A spaceship is deep in the forest. There’s beeping and strange noises. A hand with two long fingers reaches at some twigs. A small alien waddles in the twilight. Then, more waddling aliens appear. An owl hoots, and the aliens all light up red and return to the ship. One of them unearths a plant and discovers a town illuminated — startled when a truck approaches. Men with torches appear and the alien hurries off. The ship flies away, leaving one alien behind.
While looking for his dog, Elliott finds a strange, misty light is coming from the toolshed. He throws a ball in and it gets thrown back. He tells his family and everyone runs out to see. They find markings on the floor, due maybe to a coyote, but nothing unusual. Later, Elliott discovers a small, brown, wrinkly alien nearby — he freaks out and runs off.
Elliott goes on a stakeout — watching the toolshed by torchlight. He sees something, but can’t even yell. The alien approaches Elliott. Elliott then ushers it into his room with strategically-placed, small piles of food. He does several behavioural experiments on ET, who mimics him perfectly each time.
Elliott is feigning a fever to get off school. His mom is convinced and goes to work. Elliott coaxes ET out from the closet. He tries getting ET to talk. He explains what a drink is and then presents his action figures, the fish in their fishbowl, some candy and some money. When ET starts trying to eat a toy car, Elliott guesses he must be hungry.
When Harvey arrives and starts barking, ET retreats. Elliott raids the fridge for food. Then, he puts ET on the scales — he weighs 35lbs. He compares his own height to ET’s, who starts extending his neck upwards. Elliott reveals the bathroom. After a quick phone call, he finds ET completely submerged in the bathwater, but he seems ok.
Elliott’s older brother, Mike, arrives home, sees ET and is dumbstruck. Elliott’s younger sister Gertie then rushes in. ET extends his neck and she starts screaming. ET starts screaming. Mike falls backwards onto some shelves and Elliott shouts. Mike starts screaming. Then, their mom arrives home, none the wiser.
Gertie is sworn to secrecy after a physical threat made to her favourite doll. All three children then educate and otherwise experiment with ET. Gertie gives him a pot plant. Mike and Elliott teach him geography, showing where they live first, on a map of America; then, on a globe; then, on a picture of the solar system. To better illustrate where he’s from, ET makes some balls circle each other in the air like planets. Later, ET causes Gertie’s flowers to bloom.
In school, Elliott’s class is about to dissect frogs. At home, ET opens the fridge and drinks a can of beer. This drunkenness is felt by Elliott, who belches in class. ET then also belches. Elliott sinks lower in his chair in class. ET walks into walls and falls over.
Elliott’s class is assigned frogs in jars and chloroform. Elliott liberates his frog and those of others. Then, other pupils join in. The classroom is now overrun with frogs, most thrown out the window.
ET gathers items on a blanket that he pulls along the floor. Gertie’s watching kids’ TV — words that start with “B”. ET says “B”. Gertie says “good”. ET then says “be good”. He goes to the phone and Gertie tells him it’s a phone.
Elliott gets back and Gertie’s dressed ET in women’s clothes and wig. ET says “Elliott” and Gertie is proud she taught him to talk. She refers to his gathered items. ET scuttles over to the window and points out, saying “home phone”. Elliott cuts his finger and says ouch. ET lights up his finger, repeats ouch and Elliott’s cut is healed. ET sets about making his machine. ET makes items float in the air and come to him as he needs them.
Mike, Elliott and ET all are dressed in their Halloween costumes — there’s a sheet thrown over ET who’s pretending to be Gertie. ET sees Mike has a knife in his head covered in blood. ET starts saying ouch with his finger lit up trying to heal it — but it’s fake. The flash from their mom’s camera makes ET topple over backwards. They’re meeting Gertie later. ET’s loaded onto Elliott’s bike. When the forest trail gets too bumpy, ET makes the bike fly — Elliott and ET briefly outlined against the moon. In the forest, ET puts the finishing touches to his machine, which seems functional.
