E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. Dir. Steven Spielberg. Universal Pictures. 1982

E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. Dir. Steven Spielberg. Universal Pictures. 1982

E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. Dir. Steven Spielberg. Universal Pictures. 1982 150 150 Callum Ratcliffe
Figure 1: Trailer for E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982)
Figure 2: Grant (Sam Neill) reinforces the role of the surrogate father trope in Spielberg’s Jurassic Park (1993) dir. Steven Spielberg

Steven Spielberg’s E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982), despite its tearful conclusion in which 10-year-old Elliott is parted from his extra-terrestrial friend aptly named ‘E.T.’, is revered for its thematic sentimentality (popularised by its iconic John Williams score) and stood him in contrast to his contemporary auteurs such as Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola, who adopted an ostensibly more cynical and pessimistic cinematic vision. After the abandonment of an extra-terrestrial creature in the Californian woods, the film tracks the inseparable bond established between E.T. and Elliott and his subsequent attempts to hide his discovery of extra-terrestrial life from the government and his mother. E.T.’s narrative and thematic sensibilities can be critically evaluated in a dialogue with other Spielberg science-fiction classics, such as Jurassic Park (1993) [1] and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977),[2] which similarly manifest the absence of father figures through a projection of ‘otherness’ in order to solve childhood isolation. 

I wouldn’t let anybody hurt you. We could grow up together, E.T.”

E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982) dir. Steven Spielberg. Universal Pictures

Adopting the socially-normalized perception of alien characters in the science fiction film genre as ‘non-human’ and possessing an ‘otherness’ which is other-worldly, Spielberg manipulates and fundamentally subverts the genres’ stylistic and thematic interest in the alienating ‘otherness’ in order to project compassionate and heart-warming characteristics onto E.T.’s reflection of animality. As John Sanders observes, “E.T. broke a long tradition of brutal creatures” in a film genre in which the aliens “are usually seen as a threat”.[3] Spielberg anthropomorphises E.T. through his subjective cinematography and editing, in a way that positions the extra-terrestrial in a role reserved for typically ‘human’ characters. Consequently, Spielberg is concerned with transposing this notion of ‘otherness’, and the subsequent threat it serves to conventional modes of human dominance, into a dialogue in which the ‘non-human’ can be utilised to fill surrogate parental roles in human families. E.T. progressively embodies a role in the film’s exploration of the discourse of species which seeks to overtly emphasise Elliott’s vulnerability, the innocence of childhood, and Spielberg’s attempt to deconstruct the human audience’s pre-conceived notions of aliens and ‘otherness’ in the science-fiction genre.

Establishing and Re-Configuring ‘Otherness’

Figure 5: Creating animal species boundaries and distinguishing E.T. from conventional representations of animality, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982) dir. Steven Spielberg

Spielberg establishes an ostensible threat of alien ‘otherness’ through the juxtaposition of subjective and objective cinematography in order to not only frame the isolation of extra-terrestrials and to construct distinct species boundaries, but also, to manipulate the audiences’ pre-conceived perceptions of the ‘other’ in the science-fiction genre to align it with the human experience. As illustrated in Figure 4, Spielberg is interested in utilising the genre’s stylistic and thematic features in order to fundamentally reflect (as Sherryl Vint identifies) its interest in “the implications of the ever-eroding boundary between animal-beings and human-beings”.[4] Figure 4 evokes a tracking long-shot which paints the extra-terrestrials in a conspicuously threatening manner and this immediately establishes a binary set of species boundaries, and an iteration of ‘otherness’, that separates them from conventional representations of animality. This is reinforced through Spielberg’s quick cut to a close-up of a rabbit, an animal representation that is synonymous with human-animal pet-keeping, yet like E.T., the rabbit is displaced from its human-centric version of ‘home’ and thus aligns the extra-terrestrials with a similar sense of innocence and compassion despite the overtly threatening cinematography. In establishing E.T.s ‘otherness’, this paradox of animality and subsequent strive to define species hierarchies has implications for the film’s evocation of human-animal relations because it subconsciously accentuates Elliot’s own isolation and role as a social outsider, as he is progressively aligned (cinematically and symbiotically) with E.T. Meanwhile, Elliott also grapples with defining species boundaries, which is reflected in his desire to inscribe pet-keeping conventions, stating “I found him. He belongs to me”, and then later proclaiming “I’ll believe in you all my life, everyday. E.T. I love you”. In traversing the conventions of the science-fiction’s portrayal of alien ‘otherness’, Spielberg makes the species boundaries increasingly fluid in a way in which projects characteristically ‘human’ traits onto the animality of E.T. and is reinforced by his cinematography and editing which aligns E.T. with the human audience. Spielberg’s expressively subjective, point-of-view cinematography in Figure 7 not only recalls an interview in which he admitted a fundamental aspect of the film’s camerawork was to “keep the viewpoint that of a child”,[5]  but also it re-configures the pre-established expectations of alien ‘otherness’ in science-fiction films because it renders the human audience with E.T. rather than against it. The implications for the film’s representation of animals and human-animal relations are that the species boundaries are ubiquitously blurred (further reinforced in the medium shot of Elliott and E.T. in Figure 8 which frames them both in a cage-like structure and aligns them as animals being trapped) in order to project truths about the lack of parental figures for Elliott’s childhood isolation and offers us a novel perspective on how genre stylistics and expectations can be manipulated in order to evoke human-animal relations on screen.

