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
Day 10 of “30-Plus Days of Spielberg”
Is E.T. actually Jesus?
As urban legend goes (well, at least one that I’ve heard), Steven Spielberg once cited a very intriguing reason for E.T.’s universal success. He allegedly claimed that 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, mind you (Spielberg’s Jewish, after all), 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’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 (MOVIE 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 are 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”, which is seen in statues, paintings, and stained glass designs.
There’s probably a few more I’ve missed or am forgetting but, nevertheless, here endeth the Jesus parallels.
Setting that whole metaphor aside, Spielberg’s primary (and stated) inspiration for making this very personal story was 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 as 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 at his most perceptive.
I think of when Elliott and his older brother Michael are mean to Gertie, causing her to cry; as she is teased, E.T. looks at her with perplexed empathy.
There’s also how E.T. is fascinated by Gertie’s innocent awe as here mother reads “Peter Pan” to her at bedtime; this also becomes a bonding moment for E.T. and Elliott. (Having the small miracle of Drew Barrymore sure helps. It’s mind-boggling to see the instinctive emotional range she displayed — while cameras are rolling — at the young age of 6.)
Each of these tender moments are all magnified, of course, with the quiet beauty of John Williams‘ score.
They each seem to be to come from a paternal heart, moments captured by a director who is a parent, one who has observed these things just as E.T. observes 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.
Sure, other more dramatic sequences have much higher stakes, but these gentler, more intimate scenes are the ones that raise the 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. They share a bond that doesn’t need a common verbal language to be expressed, to be felt, or to be understood.
The need for this bond is best heard in one simple line from Elliott: “I’m keeping him.” Spielberg doesn’t give the line any particular dramatic focus, but it always brings a little lump to my throat. Elliott says it to Michael with a calm, unforced determination — a resolute conviction — that cuts off any possible negative comeback his older brother normally would’ve offered.
Elliott’s not going to debate it; this is happening. It’s not a whiny or selfish expression, either. 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 it with an emotional tenderness that’s equal to Spielberg’s. (Cue the throat lump…)
Speaking of John Williams, one of my favorite behind-the-scenes creative stories ever is what Spielberg chose to do when he first heard Williams’ music for the finale. Steven was so impacted and touched by what he heard that, in a virtually unprecedented move, Spielberg re-edited the entire sequence to fit what Williams had composed, timing beat-for-beat its emotional crescendos, peaks, and power.
This soaring, inspiring fanfare (which may be the best 15 minutes of film music that 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 that this was too personal a film to connect broadly, let alone strike the zeitgeist. Both he and the studio thought that it would be perceived as something more akin to a live action Disney Movie (which, at that time, was not a good thing).
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 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 runs the emotional gamut, the sentiment is never cheap. It’s hard-earned.
Indeed, that’s how it reaches the depths of your heart, and stays with you for the rest of your life.
- Here is a three-minute video produced by the American Film Institute in which Steven Spielberg shares about when, where, and how he originally conceived the story for E.T.
- Spielberg originally had a concept for a story in which a group of aliens invaded a family’s house and wreaked havoc. When he conceived the story arc of E.T. and Elliott as a way to express his feelings about being a child of divorce, this original alien concept was tweaked, changing the aliens to ghosts. 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 of that film, 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. Using one shot, Steven captures multiple frames within one take, in a sequence that most other directors would’ve composed with multiple shots & edits. It’s not just to show off, either, but to build intrigue as well. Spielberg uses the techinque as a slight of hand, to help build surprise, mystery, and wonder about the 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, Ford is the one who convinced his then-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 itself 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, which returned to the top (briefly) in 1997 following its Special Edition re-release before Titanic would surpass it about a year later.
- 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 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 1968 film 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.
5 thoughts on “E.T. THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL (1982) – 30+ Days Of Spielberg”
I vaguely recall hearing back in the day that the Christ parallels were unintentional, and that when someone (Mathison?) pointed them out to Spielberg, he said he didn’t want to hear about them because he was Jewish. Seems odd, though, in light of *how many* Christ parallels there are in the film (as a Protestant kid, it never even occurred to me that the glowing heart might be a parallel), and in light of how sensitive Spielberg has been to religious imagery (including Christian/Catholic imagery) in his other films.
Regarding the box office, E.T. grossed $359.2 million in its initial release and another $40.6 million when it was re-issued three years later — but it didn’t cross the $400 million line until its 20th anniversary re-release in 2002, by which point it had been surpassed by Star Wars and Titanic (and it never caught up to them).
It certainly doesn’t surprise me that Spielberg would want to downplay those parallels; I’m sure he doesn’t want it to be seen as evangelistic about a religion that isn’t his. Also, at that time, by his own account he was still in a phase where he was coming to terms with his Judaism (something he didn’t fully do until SCHINDLER’S LIST), so there may have been some Freudian-level angst that hit too close to the bone when making any unintended Christ parallels in E.T.
Even so, as you say, he seem to reconcile all that later in life. Take AMISTAD. That has as clear, patient, and full a presentation of the Gospel as you’ll see in a major motion picture this side of an actual Jesus movie.
This one had the same effect on me – new found sympathy for Elliot’s mom, and a deeper understanding of the themes as an adult than as a child. I feel like he was pushing the effects, especially the mattes of Keys overlooking the town and Elliot and the woodshed in the moon, where they didn’t need to be pushed. But it’s not like Spielberg is the subtlest of directors sometimes.
I’m digging your Spielberg series. Hard to go wrong, even with some of his less successful pics. Who’s next?
Thank you, Josh! (Of course, I instantly think of John Hammond from JURASSIC PARK when I see your name, naturally.)
Yeah, E.T. kept giving me new riches and layers as I aged, as opposed to being stuck in that time. Definitely the signs of a masterpiece there. As far as him pushing it, I dig the pushing – especially that woodshed moon shot. It’s a subjective thing; what takes somebody out of the experience for a moment (you) pulls another person in (me). But that’s the way of art, and artists. They go with their instincts and people respond in different ways.
Thanks for tracking with the Spielberg series, Josh, and the blog! This is a gauntlet, so it will be awhile before I tackle something this intensive again. Any marathon or retrospective I may possibly do in the near future won’t be this comprehensive.