E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982)
(for language and mild thematic elements)
Released: June 11, 1982
Runtime: 115 minutes
Director: Steven Spielberg
Starring: Henry Thomas, Robert MacNaughton, Drew Barrymore, Dee Wallace, Peter Coyote
Is E.T. actually Jesus?
I’ve heard tale (perhaps urban legend) that Steven Spielberg once cited a very intriguing reason for E.T.’s universal success. It resonated with people as deeply as it did (and still does) because he made the character and story – by design – a Jesus metaphor. Not for evangelistic reasons, obviously (Spielberg’s Jewish), but simply as a narrative archetype that has stood the test of time.
That tale must be apocryphal because my own semi-exhaustive Google search couldn’t find any such admission by Spielberg, or by anyone else involved with the film. Not even a hint.
And yet, whether by design or by accident (or by Providence?), the metaphor is there. In fact, the more you look for it the more you see it – even beyond the obvious to more subtle details – to the point where E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial rises above mere Jesus metaphor to full scale parable.
It’s fascinating to consider, especially if you haven’t before, so enjoy (or bear with me) while I have some fun unpacking that here (I’m a Christianity geek). I’ll follow up by looking at the film more directly, too.
The symbols are so pervasive that the first one is actually seen before you even start the movie: it’s on the poster! The classic image is a direct (albeit inverse) homage to Michelangelo’s “Creation Of Adam” in the Sistine Chapel.
From there, we can bullet-point the highlights (SPOILERS in the list, if that applies to you):
- E.T. arrives on earth at night from the heavens, under the “star” of his fleeing spaceship, in humble surroundings.
- Mysterious strangers ominously search for E.T., much like Herod’s soldiers searched for the baby Jesus (although later we learn that these strangers and their motives are akin to the Magi).
- With nowhere else to stay, E.T. seeks refuge in the “stable” of Elliott’s closet, surrounded by “animals”.
- Jesus said that we must “become like children”, and E.T. first reveals himself only to children. Elliott actually tells Gertie at one point, even if condescendingly, “Grown-ups can’t see him, only little kids can see him.” Indeed, their mother is at times too distracted or oblivious to see E.T. even when he’s there in the room with her.
- E.T. can heal injuries, perform “miracles” that defy natural phenomena, and raise dead things to life (plants are the proverbial Lazarus).
- As Elliott and E.T. grow closer, they become “connected”, bonding at a metaphysical (spiritual?) level.
- There’s a whole crucifixion, death, resurrection cycle.
- Post resurrection, E.T.’s previously displayed powers have magnified, but he doesn’t wield his powers against those trying to hurt him (although he could). E.T. simply uses his powers to save his followers.
- E.T.’s final sentiment to Elliott “I’ll be right here” (as he points to the boy’s head) mirrors Christ’s promise of the Holy Spirit.
- An ascension.
- E.T.’s spaceship leaves behind a rainbow in the sky, sealing the covenant they’ve shared. (That’s Old Testament, but still.)
- E.T. likes beer; Jesus turned water into wine. (Okay, that one doesn’t count.)
E.T. even has a heart-light in the same fashion as the famous Christ icon “The Sacred Heart of Jesus” as seen in statues, paintings, and stained glass designs.
And there’s probably a few more I’ve missed or am forgetting. Nevertheless, here endeth the Jesus parallels.
Setting that whole metaphor aside, Spielberg’s primary (and stated) inspiration for making this very personal story is having been a child of divorce. Elliott is a child of divorce, too, and he’s struggling – even lashing out in cruel ways at the people he loves (especially his mother). As an adult, I now appreciate Dee Wallace‘s emotionally burdened performance even more.
E.T. becomes the empathetic confidante for Elliott that Steven never had. And truly, this is what moves us, not any Jesus parallels (intriguing though they may be). E.T. connects because it’s about the broken heart of a child told from the broken heart of a child. And it’s about how brokenness gets healed.
Yes, the film boasts fantastical elements (which all crescendo in the exhilarating thrills-to-chills-to-sobs climax), but it’s the tender moments where E.T. is most affecting, and where Spielberg is his most perceptive.
I think of when Elliott and his older brother Michael are mean to Gertie, causing her to cry, as E.T. looks on with perplexed empathy. Or how the alien is fascinated by Gertie’s innocent awe during a bedtime reading of Peter Pan, which also becomes a bonding moment for E.T. and Elliott. (Having the small miracle of Drew Barrymore sure helps. It’s mind-boggling to me the instinctive emotional range she displays – while cameras are rolling – at the age of 6.)
(This tenderness is all magnified with the quiet beauty of John Williams‘ score.)
You’d expect these kind of moments to be captured by a director who’s a parent, who’s observed these things just as E.T. is observing them. But Spielberg had no children at this point; he crafted these moments intuitively.
