Study Guide

E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial Analysis

  • Low Camera Angles

    E.T. is a story about the friendship between Elliott and E.T., neither of whom are exactly what we'd call tall. They're more Spud Webb than Manute Bol. It's fitting, therefore, that the film frequently employs low camera angles that present the action from E.T.'s and Elliott's points of view.

    This vantage point is established almost immediately. In the forest, we gaze at the giant trees, witness a car pull up, and peer through the brush at the suburbs below, all from E.T.'s perspective. Moments later, when Keys chases E.T., that's shown from E.T.'s viewpoint, too, with lots of quick cuts to Keys', well, keys dangling and jangling from his belt.

    In fact, we don't even see Keys' face until close to the very end of the film. Elliott's science teacher is treated the same way. The camera never veers above his elbows; it stays at Elliott's eye level. The intentionally low camera angles establish adults as imposing and even threatening.

    Halloween is shot from E.T.'s squat perspective, too, as he fixates on the fake knife through Michael's head and appraises Mom's semi-risqué costume. (He digs it.) All of these deliberately low camera angles put the audience in Elliott's and E.T.'s positions, causing younger viewers to further identify with them and encouraging older viewers to remember their own childhoods.

  • The Geraniums

    Okay, we'll just say it: Gertie gives weird gifts. Dead geraniums, Gertie? We bet they're not even yours to give. They're probably your mom's.

    Here's the thing, Shmooper: Bizarre or not, the geraniums that Gertie gives E.T. are a really important part of the movie. Why? Because they represent life. When Gertie first gives E.T. the flowers, they're wilted and basically dead. (See? Weird gift.) When E.T.'s alone with the geraniums not long afterward, he looks at them, hums, and they bloom back into life. So the geraniums are also a symbol of resurrection, or rising from the dead.

    Later, as E.T.'s health begins to fail, the geraniums show up again. Michael's just taken a nap in E.T.'s closet when he spots them on a nearby stool. They wilt rapidly before his eyes, and he screams "No!" just before the scene cuts to E.T. crashing and dying.

    Fortunately, the geraniums make another appearance, this time in the makeshift hospital after E.T. has been pronounced dead. Elliott says what he thinks is his final goodbye to E.T., only to spot the revitalized geraniums on a nearby counter as he exits. He knows a resurrected pot of geraniums means a resurrected E.T., and he's pumped.

    We don't know who keeps moving the geraniums around Elliott's house (personally, we hope it's Harvey the dog), but we're glad that they do. Symbolizing life and resurrection, they're a pivotal little plant.

  • The Heart Light

    The red light smack-dab in the middle of E.T.'s chest is a glowing example of empathy (no pun intended—okay, maybe a little bit). It represents understanding and shared feelings.

    When we first see E.T., he's in the forest with his extra-terrestrial posse. They're spread out and studying plants. Suddenly, all of their heart lights glow, and they know it's time to jet. (You've probably experienced the same level of wordless communication with your own friends.)

    When Keys shows up and pulls the plug on the plant-collecting, E.T. races back toward their spaceship with his heart light literally lighting the way. And when their ship flies away without him, the light goes out. The heart light is a symbol of their connection.

    When does E.T.'s chest next light up? Not until he finally makes contact with his people again, toward the very end of the film. He's stowed away in a freezer, seemingly dead, when his heart light glows warm red, in stark contrast to the sterile hospital surroundings. "Does this mean they're coming?" Elliott excitedly asks his resurrected friend. "Yes," E.T. replies, before launching into a giddy repetition of "E.T. phone home" that threatens to tip Keys off to the fact that he's very much alive.

    The final time that E.T.'s heart light shines is when he says goodbye to Elliott. E.T. points at it, and tells Elliott, "Ouch" before they embrace. Ouch is right! He's about to leave Elliott, his best friend on Earth, with whom he physically and psychically shares feelings, just as he does with his own tribe.

    Now, we're not saying that when you look up "empathy" in a dictionary, you'll see a picture of E.T. and Elliott, but if that's not an example of empathy we don't know what is. E.T.'s heart light sits prominently in the middle of his chest, just as empathy and friendship sit at the center of E.T.

  • Christian Symbolism

    What does E.T. have in common with Jesus? A lot if you agree with those who argue that E.T. is bursting with religious symbolism—specifically parallels between E.T. and Jesus Christ.

