E.T.: The Kids Movie That Is Really About Divorce

E.T. was a once in a generation kids movie that became a phenomenon for all ages. But 40 years later, the real power of Steven Spielberg's sci-fi classic, and its importance to his own childhood, remains misunderstood.

Elliott and ET Fly Across Moon
Photo: Universal Pictures

The scene is familiar to every child of the ‘80s. Little 10-year-old Elliott and his older brother Michae —still learning how to drive a car—have stolen a van in order to help their newfound alien friend E.T. After rescuing him from the clutches of a team of government agents intent on studying the creature, they rendezvous with Michael’s buddies at a local park. Elliott explains to them that E.T. is a man from outer space and that they’re taking him, via their bicycles, to his spaceship.

“Well, can’t he just…beam up?” asks one of the boys. “This is REALITY, Greg,” Elliott responds.

The line always gets a laugh from audiences. But it’s an apt one. For “reality” is exactly what distinguishes Steven Spielberg’s 1982 masterpiece E.T. the Extra Terrestrial from most every other science-fiction blockbuster, particularly those marketed toward kids. At its heart is the all-too-common reality of a broken home. Elliott (played by wunderkind actor Henry Thomas), Michael (Robert MacNaughton), and their little sister Gertie (Drew Barrymore) have been left with their mother Mary (Dee Wallace) by their dad, who’s off in Mexico with his girlfriend. It’s the only piece of info we’re given about the parents’ divorce. The father is never seen. But it’s enough to explain why Elliott, a starry-eyed dreamer in the classic Spielberg mode, is so determined to care for the childlike E.T., who’s also been left behind by his folks.     

Spielberg’s movie was far from the first sci-fi screen fable about an alien visitor searching for a way back to their home planet. The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) and 1976’s The Man Who Fell to Earth were just two of the subgenre’s more critically acclaimed forebears. But Spielberg’s film struck an unusual note of poignancy, even greater than the one he achieved with his earlier first-contact hit, 1977’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

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Close Encounters was of course the springboard for E.T., climaxing as it did with the arrival of similarly squat, big-headed aliens (also designed by Carlo Rambaldi), complete with an Oscar-nominated visual effects lightshow and John Williams fanfare. That film’s human drama likewise ce​​ntered on an innocent dreamer—albeit as an adult played by Richard Dreyfuss—who endured an unhappy home life. But while Dreyfuss’ Roy Neary is a father whose obsession with extra-terrestrial life drives his wife and children away, Elliott is the victim of his parents’ divorce. Close Encounters is the tale of a man who winds up leaving Earth. E.T. is about a boy who’s left behind.      

It was while shooting Close Encounters that Spielberg began developing a script about his own parents’ separation. At April’s TCM (Turner Classic Movies) Film Festival in Hollywood, the director spoke of the effect it had on his life and work.

“The world collapses,” Spielberg said of growing up as a child of divorce at the festival’s 40th anniversary screening of E.T. “The sky falls on your head… It’s something that never goes away. And it comes out in the wash. Certainly it’s come out in a lot of my movies, both indirectly, subconsciously, and, in the latest film that I’ve just made [The Fabelmans], very directly.” 

E.T., Spielberg explained, was the offspring of Close Encounters’ final scene—and his resistance to studio pressure to make a direct sequel—and with his own long-gestating autobiography that became The Fablemans.

“I suddenly thought, ‘What if that little creature [in Close Encounters] never went back to the ship?’” Spielberg recalled. “‘What if the creature was part of a foreign exchange program? Dreyfuss goes, he stays!’ That was the feeling that I had—what if I turned my story about divorce into a story about children, a family? A divorce creates great responsibility, especially if you have siblings. We all take care of each other… What if Elliott, for the first time in his life, becomes responsible for a life form, to fill the gap in his heart?”

That’s the one element of E.T. that most kids can’t fully grasp. Captivated though they may be by its flying bicycles and cute alien critters, a child can make little sense of their parents’ separation or their own reaction to it. But knowing what fuels Elliott completes the experience of watching E.T., making it an even more satisfying movie for adults. Truth be told, I enjoyed E.T. just fine as a kids’ adventure movie when I saw it back in ‘82. But I never really got it until my own parents divorced more than a decade later. Spielberg was 19 when his parents split. I was 25. But no matter the age, the feeling of abandonment and the questioning of one’s own existence remain.

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Elliott’s sadness is heartbreakingly portrayed by Thomas, whose eyes hold a weariness well beyond his years. Most every shot in the film is from his, his siblings’, or E.T.’s vertically limited perspective. The only adult whose face is visible for the movie’s first two acts is that of their mother, whom Spielberg has said is like his own mom in that she’s very much a kid herself. Reading Peter Pan to Gertie, she’s as full of wonder as her daughter. Dressing up for Halloween, she’s even more excited than her children. She appears to regress, even as Elliott grows in responsibility.

The sadness that runs throughout E.T. is today more often associated with independent character studies than studio fantasies. The film’s small cast of players and its sparse script by the late Melissa Mathison (recruited by Spielberg after he saw her work on The Black Stallion) are more typical of Sundance than Comic-Con. And composer John Williams forgoes his full orchestral bombast for long stretches of the film, favoring instead a heartbreakingly minimal acoustic piano. Even when compared with Hayao Miyazaki’s filmography or Pixar’s more thoughtful efforts, E.T. is a deeply melancholy movie, as preoccupied with the premature loss of innocence as it is with rescuing a bug-eyed, latex-sculpted special effect.

Perhaps that’s what makes the action in its famed flying bicycle sequences so cathartic. The first of which sees Elliott and E.T. soar across the moon on a Kuwahara BMX on a mission to radio his people. (An image that gave Amblin Entertainment, Spielberg’s production company, its logo.) The second, a sunset reprisal, finds Elliott, Michael, and his friends narrowly escaping a squad of cops hellbent on stopping them from reaching E.T.’s mothership. (Spielberg received fan flak for digitally changing the cops’ guns to walkie talkies in the 20th anniversary edition, which he later disowned.)

Thankfully, the film gave its director a happier ending than the bittersweet goodbye Elliott exchanges with his friend, when, unlike Close Encounters’ hero, he decides to stay with his family on Earth. Though Spielberg wasn’t a parent when he made E.T., he said the movie helped him decide to be a dad.

“I was feeling very protective of Henry and Robert… and especially Drew, who was only six years old. I started thinking, ‘Well, maybe this could be my real life some day.’ It was the first time it ever occurred to me that I could be a dad. So when I left those kids, when we all went our separate ways, I really felt that that would be my next big production.”

Now with seven kids and six grandkids, Spielberg has likely filled the hole in his heart left by his parents’ breakup. Though any lingering demons should be put to rest with the release of The Fabelmans (starring Michelle Williams and Paul Dano as characters based on his mother and father) later this year.

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In the meantime, however, the director appears content with the reality his film afforded him.
E.T. worked for me,” Spielberg laughed. “It worked.”