review by Dan Lybarger, 22 March 2002
Elliot: He's a man from
outer space and we're taking him to his spaceship.
Greg: Well, can't he just beam up?
Elliot: This is REALITY, Greg.
Believe it or not, this little
exchange from the movie embodies much of what I love about E.T.
The Extra-Terrestrial. Twenty years after his initial landing,
the exploits of this elaborate puppet are still captivating because
director Steven Spielberg wisely treats this fantasy with a
surprisingly naturalistic approach.
After being separated from his
fellow space aliens, little E.T. finds himself stranded in an
environment that's fairly close to the one outside of the theater.
The human family that "adopts" him is teeming with sibling rivalry.
Eleven-year-old Elliot (Henry Thomas) has trouble attracting the
attention his younger sister Gertie (Drew Barrymore) elicits with
ease, and his older brother Michael (Robert MacNaughton) treats the
younger siblings as nuisances. Their mother (Dee Wallace Stone) has
several concerns vying for her attention. In addition to trying to
juggle the children, the housework and her job, she and the rest of
the family are still smarting from a bitter divorce.
Elliot and his significant others
might be a little more affluent and certainly better looking than
the folks who might be viewing the film, but their conversations
sound authentic, and their frustrations are familiar and convincing.
When E.T. does wander into their home (lured by an early
product placement for Reese's Pieces), it seems all the more
remarkable because the family's situation is rather mundane.
Before Schindler's List and
Saving Private Ryan, Spielberg gained a reputation as
special-effects junkie, but E.T. proves to be surprisingly
low tech compared to other sci-fi fare. One of the film's most
striking visual touches requires no computerized enhancements at
all. A good deal of the E.T.'s footage was shot from a
child's-eye level, allowing the viewer to experience the story with
an intimacy that this movie's imitators never achieved.
This closeness to the characters
could have been potentially disastrous if Thomas hadn't proved to be
such an adept leading man. Despite his youth, his work is so
unaffected that believing that he has psychically bonded with the
alien is an easy and even pleasant task. Similarly, Melissa
Mathison's (The Black Stallion, Kundun) script has a
radar for children's movie clichés and often deftly skewers or
avoids them. When Elliot tells Gertie that only kids can see E.T.,
she rolls her eyes and scoffs.
It's factors like these that made
me fall for this movie when I was fifteen, even though I initially
considered myself too old to fall for a kiddie flick. Twenty years
later, E.T. still grabs me more than it should. When I had
heard about the "enhancements" Spielberg and his cohorts were
offering in this new edition of the film, I cringed. The revised, or
should I say desecrated, versions of the Star Wars trilogy
and the Exorcist are proof that artists are sometimes wise
not to second-guess themselves.
For the most part, the new version
of E.T. avoids some of these pitfalls. While it might have
been fun to get a glimpse of the now-legendary deleted sequence
where Harrison Ford plays the principal at Elliot's school (at the
time, Ford was married to Mathison), the two sequences that have
been restored actually enhance the rest of the movie. The extended
Halloween portion of the movie makes the mother appear far more
caring and sympathetic. The bathroom sequence, where E.T. discovers
bizarre uses ordinary objects, is amusing and helps explain how he
and Elliot become one as the movie progresses, culminating in the
scene where a drunken E.T. manipulates Elliot's behavior in school.
The special effects tweaking is
fairly subtle and doesn't detract the rest of the movie. There are a
couple of questionable modifications, though. In the previous
version, Elliot's mother warns him that his Halloween costume makes
him look a terrorist and won't let him leave. She now calls him a
"hippie," which makes little since because of all the
camouflage-like paint on his face.
The second change seems even more
bizarre. In the initial cut of the film, before E.T. makes all of
the bicycles Elliot and his peers are riding fly, there is a
roadblock manned by two cops with pistols. For years, Spielberg has
reportedly been bothered by the idea of armed me facing down
children. The officers are now holding digitally-drawn walkie
talkies. This portion of the film is remarkably brief, so the
ramifications having policemen pointing guns at kids doesn't sink in
unless you've seen this portion dozens of times, as Spielberg
obviously has. The walkie-talkies are held at strange angles, which
makes the new version seem awkward.
While Spielberg was revising the
film, he might have changed a few things that still mar the film.
The government agents led by Keys (Peter Coyote) invade Elliot's
home wearing space suits. The sequences where they abruptly take
over the neighborhood have an over-the-top quality that almost sinks
As with the endings of Saving
Private Ryan and A.I., Spielberg sometimes bludgeons his
ideas on his audience where they are already obvious. E.T.'s
spaceship leaves an exhaust trail that looks a rainbow. What has
transpired just a few seconds before is one of the most moving
sequences in cinema. This little multicolored flourish takes an
honest moment and cheapens it.
For the most part, however,
Spielberg and Mathison have their priorities straight. Emblematic of
the rest of the film, the film's final shot is of Elliot silently
ruminating about what has just happened to him. If special effects
or magical worlds were all that viewers needed to enjoy a movie, why
hasn't every movie directed by Roland Emmerich (Independence Day)
become a box-office bonanza?