Study Guide

E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial Setting

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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.

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