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The universal themes of 'E.T.' has kept it relatable and magical the last 40 years


PAT WELSH: (As E.T.) E.T. phone home.


Who can forget that iconic line from the iconic film "E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial," the story of Elliott, a young boy who helps an alien find its way home? And the movie turns 40 this year. But even with all that time travel, the space movie has endured.

ALEX DOWD: I think part of this movie is about sort of taking the idea of the magic of childhood and making it literal. E.T. comes into these kids' lives, and he literally introduces magic to their lives.

KURTZLEBEN: That's Alex Dowd, a freelance film critic in Chicago. He says the movie's family setting within a science fiction framework allowed it to connect to audiences in a universal way.

DOWD: It's hard to think of a lot of films before "E.T." that brought this kind of emotional intimacy to science fiction. But I don't think there's a lot of precedent for that particular approach, at least tonally, that Spielberg takes with "E.T."

KURTZLEBEN: Dowd says that director Steven Spielberg's approach came from his own personal reflections as a kid coping with difficult life changes.

DOWD: He's never been shy of talking about the fact that "E.T." was written as a story about his childhood in some abstract way. I mean, the actual inspiration for "E.T." was an imaginary friend he created after his parents divorced when he was a child.

KURTZLEBEN: Dowd says that E.T.'s magic comes from focusing on the children, their world and their problems.


HENRY THOMAS: (As Elliott) Oh, God.

WELSH: (As E.T.) Elliott.

THOMAS: (As Elliott) What?

WELSH: (As E.T.) Elliott. Elliott. Elliott.

DREW BARRYMORE: (As Gertie) I taught him how to talk now. He can talk now.

WELSH: (As E.T.) Elliott. Elliott.

BARRYMORE: (As Gertie) E.T., can you say that? Can you say E.T.? E.T.

WELSH: (As E.T.) E.T.

DOWD: I think the thing that made it such a sensation was not this science fiction element. I think it was how perceptive this film is about the emotional experience of being a child - sometimes a sense of loneliness, I think a sense of helplessness sometimes. I mean, as a kid, your life is kind of at the whims of other people.

KURTZLEBEN: And then focusing on the children, you see the world and this alien encounter through their perspective.

DOWD: I love the scene where Michael and Gertie discover that Elliott has E.T. It's maybe not one of the more iconic scenes in the movie. It's not one of the big spectacle scenes of the film. But I think it's a scene that really speaks to what the film is about. And one of the things I love about it is how quickly their fear of E.T. turns to curiosity. You know, Gertie screams when she first sees him, but then the first question she asks, I think, is, was he wearing clothes?


BARRYMORE: (As Gertie) Was he wearing any clothes?

THOMAS: (As Elliott) No. But look; you can't tell, not even Mom.

BARRYMORE: (As Gertie) Why not?

THOMAS: (As Elliott) 'Cause grown-ups can't see him. Only little kids can see him.

BARRYMORE: (As Gertie) Give me a break.

KURTZLEBEN: And then there's, of course, one of the most magical moments in the film.


THOMAS: (As Elliott) E.T. Not so high. Not so high.

DOWD: And I think that that is the most potent image of the film. And, you know, a lot of kids have associations with bicycles as well. I think the idea of being able to actually sore on your bicycle, I think, is an image that appealed to every child who saw the film, but also anyone who can remember being a child.

KURTZLEBEN: Dowd says that a lot of Hollywood movies about aliens pit them against humans, making them the other. But "E.T." showed us how we can embrace what we don't understand, and no matter how far someone is from home, they can always use a helping hand.

DOWD: E.T. and Elliott have this magical bond of emotion between them. And I think that's just a metaphor for the idea of empathy. So I think ultimately, the film being about friendly aliens, that's really a way that Spielberg can get into the idea of empathy.


THOMAS: (As Elliott) I just wanted to say goodbye.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) There's no goodbye.

WELSH: (As E.T.) Be good.

THOMAS: (As Elliott) Yes.

KURTZLEBEN: That was freelance film critic Alex Dowd.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOHN WILLIAMS' "THEME FROM E.T.") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Alex Dowd