Home > Greatest Scores of the Twentieth Century, Reviews > E.T. THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL – John Williams



Original Review by Craig Lysy

Steven Spielberg, like most kids, suffered with the divorce of his parents. He was 14, and to cope with his circumstances, he created an imaginary alien friend, who became a surrogate brother. Over time this evolved into a story, which his sought to film called “Growing Up”. After the success of Raiders of The Lost Ark, he returned to fashioning his childhood story, which would now incorporate elements from another story he had written called “Night Skies,” where aliens terrorize a family. He brought in screenwriter to Melissa Mathison to craft a story of a special needs child bonding with a friendly alien. The result was a story to be called “E.T. and Me,” which Spielberg pitched to Columbia Studios. Remarkably they rejected the project, believing that it would only appeal to small kids. Well, Spielberg was undeterred, and approached Sid Sheinberg of MCA, who saw the success of Raiders of the Lost Ark, and agreed to fund the project. They bought back the script from Columbia Pictures for $1 million dollars and granted 5% of the film’s net profits. Spielberg and Kathleen Kennedy would produce the film, with Spielberg also directing. For his creative team, he brought in Carlo Rambaldi, who had created the aliens seen in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. The story required Spielberg to cast child actors, and he screened hundreds. His patience and hard effort paid off as he managed to secure a perfect cast, which included; Henry Thomas as Elliot, Drew Barrymore as Gertie, Dee Wallace as Mary, Peter Coyote as Keys, and Robert MacNaughton as Michael.

The film is a coming of age story, and offers a tale of a young boy (Elliot), who struggles with the loss of his father. It comes to pass that aliens land in a near by forest on a botanical expedition, however when federal agents arrive, it causes an emergency evacuation to avoid detection. In the confusion, a young alien is left behind. Now alone on a strange world, the alien (E.T.) seeks to survive, and searches for shelter and food. Elliot ultimately discovers E.T. and a remarkable friendship develops between the two. Eventually the bond is transformative in that E.T. helps Elliot to heal, and Elliot saves E.T.’s life, reuniting him with his family. The film was a stunning commercial success earning $793 million, or nearly 800 times its production cost of $10.5 million. It also achieved critical acclaim, earning nine Academy Ward nominations, winning four for Best Visual Effects, Best Sound Effects Editing, Best Sound and Best Film Score. Today it is considered one of the Spielberg’s greatest achievements and a film that continues to find love with new generations of children. It stands as one of the greatest films ever made, and has been selected for preservation by the National Film Registry.

The Spielberg-Williams team was now firmly established and Williams took an instant liking to the film. When he presented at his studio a piano rendering of the Flying Theme, Spielberg was overjoyed, and the rest is history. Williams understood that the film is seen through a child’s eyes, a fact reinforced by Spielberg’s camera angles in shooting the film. He also understood that the film spoke to the bond formed between an alienated, grieving boy, and a young alien, alone on a strange world. Through their friendship they are both healed and the music needed to speak to this for the film to succeed. As such, Williams chose his usual thematic approach to scoring the film. He provided nine themes and two motifs, including three for the aliens; E.T.’s Theme serves as his identity, and speaks to his isolation and desire to regain his family. A solo piccolo in repeating six-note figures usually carries the melody, which I found tender, vulnerable, yet also bearing a tinge of sadness. The Alien Theme serves as the collective identity of the Aliens. It offers a mysterioso, and is ambient rather than melodic in its construct and articulation. Williams created its otherworldly sound by rubbing a super ball over a suspended cymbal, while joined by celeste, and shifting string textures. The Call Motif is intrinsically bound to the Alien Theme, to which it often accompanies. It speaks to E.T.’s longing for his family and homesickness. Its simple construct offers a descending two-note call, which begins in the upper register, and is answered in the lower register.

