E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial: 20th Anniversary Edition Review
Twenty years ago this summer, Universal Pictures opened a small, personal project of Steven Spielberg’s, a modest little story of a young boy befriending an alien abandoned on Earth. Well, you know the rest. For a long while, E.T. was the biggest-grossing film of all time. It is no longer, but even with its take adjusted for inflation it’s in the top ten. The film’s influence has been widespread: it probably created the market for video piracy due to the six-month time lag between the original American and British releases. It’s inspired at least one novel (Armistead Maupin’s Maybe the Moon, based on the life story of the late, 2’7” tall Tamara de Treaux, one of the operators of the E.T. suit). E.T. has even been used in a series of British Telecom advertisements.
So here we are, two decades later, and here comes the film again, in a 20th Anniversary Edition. Beyond restoring the picture and remixing the soundtrack into all three theatrical digital sound formats (the main beneficiary being John Williams’s score), there are some minor adjustments: discreet CGI touch-ups mostly. We get five minutes of extra footage, cut originally because early 80s special effects weren’t up to the job, mainly a bathroom scene. More contentiously, Dee Wallace’s line about her son going out dressed like a terrorist has had the offending word redubbed as “hippie”, and in the final chase sequence the police carry walkie-talkies instead of guns. These changes are very minor, to be frank, and you’ll only notice them if you look for them, or know the film shot by shot and by heart. Spielberg didn’t fix at least one continuity flub (Drew Barrymore’s burger in the breakfast scene). Some mild language still stretches the bounds of the BBFC U certificate, but only the more sensitive parents are likely to be offended.
Looking at the film again (my fourth viewing, though the third was over a decade ago) it looks more and more like classic filmmaking. Although no-one can sensibly dispute his extraordinary technical ability, Spielberg has often been criticized for excessive sentimentality, but he stays on the right side of the line here – the film is at times very moving without too much overt manipulation. (This is undoubtedly a subjective judgement: for every one person muttering darkly about button-pushing there are thousands willingly paying to sob in the dark. Susceptibility levels vary.) If we didn’t know it already, this may be because it’s a film close to Spielberg’s heart, and one (like his other personal SF project, Close Encounters of the Third Kind) he’s resisted cheapening with a sequel.
Special effects have of course moved on in the last twenty years: nowadays E.T. would likely be computer generated. I’m not sure that an all-CGI E.T. would necessarily be any improvement. Somehow it’s better that the actors (especially the three children) are interacting with something real, even if it’s a mechanical model or a very short person in a suit. Allen Daviau (who had previously photographed Spielberg’s early short Amblin’) made his feature debut here, and his work is superb, making considerable use of backlighting. (He may have influenced Spielberg to shoot in 1.85:1 instead of the 2.35:1 he’d used for all his features up to then; since then Spielberg has only used Scope for the Indiana Jones sequels and Hook.) Dee Wallace (who later married and became Dee Wallace Stone) and Peter Coyote are fine in the key adult roles, despite Coyote being shot from waist downwards for half the film. But the film belongs to the three children. Although MacNaughton and Thomas have made other films, you can tell who would go on to a successful career: six-year-old Barrymore steals every scene she’s in.
Revisited, E.T. looks more and more like a genuine classic. If you haven’t seen it, your knowledge of the SF/fantasy genre, of the career of one of the most significant American film directors, not to mention late-twentieth-century popular culture, is incomplete. It’s as simple as that.