Sonic Cinema

Sounds, Visions and Insights by Brian Skutle

E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial

Grade : A+ Year : 1982 Director : Steven Spielberg Running Time : 1hr 55min Genre : , , ,
Movie review score

Originally Written: April 2002

Seeing “E.T.” in its re-release in theatres after 20 years is like reuniting with a friend from your childhood after many years of being out of touch with each other. You recognize each other, but you’ve changed; you’re older, wiser (hopefully), and more aware of the world. But once you spend some time with each other, you remember those early times in your relationship as clearly as you can, and what results is something truly special.

Well, “E.T.” is certainly older, not so much wiser but deeper (at least it is to me, especially now that I can think about the film’s themes and symbolism more than I could at 4-5 years old), and- being a film- cannot possibly be more aware of the world. But it has changed. In a move inspired by George Lucas’ tinkering with the “Star Wars” trilogy for the 1977 original’s 20th Anniversary, director Steven Spielberg has decided to enhance E.T.’s movements, making them more fluid while attempting to avoid Jar Jar’s rubbery movements from “Episode I” (mission accomplished), remastering the soundtrack (bravo job folks; John Williams’ Oscar-winning score sounds glorious), and even including a couple of new scenes, one in the bathroom with Elliot and E.T. (a very fun scene), and the other a brief scene on Halloween night with Mary (Dee Wallace) picking up Michael (Robert MacNaughton) and Gertie (Drew Barrymore, as wonderfully delightful as ever) (necessary only to establish how the other kids are home).

But- of course- these changes have met controversy among movie fans. There were many rumors that Spielberg excised the classic line “Penis breath” from the Special Edition; thankfully, those rumors were false. One line that was changed was when Mary tells Michael that he’s not going out for Halloween as a “terrorist”; obviously, that would jive in these post-9/11 days, and the line was re-recorded as “hippie.” The problem is, he still looks closer to a terrorist than a hippie. I don’t know, maybe I would have noticed the line in a theater, but I never noticed it on home video (even when I watched the film again at the start of the new year), and knowing they changed it only made it stick out more. Call strike one on Spielberg. Strike two comes from the much-publicized change Spielberg made to the film’s climax, as- when the bikes take off for a second time (I really doubt I’m giving much away here)- the federal agents- originally shown carrying guns in the 1982 version- are now carrying walkie-talkies. Again, it’s a detail I never noticed until I heard about the changes being made, and probably would continue to go unnoticed in theatres, but in the name of political correctness, Spielberg has removed the focus of a great scene from an unforgettable moment to a minor detail.

Luckily, strike three never happens. The film- about the friendship between an accidentally-marooned alien and local suburban Elliot (Henry Thomas, in one of the all-time great performances by a young star), and their efforts to “phone home” for E.T.’s ship- is still a soul stirring adventure for the ages, a timeless, heart-rending achievement that deservedly stands alongside “The Wizard of Oz” as the pinnacle of family entertainment in the realm of live action (’cause let’s be honest, Disney’s animated classics holds the crown for all-time). The script by Melissa Mathison (who later wrote Martin Scorsese’s moving “Kundun”) is a standard-bearer for family films- one that doesn’t talk down to children, insult the intelligence of adults, and manages a thoughtful and appealing story that’s simple, but not simple-minded. This is the case thanks to unforgettable dialogue and believable- and quite simply, delightful- characters. I’ve seen the film perhaps a dozen or more times since it’s original release (not including the 13 times my mother says we saw it when it was first in theatres), and like the best films (it sits #10 on my own list of the greatest films I’ve ever seen), it gets you everytime. It’s impossible to think of someone not liking.

And yet there are such people. I know, I don’t get it either. The first person I remember meeting who wasn’t a fan of “E.T.” was- of all people- the manager whom hired me at a local video story about five years ago. I couldn’t believe it (still can’t), but evidently, he isn’t alone. The 20th Anniversary re-release for “E.T.” has been a major disappointment for Universal, earning about $30 million, a total which pales in comparison to the $140 earned by “Star Wars” in it’s 20th Anniversary run. Granted, “Star Wars” didn’t have a family bonanza like “Ice Age” to deal with (or at least one as thoroughly enjoyable as “Ice Age”), but still, this is “E.T.” for crying out loud. Not only is it the re-release of an undeniably great film on the big screen (which should always be a cause to celebrate), but next to the original “Star Wars” trilogy, “E.T.” is arguably the most collectively popular cinematic creation of the past 30 years. Forget the millions “Titanic” made; despite the grandeur of the effects (and admitted pull of the story), some pretty banal dialogue might sink that film’s chances at “beloved classic” status in the long run. The general feeling is, “E.T.” doesn’t thrill anymore so much as look like a quaint relic, and the perceived “failure” of this re-releases will put a damper on DVD sales when it hits stores later this year. Nonsense, I say. First of all, “E.T.” will be a DVD blockbuster (movie buffs like myself- whom have been “patiently” awaiting it’s release (and that of three great trilogies of our generation, “Star Wars,” “Indiana Jones,” and “Back to the Future”) in the medium- will assure that), especially since the release will reportedly include both the 1982 original version and this year’s special edition. Secondly, if anything, “E.T.” looks all the more thrilling compared to the sort of cinematic dung we are subjected to year in and year out. More thrilling than most thrillers, more moving than most love stories, more exciting than most summer blockbusters, and scarier- at the end, when E.T. is dying- than most horror movies, “E.T.” is a reminder of what great blockbusters are. It’s also a great litmus test for movie buffs to test their cynicism about modern cinema- can any film still instill in the experienced moviegoer a sense of awe and wonder that is singular to the movies? Well, while it has a 20-year advantage over “Lord of the Rings” and the visionary work of Pixar animation, the answer is undoubtedly yes. When E.T. and Elliot took off to the sky for the first time at the showing I saw a few weeks ago, it was a reminder of the magic and power of cinema to fuel our imaginations and realize our dreams. “Harry Potter”- for all it’s delights- can only hope to compete.