Five themes are provided for the Elliot-E.T. friendship, including; the gossamer Friendship Theme, is intimate and tender. Williams purposely intended that it by dreamlike in its articulation, carried by harp, celeste, shifting string textures. Note-worthy is that the theme is ultimately transformed into a sibling Love Theme, of great emotive power. The Play Theme, is rhythmic, playful and above all, mischievous, often rendered as a silly, plodding march by bass clarinet, trombones, and timpani. It supports scenes where Elliot and E.T. are just being kids, and getting into trouble. The Search Theme speaks to efforts by Elliot to find E.T., but it also animates them together when others are in pursuit. The descending, long-lined, repeating 14-note phrasing is very rhythmic, propelled by strings and woodwind animato, with horn declarations. Adornment by harp, celeste and twinkling percussion provides a sparkle to its statement. The Flying Theme in many ways serves as the score’s most defining theme, providing a sense of wonderment, which allows the music to soar. It speaks to the magic powers and wonder of E.T. as he propels Elliot’s bike to fly above the ground. The theme’s A Phrase is sweeping, confident, declarative, and uplifting in its articulation carried by strings, woodwinds and horns, anchored by a pedal line by bass and tuba. The more fluid and lyrical B Phrase however is where the theme soars and evokes a sense of wonderment, propelled by sumptuous strings and horn declarations. This may be perhaps Williams’ greatest theme. Lastly we have the Victory Fanfare, which affirm moments of victory by our heroes E.T. and Elliot over the menacing government agents. It resounds boldly won celebratory trumpet trionfonti led fanfare, with repeating nine-note phrases. It is usually joined with the wondrous Flying Theme, which serves to create an astounding thematic synergy.

Rounding out the score is a triad of villain themes, which provide the necessary juxtaposition to create tension, and drama in the story. The Government Theme 1 serves as the collective identity of government agents. It is dark, ominous and menacing, empowered by grim low register woodwinds and horns sinistre. Its statements are lurking, unsettling, and never resolve, which serves to raise tension and sow unease. The Government Theme 2 embraces menace, darkness and is kindred to the first theme. It has a religioso quality, is empowered by low register organ, and sows unease. Lastly we have Keyes Motif, which serves as his personal identity as a government agent. It is simple in construct, consisting of a tremolo triangle, and usually joined to the two Government Themes.

“Main Titles” opens with the purple font credits displaying against a black background. Williams sows disquiet with an eerie mysterioso as the otherworldly Alien Theme creates unease. The eerie effect of rubbing a super ball over a suspended cymbal was well conceived. We segue into “Far From Home” where the camera pans down from star lite skies, supported by a solo piccolo emoting E.T. Theme, which is joined by the mysterioso of the Alien Theme as we behold an alien ship. The otherworldly ambiance intensifies as we enter the ship and see a hold filled with botanical specimens. At 0:30 we are filled with foreboding when the religioso Government Theme 2 emerges as E.T. is exploring the forest. It intensifies and joins with interplay of The Alien Theme, creating a wondrous soundscape. At 3:23 the Government Theme 1 enters with a growing menace as agents arrive. At 4:25 all hell breaks lose atop a frantic accelerando as E.T. is seen and runs for his life pursued by agents. The Government Theme 1 roars on horns bellicose, juxtaposed by frantic woodwinds and chattering xylophone, which support E.T.’s flight. At 5:15 horns bravura support with dramatic power the lift off and departure of the alien ship. We segue into ”E.T. Alone” as a beleaguered E.T. Theme on piccolo entwines with the menace of the Government Theme 1 as he is hunted. These opening three cues perfectly launched the film and reeled us in.

