E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial: The 20th Anniversary Edition
Directed by Steven Spielberg
Written by Melissa Mathison
Starring Henry Thomas, Drew Barrymore, Dee Wallace Stone
With a few cosmetic digital improvements and a couple of extra scenes, E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, the blockbuster Steven Spielberg hit of 1982, is back in the theatres.
Strictly speaking, the movie hasn't gone away: There seem to be few kids who haven't seen it repeatedly on video, either at home, friend's houses or at school, where it's a mainstay of snowy days and partial holidays.
It's one modern film worthy of being called a contemporary classic. Like James Barrie's Peter Pan, E.T. has the ability to open up mythic themes to children in a fresh, engaging way. Though Spielberg's films wear the brand names of Reese's Pieces, Speak 'n Spell toys and BMX bicycles, it's about birth and death, an archetypal story about casting off aspects of self in the process of maturation.
The story of a lonely little boy, Elliott (Henry Thomas), and the rejuvenating effect of his friendship with the benign three-foot alien E.T., is a fantasy that seems much more than 20 years old. (Though elements were lifted from Robert Wise's 1951 movie, The Day the Earth Stood Still, Spielberg does it much better.)
Despite its blockbuster reputation, E.T. was a small movie (a paltry $10-million budget, against an eventual return in the three-quarters of a billion range). Some of the effects seem more quaint than awe-inspiring, with the obviously matte skies and John Williams's exhaustingly emotional musical score adding to a sense of old-fashioned Hollywood backlot artificiality.
The movie's first act, when E.T. lands and finds a safe house, plays out like a mock horror movie, with lots of low-angle point of view shots, including the striking opening looking through a bush, and then the two elongated fingers reaching up to move the branches away. There's a playful tension between E.T. as a stalker and a potential victim.
Though the point of view sometimes shifts -- occasionally embracing the mysterious government men who are following the alien and monitoring Elliott's family -- it remains a movie that shows the world from a child's point of view.
That perspective includes the interior of Elliott's house, where E.T. seeks refuge after he is left behind when humans intrude on the aliens' botanical sampling mission. The house contains a recently separated woman, Mary (Dee Wallace), and her three children, 10-year-old Elliott, teenaged Michael (Robert MacNaughton) and four-year-old Gertie (Drew Barrymore). Apart from the mother -- and later the arrival of a scientist (Peter Coyote) -- the world of E.T. is almost as adult-free as a Peanuts cartoon.
From the outside, Elliott's house appears to be a spacious suburban home, but in the interior scenes it feels claustrophobic and jumbled, and it's impossible to get a fix on the layout. The impression is one of constant clutter: toys, pencils and clothes pile up, views are often partly obstructed.
While the interior is full of friendly mess, the outside has an alienating, almost surreal sense of fragile order. The community where Elliott and his family live is a subdivision of matching red-tiled homes in an almost barren desert, mountains looming in the background, a forest on the edge of town. People are rarely seen on the streets, unless it's a sudden tumult of school kids. Only in the final escape sequence do we see more new houses under construction, like skeletons on display.
There's a sense of the fragility of these family lives. The movie starts shortly after the separation of Elliott's parents. His mother tears up at the news that his father is with a girlfriend in Mexico. The idea that Elliott might make up E.T. as an imaginary friend seems the reasonable response of a lonely kid anxious for attention.
Spielberg's remanipulation of his film after 20 years raises some critical questions about the right of artists to continually alter their own work, depending on changing sensibilities. The questions are not unique to Spielberg, but perhaps more urgent because of the popularity of E.T.
One striking example, bowing to current sensitivities, hurts the film. On Halloween night, we hear Mary chastise her teenaged son Michael for dressing up on Halloween as a "hippie"; he dutifully changes. This makes no sense. In the original film, the word was the more potent "terrorist." (Mathison had written "commando" in her script.) Spielberg changed the word to something non-violent, and meaningless. This is particularly odd, when the climax of the movie involves a frightening home invasion of men dressed in masks and uniforms.
In another self-censoring revision, he digitally removed the guns from the mob of policeman chasing the children on their bicycles, just before the boys take off on their dreamy, almost erotic flight through the air. This is a more reasonable change. The guns seemed like improbable overkill. Now the grasping mob that chases the boys doesn't seem like a threat so much as a reminder of the movie's mock horror-flick beginnings.
As for the restored footage, its effect is relatively slight. There's a little more of the impossibly cute Barrymore (even at 5, she's an extraordinary camera magnet), and an additional bathroom scene in which E.T. hides underwater and demonstrates his extendable neck. We're reminded that, as well as some of the other things that E.T. may represent -- a redemptive Christ figure from the sky, a fetus, a living toy, an imaginary friend -- he has a few similarities to a penis.
The link is obvious but humorous enough not to seem crude. E.T. (a kind of little Elliott acronym) embodies Elliott's struggle to grow up, in every way.