Thinking the unthinkable: is Hollywood really going to make a sequel to ET?

Lord of the Rings is unfilmable; nobody will ever better Sean Connery in the role of James Bond; Top Gun will never get a sequel … a lot of unshakable Hollywood totems of received thinking have been rudely toppled by the march of time. Could ET be next on the list of movies that you never expected would get a sequel but does?

It’s still unlikely, honestly. But you know the money men in Hollywood have got one eye on Top Gun: Maverick’s current $1bn global box office gross. Given the original Top Gun, in 1986, managed less than half the greenbacks pulled in by Steven Spielberg’s junior sci-fi bromance in 1982, one can only imagine that a well put together followup might even challenge for the highest-grossing movie of all time mantle (currently held by Avatar with a staggering $2.847m).

Is that a realistic proposition though? Henry Thomas, who played 10-year-old Elliott in the original film, suggested this week that it should probably never happen – though he was equally clear that it still might.

Tom Cruise at the Seoul premiere of Top Gun: Maverick, his highest grossing movie.
Show me the money … Tom Cruise at the Seoul premiere of Top Gun: Maverick, his highest grossing movie. Photograph: Jung Yeon-Je/AFP/Getty Images

“I think it should be left alone, but there’s always been talk of a sequel,” Thomas told Slash Film. “There was talk in the early 80s, because the studio was really pushing for it in light of the success that it had theatrically. But I don’t know. I think it’s really sad that we’ve lost Melissa Mathison, who was the screenwriter of ET, because if anybody could have made it happen it was her. And that would’ve been the best kind of throughline for a sequel. But I don’t know. I think the commercial was as close as we’re going to get to a sequel and that’s why Spielberg okayed it.”

The commercial Thomas refers to is the 2019 Christmas ad, featuring the actor and ET himself, which was used to promote the internet service Xfinity in the US, and Sky in the UK. It’s certainly a cosy trip down memory lane, even if it breaks very little new ground.

And herein lies the rub for ET: it is so dependent on the relationship between young Elliott and the titular star-traveller that we do not really want to see what happens next. Elliott adores ET even though he knows almost nothing about him: the pair’s intense, odd-couple connection is so much more powerful when it remains an enigma. The pathos of those final moments of the film in which the alien tells the small boy he will always be with him, then vanishes into the cosmos, might be entirely lost if the story were to continue.

If we look at other memorable movies from 1982, it is obvious why they ended up having more stories to tell, even if their sequels or remakes didn’t always cut the mustard. Conan the Barbarian was always going to have more bloodthirsty, swashbuckling adventures; Tron’s creepy digital Wonderland had endless permutations; Blade Runner introduced ideas about artificial humanity and the nature of the soul to our big-screen lexicon that will still be relevant in a century’s time.

Steven Spielberg at a 40th anniversary screening of ET in LA, April 2022.
Steven Spielberg at a 40th anniversary screening of ET in LA, April 2022. Photograph: Mario Anzuoni/Reuters

With ET, the next chapter is not so obvious. Perhaps our hero could visit another human child, or maybe the sequel could be about grownup Elliott’s journey to ET’s home planet, many decades on. But that would be an entirely different movie. How can you make a sequel to a film when the original’s enduring brilliance is based so heavily on epic feels and gorgeous 80s nostalgia? There is just no logical next step, no way to strum all the same majestic chords on the heartstrings and still carry the story forward. Still, as Thomas told Slash Film: “I guarantee you, there are a few men in a very big room now salivating and using their abacus and slide rules to come up with some really, really big numbers.”

I remember as a child being so desperate to find out what happened next that I picked up the now little-remembered children’s novel ET: The Book of the Green Planet by William Kotzwinkle. In it, ET spends much of his time reminiscing about his encounters on Earth, while Elliott begins to experience the travails of early teenagerdom, occasionally guided by his friend from across the stars via some sort of haphazard interstellar Bluetooth of the soul.

A classic it is not, but its very existence (along with Thomas’ comments) reminds us that the appetite for more ET will always be palpable … even if by finding out more about the diminutive alien we might just end up ruining our enjoyment of the original film.