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The real reason fans never got to see an E.T. sequel

E.T. is one of the most critically beloved and commercially successful films of all time. With a lifetime worldwide box office of almost $800 million, E.T. could probably still get a sequel greenlit in seconds. So why didn't Universal phone home to see if they could get the little guy back for a second adventure?

It never made it past the preliminary stages

E.T. screenwriter Melissa Mathison struck up a creative relationship with Steven Spielberg while she was dating Harrison Ford. Mathison met the director during a visit to the set of Raiders of the Lost Ark; according to producer Kathleen Kennedy, both she and Spielberg were already fans of her work on Black Stallion, and after they hit it off, Mathison got the gig for E.T. Over $700 million in box office returns later, Spielberg tapped her to see if she could make lighting strike twice, but the outline they sketched together was never anything more than a tentative stab at a sequel. It's the kind of Hollywood networking that happens all the time, and for a writer and director to sit down and bang out a nine-page treatment just to kick the tires on an idea isn't anywhere close to pre-production.

The story treatment was significantly darker than the original

If it had followed the treatment written by Spielberg and Mathison, E.T. II: Nocturnal Fears would have shown a group of aliens descending to Earth in response to the distress call from "Zrek," which turns out to be E.T.'s real name. Oh, cool, more little E.T.s, right? Not really. These "albino mutations," who have red eyes, yellow heart-lights, and razor sharp teeth, are like E.T.'s evil siblings. They spend some time in the woods, mutilating cattle and capturing plants and "animal-like beings" in their weird "light cages" before Elliot, Gertie, and their friends show up mistakenly thinking E.T. is back. Then the kids are interrogated and Elliot is tortured until he passes out while crying for E.T. to save him. Sounds like the perfect follow-up to a family-friendly classic, huh?

Eventually, E.T. shows up, saves the kids, hugs everyone, then immediately flies away again, so he's back on Earth for approximately 15 minutes of screen time in an otherwise terrifying movie in which kids are abducted and assaulted. (A scan of the whole treatment is available here.) And yes, it's obviously a rough thumbnail of what would, of course, be a longer, more detailed story, but building another beloved classic on that dark framework seems like a stretch. Not to mention we don't think the Hershey Company would be too thrilled to see Reese's Pieces being gleefully shredded by the razor-sharp teeth of sadistic intergalactic torturers.

This would have been Spielberg's first sequel

Spielberg famously hated the idea of sequels for a long time. He declined Universal's request for another Jaws film for years before they finally made one without him (and with arguably disastrous results). His treatment for E.T. II: Nocturnal Fears was supposedly drafted just days after the original arrived in theaters, and might have been little more than the byproduct of that initial excitement. Obviously, Spielberg eventually came around to the idea of making a sequel when he filmed Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom three years later. But it should be pointed out that he's only ever done four sequels throughout his career, and they've been for two of the biggest movie franchises of all time—Indiana Jones and Jurassic Park. In a speech to the American Film Institute via IGN, Spielberg said "Sequels can be very dangerous because they compromise your truth as an artist." This is a guy who chooses his projects wisely, and the story of E.T.'s sadistic distant cousins clearly didn't fit into his artistic vision.

The story doesn't lend itself to another chapter

E.T. is a timeless classic—and a fully realized narrative with likeable characters, dazzling visual effects, and above all, a feel-good resolution about friendship and love that audiences of all kinds can appreciate. Spielberg said it himself in an interview with Empire Magazine via Slashfilm: "E.T. is a closed story. It had a beginning, middle, and a definite ending, and we had nowhere to take it except to go home with him. Nor did I want to bring him back to Earth for a second time."

E.T isn't an action hero who's only just shown us the beginning of his capabilities. He doesn't exist in a horror film plot whose only real function is to set up a bunch of gory murders and inexplicable skinny-dipping scenes. Making an E.T. sequel would have been akin to making It's A Wonderful Life 2, and nobody really wants to watch George Bailey run that bank for the next 40 years.

Spielberg was the one to pull the plug

Yes, he wrote a treatment, and yes he eventually came around to the idea of being a part of a film franchise, but it doesn't seem like Spielberg was ever really serious about making a second E.T. Again from his AFI speech, he said, "I think a sequel to E.T. would do nothing but rob the original of its virginity. People only remember the latest episode, while the pilot tarnishes." Its virginity? Wow, that is quite a reverential way to refer to a movie about a candy-binging alien who communicates through a Speak & Spell. But it also begs the question: When did he change his mind? Because if E.T. is an untouchable virginal masterpiece, then Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is an "aspiring actress" living at Charlie Sheen's house.