There were movie aliens before E.T., and there were movie aliens after E.T., but none were as memorable (or weirdly adorable) as Steven Spielberg’s 1982 creation.
E.T. The Extra Terrestrial told the story of a young boy who discovers an extra-terrestrial — often referred to as a goblin before they find out its true origins — and forms a loving, brotherly relationship with it as he struggles with his parents’ recent separation. Between the amazing child acting in the film (more on that later), the wonders of an animatronic alien with facial expressions as real as mine or yours, and the tear-inspiring story, E.T. wooed audiences in the summer of ’82.
This wasn’t Spielberg’s first success, though. By the time of E.T.‘s release, he was already a household name for previous films like 1975’s Jaws, which set a record for box office numbers during its time, and 1981’s Raiders of the Lost Ark, but none of his work had been as emotionally charged as E.T. was — or as personal. E.T. was inspired by Spielberg’s own childhood, as his parents divorced when he was young, and he dealt with it by thinking up an imaginary alien friend. And this intimacy, this feeling that the movie was just about a lost boy, is part of what makes it so special as a summer blockbuster: We usually think of summer blockbusters as the action movies, the ones full of adventure and special effects and loud noises, but E.T. isn’t one of those movies. It’s a sweet, personal story about growing up, and yet, it still captured imaginations that summer and continues to to this day.
Another part of E.T. that added to its greatness was its reliance on dominantly child actors, namely a tiny Drew Barrymore. Elliott, his brother, and his sister were all played by actors under 16, but this didn’t make E.T. a kids’ movie (although it was certainly a great movie for kids). Instead, it worked to bring viewers of all ages back to that time in their lives when they too were maybe a little lost or a little confused and just wanted a special friend to help them through it.
So with that, we continue our summer blockbusters rundown with E.T. The Extra Terrestrial — and a suggestion to press “play”:
Release Date: June 11, 1982
The Competition: E.T. shared an opening weekend with Grease 2, so it didn’t have the stiffest competition — the musical sequel didn’t stand a chance. For context: E.T. made $11.8 million opening weekend and Grease 2 made $4.6 million that same weekend. It also faced competition from Poltergeist, Rocky III, and Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, all movies that were released prior to E.T. and were topping the box office charts until E.T. came out and shifted all of them down on the list. E.T. continued to stay at number one for seven weekends and fluctuated between the top spot and, well, the not-top spots, until its final hurrah at #1 in December 1982.
Box Office: $435.1 million domestic ($11.8 million opening weekend) and $792.9 million worldwide
What EW said: “E.T., a ticklish and yearning poem of wonder, is a great movie, but the paradox — and perhaps the legacy — of Spielberg’s genius is that in bringing to life an otherworldly creature more profound and expressive in feeling than most actors, the director presaged an entire movie era in which the artificial would begin to trump the human.” A -Owen Gleiberman
Cultural Impact Then: Everyone loved E.T. Critics, Academy members, audiences — everyone. Even when the film lost to Gandhi for Best Picture at the Oscars, Gandhi‘s own director Richard Attenborough still thought it should have gone to Spielberg, later calling E.T. “an extraordinary piece of cinema.” But its loss wasn’t so bad, because it was nominated for nine Oscars total that year and won four of those, plus two Golden Globe wins for Best Drama and Best Original Score. And it didn’t do so bad at the box office, either: E.T. was the highest grossing film of all time until Jurassic Park stole its thunder 11 years later in 1993.
Also worth mentioning is what the movie did to Reese’s Pieces. Sales of the Hershey-manufactured candy tripled in just the two weeks after E.T. came out in theaters, despite many people thinking E.T.’s candy of choice were actually M&M’s. Talk about successful product placement.
Cultural Staying Power: You can be one of the few who never saw E.T. and still picture the alien’s glowing finger with the phrase, “E.T. phone home.” The movie’s catchphrase may not be applicable to much, but that hasn’t stopped it from creeping into our culture. The legacy lives on in more concrete ways too: Take a trip to Florida’s Universal Studios and you’ll get to hop on your very own bicycle and ride through the E.T. universe on E.T. Adventure, a ride that’s been at the park since 1990.
Money-wise, E.T. still makes bank by taking advantage of its anniversaries. It grossed $35.3 million domestically when it was re-released in theaters in 2002 for its 20th anniversary, and a 30th anniversary DVD with a restored version of the film was released in 2012. It helps that although some of the film appears dated now because of advances in special effects and the like, the themes and story of E.T. are still relatable today. We may not always be children, but we’ll always remember the magic and struggles of our childhoods. E.T. did, and always will, remind us of that.