mime, filled prosthetics to play E.T.’s hands. The puppet was created in three months at the cost of $1.5 million. Spielberg declared it was “something that only a mother could love”.
Mars, Incorporated refused to allow M&M’s to be used in the film, believing E.T. would frighten children. The Hershey Company was then asked if Reese’s Pieces could be used, and it agreed. This product placement resulted in a large increase in Reese’s Pieces sales. Science and technology educator Henry Feinberg created E.T.’s communicator device.
Having worked with Cary Guffey on Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Spielberg felt confident in working with a cast composed mostly of child actors. For the role of Elliott, he auditioned hundreds of boys before Jack Fisk suggested Henry Thomas for the role because Henry had played the part of Harry in the film Raggedy Man which Jack Fisk had directed. Thomas, who auditioned in an Indiana Jones costume, did not perform well in the formal testing, but got the filmmakers’ attention in an improvised scene. Thoughts of his dead dog inspired his convincing tears. Robert MacNaughton auditioned eight times to play Michael, sometimes with boys auditioning for Elliott. Spielberg felt Drew Barrymore had the right imagination for mischievous Gertie after she impressed him with a story that she led a punk rock band. He enjoyed working with the children, and he later said that the experience made him feel ready to be a father.
The major voice work of E.T. for the film was performed by Pat Welsh. She smoked two packs of cigarettes a day, which gave her voice a quality that sound effects creator Ben Burtt liked. She spent nine-and-a-half hours recording her part, and was paid $380 by Burtt for her services. He also recorded 16 other people and various animals to create E.T.’s “voice”. These included Spielberg, actress Debra Winger, his sleeping wife, who had a cold, a burp from his USC film professor, raccoons, otters, and horses.
Doctors working at the USC Medical Centre were recruited to play the ones who try to save E.T. after government agents take over Elliott’s house. Spielberg felt that actors in the roles, performing lines of technical medical dialogue, would come across as unnatural. During post-production, he decided to cut a scene featuring Harrison Ford as the principal at Elliott’s school. It featured his character reprimanding Elliott for his behaviour in biology class and warning of the dangers of underage drinking. He is then taken aback as Elliott’s chair rises from the floor, while E.T. is levitating his “phone” equipment up the stairs with Gertie. Ford’s face is never seen.
The film began shooting in September 1981. The project was filmed under the cover name A Boy’s Life, as Spielberg did not want anyone to discover and plagiarise the plot. The actors had to read the script behind closed doors, and everyone on set had to wear an ID card. The shoot began with two days at Culver City High School and the crew spent the next 11 days moving between locations at Northridge and Tujunga. The next 42 days were spent at Laird International Studios in Culver City for the interiors of Elliott’s home. The crew shot at a redwood forest near Crescent City for the production’s last six days. The exterior Halloween scene and the “flying bicycle” chase scenes were filmed in Porter Ranch.
Spielberg shot the film in roughly chronological order to achieve convincingly emotional performances from his cast. It was also done to help the child actors with the workload. Spielberg figured that the movie would hit home harder if the kids were really saying goodbye to E.T. at the end. In the scene in which Michael first encounters E.T., his appearance caused MacNaughton to jump back and knock down the shelves behind him. The chronological shoot gave the young actors an emotional experience as they bonded with E.T., making the quarantine sequences more moving. Spielberg ensured the puppeteers were kept away from the set to maintain the illusion of a real alien. For the first time in his career, he did not storyboard most of the film, in order to facilitate spontaneity in the performances. The film was shot so adults, except for Dee Wallace, are never seen from the waist up in its first half, as a tribute to Tex Avery’s cartoons.
The shoot was completed in 61 days, four days ahead of schedule. According to Spielberg, the scene in which E.T. disguises himself as a stuffed toy in Elliott’s closet was suggested by fellow director Robert Zemeckis, after he read a draft of the screenplay that Spielberg had sent him.
Allegations of Plagiarism
There were allegations that the film was plagiarised from a 1967 script, The Alien, by Indian Bengali director Satyajit Ray. He stated, “E.T. would not have been possible without my script of The Alien being available throughout the United States in mimeographed copies.” Spielberg denied this claim, stating, “I was a kid in high school when his script was circulating in Hollywood.” Spielberg’s friend, director Martin Scorsese, has also alleged the film was influenced by Ray’s script. Star Weekend Magazine disputes Spielberg’s claim, pointing out that he had graduated from high school in 1965 and began his career as a director in Hollywood in 1969. The Times of India noted that E.T. and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) had “remarkable parallels” with The Alien. These parallels include the physical nature of the alien. In his screenplay, which Ray wrote entirely in English, he described the alien as “a cross between a gnome and a famished refugee child: large head, spindly limbs, a lean torso. Is it male or female or neuter? We don’t know. What its form basically conveys is a kind of ethereal innocence, and it is difficult to associate either great evil or great power with it; yet a feeling of eeriness is there because of the resemblance to a sickly human child.”
