The Cinema Behind Star Wars: E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial

StarWars.com looks at the friendly competition -- and mutual admiration -- between Steven Spielberg's 1982 classic and a galaxy far, far away.

The influence of Star Wars and Steven Spielberg’s E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial is much more circular than many other movies we’ve tackled in this column, but is no less important. Before we talk about the film itself, it’s important to understand the context of the time of its release. E.T. came out in 1982, during the dark times of cinema between the releases of The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. Han was still frozen in carbonite, Darth Vader may or may not have been lying about his paternity, and Boba Fett was Public Enemy Number One for leading Vader right to our heroes.

E.T. the Extra Terrestrial was a cultural phenomenon and went on to become the first film to unseat Star Wars as the biggest box-office money maker of all time. When it surpassed Star Wars, George Lucas took out a full page ad in Variety to congratulate his friend. It featured Han and Luke in their medal ceremony attire hoisting E.T. on their shoulders in celebration. Artoo even bore a bumper sticker reading, “I love E.T.”

E.T. tells the story of a young boy who comes in contact with a peace-bringing alien life form who’s been left behind on Earth by his colleagues. Elliot, played by Henry Thomas, forms a bond with the being, teaching it everything he can and doing his best to protect it from the government, which wants nothing more than to study and dissect it. Realizing that the best thing for E.T. is for him to get home, Elliot, his siblings, and his friends work against all odds to get the sentient being home.

The film mirrors the underdog struggles of an ill-equipped Rebellion doing the right thing in the face of the vastly superior government institution, a theme that would never be more apparent than with the release of Return of the Jedi the next year. And which of us in the years that followed didn’t pretend in equal parts that our bicycles could fly across the sky or serve as Imperial speeder bikes?

It also shares John Williams as the composer, which gives it the same emotional feeling as Star Wars, at least as far as the music is concerned.

As Elliot teaches E.T. about what it meant to be a kid in the early ’80s, of course he shows him his Star Wars toys. “This is Hammerhead,” Elliot says, hefting a classic Hammerhead action figure. Then, he lifts up the catalyst for the devastating end of Empire, “and this is Boba Fett.” With enough time and distance between then and now, it’s easy to forget that the first time we heard Boba Fett’s name spoken in a movie theater wasn’t in Star Wars, but from the mouth of Elliot.

Spielberg went out of his way to make childhood a realistic and believable thing for the setting, which was then contemporary. Of course, action figures would feature prominently in that landscape. What kid wasn’t obsessed with Star Wars? It’s no coincidence that Ben Affleck even used the same technique in 2012’s Best Picture, Argo.

But Spielberg wasn’t content with homaging his friend’s film with mere toys. No, he had to take things one step further. When Elliot and his siblings take E.T. trick-or-treating for Halloween, they drape him in a white sheet and take him in public. Someone passes by dressed as Yoda, and this incenses the young extra-terrestrial. “Home!” he shouts repeatedly. “Home!”

Whether this was meant to originally imply that Yoda merely resembled E.T.’s comrades or if E.T. really was from a galaxy far, far away, we can’t be sure. But George Lucas could be.

Fast forward to 1999 and the release of The Phantom Menace and we would know for sure that E.T. wasn’t just confused when he saw Yoda. He said, “home,” and he meant it. In the Senate sequences on Coruscant, when Queen Amidala calls for a vote of no-confidence in Chancellor Valorum’s leadership, three members of E.T.’s species (and E.T. himself for all we know) are seen. They’re in their own senate pod and shouting for the vote like all the rest.

It was a moment that certainly made me rethink the entirety of Spielberg’s film when I saw it.

In my house, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial is a frequently watched film. Though it’s rated PG for language and mild-thematic elements, it’s something I loved from an early age and have shared with my children from the time they were toddlers. It can get a bit intense and teach kids phrases that are as hilarious as they are inappropriate, but it’s perfect for the whole family. And it’s definitely as relevant today as the day it was made. It’s also the perfect jumping off point to show your kids John Wayne’s The Quiet Man. Trust me.

Availability: E.T. the Extra-Terrestial is widely available on DVD and Blu-ray, and is available to stream on Amazon, iTunes, and Google Play.

Bryan Young is an author, a filmmakerjournalist, and the editor in chief of BigShinyRobot.com! He’s also the co-host of the Star Wars podcast, Full of Sith.

You can also follow him on Twitter.

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