In “Meeting E.T.” Elliot brings a flashlight and searches the field after hearing noises Williams supports the scene with interplay of E.T. Theme on piccolo, and the mysterioso of the Alien Theme on strings and plucked harp, which sow unease. We slowly crescendo as they meet, and close on an eerie diminuendo as they both flee from each other. “Bait For E.T.” features outstanding thematic interplay as Elliot sets off the next day to trap E.T. The Government Theme 1 joined by a Herrmannesque high register slashing string chords and muted trumpets inform us that agents are also searching. As he rides his bike Williams introduces his Search Theme, which carries Elliot’s progress. Government agents appear supported by Theme 1, which emotes with menace. As Elliot departs the Search Theme carries him off and we end on a dark sustain as we see E.T. hiding in the woods. In “E.T.’s New Home” tremolo violins join E.T.’s Theme on piccolo and low register harp. As the two meets, Elliot lures E.T. into the house with a trail of candy. As E.T. enters the house, ascending, warm and welcoming horn arpeggios greet him. As he finally arrives at Elliot’s bedroom playful pizzicato stings, join with harp and celeste to carry E.T.’s progress.

“The Beginning Of A Friendship” introduces tenderly, the Friendship Theme on solo harp gentile, which bathes us with soothing string textures as Elliot falls asleep. We close ominously with Government Theme 1 as agents are searching the woods and find the candy bag Elliot used. The next day Elliot feigns illness so as to stay home with E.T. In “Toys” we are treated to a touching and endearing exposition of the gentle Friendship Theme. It supports Elliot’s efforts to communicate, as he introduces E.T. to his toys. We close gently on E.T.’s Theme as he plays with some toys and Elliot brings him food. In “I’m Keeping Him” Elliot introduces E.T. to Michael and Gertie with mixed results. The Friendship Theme on harp and ethereal celeste tenderly supports the scene, and when E.T.’s Theme joins we achieve a perfect confluence. At 1:38 Government Theme 1 threatens on low register horns and woodwinds with a counter low register celeste juxtaposed by The Friendship Theme on a high register clarinet. “E.T.’s Powers” offers sterling interplay of three primary themes. As Elliot reveals a map of the solar system, he asks E.T. where is he from. E.T.’s Theme supports the moment, and is joined by a nascent rendering of the A Phrase of the Flying Theme as he levitates balls to portray his solar system, which leaves the kids awestruck. The moment however is severed by the menacing intrusion of Government Theme 1, as Elliot sees through his window shades, agents above on the hill slope. They are closing in as Elliot goes out to investigate, and the music is now overtly threatening.

“E.T. and Elliott Get Drunk” is masterfully conceived and executed, as Williams must juxtapose Elliot and E.T. who have become psychically linked. We open with darkness and mystery as E.T. walks down stairs in search of food. The Play Theme is emoted as a silly plodding march by bass clarinet, trombones, and timpani carry his progress. The Friendship Theme on woodwinds joins with the Play Theme on violins as E.T. scrounges through the refrigerator, until he discovers beer. As they both become drunk, E.T.’s staggering is supported by the silly march of the Play Theme now adorned with a mischievous clarinet, while a comic off key sliding string glissandi supports Elliot. We segue into “Frogs” where Elliot and his class prepare to dissect frogs. Once again there is juxtaposition between Elliot, who is supported by a string tremolo, and E.T. who is supported by the Play Theme. At 1:22 E.T’s Theme reprises as he see’s a transmitter with the caption “Help” in a cartoon. We discern that he seeks to build a transmitter as he disassembles some electronic equipment. At 1:38 we have an accelerando on the Play Theme, now supporting Elliot as he follows E.T’s psychic command to free the frogs. The comic crescendo is wonderful. In the actual film, Williams closes the cue by interpolating Victor Young’s Love Theme for the Quiet Man , which E.T. is watching on the TV. This was omitted from the album.