    No, really! Check it out: Both dropped down from the heavens and, ultimately, returned there. Both have fervent believers. In fact, Elliott tells E.T. directly, "I'll believe in you all my life. Every day." Both promise to stay with those believers always, at least in spirit: Before he leaves, E.T. points at Elliott's forehead and tells him, "I'll be right here."

    Sure sounds a lot like a certain guy from Nazareth who famously said, "I'm with you always" (Matthew 28:20). Both rally behind the oppressed and love to show off their healing stuff. Both are viewed as threats, misunderstood, and mistreated by the authorities. Oh, and let's not forget that E.T. and J.C. both died and were resurrected.

    Some critics have even compared E.T.'s glowing finger to Michelangelo's Creation of Adam—the famous fresco painting on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in Rome—even though director Steven Spielberg has made it clear that he didn't intend for E.T. to be viewed as a Christ-like figure. "If I ever went to my mother and said, 'Mom, I've made this movie that's a Christian parable,' what do you think she'd say? She has a kosher restaurant on Pico and Doheny in Los Angeles," he joked).

    Still, the religious symbolism in E.T. is strong—just like Elliott's faith in E.T.

  • Hero's Journey

    Ever notice that every blockbuster movie has the same fundamental pieces? A hero, a journey, some conflicts to muck it all up, a reward, and the hero returning home and everybody applauding his or her swag? Yeah, scholar Joseph Campbell noticed first—in 1949. He wrote The Hero with a Thousand Faces, in which he outlined the 17 stages of a mythological hero's journey.

    About half a century later, Christopher Vogler condensed those stages down to 12 in an attempt to show Hollywood how every story ever written should—and, uh, does—follow Campbell's pattern. We're working with those 12 stages, so take a look. (P.S. Want more? We have an entire Online Course devoted to the hero's journey.)

    Ordinary World

    It all starts in suburban California, home of Elliott and his family. Thought Elliott doesn't know it yet, E.T. has just been left behind in the nearby forest.

    Call to Adventure

    Elliott hears some mysterious noises in his backyard. Then he sees a strange glow coming from the toolshed, so he chucks his baseball in there—and something tosses it back.

    Refusal of the Call

    Nope, there's no refusal in this story. Elliott resolves to monitor the backyard until he uncovers what's out there, even if it means sleeping in a super-comfy lawn chair.

    Meeting the Mentor

    Elliott and E.T. come face-to-face in the cornfield and scream their heads off.

    Crossing the Threshold

    Elliott lures E.T. back to his house with Reese's Pieces and secretly moves him into his closet. They're roomies; no going back now.

    Tests, Allies, Enemies

    Elliott's first tests include keeping E.T. a secret and learning how to communicate with him.

    Next, Elliott scores two important allies: Michael and Gertie. Letting them in on his secret makes it a lot easier to keep E.T.'s existence from their mom. They'll also come in handy for future trials.

    Then it's time for more tests. First of all, E.T.'s getting sick. Second of all, he needs to phone home, pronto. So Elliott has to help E.T. build a communicator out of household items. Then he has to sneak E.T. out of the house so he can set it up. He hatches a plan with his allies, Michael and Gertie, on Halloween. The plan works, and so does the communicator.

    Approach to the Inmost Cave

    Super-sick, Elliott makes it back home after they plant the communicator. E.T. goes missing. Michael finds E.T. and brings him home. The gang's all there, and Elliott and his siblings finally introduce Mom to E.T., setting the stage for Elliott's biggest test yet.

    Ordeal

    The federal agents invade Elliott's house and set up shop. Elliott has to pull from the deep well of compassion that E.T. drew in him in order to help his alien BFF survive the government's battery of tests and frightening lack of empathy. Oh, and did we mention that Elliott's health is still on a steep decline at the moment, too?

    Reward (Seizing the Sword)

    E.T. pulls through. He's alive! He's alive!

    The Road Back

    This stage is a short one. Elliott celebrates with Michael, and then boom! They're loading E.T. into a stolen van and getting pumped for their final clash with Keys' task force.

    Resurrection

    Resurrection's a weird title for this stage, don't you think? Really, it's more about Elliott's final battle: getting E.T. back to the forest in time to meet his spaceship. He evades federal agents by van, by bike, and by air to return E.T. to the forest just in time. If you ask us, this stage should be called "Boss Battle."