Well, from here I have no idea where to go except to end. And I haven’t even discussed half of what I wanted to, including: John Williams’ exhilarating score (his pinnacle with Spielberg- just ahead of “Schindler’s List”- and second only to “The Empire Strikes Back” in the Williams canon); Spielberg’s brilliant storytelling instincts (his use of point-of-view, the mysterious and suspenseful opening scenes); the whole use of Reese’s Pieces over M & M’s (which I’ll sum up simply- I bet the guy who made the decision to not allow the use of M & M’s has been kicking himself all these years); the whole idea of water being a life source for E.T. (a theory derived partially from the new scene in the bathroom); the life link that develops between Elliot and E.T. (a plot device derived from the idea of friends we just cannot live without); the way a scene where Mary is reading “Peter Pan” to Gertie figures into the story later when E.T. is dying; the use of the geranium as a ticking clock for E.T.’s health (and a more subtle and less-discussed harbinger of bad things to come for E.T., when he uses his telepathic powers in gathering items for his transmitter, he opens an umbrella in doors); the almost subversive humor derived from E.T. in the kitchen exploring and getting drunk, and the sly hilarity of Elliot’s reactions while at school (the first indication that he and E.T. have become linked in spirit); the comparisons that were all but inevitable between this and Spielberg’s “A.I.” last year; and a couple of other things which I’ll discuss separately at the end. That I have forgotten about a traditional look at the film in lieu of defending the film in the wake of a poor box-office performance of it’s re-release- which many expected to be most profitable- is perhaps a sign of the passion instilled by the best- or even best loved films we see in our lifetimes. With these films, we’re more willing to go to mat for them, to defend their honor and/or reputation in our discussions of them. It doesn’t happen often in modern cinema. With “A.I.” and now “E.T.’s” revival, it’s happened twice in less than a year, courtesy of the same filmmaker.

Grade for “E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial 20th Anniversary” Special Edition- A+
Grade for “E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial” (1982 version)- A+

Viva La Resistance!

Brian Skutle

P.S. A couple of things I wanted to touch on before about the new Special Edition that inspired some thought.

1. In the beginning chase scene, where E.T. is being chased by federal authorities as his spaceship takes off (this is where the film starts to grab hold emotionally), in the 1982 version we only see the taller foliage move as E.T. runs, not really getting a glimpse of E.T. himself. In the new version, enhanced visual effects have E.T. hopping as he runs like a rabbit. At first, it was a distraction, but it soon occurred to me- how else would E.T. run? His legs are more or less stumps, and as such, it doesn’t make sense that he would run like a human would. An excellent example of a director revisiting a film, and giving the audience something new to mull over. Food for thought.

2. Two of the more humorous moments in the film for me have always been the references to “Star Wars” made in the film. The first comes when Elliot is teaching E.T. about his toys and such, and he starts playing with “Star Wars” action figures; the second is on Halloween, when E.T.- going out as a ghost- notices a child going as Yoda, and appears to recognize him as Williams slyly adds a quotation of the Yoda theme to his score. At first, both of these moments could simply be seen as Spielberg paying homage to buddy George Lucas’ blockbuster touchstones, but later, you might come to realize how much sense that makes. Of course Elliot would be playing with “Star Wars” toys! Of course someone would dress up as Yoda for Halloween! In 1982, “Star Wars” was still very much the cool thing for kids of Elliot’s age, so instead of a mere homage to George, Spielberg actually just created a chronicle of what young kids were into at the time.

**Another thing to ponder about the Yoda scene, though. In addition to a good laugh for the audience, Spielberg may have also inadvertently added to the “Star Wars” mythology as well. If you look closely at the Senate scenes in “Phantom Menace,” you’ll see that one pod of representatives look as though they’re from E.T.’s planet! Payback to Spielberg from George? Hmmm, Ok. But also, could we be setting up a potential crossover of blockbusters in the future? Could we see a Jedi warrior from E.T.’s planet in “Attack of the Clones” this May? Probably not, but it’s fun to imagine, isn’t it?

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