Elliott is a typical ten-year-old boy growing up in early '80s suburban California with his siblings and his mom, who's raising them on her own. He likes baseball and Star Wars, has a pet dog named Harvey, and knows how to rock a red hoodie.
Oh, and one more thing: His best friend is an alien being pursued by the federal government.
Elliott's a classic middle child. He's not the take-charge first-born who looks out for Mom, like Michael, and he's not the adorable baby who doesn't know where Mexico is, like Gertie. Elliott's just stuck in the middle.
But before you pull out your handkerchief and have a good cry, consider how Elliott's middle kid status shapes his personality in positive ways. For starters, he's diplomatic, which comes in handy when he's introducing E.T. to his skeptical siblings, distracting his mom from the alien in his closet, and negotiating with pesky federal agents.
Elliott's also independent. Whether he's liberating frogs in science class or venturing out in the forest to track an alien, he remains self-determined and doesn't have to rely on others for approval. Being a middle child even drives Elliott to his friendship with E.T. Since middle children often feel left out, they tend to find friends outside of their family.
And you can't get much further outside of the family than an extra-terrestrial. As the middle child, Elliott's also able to handle disappointment well. When E.T. has to return to his home planet, telling Elliott, "I'll be right here," Elliott mans up and understands.
As a child, Elliott is a natural explorer, and like the best explorers you've read about in history class, he's inquisitive and resourceful—even if his methods may be, at times, unorthodox (luring an alien with candy, anyone?). Whether he's doggedly pursuing the weird noises behind his house or chucking his beloved baseball into the toolshed to test the "What's in there?" waters, Elliott is unafraid to investigate the world around him—particularly the unknown.
As luck would have it, the wilds of his backyard and, especially, the nearby forest are both primo backdrops for exploration and discovery.
Elliott's also a dreamer. Early in the film, we twice see him staring off into space with a faraway look on his face: once after he's narrowly missed E.T. dashing through the backyard, and gazes after him through the open gate; and once as he fills the kitchen sink and stares at the cosmos.
But don't get it twisted: Just because Elliott's a dreamer doesn't mean that he's not determined. When he hears mysterious noises coming from behind his house, he can't sleep, and he parks it in a lawn chair in the backyard in his pajamas, trusty flashlight in tow.
When E.T. needs to build a device to communicate with his home planet, Elliott rounds up supplies and sees it through to completion. Then he risks his health, and probably some major punishment from Mom, to deliver the communicator and make sure it works.
A large portion of Elliott's intrepid spirit can be chalked up to his age. He may hold his own against shady gun-toting government agents, but don't forget that Elliott is still a kid who does kid things and has kid values. His youth informs all of his actions, reactions, and interactions.
Check it out: He gets around by bicycle. He wants to be accepted by morons like Michael's friends solely because they're older. He spends his first communicative moments with E.T. explaining the intricacies of Pez dispensers and action figures. His uses childish insults like "penis breath." He laughs loudly and often, like when he learns E.T. can talk and when he discovers that E.T. is still alive. When E.T. first flies him across the night sky on his bike, Elliott is exhilarated, but also a little scared, screaming, "Not so high!" and "Don't crash, please!"
These juvenile engagements aren't flaws. Youth is a time of discovery, amazement, and awe; Elliott experiences all three. A lot. Whether he's searching for aliens in his pajamas, smuggling E.T. out of the house on Halloween, stealing a government van, or soaring through the air on a bike, Elliott is open to adventure, and much of that openness is because he's a kid.
Perhaps more than anything, Elliott is defined by his compassion, and that makes him an awesome friend to E.T. He hides him in his enormous closet to keep him safe and brings him food. He defends his unattractive feet to Gertie and his intelligence and motives to Michael when Michael suggests that E.T. may just be a simple "worker bee" sent to threaten the human race.
He brings him supplies for his communicator, and when the communicator actually works, Elliott is so ecstatic that you'd think he was the one trying to contact another planet. "It's working!" he shrieks. "You did it! It's working, E.T., it's working!"
Oh, and let's not forget that Elliott literally feels what E.T. feels. They share a psychic bond. "What's he feeling now?" Michael asks when E.T.'s health begins failing. "He's feeling everything," Elliott replies. He and E.T. take friendship to a whole 'nother level.
And if Elliott was a good friend when everything was going well, he really shows his true, compassionate colors when E.T. gets sick. "You're scaring him!" Elliott screams, as government doctors poke and prod at his pal. "Leave him alone! I can take care of him," he insists. It's worth noting that at this point in the film, when the government has taken over Elliott's house and hooked him and E.T. up to a bunch of chirping hospital machines, Elliott himself is dying. Still, he consistently puts E.T.'s wellbeing ahead of his own. In short, Elliott is E.T.'s advocate and protector, which is pretty cool.