Figure 8: Framing Elliott and E.T. in a cage, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982) dir. Steven Spielberg


Figure 9: Medium Close-Up of Elliott, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982) dir. Steven Spielberg

Unlike Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival (2016)[6] in which the Heptapod aliens possess conspicuously ‘non-human’ features (exemplified in Figure 10) and utilise unconventional methods of language and time, Spielberg progressively anthropomorphises E.T. through his subjective and point-of-view camerawork and editing. Furthermore, E.T.’s adoption of typically ‘human’ features and characteristics are attributed to his interactions with Elliott and human characters, mirroring Barry Langford’s claim that an integral aspect of the genre is that “Aliens were often depicted as galactic innocents abroad; all too human in their vulnerability to the violence and corruption of human civilization”.[7] Though E.T. isn’t necessarily corrupted by “human civilization”, the extra-terrestrial is unequivocally shaped (physically and linguistically) by the experiences and interactions. This is perfectly encapsulated in the first dialogue encounter between E.T. and Elliott; Figure 11 illustrates the exchange between human and non-human as if replicating a conventional dialogue between two human characters as Spielberg utilises archetypal shot-reverse-shot cutting as he meticulously maintains the 180-degree rule and continuity editing. Within this sequence of shots, Spielberg frames Elliott in a medium close-up one shot (Figure 9) in order to further enhance his isolation and vulnerability, and is contrasted with the over-the-shoulder two shot (Figure 11) in which Spielberg offers a screen companion for Elliott and foreshadows the intimate bond the two characters will share for the rest of the film. As a result, Spielberg is particularly interested in applying anthropomorphic and socially-normalized ‘human’ features to the body of the non-human in order to explore the implications of aligning the human and animal experiences in an attempt to solve the absence of parental figures and childhood isolation. Spielberg elucidates the power of language as a fundamental base of defining human social contact, highlighted when Elliott ponders “Do you talk?” and “Me human…boy”. When E.T. articulates “E.T. phone home”  and seemingly shows a basic understanding of language, Spielberg unequivocally blurs the socially-normalized boundaries of not only ‘otherness’ in the science-fiction genre but also human and animal relations because the extra-terrestrial is given the linguistic privileges of human characters. Crucially though, as Simona Micali admits, “Humanization is never complete… thus leaving the test subject stuck in an ambivalent, intermediate condition between humanness and animality, which disturbs us”.[8]  Spielberg depicts that E.T. is ultimately incapable to fully encompass “humanization”, expressed through the aforementioned grammatically incomplete linguistic statements, and will always be (as John Sanders puts it) “the outsider who is shunned for his otherness”[9] despite the frequent aligning of the human and non-human experiences and the attempt to fill the void of a human parental role to combat childhood isolation.

