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‘E.T.’ Taught Kids the Power of Friendship — and Saying Goodbye

Forty years after its release, Steven Spielberg’s family classic is still showing young people (and their parents) that the bonds we form with others are important, even if they’re not meant to last

In November, Steven Spielberg will release The Fabelmans, a semi-autobiographical drama, based on the Oscar-winning director’s childhood, which will be (in part) a look at a boy coping with his parents’ divorce. But, of course, Spielberg has already made a film about this very subject, and today it celebrates its 40th anniversary. 

Conceived while he was making Close Encounters of the Third Kind, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial is among the most beloved of movies, Spielberg drawing from his own memories to craft a fantastical coming-of-age saga about a boy and his faithful alien. “[It was] never meant to be a movie about an extraterrestrial. … It was supposed to be a movie about my mom and dad getting a divorce,” he once said, later adding, “I started writing a story about what it was like when your parents divide the family up and they move to different states.” The idea crystalized when he filmed Close Encounters’ finale, where the aliens land, drop off their human passengers and say goodbye. As Spielberg put it, “I thought, ‘Wait a second — what if that alien doesn’t go back up into the ship, what if he stayed behind? Or maybe, what if he even got lost and he was marooned here? What would happen if a child of a divorce or a family of a divorce with a huge hole to fill, filled the hole with his new best extraterrestrial friend?’”

For a lot of kids, E.T. is a touchstone, an emotional rite-of-passage. Gen-Xers came of age seeing it, showing it to their own sons and daughters when they were old enough, the ritual repeating over time. But you don’t have to have experienced divorce to get the film’s power. All you need is to be someone who’s ever had a friend who understood you better than anyone else.

Of all the boys in movies, Elliott might still be the most relatable. Not cool in that “edgy” way that film kids often are, he’s sensitive and insecure, the middle child of a family led by single mom Mary (Dee Wallace). Elliott and his siblings are bratty and unformed like most kids, unsure how life works and impatient because nothing is fair when you’re that age. E.T. was only Henry Thomas’ second film role, and he’s the perfect combination of unpolished and unassuming, playing Elliott totally without guile. Every emotion registers on his face, which of course is paralyzing when you’re a boy trying to act like things don’t bother you. But we quickly grasp that Elliott is a bit of a loner — a bit of an outsider — and then one day, he meets a true outsider, this funky little alien he calls E.T., who doesn’t have anyone, either. That’s because his colleagues got in their spaceship and took off without him by mistake. Now he’s got to try to contact them.

Filmed very much from its two main characters’ perspective, E.T. taps into what the world looks like to someone who doesn’t quite understand what’s going on — a condition that 10-year-olds and extraterrestrials have in common. What Spielberg, who was in his mid-30s, understood so well was how, from a kid’s point-of-view, adult life seems deeply alien, and so Elliott and E.T. have a connection no one else can penetrate. It’s not simply the literal psychic link they share — Thomas, working alongside an actor in a suit (with puppeteers controlling the critter’s face), created a real bond between them, these two oddballs who don’t fit in. And there was nothing patronizing about Spielberg’s approach, indicative of the fact that he himself was a big kid and no doubt sympathized with their plight. 

“I didn’t want to have kids because it was not a kind of equation that made sense for me as I went from movie to movie to movie, script to script,” Spielberg said earlier this year about his mindset while working on E.T. “It never occurred to me ‘til halfway through E.T.: I was a parent on that film. I was literally feeling like I was very protective of Henry … and my whole cast, and especially Drew [Barrymore], who was only six years old. And I started thinking, ‘Well, maybe this could be my real life someday.’ It was the first time that it occurred to me that maybe I could be a dad.”

It’s touching to think that E.T. was the moment Spielberg went from exorcizing his demons about growing up in a broken home to embracing the idea of becoming a parent. (In a way, the movie was his own coming-of-age.) But his personal transformation makes sense since the film is itself about moving from one stage of life to the next, transitioning from childhood to a more mature perspective and realizing that certain things can’t last. 

Which brings me to this movie’s absolutely crushing ending. As sophisticated as modern children are — more tech-savvy than their parents were — we’re all unprepared for the emotional wallop that occurs in E.T. when we (and Elliott) are sure that E.T. has died. But while it turns out to be a false alarm — that little bugger may not understand Earth customs, but he sure has a flair for the dramatic — his near-death scene merely prepares all of us for the real goodbye that’s going to happen later. In that moment, there’s no fake-out, no sparing of our feelings. 

When I first saw E.T., I was younger than Elliott, a fact that now seems impossible to wrap my head around. His older brother Michael (Robert MacNaughton) seemed like every older, jerky kid I knew. (Barrymore’s Gertie was an exact replica of my annoying baby sister.) Watching it now, I appreciate not only how special the film is — mixing Spectacle Spielberg with Sentimental Spielberg — but also how unique Elliott and E.T.’s friendship is. You never really get over your first best friend, who teaches you how friendships actually work. Initially, Elliott (after he stops being scared of this alien) tries to be in charge, explaining to him what Earth is like, but the more time they spend together, the more their bond becomes reciprocal — he learns he can’t be the boss. And soon enough, Elliott will realize that E.T. can’t stay — and that he can’t be selfish about that. Sometimes being a friend means not standing in the way of their happiness.

In its rough outline, E.T. is a familiar boy-and-his-dog tale, and in those stories the dog often dies. Spielberg is kinder, sorta, by not killing off his alien. But that’s because he’s after a different life lesson, which is that we have to become comfortable with the idea that our friends have to live their own lives. What’s so beautiful about E.T.’s ending, which no person can watch without getting teary, is that it shows a little boy and his alien friend saying their farewells, their time together coming to a close. E.T.’s famous line — “I’ll be right here,” as he points to Elliott’s head — hits harder the older you get, reminding us that memories are what we’re going to carry with us of the people who were, at one point or another, so important to us. 

When you’re young, you want to fit in, to be accepted, to find the people who really understand you. E.T. honors those impulses, but it pushes us to recognize something else about friendship: A good friend actually thinks about the other person. Elliott needs E.T., but he loves him so much that he has to be strong enough to let him go.