    Return With the Elixir

    E.T.'s extra-terrestrial buddies return in their spaceship, and Elliott says goodbye. He's sad, for sure, but he's stronger. E.T.'s going to be okay now, and so is Elliott.

  • Setting

    Early '80s Suburban California

    Leg warmers. Jelly shoes. Velour. These are all the rage in the early '80s when E.T. gets left behind in suburban California by his extra-terrestrial pals. No wonder he wants to go home so badly.

    Rockin' the Suburbs

    We first meet everybody's favorite little squashy guy in the forest overlooking the cookie-cutter subdivisions of suburbia below. That's where Elliott lives. "The subdivision, seen from above," A.O. Scott of The New York Times writes, "looks vulnerable and transient, like a human colony hastily dropped on a hostile planet… Everyone here seems rootless, transient, adrift." Rootless, adrift, surrounded by hostility? Yup, that pretty much sums up our main man Elliott.

    That's not necessarily such a bad thing, though, at least not in the long run. Hear us out: Elliott's naturally more receptive to E.T. because Elliott's a kid. Makes sense, right? Kids are less suspicious than adults and more prone to wonderment. But Elliott, growing up a fatherless middle kid in suburbia, "with its unsupervised children and unhappy parents, its broken toys and brand-name junk food," is extra open to taking on an alien BFF precisely because of his surroundings.

    Small World, Big Closet

    Elliott's bedroom is his HQ—and it's spacious!—with bunk beds, totally tubular (they said that in the 80s, right?) rainbow window blinds, and a closet the size of most studio apartments, perfect for harboring an alien.

    It's warm and inviting, a refuge from the rest of the cluttered tract house that he shares with his family. Elliott's whole world is in there. That's why he's so amped to show E.T. his Stars Wars action figures and pet fish. As Salon's Charles Taylor points out, "for most of the movie, E.T.'s view of earth is confined to Elliott's bedroom, the center of every kid's universe."

    Ultimately, though—and because of E.T.—Elliott's universe expands like, well, like our universe did 13.8 billion years ago. By bike (both grounded and flying), by stolen van, and on foot, Elliott gets out of his room, confronts suburbia, and charts new ground for himself like a mini-Magellan, especially in the mysterious forest nearby.

    The Enchanted Forest

    It's like Winston Churchill once said, "Everything important happens in the forest." All right, we made that up. But in E.T., it holds true. All sorts of significant stuff goes down between the trees, especially for E.T.

    It's his arrival and departure point. It provides cover when E.T. needs to hide from Keys. It's where E.T. and Elliott set up the communicator. Shmooper, when we think of E.T., we think "nature." Trees, rivers, scampering bunnies—the whole nine outdoorsy yards. When we think of man, on the other hand, we think of the city and all its steep driveways, surveillance vans, and seemingly endless supply of flashlights. In other words, E.T.'s right at home in the forest, and mankind is alienated from it.

    The forest is a big, moss-covered symbol of the divide between youth and adulthood that's central to the whole movie. It's a place for adventure and exploration—values the film celebrates and associates with youth. Down the hill, in the suburban jungle? That's the place for the grown-ups and their anxieties, suspicions, consumer concerns, and responsibilities. It's no wonder that the longer E.T. spends down there, the sicker he becomes. The forest represents the best parts of being a kid: discovery, openness, enchantment, and awe.

  • Point of View

    Linear

    E.T. follows a linear structure. There are no flashbacks or flash-forwards, no crazy dream sequences or red herrings; it's just a straightforward story. Boy meets alien. Alien teaches boy about friendship. Alien goes home. Boy is forever changed.

    Okay, so it's not really that simple, but as a linear narrative, the events unfold in a sturdy chronological order. The only real diversions from Elliott's and E.T.'s storyline include cuts to the encroaching federal agents, but even those happen within the overall story's tidy timeline.

  • Genre

    Adventure; Science Fiction; Family

    Adventure

    What separates adventure movies from regular ol' action flicks? Exoticism! And, if you ask us, it doesn't get any more exotic than an alien. Adventure films are all about the quest, particularly journeys that take our hero into the unknown, and that's precisely what happens to Elliott. He explores the forest, a classic setting for adventure, as well as his own psyche (via his friendship with E.T.). Unlike most films in the adventure genre, though, Elliott's quest takes place in the present day instead of the past.