It's also pretty remarkable given the fact that, when the film begins, Elliott is a kid in need of a protector himself, specifically a male role model. Think about it: His dad has abandoned him for Mexico and he can't get in touch with him. His older brother, for the first half of the movie, is his tormentor, not his protector. He mocks Elliott and the "goblin" he found in the yard and generally treats his little brother like a nuisance.
Sure, Michael comes around eventually and turns out to be a pretty solid guy, especially when E.T. is missing and he races off to find him, but by that point, Elliott has learned, with the help of E.T., that he is strong and can take care of himself.
Our little Elliott is growing up, and because of that he's able to put E.T.'s needs ahead of his own one last time and let E.T. go. As he and E.T. say goodbye in front of E.T.'s spaceship, Elliott tells him, "I'll believe in you all my life. Everyday. E.T., I love you." Um, yeah. If love is sacrifice, then Elliott loves E.T. big-time.
E.T. is the best friend a little boy searching for a place to belong could have. As the middle child, Elliott often gets left out and undervalued, like when Michael and his friends are playing a roleplaying game at the kitchen table and only consent to let Elliott join if he has pizza. Additionally, Elliott's input is often ignored or not taken seriously, as witnessed in the dinner scene when Elliott insists that he saw something in the backyard. Michael mocks him, and his mother tries, politely, to tell him that he's full of it. Ouch, Mom.
On top of all that, Elliott's dad has abandoned the family. Double ouch, Dad. In short, this kid needs a pal, pronto. And that's when a wrinkled little alien botanist wanders into his backyard.
E.T. values Elliott in a way that the rest of his family doesn't. For starters, E.T. listens to him, even when he's going on and on about his pet fish. He also trusts and relies upon him. When it comes to all things communicator-related, E.T. basically puts his life in Elliott's hands. E.T. shares his plans with Elliott, counts on him for building materials, and trusts him to get both E.T. and the device to the forest.
That's a lot of responsibility, and responsibility is just one of the important life-lessons that E.T. teaches Elliott the way that a parent or guardian would. With just a single word—"Ouch"—he schools Elliott in compassion: first when Elliott cuts his finger on the saw blade and E.T. heals it, and later when E.T. must go and lets Elliott know that he recognizes the boy's emotional pain.
E.T.'s departure itself also teaches Elliott that, simply put, heartbreak's a part of life, kid, and E.T. handles it with a caring, protective touch (no pun intended), promising Elliott, "I'll be right here." We're not crying; we're cutting onions.
E.T. is also someone with whom Elliott can identify. Elliott was abandoned by his father. Similarly, E.T. was abandoned by his community. When Gertie asks if E.T.'s a boy or a girl, Elliott confidently responds, "He's a boy," just like Elliott.
Director Steven Spielberg has said many times that he based E.T. on the friend he wished he had as a kid when his parents were divorcing. "He wanted to make a film about a 10-year-old boy who feels abandoned and, in classic storybook fashion, finds a friend who understands him," explains Salon's Charles Taylor.
E.T. not only totally "gets" Elliott, and vice versa, but also shares a bond with him that's both physical and psychic. When E.T.'s health begins declining, Elliott's does, too. When Michael expresses his concerns about E.T. to Elliott, telling him that E.T. "doesn't look too good anymore," Elliott dismisses it with, "Don't say that. We're fine." We're fine? Whoa. And we thought we were close with our BFF.
E.T. doesn't just fill a void in Elliott's life. Not by a long shot! He's also a catalyst for adventure and a celebration of Elliott's youth. It's Elliott's involvement with E.T. that sends him on expeditions into the forest and drops him into high-speed chases with Keys and his federal agents.
E.T.'s that friend who makes you gladly want to risk being grounded until you're forty, and Elliott's sense of awe, exploration, and discovery are all enhanced by his relationship with E.T. The most outstanding example of this is the first time that E.T. makes Elliott's bike fly, when Elliott's out long past his curfew. As they soar through the sky, Elliott laughs in disbelief, absolutely thrilled, looking at suburbia from an entirely new perspective.
E.T. isn't all flying bikes and day-drinking though. While E.T. helps Elliott tap into the best parts of being a kid, he also helps Elliott grow up. Several film critics have observed that E.T. has a great deal in common with Peter Pan, which makes a lot of sense when you think about it. Both E.T. and Peter take kids flying through the night sky, celebrate the best parts of kids being kids, and help those kids grow up.
There are even nods to Peter Pan within the film. Remember what book Mom reads to Gertie? Yup. Peter Pan. When Elliott fears that E.T. has died, he tells him, "I'll believe in you all my life, every day." That sure sounds a lot like what Wendy promises to Peter when she says, "I'll always believe in you, Peter Pan." When viewed as a sort of cosmic cousin to Peter Pan, E.T. kick-starts Elliott's road to maturity. In fact, Steven D. Greydanus at Decent Films suggests that E.T. actually represents Elliott's childhood itself—which is to say that Elliott has to let him go in order to grow up.
