"HOW old is ET? It's a tough call. Sixty? Six hundred? Six? The look of Steven Spielberg's creature was a calculated smudge, designed to provoke all kinds of responses. Explaining to designer Carlo Rambaldi what he had in mind, the director pasted Albert Einstein's eyes on to the head of a child. For the voice, he recruited the throaty tones of actress Debra Winger – an inspired composite of innocence and experience. For Close Encounters's aliens five years earlier, he had summoned childlike sylphs, haloed in light, but Spielberg knew that for more prolonged exposure to extra-terrestrial life, we needed textures we could touch, features we would recognise, not to mention a voice that sounded as if its owner had just come off a week-long bourbon binge.
ET the movie, on other hand, is 20 years old, and to celebrate, Universal is scheduling a re-release, in theatres and on DVD. All in all, a modest birthday party, but then ET was always the most unassuming of blockbusters, completed on schedule and under budget – an aberration never to be repeated by any top 10-grossing movie. Spielberg kept a tight lid on merchandising spin-offs, allowing the film on TV only a couple of times, and never on cable. And the ET doll never really took off, thanks in the main to the fact that it bore more than a slight resemblance to a recently shelled tortoise. Not for nothing did Spielberg include the in-joke wherein Elliot tries to explain life on earth by staging a battle with his Star Wars dolls. ET looks on, quizzically. How do you explain merchandising to a higher intelligence?
It was François Truffaut who put the 28-year-old director on the right track. Cast as a scientist in Close Encounters, Truffaut had plenty of opportunity to witness the Hollywood wunderkind in action. "Keeds!" he urged him. "You must do a movie just with keeds!" Truffaut had already done so, of course, in The 400 Blows, an account of his allergic reaction to school, and while the two films could not be more different – Truffaut's was the grainy figurehead of the French new wave, while Spielberg gave us high-burnished fantasy – the two films stand comparison, as companion pieces on the subject of childhood: from ink-stained reality to Walter Mitty-like dreamlife.
The script came about from one such bout of day-dreaming, while Spielberg was filming Raiders of the Lost Ark. Seeking refuge from the everyday toil of blowing up trucks and loosing giant boulders, Spielberg found solace in conversation with Harrison Ford's wife, Melissa Mathison – the scriptwriter of The Black Stallion, another childhood classic about a boy, looking for a father figure, who decides to recruit outside his own species. Mathison was the first of many women who worked on the film, from casting director to editors, who helped invest the film with the soft maternal glow of Spielberg's own childhood in suburban California. It was Mathison's idea, for instance, for ET to land in an enchanted forest. (Spielberg had originally envisaged a disused car lot.)
Having just come off the big-budget successes of Jaws and Close Encounters, Spielberg said he "didn't feel I had anything to lose", and with ET he essentially winged it – shooting the movie in just over 60 days, and abandoning his usual detailed storyboards, for fear that they would "force the child actors into stiff, unnatural attitudes". The results were some of the best child performances of his career. "Thespacemanneedstogettohisrocket!", squeaks Drew Barrymore's Gertie at the film's climax, and her breathless delivery cuts to the heart of the film, in which kids buy into the idea of an alien visitation with nonchalant ease, as if it were no more than a pizza delivery. The adults in the film, meanwhile, have a hard time even seeing ET – their noses buried in bills and shopping lists, the camera cutting them off at the knees, like the old Tex Avery cartoons. The child-eye camera tells you all you need to know: for in ET, Spielberg neither talked down to childhood fantasy, nor cosied up to it, but dealt with it eye-to-eye and on the level – just as children should be spoken to.
"By now a billion earthlings have seen his films," wrote Martin Amis on the secret of Spielberg's success in 1982, on the eve of ET's release. "They have only one thing in common. They have all, at some stage, been children." Critics like to lay the blame for the infantilism of cinema at Spielberg's door, but it won't stick. "The purity of ET is utopian and quite unfakeable," says Amis. As the scene in which Elliot's mum reads Peter Pan to her sleepy children illustrates, storytelling makes children of us all, and parents of the teller, with all the responsibility and risk that implies.Jaws frightened us rather like a father frightens his kids by swinging them around a room, knowing exactly where the limits of their trust lies, and knowing how much they like to be taken to within an inch of it. It's Spielberg's great gift: to have reproduced the exact mixture of trust and teasing that makes up the bond between parent and child.
ET was its purest distillation. On release, the film nonchalantly broke all the usual box-office records and was nominated for nine Oscars, but it was up against Richard Attenborough's Gandhi – one leathery guru against another – and lost out in all but the technical awards. It was one of those uppercut injustices that only the Academy Awards know how to deliver. In video stores today, few hands stray toward's Attenborough's windy, high-flown biopic. Strangely, critics have done their best to puff ET up to similar proportions. Some have taken its death-and-resurrection narrative as an allegory of the life of our Lord, Jesus Christ, which is certainly food for thought for those who consider Spielberg pre-eminently a Jewish film-maker. Closer to the mark are those who, taking their cue from Gertie's choice of bedtime reading, peg the film as the masterpiece of cinema's very own Peter Pan.
The real answer, though, comes if you close your eyes and listen to John Williams's score, which reveals the film as the love story it was always meant to be: boy finds true love, loses true love, finds him again, before finally losing him to the heavens. It's The Way We Were, with the love interest played, not by Robert Redford, but by a four-foot stack of wrinkly rubber. (Same difference.) The score is Williams's best for Spielberg, and marks the height of their lifelong collaboration. For the final sequence, in which Elliot and his friends escape the police by flying off on their bicycles, Williams had problems synchronising the flow of his score with the action, so Spielberg told him not to bother: instead, the director reversed things, editing the images to the rhythm of the score.
The result is film-making that flies, in every sense – everything in ET feels lightly airborne, from its bicycles to its violins. The image of Elliot, aloft on his bike, flying past a vast full moon, went on to become the symbol of Amblin Entertainment, Spielberg's production company, and rightly so, for it perfectly encapsulates the marriage of fantastic and familiar that is Spielberg's hallmark. In Close Encounters, he had envisioned alien encounter as an everyday matter of renegade vacuum cleaners and eerily possessed toys. And ET comes stocked with one image of casually gilded radiance after another: a spaceman at the door, a boy silhouetted against a moon. During their first encounter, Elliot and ET communicate by pointing at stuff in his bedroom – a version of the wordless mimicry between Roy Scheider and his son at the dinner table in Jaws, and of the sign language at the climax of Close Encounters. All point to Spielberg as one of cinema's greatest communicators, a man constitutionally unable to think except in images.
The loss to Gandhi hurt him, and set him on a path of urgent self-reinvention – a transformation into the maker of big humanist epics that do win awards – a path that would eventually lead, after a few mis-steps, to Schindler's List. Nowadays, that film tends to get tagged as Spielberg's masterpiece – a view which he shares, although it's not one that we should automatically endorse. There is nothing superficial about fantasy, and a fluency with fairytale is an infinitely rarer gift in a film-maker than a social conscience. It is true that the film-maker who made ET could not have made Schindler's List. But it is equally true that the film-maker who made Schindler's List could not make ET, as his more recent AI showed. A recapitulation of many of the themes of ET, it served only to show how far he has come since then, how radically sundered his sensibility is now – between Spielberg the teller of fairytales and Spielberg the issue movie-maker, between the maker of movies for children and movies for adults. The man who made ET would not have even recognised a difference."
— my 25th anniversary celebration of E.T. for the Daily Telegraph, 2007