Of all the films from Steven Spielberg’s glittering career, E.T. is arguably his most personal. In fact, the more you learn about his early life, the more it seems borderline autobiographical. His parents divorced when he was a child, something which had a profound effect on him (the motif of an absent father figure is something almost all of his films contain). He grew up in classical suburban America, a slightly odd kid who talked to an imaginary friend, and liked science fiction, riding his bike and gazing up at the stars. It’s almost impossible not to look at Elliott and see Spielberg projecting his own childhood onto the screen. But what really makes the film successful is how honest and recognisable it is to anyone who’s ever been a child, regardless of their upbringing, which is what made it so popular when it came out in 1982 (it became the biggest-grossing film of all time, a title Spielberg had attained once before with Jaws and would later do so a third time with Jurassic Park).

It’s not through blind luck that this film has such good child actors. Spielberg chose to shoot the whole film in sequence, an unusual method but he reasoned that it would elicit more convincing performances from Henry Thomas and Drew Barrymore. They’re so good in this film that they don’t actually seem like they’re acting – it’s almost weird how naturally they interact with E.T. and respond to what’s going on around them. The whole film is also shot from low angles – giving us a literal “child’s-eye-view” of proceedings but also seeing things through E.T.’s perspective, who happens to be the same height as Elliott and Gerty (unless he extends his neck). It’s not so much a story of a child who befriends an alien, but more a story of childhood itself – it’s a film about dressing up for Halloween, finding yourself home alone when too sick to go to school, and keeping something a secret from your parents because they wouldn’t understand.

Much of the film’s impact lies in the unique design of the titular creature. Rather than an obvious man-in-a-suit, the awkwardness of E.T. makes him paradoxically more believable as a character – he’s a remarkable example of how many different aspects of special effects can come together and create something memorably personable. A wrinkly, wisened face like an old lady, but with large, gazing eyes that fill with wonder one minute and reflect depth and melancholy thought the next, E.T. is deservedly one of the most famous extra-terrestrials in film history. A fish out of water, he is simultaneously childlike and very old, naive about the mundane things we take for granted but with an intelligence that far surpasses our own. Famously, the chocolate company Mars refused to allow M&Ms to be used in the film because they thought he was too ugly – their rivals Hershey showed more kindness and reaped the profits, as Elliott uses Reese’s Pieces instead.

The film does stand accused of excessive sentimentality, and it’s hard to defend against that. Towards its climax in particular, it doesn’t so much tug at the heartstrings as tear them out with its teeth, but it’s testament to all the fine work that Spielberg, Melissa Mathison’s delicate script and the performances from both actors and puppet that by the time the extraordinary John Williams score swells and invites us to give in to grand emotions that it’s nigh-on impossible to resist. It’s kind of like when, if a toddler hands you a ringing toy phone, no matter how grown up and mature you consider yourself to be, you have to take it from them and say “hello?” into it. We were all children once, and E.T. unashamedly asks us to be so again, and that’s a difficult demand to deny. It was a watershed moment in film history, not the first or the last for Spielberg, who grew as a person as well as filmmaker in making it – once he finished, he decided he was ready to become a father.

A rare insight into Steven Spielberg's personal life9
A glorious celebration of and invitation to childhood10
A brilliantly unique example of creature design10
So much cheesy sentimentality you almost choke5
Somehow managing to get away with that8
Bechdel Test Passes
  • Features more than one named female character
  • The female characters talk to each other
  • They talk about something other than men
Bechdel Test Failures
  • n/a
8Overall Score

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