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In case you didn’t know, Steven Spielberg is pretty good at the whole “making movies” thing. The director has a laundry list of classics under his belt, from blockbuster hits like “Jaws” and “Jurassic Park” to serious dramas like “Schindler’s List” and “Saving Private Ryan.”

But Spielberg’s greatest achievement as a filmmaker may still be one of his most personal and heartfelt works: the story of a 10-year-old boy named Elliott and his life-changing (close) encounter with an alien from outer space.

Of course, we’re talking about “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial.”

The pop culture phenomenon, which recently celebrated its 40th anniversary, broke box office records during its original release and remains a beloved family classic to this day.

Take the titular alien’s catchphrase “E.T. phone home,” which became an instantly iconic movie quote before later appearing on a bevy of tie-in merchandise (raise your hand if you still have your “E.T.” lunch box). 

And who could forget John William’s lilting, magical score, perhaps the finest in the legendary composer’s incomparable career?

Better yet, consider just some of the many scenes from “E.T.” that are now seared into the moviegoing public’s consciousness: a trail of Reese’s Pieces used to ensnare a mysterious creature… a pint-sized Drew Barrymore screaming at the top of her lungs… a bicycle miraculously rising into the night sky silhouetted against a breathtaking full moon.

(That last scene, along with the film’s climactic bicycle chase, is why the Varsity Cinema is showcasing “E.T.” as part of our Bike Month celebration. For other bike-centric movies, check out “Shift: The RAGBRAI Documentary” and “Biketown”).


But “E.T.” is so much more than just a handful of great scenes. Taken as a whole, Spielberg’s coming-of-age classic is a pitch-perfect blending of adventure and empathy, doubling as an expansive sci-fi odyssey and an intimate family drama. 

The latter is especially apparent in the shadow of last year’s release of “The Fabelmans,” Spielberg’s semi-autobiographical film about his childhood. Spielberg’s willingness to dramatize his own upbringing has shed new light on many of the director’s past films, perhaps none more so than “E.T.” 

For example, when watching “E.T.” now, one can’t help but notice the absence of Elliott’s father — paralleled, in real life, by the divorce of Spielberg’s parents. Faced with an unsteady home life, the young Spielberg escaped into his imagination, finding solace in the magic of movies. For Elliott, that solace comes in the form of an otherworldly companion, whose telekinetic abilities are not too dissimilar from the imaginative power of cinema itself.

Now, over 40 years and 25 films later, “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial” remains the purest distillation of Spielberg’s signature themes. It’s all there: splintered families, loss of innocence and a restorative sense of wonder. 

But above all, “E.T.” endures because of its vast emotional power — a power that continues to be felt across the galaxy. 

“E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial” returns to the big screen during the weekends of May 20 and 27, as part of the Varsity Cinema’s Bike Month celebration. 

— Clinton Olsasky

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