Written by Melissa Mathison, directed by Steven Spielberg, and produced by Universal Pictures and Amblin Entertainment in 1982, E.T is on the surface a movie about an alien who is accidentally left on Earth and found by a young boy, Elliott, who initially wants to keep and care for him, and eventually wants to return him to his alien family. However, E.T.’s arrival on Earth has also been noted by the American Government who are searching for E.T. As the alien’s health deteriorates, and the government agents close in on Elliott and E.T., the latter find themselves in a race against time to return E.T. to the place where he can be collected.
This simple story remains popular even today, regarded as the tale of a loving bond formed between two socially outcast characters, Elliott (the middle child, lost in the family unit) and E.T. (the child-like alien, lost from his own race). By the end of the movie both characters have found their place among their own people – E.T.’s family returns to Earth to collect him and Elliott’s sibling bonds are strengthened through their united efforts to help him in his mission to save E.T.
This blockbuster science-fiction movie can be read as both a representation of eighties American culture, and also as a comment upon its ideology when examined in a critical context. For example, a key focus of Reagan’s political ideology was the promotion of ‘the family’, interpreted by the political right as the nuclear family. Certainly this movie furthers such a promotion by focussing a large part of the story on the importance of family (it makes much of the relationships between members of Elliott’s family and of course, the key plotline is the return of E.T to his family). Despite some abrasive dynamics such as sibling rivalry and isolation (depicted in the movie as a ‘normal’ experience of the family unit) Elliott’s brother, sister and mother are able to come together in times of difficulty to support each other (also depicted as a ‘normal’ family experience). However, Mathison’s ‘family unit’ is not the one promoted by Reagan’s administration, instead Elliott’s mother is a working, single parent, who, whilst she is effectively ‘managing’ the house-hold is ultimately able to put aside her own misgivings that the Elliott/E.T. relationship brings about, and to take the lead from her children. This very much turns Reagan’s notion of the family upside down, here the single parent is celebrated for being able to allow her children to take their own course of action and ‘do the right thing’.
To some degree, the governments of 1980s America faced a loss of confidence by the American people as a result of political issues and scandals during the 1970s, for example, the resignation of Nixon in ’74 following the Watergate scandal and of course the long, expensive and destructive Vietnam War, which had generated a huge amount of political animosity. In this context, E.T. can also be read as a ‘people versus power’ movie, for the enemy is the government, whom Elliott believes will kill E.T. if they manage to capture him. That is, the government will ultimately destroy the family unit. However, in spite of their dysfunction, Elliott’s family come together to fight the government and ultimately, this non-nuclear family succeeds in reuniting E.T. with his non-typical family.
Amblin Entertainment was founded by E.T.’s director Steven Spielberg in 1981, and E.T. was the company’s second production, as well as being the highest earning movie at the box office in history, an accolade which it maintained for over a decade. The enduring popularity of the film is evidenced by the continuing sale of E.T. merchandise including cuddly toys, talking toys, action figures, keyrings, t-shirts and bedding to name but a few. In addition, the continued adoration can be seen in the opening in of the theme park ride, E.T. Adventure at Universal Studios, Florida in 1990, followed in 1991 by the opening of an additional ride of the same name in Universal Studios, Hollywood, and another in 2001 at Universal Studios, Japan. Although the latter two rides were subsequently replaced by rides relating to more recently released pictures, the original E.T. Adventure remains open today, thirty-four years after the film was originally released.