“At Home” offers an intersection of many themes, which Williams expertly weaves to support this multi-scenic segment. We open with E.T.’s Theme on piccolo, adorned with bassoon, harp and celeste as he begins speaking to both Gertie and Elliot. When he states that he wants to phone home, the Alien Theme and E.T.’s Theme interplay. We shift outside atop a menacing Government Theme 1 adorned with harp sinistre, which supports an ease-dropping monitoring van driving through the neighborhood. At 2:49 we have an exquisite extended rendering of the Friendship Theme, the finest and most evocative of the score. Emoted by harp, it is now joined by celeste, tremolo strings, and embellished with a contrapuntal harp line as Elliot helps E.T. construct his transmitter. When he cuts his hand, E.T. heals it, and the tenderness of their theme reveals the love between the two of them. At 4:50 the Flying Theme on flute supports E.T.’s assembly of his transmitter. We close as we began with interplay of E.T.’s Theme and the Alien Theme. “The Magic Of Halloween” is a fun cue, full of magic and wonder. The kids and E.T. are trick or treating and Williams carries their progress with a silly, prancing melody propelled by woodwinds giocoso as E.T. observes people in strange costumes. When they meet someone in a Yoda costume, Williams cleverly interpolates Yoda’s Theme! As nightfall descends and they lift E.T. onto a bike, Yoda’s Theme returns, I believe Williams was just being playful as there is no context. At 1:10 we flow into the sparkling Flying Theme, which supports Elliot’s and E.T. travel on his bike through the forest. As the road becomes bumpy and difficult, E.T. intervenes at 1:49 by levitating the bike up into the air. Williams supports the wonder of the moment with an inspired, soaring and full rendering of the Flying Theme in all its glory! The cinematic confluence of them flying against the luminous full moon has passed unto legend. A clumsy, sputtering closure reflects their crash landing.

“Sending The Signal” offers a scene of powerful emotions. We open ominously with Government Theme 1 on horns sinistre as agents enter Elliot’s deserted house. Shifting to the forest, E.T.’s attempted transmission is supported by gossamer rendering of the Flying Theme by harp and celeste. When the transmission succeeds, the theme warms, taken up by French horns. Another interlude of the Government Theme and Keyes’ Theme supports the agent’s search of Elliot’s house. Returning to the forest, Elliot begs E.T. to stay with him, stating that he would protect him. The heartfelt moment is where Elliot cries, and E.T. caresses his face and wipes away his tears. Williams support their affection with a tender and very moving interplay of the Flying Theme and E.T. Theme adorned with harp glissandi. We close with uncertainty on fluttering woodwinds pastorale. “Searching For E.T.” offers a cue of astounding thematic interplay. Elliot awakes, having spent a cold night sleeping in the forest and is unable to find E.T. He returns home distraught and begs Mike to find him. An energetic Search Theme propels him on his bike with counterplay from the Government Theme 1 as agents in a car pursue. Mike eludes them and at 1:06 strings affanato cry out as he finds the transmission site, with no sign of E.T. As he continues the search, beleaguered Search and Flying Themes entwine. At 1:32 a crescendo of pain atop the Flying Theme supports Mike finding the near dead E.T. in a streambed. Mike takes E.T. home, but at 1:54 the Government Theme 1 and Keyes’ Theme intrude, supporting the agent’s menacing shadow on the home’s driveway. As Mike introduces his mother to E.T. in Elliot’s bedroom, a funereal rendering of the religioso Government Theme 2, replete with tolling bells, evokes great pathos. We see that Mary is overcome, and E.T., pale and near death. At 3:09 tremulous strings usher in a plaintive E.T.’s Theme as Mary forcibly removes her family from the room, leaving E.T. to die alone.

In “Invading Elliott’s House” we bear witness to the scores most frightening cue. Mike opens the front door and is frightened by the entry of men in space suits. Fierce, martial timpani and horns bellicose support the entry. The twinkling religioso of the Government Theme 2 carries an agent to Elliot’s bedroom, which mutates into a grotesque crescendo with his entry and discovery of a helpless E.T. At 0:49 fierce timpani strikes of doom support the approach of hundreds of hooded agents marching towards the house, and usher in the Government Theme 2 as they tent and quarantine the house. The rest o f the cue is supported by the Government Theme 1, which bathes us in a grim darkness as we see medical teams ministering to E.T. and Elliot. “E.T. Is Dying” offers the scores most tearful, and emotionally devastating cue. It reveals E.T. succumbing to his illness supported by a plaintive Flying Theme on celeste, which is joined by forlorn horns and strings affanato. At 1:04 Elliot reaches out begging E.T. not to die. The Friendship Theme, full of heartache, and resignation supports Elliot’s desperation. At 1:53 the gossamer like E.T. Theme on celeste returns and supports E.T.’s last breaths, ending on a crescendo of pain as he passes.