These, plus so many more that only E.T. and Elliott share. Other scenes have much higher stakes, but these are the moments that raise those stakes. One boy, one spaceman, both aliens. Each one separated from family, from “home”, their bearings lost. They find understanding, comfort, support, and love in each other; a bond that didn’t need a common verbal language to be expressed or known.
The need for this bond is best heard in one simple line from Elliott: “I’m keeping him.” Spielberg doesn’t give it any particular dramatic focus, but it always brings a little lump to my throat. Elliott says this to Michael with a calm, unforced determination – a resolute conviction – that cuts off any possible negative comeback his older brother may have offered.
Elliott’s not going to debate; this is happening. It’s not a whiny or selfish expression. It’s a quiet, assured certainty, even courageous. It comes from a child of divorce who’s finally found a friendship, a connection, that’s unconditional. And again, Williams underscores this with an emotional tenderness equal to Spielberg’s. (Cue the throat lump…)
Speaking of Williams, one tale that’s not apocryphal is how deeply affected Spielberg was by John’s music for the finale. Steven was so impacted and touched that, in a virtually unprecedented move, he re-edited the entire sequence to better fit what Williams had composed; to its emotional crescendos, peaks, and power.
This soaring, inspiring fanfare – which may be the best 15 minutes of film music Williams has ever written – didn’t merely match Spielberg’s vision. It exceeded and transformed it. From the beginning of the bike chase to the end credit roll, it’s one of the best sequences in the entirety of the Spielberg canon and the American canon.
Spielberg was as shocked as anyone by the film’s success. He truly believed this was too personal a film to connect broadly, let alone strike the zeitgeist. Both he and the studio thought it’d be perceived as akin to a live action Disney Movie (which, at that time, was not a good thing, and even a possible marketing albatross). But where other kids movies relied on “Uranus” jokes as their bread and butter (and often still do), E.T. simply used them as fun flavors within a much broader, deeper, and richer experience.
Spielberg wasn’t targeting a demographic. He was being emotionally honest about one.
E.T. was made with impeccable craft, too, the kind that turns the shot of a child’s late night backyard stakeout into a painting on a silver screen canvas. The kind, also, that isn’t afraid to conjure legitimate scares and danger along with its sentiment. Yes, E.T. is most certainly sentimental, but with its tonal mix and breadth that run the emotional gamut, the sentiment is never cheap. It’s hard-earned.
That’s how it reaches the depths of your heart, and stays with you for the rest of your life.
- Spielberg’s original concept was a group of aliens invading a family’s house and wreaking havoc. When he transitioned it to a story about divorce, the original concept was tweaked to change aliens to ghosts. And that became Poltergeist, which Spielberg co-wrote and produced.
- Poltergeist was released exactly one week prior to E.T. It’s long been rumored that Spielberg was actually the default director too, although it’s credited to Tobe Hooper. Further reinforcing the urban legend is that the film was shot off of Steven’s storyboards, which visualized the entire film. In addition, Spielberg’s longtime editor Michael Kahn also edited Poltergeist.
- A great example of The Spielberg Oner begins at the end of the Reeces Pieces trail, at the door to Elliott’s room. Again, a perfect example of using one shot to capture multiple framings that other directors would’ve composed with multiple shots & edits. And here, Spielberg uses it as a slight of hand, to help build surprise, mystery, and wonder about this alien creature.
- Harrison Ford made a cameo as Elliot’s school principal. The scene was cut from the film, but can be seen as an extra on dvd/blu ray editions. Also, he’s the one who convinced his wife Melissa Mathison to write the script after she had initially declined Spileberg’s request.
- This was another cheap budget for Spielberg, just $10.5 million. That’s nearly half of Raiders, which had been exactly half of 1941. Of course, as profit margins go, this has to be one of the best because E.T. went on to be the #1 movie of all time for the next 15 years, hauling in just shy of $400 million domestically (its total stands at $435 million after a 2002 re-release). It was eventually dethroned by the original Star Wars; that movie returned to the top (briefly) in 1997 following its Special Edition re-release.
- Screenwriter Melissa Mathison sadly passed away in November 2015 at the age of 65, a victim of cancer. Her last produced screenplay is her only other collaboration with Spielberg – the upcoming The BFG.
- E.T. was released exactly 365 days after Raiders Of The Lost Ark.
- The Jaws “dolly/zoom” shot returns to Spielberg’s repertoire, this time overlooking a cliff on the edge of the suburban community, as “Keys” and his men search for E.T.
- Allen Daviau was the Director of Photography. This is the first time Daviau had worked with Spielberg since Steven’s original short, Amblin’.
- Here’s a cool clip of Spielberg and Williams working on the score together. As you can hear in one of Steven’s comments – “Your choices are as many frames long as the sequence.” – the expectation is for the composer to match the edit pace, not the director to re-edit his movie to the music, which is what makes Spielberg’s decision to re-edit the finale to Williams’ original composition all the more revealing of how much he was moved by it.