The Small Problem of Assigning Gender to Extra-Terrestrials

As Elliott introduces his newly discovered extra-terrestrial companion to his siblings, Gertie and Michael, Spielberg explores the gendered implications of the human attempt to inscribe norms and binaries onto the body of the non-human. After recovering from the initial shock of seeing the extra-terrestrial, Gertie immediately questions “Is he a boy or a girl?” to which Elliott claims “He’s a boy”. Consequently, through this exploration of the gendered representation of animality Spielberg clearly utilises and manipulates the innocence and naivety of the children in order to playfully parody the slightly egocentric, human obsession with assigning socially-normalized gender binaries to non-humans. Highlighted in Figures 12 and 13, the first encounter between E.T. and Elliott’s siblings reconfigures the conventional threat that non-humans pose in the science-fiction genre due to the fact that Spielberg manipulates camera angles and lighting in order to frame the human characters as intimidating. The over-the-shoulder (recalling Figure 11), high-angle shot of E.T. in Figure 12 not only aligns the human audience with Elliott but also it endows the extra-terrestrial with a sense of innocence and vulnerability as we are literally ‘looking down’ at E.T. The prominence of a desk light behind E.T. evokes the feeling of an interrogation, paralleling a comment made by Spielberg in an interview in which he stated “E.T. could not only look sad but he could look curiously sad. Not by the way we controlled E.T. mechanically but by the way Allen shifted light”.[10] The director then cuts to a low-angle, reverse-shot of the children (Figure 13) and the use of a point-of-view, subjective shot of E.T. once again reinforces Spielberg’s manipulation and distortion of species boundaries as the audience are, uncomfortably, positioned with the extra-terrestrial being confronted by the curious children and interrogatory backlight. The comedic nature of E.T.s presentation in the one-shot in Figure 14, dressed in distinctly feminine human clothing and props, parallels Spielberg’s attempt to ridicule the human necessity to apply binary and definitive gender boundaries to not only itself as a species but also, in this case, the egotistical requirement to assign human-conceived gender boundaries to extra-terrestrials. As Figure 15 highlights, E.T.s ‘otherness’ is continuously placed in an uncertain middle-ground due to the fact that Spielberg literally positions him between a Monkey (a genetically close relative to humans) and a Lion (an aggressive predator reflecting E.T.s threatening ‘alien’ exterior), whilst simultaneously exploring the implications of his anthropomorphism. Spielberg not only constructs fluidity to the conventions of animality, but also, to the gender roles that E.T. occupies throughout the film due to the tension between the aforementioned feminisation of the extra-terrestrial, and the subsequent strive for Elliott to designate E.T. as a “boy”  in order to fill the temporary role of his absent father.

Figure 17: The recurring waist shot of adulthood from a child’s perspective, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982) dir. Steven Spielberg

Ultimately, Spielberg offers a critical perspective on the way in which humans typically inscribe socially-normalized meanings and definitive boundaries onto the bodies of non-humans through the manipulation of our preconceived notions regarding alien ‘otherness’ in the science-fiction genre. Unlike archetypally threatening portrayals of extra-terrestrials such as in The Thing (1982),[11] Spielberg utilises the genre’s stylistics and conventions (as well as cinematography, editing, and lighting) in order to project compassion and innocence onto E.T.s version of animality in order to articulate fundamental truths about the lack of a father figure in Elliott’s life. In many ways, Spielberg’s extra-terrestrial companion (enhanced by his progressively anthropomorphic qualities) is more caring and considerate to Elliott than the majority of the adult figures in the film, which is exemplified by the ubiquitous waist-shot of adulthood from a child’s perspective elicited in Figure 17).

Through the exploration of human-constructed boundaries and binaries, Spielberg forces the audience to critically reflect on the egotistical assignments and meanings that humans project onto themselves and non-humans and he uses the naive, innocence of children to inscribe these gendered and sociological meanings onto their newly discovered friend. Despite the anthropomorphic qualities E.T. acquires and the attempt to deconstruct socially normalized human-animal boundaries in order to make them interchangeable, the implications for the film’s depiction of human-animal relations are that it renders E.T. unfortunately incapable as a permanent replacement for Elliott’s human father and subsequently forces a tearful separation in the end. Elliott’s recognition and acknowledgement of this fact is implied as he transitions from an optimistic “We could grow up together” and “I’ll look after you”, and is resigned to admit in the conclusion that “He needs to go home. He’s calling his people”. This is derived from the fact that Spielberg’s evocation of the science-fiction genre means that, even implicitly, E.T.s projected ‘otherness’ will always be fundamentally and distinctly different to conventional human social codes and thus, leaves the audience and characters in an awkward limbo middle-ground trying to grapple between humanity and animality.

Figure 18: Family Guy parody in which E.T.s ‘un-human’ regenerative, healing powers are exaggerated and turns him into a health care assistant to heal human patients, with comedic intent. Family Guy S6 Ep12 (2008) dir. Dominic Polcino
Figure 19: Clip of Henry Thomas auditioning for the role of Elliott


[1] Jurassic Park, dir. by. Steven Spielberg (Universal Pictures, 1993).

[2] Close Encounters of the Third Kind, dir. by. Steven Spielberg (Columbia Pictures, 1977).

[3] John Sanders, The Film Genre Book (London: Auteur, 2009), p. 184

[4] Sherryl Vint, ‘The Animals in That Country: Science Fiction and Animal Studies’ Science Fiction Studies, 35.2 (2008) 177-188 < https://www.jstor.org/stable/25475137 > [accessed 19 January 2022]  (p. 179).