Ray first found out about E.T. from a friend, British science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke, who was familiar with The Alien and believed it was plagiarised by E.T. Clarke called Ray and encouraged him to take legal action against E.T. However, no such legal action was taken, as Ray did not want to show himself as having a “vindictive” mindset against Spielberg and acknowledged that he “has made good films and he is a good director.”
In 1984, a federal appeals court ruled against playwright Lisa Litchfield, who sued Spielberg for $750 million, claiming he used her one-act musical play Lokey from Maldemar as the basis for E.T. She lost the case, with the court stating “No reasonable jury could conclude that Lokey and E.T. were substantially similar in their ideas and expression. Any similarities in plot exist only at the general level for which (Ms. Litchfield) cannot claim copyright protection.”
French novelist Yvette de Fonclare claims she sent her book “L’enfant des étoiles” (star child) to The Walt Disney Company in February 1981, when Melissa Mathison was working there. According to Yvette de Fonclare, if her story was not stolen, it would be a huge coincidence.
20th Anniversary Version
An extended version of the film, dubbed the “Special Edition” (currently out of circulation), including altered dialogue and visual effects, premiered at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles on 16 March 2002; it was released on home media six days later.
Certain shots of E.T. had bothered Spielberg since 1982, as he did not have enough time to perfect the animatronics. Computer-generated imagery (CGI), provided by Industrial Light & Magic (ILM), was used to modify several shots, including ones of E.T. running in the opening sequence and being spotted in the cornfield. The spaceship’s design was also altered to include more lights.
Scenes shot for but not included in the original version were introduced. These included E.T. taking a bath and Gertie telling Mary that Elliott went to the forest on Halloween. Mary’s dialogue, during the offscreen argument with Michael about his Halloween costume, was altered to replace the word “terrorist” with “hippie”.
Spielberg did not add the scene featuring Harrison Ford, feeling that would reshape the film too drastically. He became more sensitive about the scene where gun-wielding federal agents confront Elliott and his escaping friends and had them digitally replaced with walkie-talkies.
Cancelled Feature Length/Short Film Sequel
In July 1982, during the film’s first theatrical run, Spielberg and Mathison wrote a treatment for a sequel to be titled E.T. II: Nocturnal Fears. It would have shown Elliott and his friends getting kidnapped by evil aliens, and attempting to contact E.T. for help. Spielberg decided against pursuing it, feeling it “would do nothing but rob the original of its virginity. E.T. is not about going back to the planet”.
On November 28, 2019, Xfinity released a four–minute commercial directed by Lance Acord, calling it a “short film sequel” to the original motion picture, titled A Holiday Reunion. The commercial stars Henry Thomas, reprising his role as Elliott, now an adult with a family of his own. The story follows E.T.’s return journey to Earth for the holiday season, and focuses on the importance of bringing family together. The commercial utilises a practical puppet for E.T. himself. John Williams’ score from the original film is mixed into the commercial. Spielberg was consulted by Comcast (parent company of NBCUniversal, which itself owns Universal Pictures) before production on the commercial began. A two–minute version was edited for Comcast’s British subsidiary Sky UK.
- The concept was based on an imaginary friend Spielberg created after his parents’ divorce in 1960.
- In 1980, Spielberg met Mathison and developed a new story from the failed project Night Skies.
- Filming took place from September to December 1981 on a budget of $10.5 million, with the film grossing $792.9 million at the box office.
- Released on 11 June 1982 by Universal Pictures, E.T. was an immediate blockbuster, surpassing Star Wars (1977) to become the highest-grossing film of all time – a record it held for eleven years until Jurassic Park, another Spielberg-directed film, surpassed it in 1993.
- E.T. was widely acclaimed by critics and is considered to be one of the greatest films of all time.
- The film was nominated for nine Oscars at the 55th Academy Awards, including Best Picture. It won four Academy Awards:
- Best Original Score;
- Best Sound (Robert Knudson, Robert Glass, Don Digirolamo, and Gene Cantamessa);
- Best Sound Effects Editing (Charles L. Campbell and Ben Burtt); and
- Best Visual Effects (Carlo Rambaldi, Dennis Muren, and Kenneth F. Smith).
- At the 40th Golden Globe Awards, the film won Best Picture in the Drama category and Best Score; it was also nominated for Best Director, Best Screenplay, and Best New Male Star for Henry Thomas. The Los Angeles Film Critics Association awarded the film Best Picture, Best Director, and a “New Generation Award” for Melissa Mathison.
- In 1994, it was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”
- It was re-released in 1985, and then again in 2002, to celebrate its 20th anniversary, with altered shots and additional scenes.
Production & Filming Details
- Director(s): Steven Spielberg.
- Producer(s): Kathleen Kennedy and Steven Spielberg.
- Writer(s): Melissa Mathison.
- Music: John Williams.
- Cinematography: Allen Daviau.
- Editor(s): Carol Littleton.
- Production: Universal Studios and Amblin Entertainment.
- Distributor(s): Universal Pictures.
- Release Date: 26 May 1982 (Cannes International Film Festival) and 11 June 1982 (US).
- Running time: 114 minutes.
- Country: US.
- Language: English.