Study Guide

E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial Themes

  • Appearances

    Let's be real: E.T. isn't exactly a looker—at least not according to Earth's standards of adorableness. He looks like a stack of Shar Pei puppies.

    While each person who meets E.T. reacts to him differently, each encounter is marked with fear and suspicion—at least initially. (Sure, Elliott and E.T. become BFFs by the end of the film, but don't forget that when Elliott first meets E.T. he falls down and screams his head off.) But by the end of E.T., Elliott, his family, and even the federal task force get to know the alien and soon discern that appearances, although important, aren't always what they seem.

    Questions About Appearances

    1. Some might argue that things that are different are suspicious by definition. Do you agree or disagree? Can you draw any real-world parallels to how E.T. is treated in the film?
    2. Why are the adults slower to connect with, and accept, E.T.?
    3. Put yourself in Elliott's shoes (or pajamas, we suppose): If you found E.T. hiding in the cornfield behind your house, how would you react? What would your first impression of him be?
    4. Where does E.T. fit in the grand lineage of how aliens are portrayed in film?

    Chew on This

    In spite of E.T.'s strange appearance, Elliott is quick to accept him because children are inherently more tolerant than adults.

    Keys and his federal task force are wise to approach E.T. with caution. He's an alien!

  • Youth

    The Sharks and the Jets. The Greasers and the Socs. The Gryffindors and the Slytherins. Film is full of famous rivalries, and E.T. pits the children against the adults. Not in any physical way, of course. We're talking about the innocence, wonder, and unguarded nature of youth versus the adult tendencies of skepticism and suspicion.

    Elliott and the other children's youthfulness colors everything they do: from their interactions both with each other and with adults to their reactions to E.T. As kids, they're open to amazement and awe because, well, why the heck not?

    Questions About Youth

    1. How would the film's narrative unfold differently if Michael found E.T. first? Or—gasp!—what if their mom found him first?
    2. Michael's friends Greg, Tyler, and Steve are pretty obnoxious at the beginning of the film, which is to say they're typical teenagers. How do their attitudes change by the end of the movie? Did your attitude toward them change as a viewer?
    3. What's the deal with Gertie? As the youngest of the kids, is she just there for comic relief? Or, if youth is such a big deal, is she secretly the film's pigtailed Yoda?
    4. Let's say you're hiding an alien in your closet. Do you tell your siblings? What about your parents? How do you think they'd react?

    Chew on This

    The portrayal of grown-ups in E.T. is a condemnation of adulthood. All of the adults are skeptical, suspicious, and prone to betrayal. Never grow up!

    E.T. is a celebration of the innocence, discovery, and honesty of youth.

  • Language & Communication

    Communication and understanding go together like Gertie's cowgirl costume and Halloween. In E.T., Elliott and E.T. struggle to communicate at first. They're from enormously different backgrounds. But once they learn how to communicate, they really communicate.

    E.T. employs nonverbal communication cues, like his supersized, glowing finger. Gertie teaches E.T. how to speak English (with an assist from children's educational television). E.T. builds an interplanetary communication device out of household junk. And Elliott and E.T. share a telepathic bond, where they can communicate without uttering a word.

    In the end, Elliott and E.T. share their needs, their wants, and their emotions, and come to a mutual understanding that suggests that, if we can communicate, we can overcome our differences.

    Questions About Language & Communication

    1. Why does E.T. choose to communicate almost exclusively with children?
    2. What's the significance of the Speak & Spell toy?
    3. What are three ways that Elliott and E.T. communicate nonverbally?
    4. If you could teach E.T. ten words—and only ten words—what would they be? Why?

    Chew on This

    E.T. shows that any crisis can be averted if we just learn how to communicate.

    Elliott's communication with E.T. improves his ability to communicate with his own family.

  • Alienation

    What if we told you that E.T. is a film about two pint-sized aliens? Hear us out: E.T. is a literal alien. Obviously. He's not from around here, and he doesn't exactly fit in. But Elliott is also an alien in his own right, struggling to find acceptance and fit in, in spite of his differences. Michael—and especially his friends—treats him like an outsider. His mother doesn't listen to him. He's a textbook middle child.

    And just as E.T.'s fellow extraterrestrials ditched him on Earth, Elliott's father abandoned him to soak up the sun in Mexico with some chick named Sally. Elliott is a solitary boy in need of an ally, and E.T. finds Elliott when Elliott needs him most.

    Questions About Alienation

    1. When do you think Elliott feels the most alienated in the movie?
    2. Could E.T.'s fellow aliens have left him behind intentionally?
    3. How has Elliott's dad's departure affected each member of Elliott's family?
    4. Elliott gives E.T. his name when he sketches him in science class. E and T are the first and last letters of Elliott's name. Do you think this is significant? What does it represent?

    Chew on This

    E.T. may be a visitor from another planet, but Elliott is more of an alien than E.T. is.

    E.T. is a substitute father for Elliott because he protects him, teaches him things, and helps him grow up.

  • Friendship

    At its glowing red heart, E.T. is a film about friendship. Elliott and E.T. are a tightknit pair from wildly different backgrounds, and their bond is grounded in love, loyalty, compassion, teamwork, and even a mysterious cosmic connection. But the camaraderie doesn't stop there.

    The relationship between Elliott and Michael is also important: Michael starts the film as Elliott's principal persecutor, but by the end he's his primary protector. Even Michael's goofy friends step up and lend a hand when needed. When it comes to all things E.T., these kids exhibit a youthful, almost punk rock "us against the world" sensibility.

    Questions About Friendship

    1. Keys tells Elliott that he's glad that E.T. came to him first. Why do you think he feels that way? Is he being honest?
    2. How does Elliott's friendship with E.T., his brother from another extra-terrestrial mother, strengthen his friendship with his own brother, Michael?
    3. Do you think E.T. specifically sought out Elliott, or is it just a coincidence?
    4. Here's a hypothetical for you, Shmooper: You're Elliott, and you're getting married. Who's your best man: Michael or E.T.?

    Chew on This

    The friendships in E.T. make the claim that, simply put, you can count on kids. (Adults? Not so much.)

    If they were really such good friends, E.T. would have stayed on Earth with Elliott.