A Study in Sci-Fi: The “E.T.” Effect

How “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial” holds the hearts of viewers 39 years later


M. Balmes

In her blog, Molly explores the many wonders of Sci-Fi

By Molly Balmes

Legendary director Steven Spielberg has spanned countless genres in his work, but his most famous in the genre of Sci-Fi is definitely “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial”. 

Released in 1982, the movie grossed an incredible $435 million during its original movie theater run. But box office scores and popularity aside, the movie was a landmark in the genre of Sci-Fi.

The movie centers around a young boy, Elliot, who discovers an alien in his backyard. He dubs the alien E.T. and makes it his mission to help the alien return to his home. 

While animating E.T. with today’s technology would be easy, it was a challenge for Spielberg and his creative team to think of a plan to bring the star of the film to life. Carlo Rambaldi, a special effects artist, was brought on with the specific task of creating a realistic E.T. to be used in the film. 

E.T.’s lifelike motions are created by three mechanical puppets accompanied by three actors which would control the puppet from within. The puppet was created over the span of six months and required $1.5 million to build, a pricey gamble for the producing studio. 

Depending on the scene, a specific puppet would be used. For facial shots, a mechanical E.T. would be used. For all other shots like walking or arm movement, the other two puppets that required actors would be used. 

The puppet was emotive and personal, and struck a chord with all audiences. Rambaldi even won an Academy Award in 1983 for Best Visual Effects, which was no easy feat compared to the other nominees, “Blade Runner” and “Poltergeist”.

“E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial” is successful not because of its effects alone but because of the content of the movie as a whole. While the effects were groundbreaking at the time, the movie had to have a dazzling script to make these advanced effects worth it.

This movie is able to connect to such a wide audience because of the way it utilizes Sci-Fi to create a sense of whimsy and childlike wonder. As a viewer, you are captured by the story of an alien, and even feel that you can relate to it. 

Despite the fact none have ever had such an experience, the cinematography, writing, and effects of the movie create an atmosphere that brings all back to their childhood. 

“E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial” is a landmark in the Sci-Fi genre and will always be able to capture the hearts of all who have seen it.