In “Losing E.T.” mournful strings offer an elegy full of heartache as the lead scientist consoles a devastated Elliot. They grant Elliot one last moment alone together before they remove the corpse. We see in his eyes pain and heartache. At 0:54 refulgent violins and harp usher an elegiac French horn, grieving bass and shimmering strings, which fade into nothingness. “E.T. Is Alive!” reveals Elliot alone with E.T. expressing his grief. The Friendship Theme on celeste and strings gentile supports the tearful moment. The theme is then transferred to solo flute and we bear witness to the theme’s transformation into a Love Theme, as Elliot confesses his love for E.T. He closes the cryo-chamber lid, but fails to notice the red glow in E.T.’s chest. As he departs he notices a vase of dead flowers returning to life, revealing to him that E.T. is alive. A joyous Flying Theme carries him back to E.T.

We now come to the score’s masterpiece cue, which gains Williams immortality. This ternary cue begins with “Escape,” which reveals Mike and Elliot stealing the van containing E.T.’s cryo-chamber. A bass ostinato sows tension as they prepare their escape. The ostinato ascends and quickens, first on celli and then viola as they prepare to depart. The mischievous Play Theme joins as Mike prepares to drive. At 0:57 they are discovered, the alarm raised and an accelerando propels their escape! At 1:13 we segue into “Chase” atop the Flying Theme with interplay of the Play Theme propelling them with agents in pursuit. At 1:56 the Search Theme assumes prominence, propelling their flight. We build to a crescendo at 3:10 as Elliot removes the last of the fasteners to shed two agents housed in the plastic walkway attached to the van. At 3:40 they arrive in the park to transfer to bikes brought by their friends. As E.T. emerges in white robes and a glowing red chest, his theme on solo piccolo sounds and awes the boys. As they mount their bikes we build on a slow crescendo, which launches at 4:28 their flight on bikes, supported by declarations of the Victory Fanfare, now unleashed with all its celebratory magnificence! Williams now whips his orchestra into frenzy, propelling with inspired chase music, the police pursuit with the kinetic force of syncopated horns and contrapuntal statements of the Play Theme. At 5:30 they are almost cornered and the menacing horns of the Government Theme 1 resound, yet they escape and the Victory Fanfare at 5:38 celebrates their triumph. As police continue to relentlessly pursue, the Flying Theme returns for an inspired performance. At 6:35 they approach a blockade manned by police with shotguns. Repeating declarations of the Government Theme 1 resounds with menace on trumpets of doom, swelling atop a frightful crescendo until we bear witness to a miracle at 06:58 where E.T. lifts the flotilla of bikes into the air, soaring exuberantly atop a celebratory rendering of the Flying Theme, now embellished with a contrapuntal horn line. We bear witness to an iconic cinematic moment as we see them flying across the face of the massive flaming setting sun. The confluence of music and cinematography here is sublime. A diminuendo supports their landing in the forest.