When Elliott wakes up in the forest, ET’s gone and his machine looks broken. Elliott thinks he’s probably up at the bald spot in the forest somewhere. Mike finds that ET’s fallen into the river, laying there with bleached skin. Mike throws a sheet over him and brings him home.
ET is revealed to their mom, lying on his back with white skin. ET reaches out to mom saying “mom”. She drops her coffee in shock. Elliott thinks ET’s dying. Mike carries Gertie and mom carries Elliott downstairs.
At the front door, there’s an astronaut. More appear through other doors and even through a window. The mother is powerless. Finally, they find ET. He’s still on the floor, saying “home” with outstretched hands. Authority figures quickly assemble clear, plastic incubation tunnels — connecting Elliott’s house to ambulances in the street.
Doctors learn that ET can manipulate his own environment, he’s smart and that he communicates through Elliott, who feels ET’s feelings. EEG analysis bears this out, showing complete coherence and synchronisation of brainwave activity between Elliott and ET.
Everything’s strictly scientific. Elliott yells that they should leave ET alone. The medics discuss sepsis, blood gas, nasal cannula, hypothermia blankets and 2D cardiac echoes.
ET’s skin is cool and diaphoretic. He needs anatropic support. Major Keys asks Elliott about ET’s machine, which apparently is doing something. Elliott and Keys both feel chosen by ET. Keys says he’s been wishing for this moment since he was ten years old. Elliott says ET wants to go home, to be with his people. Keys praises all of Elliott’s efforts. Elliott shouts ET’s name and ET responds, but only just. Mike wakes up to see ET’s flowers wilting. Alarms go off when ET has no pulse or respiration. ET’s pupils are fixed and dilated and he’s being prepared for defibrillation.
Outside, the whole town’s come to watch. At precisely 3:36pm, ET’s pronounced dead. Lights go out and all the staff remove their headgear. Keys respectfully closes ET’s eyes. Before he’s taken away, Keys lets Elliott spend some time with his friend. Elliott figures ET must be dead, because now he feels nothing. He tells ET he loves him and zips him up. Unexpectedly, ET’s plant start growing again.
Elliott rushes back to ET — who’s heart is now glowing a strong red. He unzips his friend. ET quickly says “ET, phone home” and Elliott rejoices. ET repeats the phrase “ET, phone home” over and over until it becomes a problem. Elliott wants to smuggle him out, so zips him up again. People approach and Elliott resumes his crying. He’s taken away, but tells Mike ET’s still alive. They hatch a smuggling plan and put ET in the back of an ambulance and drive off. Mike shouts to friend, Greg, to get the bikes and rendez-vous at the playground.
Once there, the doors of the ambulance open to reveal ET in dry ice with a white sheet around his shoulders. His chest is a healthy red. The kids are told ET is a spaceman and he must get back to his ship. The kids head off cycling to the forest, with ET in Elliott’s basket. The adults chase after them in cars.
When more adults appear and the road is blocked off, Elliott telepathically tells ET to make the bikes fly over the roadblock. The boys are briefly outlined against the setting sun and land by ET’s machine. Happily, ET’s skin is back to brown again — his neck extended and heart pulsing red.
ET’s mothership lands. ET looks on — deadly serious. “Home”, he says. In tears, Gertie approaches ET and says goodbye. He says “be good”. Mike strokes ET’s head. ET says “thank-you”. One of ET’s kind stands at the spaceship ramp waiting. Elliott goes to ET. “Come” says ET. “Stay” says Elliott. ET gestures with a long finger saying “ouch”. Elliott repeats this gesture and also says “ouch”. They embrace.
ET puts his finger up to Elliott’s heart and says he’ll be right here. He takes the flowers with him onboard. Harvey follows him, then waits with Elliott. The ramp folds away and the ship takes off. It flies away leaving a streak of purple across the sky.
Starring Henry Thomas. Drew Barrymore. Peter Coyote. Rated U. Dir Steven Spielberg. Released in the UK 1982. Runtime 1hr 55mins