[5] George E. Turner, ‘Steven Spielberg and E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial’, American Cinematographer, 2017 < https://ascmag.com/articles/spielberg-et-the-extraterrestrial > [accessed 19 January 2022].

[6] Arrival, dir. by. Denis Villeneuve (Paramount Pictures, 2016).

[7] Barry Langford, Film Genre Hollywood and Beyond (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2005), p. 192

[8] Simona Micali, ‘What if they could speak? Humanized animals in science fiction’, in Mediating Vulnerability: Comparative approaches and questions of genre, ed. by Anneleen Masschelein, Florian Mussgnug, and Jennifer Rushworth, Comparative Literature and Culture (n.p. UCL Press, 2021), pp.19-37 (p. 20). JSTOR eBook.

[9] John Sanders, The Film Genre Book (London: Auteur, 2009), p. 184.

[10] George E. Turner, ‘Steven Spielberg and E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial’, American Cinematographer, 2017 < https://ascmag.com/articles/spielberg-et-the-extraterrestrial > [accessed 19 January 2022].[11] The Thing, dir. by. John Carpenter (Universal Pictures, 1982)


Langford, Barry, Film Genre Hollywood and Beyond (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2005)

Movieclips Classic Trailers, ET The Extra Terrestrial (1982) Official 20th Anniversary Trailer Movie HD, online video recording, YouTube, 22 February 2014 < https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qYAETtIIClk >[accessed 18 January 2022]

Micali, Simona, ‘What if they could speak? Humanized animals in science fiction’, in Mediating Vulnerability: Comparative approaches and questions of genre, ed. by Anneleen Masschelein, Florian Mussgnug, and Jennifer Rushworth, Comparative Literature and Culture (n.p. UCL Press, 2021), pp.19-37. JSTOR eBook.

Sanders, John, The Film Genre Book (London: Auteur, 2009)

Sterland, Emma, ’14 Ways a Pet Can Help a Child with Special Needs’, Friendship Circle, 2014 <https://www.friendshipcircle.org/blog/2014/05/21/14-ways-a-pet-can-help-a-child-with-special-needs/ > [accessed 18 January 2022]

Turner, George E., ‘Steven Spielberg and E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial’, American Cinematographer, 2017 <https://ascmag.com/articles/spielberg-et-the-extraterrestrial > [accessed 19 January 2022]

UniversalPicsSweden, Henry Thomas audition for E.T. “Ok kid, you got the job”, online video recording, YouTube, 10 October 2012 <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tA5giyG8E7g > [accessed 18 January 2022]

Vint, Sherryl,‘The Animals in That Country: Science Fiction and Animal Studies’ Science Fiction Studies, 35.2 (2008) 177-188 < https://www.jstor.org/stable/25475137 > [accessed 19 January 2022]

Further Reading

Burt, Jonathan., Animals in Film (London: Reaktion, 2002)

Gordon, Joan, ‘Talking (for, with) Dogs: Science Fiction Breaks a Species Barrier’ Science Fiction Studies, 37.3 (2010), 456-65 <https://www.jstor.org/stable/25746446> [accessed 19 January 2022]

Happy Birthday E.T., ITV London, 16 December 2012, <https://learningonscreen.ac.uk/ondemand/index.php/prog/02E24D76?bcast=93274658 > [accessed 19 January 2022]

Lehman, Daniel, ‘The Role of the Father in the Films of Steven Spielberg’, By Daniel Lehman, 2004 < https://danielmlehman.wordpress.com/2004/12/01/the-role-of-the-father-in-the-films-of-steven-spielberg/ > [accessed 19 January 2022]

Magistrale, Anthony, ‘Innocence Unrewarded: A Note on E.T. and the Myth of Adolescence’ Science Fiction Studies, 11.2 (1984), 223-25 < https://www.jstor.org/stable/4239629 > [accessed 18 January 2022]

Stephens, Chuck, ‘Spielberg’s Lost World: franchise, fatherhood, a world without dung’ Film Comment, 33.4 (1997), 12-14 < https://www.jstor.org/stable/43454484 > [accessed 20 January 2022]


Anderson, Wes, dir., Fantastic Mr. Fox (20th Century Studios, 2009)

Carpenter, John, dir., The Thing (Universal Pictures, 1982)

Spielberg, Steven, dir., E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (Universal Pictures, 1982)

Spielberg, Steven, dir., Close Encounters of the Third Kind (Columbia Pictures, 1977)

Spielberg, Steven, dir., Jurassic Park (Universal Pictures, 1993)

Villeneuve, Denis, dir., Arrival (Paramount Pictures, 2016)