At 8:00 we segue into “Saying Goodbye” atop E.T.’s Theme, which is joined by warm and welcoming strings as the alien craft lands. His theme transfers first to warm French horns and then flute, speaking to us of his happiness of being reunited with his family. At 9:22 the Alien Theme supports the opening of the spacecraft’s doors. E.T.’s goodbye sequence reveals Williams’ genius. He offers a musical moment for each kid; strings tenero for Gertie, muted horns and woodwinds gentile for Mike, and lastly for Elliot, the score’s emotional apogee is achieved as E.T. asks him to go with him, and Elliot asks him to stay. Williams elicits our tears with sumptuous strings appassionato, which ascend and swell with great emotive power as they embrace. The Love Theme on warm French horns crowns the moment and ushers in a breath-taking ascending horn line, which culminates with E.T. touching Elliot’s forehead and saying “I’ll be right here.” We conclude atop the Victory Fanfare emoted by warm horns nobile, joined by the Flying Theme, which swells, leaving us breathless as E.T boards. The theme transfers on a diminuendo to E.T’s Theme on solo piccolo as they join in a parting glance. As the ship lifts off the Flying Theme supports, and as the ship soars across the firmament leaving a rainbow wake, the Victory Fanfare resounds gloriously! We conclude in dramatic operatic fashion with what may be the most evocative ending in cinematic history. A transformed E.T. Theme, now boldly declared by horns nobile and full orchestra resounds powerfully, culminating with a grand timpani roll flourish as the film ends with a view of Elliot’s bittersweet gazing upwards to the heavens. The “End Credits” concludes with the Search Theme rendered elegantly by piano. The celebratory Victory Fanfare resounds at 0:45 and is joined in splendid interplay by a full extended rendering of the Flying Theme. We culminate warmly, and with great satisfaction with a final reprise of E.T.’s Theme.

I would like to thank MCA for this magnificent 20th anniversary re-recording of John Williams’ masterpiece score to “E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial”. The sound quality is pristine and offers an excellent listening experience. Williams understood that the film is seen through a child’s eyes, a fact reinforced by Spielberg’s camera angles in shooting the film. He also understood that the film spoke to the bond formed between an alienated, grieving boy, and a young alien, stranded, and alone on a strange world. Through their friendship they are both healed and the music needed to speak to this for the film to succeed. Well, in my judgment, the film succeeds largely responsible due to Williams score. He captures they mystery of the aliens, and the menace of sinister government agents. The use of the piccolo for the gentle and diminutive E.T. was also perfectly conceived. Lastly, the iconic Flying Theme takes its place in the hallowed halls of the Pantheon of legendary film score memories. In scene after scene Williams fleshes out the powerful emotions and drama unfolding on the screen. Iconic confluences of cinematography and music were achieved with the flying against the full moon, and flaming sun at sunset. The death scene, and departure scenes offer testimony to Williams’ mastery of his craft, and finally, the ending of the film may be the finest in cinematic history. This score is a masterpiece, one of the finest in Williams’ canon, and an early Bronze Age gem. I highly recommend it as essential to your collection.

Buy the E. T. soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Main Title (1:07)
  • Far From Home/E.T. Alone (6:47)
  • Bait for E.T. (1:44)
  • Meeting E.T. (2:06)
  • E.T.’s New Home (1:39)
  • The Beginning of a Friendship (3:03)
  • Toys (2:44)
  • I’m Keeping Him (2:18)
  • E.T.’s Powers (2:43)
  • E.T. and Elliott Get Drunk (2:54)
  • Frogs (2:10)
  • At Home (5:38)
  • The Magic of Halloween (2:52)
  • Sending the Signal (3:56)
  • Searching For E.T. (4:16)
  • Invading Elliott’s House (2:22)
  • E.T. is Dying (2:20)
  • Losing E.T. (2:03)
  • E.T. is Alive ! (4:06)
  • Escape/Chase/Saying Goodbye (15:02)
  • End Credits (3:49)

Running Time: 75 minutes 39 seconds

MCA Records MCA-088112081902 (1982/2002)

Music composed and conducted by John Williams. Performed by The London Symphony Orchestra. Orchestrations by Herbert W. Spencer. Recorded and mixed by Shawn Murphy. Edited by Ken Wannberg. Score produced by John Williams.

  1. Texas Tim
    July 30, 2018 at 2:45 pm

    Craig, I love reading each of your 100 Greatest Score posts – thank you for each of them.

    And I’d say that the last 10-15 minutes of this score is the greatest 10-15 minutes of film music ever written.

  2. Big Orange
    August 17, 2018 at 3:28 am

    Great review, thx, and so nice to read the review and listen at the same time!

  1. February 8, 2022 at 6:22 am
  2. February 8, 2022 at 6:27 am
  3. February 8, 2022 at 6:30 am
  4. November 10, 2022 at 5:51 am

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