However you slice it, E.T. is closely connected to Elliott's youth, both in terms of the purity and unique perspective of a child, but also the need to ultimately mature and donate all of those stuffed animals in the closet to Goodwill.
By all accounts, Michael is a fairly typical suburban teenager. He likes hanging out with his friends, is on the football team, and maintains a laser-like focus on getting his driver's license. He's also a pretty standard older brother, which is to say, he's a pain in the butt—at least initially.
Michael starts off as Elliott's #1 tormentor, a role that big brothers frequently inhabit, often with great relish and even greater noogies. By the end of the movie, though, he's found a new position: protector.
We first meet Michael in the kitchen, where he's playing a tabletop roleplaying game with his friends, Steve, Greg, and Tyler. Typical, if not a little bit nerdy, teenage stuff. When Elliott wants to play, he's shut down until he consents to being the teens' pizza slave. Minus 10 Inclusivity XP to you, Mike!
Later, when Elliott insists that he saw something in the backyard, Michael mocks him, suggesting that he saw a sewer alligator, an elf, or a leprechaun instead. Hilarious, right? Both of these examples illustrate that Michael's not exactly the most sympathetic brother.
He may be a compassionate son, however. When Elliott pushes the issue of his father leaving his family for another woman—a topic that, predictably, upsets their mother—Michael chastises him. "Why don't you grow up, think how other people feel for a change?" he demands. Sure, he's once again picking on Elliott, but at least he has his mother's feelings in mind, and he kind of has a point. With Dad in Mexico, Michael's forced to be the man of the house. That's a lot to put on the shoulders of a fifteen-year-old, even if he does wear cool political T-shirts.
Michael's concern for his mom is just a hint of what's to come, as Michael's role shifts from tormentor to protector over the course of the film. Check out this evolution: When Elliott swears Michael to secrecy about E.T., Michael upholds his end of the bargain.
Of course, he teases Elliott pretty relentless at first, but once he comes face-to-face with E.T., that all stops. (We didn't say he changes from obnoxious to noble instantly. Good things take time. Also, an alien is a pretty effective tool for shutting down an obnoxious big brother.) He not only helps Elliott gather parts for E.T.'s communicator, but, on Halloween, he helps Elliott sneak E.T. past their mom and into the forest so they can set the machine up.
When E.T. is MIA and Elliott pleads with Michael to find him, the only question Michael asks is, "Where is he?"—which, admittedly, is kind of a dumb question. If Elliott knew where he was, he'd probably just tell him. But Michael takes off on his bike and doesn't stop looking until he locates his little brother's BFF and brings him home. He even steals a van and enlists the help of his goofy friends when it's time to race E.T. back to the forest to meet his spaceship.
By the end of the movie, Michael doesn't just become Elliott's protector; he also becomes E.T.'s protector. His capacity for empathy and kindness grows, and he starts growing up, period. Not bad for a kid who once thought it would be a cool idea to dress as a terrorist for Halloween.
Listen, Shmooper: Gertie keeps it real. Whether she's admitting that she doesn't know where Mexico is, laying claim to teaching E.T. to talk, or celebrating that accomplishment by giving him a makeover, there's no pretense about her. If E.T. is a film that celebrates the virtues of youth, Gertie's as virtuous as they come.
Given her age, and because E.T. is a family film, she's also a stand-in for younger viewers. She goes through a range of emotions that are complex, but also ring true for a little girl. Initially, E.T. practically scares the yarn off her pigtails. She subsequently becomes both inquisitive and more than a little bit critical, as she asks whether E.T. is a boy or a girl—likely so she can make sense of him—and then insults his less-than-pedicured feet.
Ultimately, she's fiercely loyal to E.T. When E.T. meets her mom and Mom freaks out, Gertie comes to his defense, assuring her that E.T.'s not going to hurt her. After all, as Gertie explains, "He's the man from the moon!" This statement does nothing to assuage Mom's fears, but it makes perfect sense from Gertie's youthful perspective: E.T. is like a character from the best of children's fantasy, something exciting and new by which to be enchanted, not scared.
Gertie's naiveté is occasionally played for laughs, but she's no fool. When Elliott goes over the plan to meet at the lookout on Halloween with her repeatedly, she meets his repetition with, "I'm not stupid, you know."
And she's not. She's an important cog in E.T.'s narrative wheel. It's Gertie who teaches E.T. to talk and subsequently let Elliot know that he needs to "phone home," and she's instrumental in the plan to get E.T. and his communicator to the forest so he can dial up his extra-terrestrial pals. It's Gertie who gifts E.T. with the geraniums that become a symbol of life throughout the movie and alert Elliott to E.T.'s resurrection.