    Science Fiction

    When it comes to science fiction, E.T. ticks all the boxes. Extra-terrestrials? Check. Spacecraft? Check. Telepathy? Check. Interstellar travel? Check. Sci-Fi flicks aren't all about aliens, robots, and lasers, though. They're often a means for social commentary.

    In E.T., the conventions of science fiction are used to impart lessons about empathy and alienation, as first Elliott, then everybody else, comes to embrace E.T. in spite of his differences. Science fiction movies may spotlight the strange and unfamiliar, but in the end they're all about humankind understanding the unknown.

    Family

    Just like everybody loves a good cat video, everybody loves a good family film: In fact, it's part of its design.

    Family films are meant to appeal to a broad audience. That's what separates them from children's films that are aimed directly at the little rug rats in your life. Family films often feature a child protagonist and always incorporate themes that are appropriate for children, but they also include content geared toward adults, such as humor.

    E.T. appeals to a wide range of viewers because of its story and themes—especially its celebration of youth. Younger viewers identify with Elliott, their fellow kid, while older viewers remember what it was like to be a kid way back when: from getting picked on by older siblings to setting off for adventures on their trusty bikes (even if their bikes, unlike Elliott's, stayed firmly on the ground).

  • What's Up With the Title?

    Just in case you slept through the entire movie, E.T. is one of the main characters, and he's an extra-terrestrial. So E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial isn't exactly the cleverest title in cinema history. It is a little misleading, though, since it seems to suggest that E.T is the main character of the movie. He's not. That honor belongs to E.T.'s BFF, Elliott. In fact, it's Elliott who gives E.T his name. "E.T.," of course, stands for "Extra Terrestrial," but it's also the first and last letters of Elliott's name. That's significant.

    It's possible that Elliott's a raging egomaniac with a god complex who wants to mold E.T. in his own image. But it's far more likely that Elliott just wants to have as much in common with his best friend as possible. The interplay between their names hints at the deeper bond that they share.

  • What's Up With the Ending?

    Unless you're a cold-hearted monster who's completely dead on the inside, the ending of E.T. is a real sob fest. E.T.'s spaceship comes back for him, but before he can say, "Peace out, Earth," he must say goodbye to Gertie, Michael, and Elliott.

    Of course, as Michael points out, E.T. doesn't know "goodbye," so everyone's favorite little squashy guy says farewell to each kid in the most appropriate way he can think of.

    He tells Gertie to "Be good," which is one of the first things that she taught him to say. Callback! To Michael, E.T. says "Thank you." Michael says, "You're welcome." For a teenage boy, this is crazy-emotional. And then there's Elliott. E.T. asks Elliott to come with him. When Elliott says that he has to stay on Earth, E.T. touches his own heart and says, "Ouch." Another callback! Elliott tearfully does the same, and then hugs the heck out of E.T. while his family (and Keys) looks on.

    But wait! It gets sadder! After they hug it out, E.T. holds his healing, glowing finger up to Elliott's forehead and says, "I'll be right here." Yet another callback! Then E.T. takes his pot of geraniums and leaves, presumably forever. Oof.

    So what's up with all of the callbacks? That's easy. They're there to send your tear ducts into overdrive! The callbacks remind viewers of poignant moments earlier in the film—and if they were emotionally resonant the first time around, they're really going to pack an emotional punch here at the end of the film.

    Elliott's refusal of E.T.'s offer to come with him is important, too, for the simple fact that it suggests that Elliott is growing up. One of the major themes of the film is youth (see our section on that for more). E.T. represents all of the best parts of being a kid, like discovery, wonder, and amazement. When E.T. leaves and Elliott stays, it suggests that Elliott's ready to take the confidence and wisdom that E.T. imparted and start becoming a young man.

  • Shock Rating

    PG

    E.T. earns a PG rating mainly for the final act of the film. Once Keys and his goons show up and take over Elliott's house, things get pretty scary. When E.T. dies, it's intense. And when E.T. leaves for his home planet? Well, we hope you have a gigantic box of tissues nearby. There are also several uses of mild profanity.