“E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial” had the aura of an instant classic when it was released, and the good news is that it looks at least that good, if not better, on the eve of its 20th anniversary reissue.
Whereas Steven Spielberg’s fantasy about a little alien stranded in suburbia was seen in 1982 in the context of the sci-fi craze launched a few years earlier by “Star Wars” and Spielberg’s own “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” it will now perhaps be viewed more in relation to what kids watch today. Certainly, compared to an extravaganza like “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone,” “E.T.” is a model of simplicity and clean storytelling; although certain “Spielbergisms” stick out, such as heavy backlighting, repeated shots of awestruck characters gaping at wondrous sights and a preoccupation with a somewhat nerdy side of pop culture, “E.T.” seems like an example of classical filmmaking to an extent that was impossible to appreciate at the time.
The director’s uncanny ability to empathize with children and express their point-of-view has been noted throughout his career. But now that he’s moved on to darker, more “adult” subjects, Spielberg’s complicity with his young characters in “E.T.” appears all the more striking. Shot mostly at eye-level with Henry Thomas’ Elliott and (at least when he extends his neck) E.T. himself, the film creates a world defined by the perspectives of Elliott, his older brother and younger sister, one that defiantly excludes their mother (Dee Wallace Stone) and sees all other grownups as at least potentially threatening. The treatment of the mother is particularly interesting; distraught at her husband having left her for another woman, she comes off as short-tempered, overwrought, busy, unperceptive and no fun at all — which may give pause to many viewers who first saw “E.T.” as kids and may now be parents themselves.
Modern auds may be more preoccupied with the technical side, however. There’s no question that if “E.T.” were made today, the title character would be a CG figure that might well be both more realistic and less “real” than Carlo Rambaldi’s fabled creation, which was essentially a mechanized puppet. That special effects have advanced so much in the interim bestows E.T. with a delightfully quaint quality, which may even increase the film’s charm for present viewers. Then there’s also the fact that the actors were actually playing to the E.T. model on camera rather than to an invisible, yet-to-be-fabricated digital character, which could have affected the performances in unquantifiable ways.
Fortunately, Spielberg has not taken the occasion of the reissue to mess around with the picture the way he did on the “Special Edition” of “Close Encounters,” something that always smacked of misguided commercial calculation. Spielberg and the others involved with the rehab of “E.T.” have likened their work to the restoration of a painting rather than a revision, or so it seems to the viewer, as the end result is dazzling. If you didn’t know that some technical fiddling had been done, you’d never suspect it, so smoothly have the uniformly minor alterations been accomplished.
Subtle digital enhancements have been made throughout the film in regard to some of E.T.’s movements and facial expressions, and wind blowing through trees and billowing Elliott’s cape during the first bicycle flight, none of which would be noticeable without comparing the two versions side by side. More controversially, Spielberg has digitally erased the guns brandished by the authorities chasing the boys and E.T. in the film’s terrific climax and replaced them with walkie-talkies; in a similar bow to contempo sensitivities, he has also replaced the word “terrorist” with “hippie” when Elliott’s mother disparages his Halloween costume. Politically, these moves look like wimping out, but while watching the film these moments are so fleeting that they make no difference whatsoever. Twenty years ago, a certain Variety critic called “E.T.” “the best Disney film Disney never made,” and it remains true today.