Of course, she's also the one who gives up Elliott and Michael's final plot to get E.T. to his spaceship by delivering an incriminating note to Mom right in front of Keys, but that's wholly unintentional. In fact, she thinks she's doing the right thing by asking if they're gone because her instructions were explicitly to not deliver the note until after they'd left. As a little kid, she's capable of subterfuge, but only light subterfuge. Ultimately, she wants to do the right thing, and her innocence is emblematic of the film's commendation of youth.
Elliott's mother, Mary, better known as Mom, is having a bit of a rough go. Her husband has recently headed south to Mexico (which, BTW, he doesn't even like) with another woman, and she's been left to raise her children solo. Also? One of them is hiding an alien in his closet… so there's that, too. Overall, Mary's doing the best she can, but she's a pretty ineffectual mom.
Mary's children don't take her very seriously. Gertie calls her by her first name. Elliott has no reservations about bringing up her absent husband at the dinner table, throwing shade at her Halloween costume, or defying the curfew she set for him. Even Michael's friends get in on the act, as demonstrated in the game night scene when they're smoking in her kitchen and ordering a pizza without her consent.
Tyler is especially disrespectful, first pretending like he's going to grab her rear end and then calling Elliott a d-bag right in front of her. Sure, Tyler's belittling Elliott, but the fact that he'll level such an insult right in front of Mary shows that he doesn't have a lot of regard for her, either. That Tyler's a real class act.
As the head of the household, she's disengaged. This is played to slightly comic effect when she returns home with groceries and dry-cleaning, just before Elliott's school calls to say he was hammered in science class. E.T. is freely walking about the house, but she doesn't notice him.
Moments later, when Gertie proudly proclaims that E.T. can talk, Mom replies, "Of course he can talk," thinking that Gertie's referring to someone other than the hung-over alien in the bathrobe ambling around her living room. Mary is portrayed as harried and distracted.
Later in the film, the kids are able to sneak E.T. right past her on Halloween by pretending that he's Gertie dressed as a ghost, even though E.T. and Gertie have totally different body types, definitely don't move the same way, and Gertie's previously expressed her excitement over her super-cool cowgirl costume. Good eye, Mary.
There are moments when Mary steps up her mom game, though. When she first meets E.T. in the bathroom, she views him as a threat, and removes her children. She's wrong about E.T., of course, but her instincts to protect her children are on point.
Similarly, when federal agents storm the house moments later like menacing space zombies, she goes into mama bear mode again, gathers her kids, and screams, "This is my home!" She may not be the most effective leader, but she does want to defend her family.
She even comes around on E.T. When the doctors pronounce him dead, and Gertie wishes for E.T. to come back, Mom says that she does, too, showing that she no longer sees E.T. as a threat, and has come to value and trust her kids' input. Mary may not win any "Mother of the Year" awards, but she's trying.
Keys—he of the big flashlights and even bigger ring of, that's right, keys—represents the adult qualities of suspicion and detachment. He also wields a lot of power, as he quarterbacks a team of menacing, single-minded federal agents in a fleet of vehicles that practically have "E.T. or Bust" printed on their sides.
For Keys, E.T. is less of something to marvel at or learn from than he is something to be dispassionately probed and analyzed, just like the frogs in Elliott's science class. He represents the adult version of science, which can be summed up as "science equals death."
Too dark? Let's go back to those frogs for a second. To adults like Keys and Elliott's science teacher, you learn about frogs by killing and dissecting them. For Keys, that same attitude essentially applies to E.T. When Keys finally catches him, he immediately has him hooked up to machines so tests can be run and his team of doctors can poke and prod E.T., without empathy and seemingly to death.
Kid science is different. It's rooted in wonder, compassion, and doing no harm. That sure doesn't sound like Keys and his team's method of operation.
Keys wasn't always so cold and detached, though. As E.T. nears death, he tells Elliott that E.T. came to him, too. "I've been wishing for this since I was ten years old," he divulges. "I don't want him to die." This seems sincere.
When Keys was a kid, an alien held the same sense of awe for him that it does Elliott, and Elliott reawakens that sense of amazement in Keys by the end of the film. "His being here is a miracle," Keys confides in Elliott. "I'm glad he met you first."
Now, we know what you're thinking, Shmooper. You're thinking, "Come on. He's just saying that because it's what Elliott wants to hear. If Keys really cared about E.T., he wouldn't have spent the whole film chasing him and generally being a huge creep." Fair point.
However, it's worth noting that at the very end of the film it's within Keys' power to stop E.T. from getting on his ship and returning home. He's right there in the forest, perched next to Elliott's mom. But he doesn't intervene. Instead, he stands by and marvels at what's happening in front of him, in the moment, just like all of the children. He even places a sympathetic hand on Mary's shoulder. Thanks to Elliott and E.T., there may just be hope for Keys yet.
And a date with Mary. (Okay, probably not that last part.)