E.T. (United States, 1982)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

E.T. - The Extra-Terrestrial is one of the biggest money makers in box-office history. It is quite possibly the best known of all Steven Spielberg's films. Even at the relatively young cinematic age of two decades, it is beloved by multiple generations of film-goers. Yet it is arguably the most overrated motion picture to arrive in theaters during the 1980s. Obviously, this isn't a popular thing to say, and it's not meant to denigrate E.T. as being badly or clumsily made. In fact, viewed as a fable or an allegory (it's actually based on The Day the Earth Stood Still, which is a thinly-veiled re-telling of the Christ story), E.T. is successful. But there are times, especially during the final third, when it is hugely overwrought. Spielberg has always shown a penchant for overt manipulation, but nowhere is this more obvious than in E.T., where he pulls out all the stops in an effort to bleed tears from the eyes of every audience member. It doesn't take a cynical nature to recognize what the director is doing.

Spielberg has always harbored a more benevolent view of space aliens than most of his Hollywood brethren. Close Encounters remains one of the most positive and intelligent views of the U.F.O. phenomenon ever to be filmed. Here, Spielberg postulates what might happen if a cute-but-strange-looking alien is marooned on Earth. "E.T.", as he is dubbed, chances upon a boy named Elliot (Henry Thomas). After their initial encounter, in which they frighten one another, they meet again, and form a tentative bond. Elliot invites E.T. into his house and hides him in his closet. He tells his older brother, Michael (Robert MacNaughton), and his younger sister, Gertie (Drew Barrymore), about his new friend. But, under the influence of Earth's unfamiliar climate, E.T. begins to show symptoms of a wasting sickness. Using household items, the strange little alien builds a communication device that allows him to "phone home" by sending a signal into space. Elliot's mother, Mary (Dee Wallace), learns about E.T. when government operatives, led by agent Keys (Peter Coyote), arrive at her house and place it under quarantine. But E.T. is dying, and Elliot, who is psychically bonded to him, is seriously ill.

E.T. is a tear-jerker and a feel-good experience rolled into one. It plays best to the child inside all of us, and is most effective when fitted into the family film niche. Members of the under-10 crowd are guaranteed to fall under its spell, but there's enough intelligence in the story (written by Melissa Mathison) to enchant adults, as well. Strip away twenty years of hype, all the hyperbole and overblown praise, and E.T. comes across as a very pleasant diversion, but little more. The movie has (perhaps unfairly) been saddled with the mantle of "masterpiece", a title for which it is ill-suited. E.T. earned its reputation by capturing the imagination of movie-going audiences across the nation and holding it for an entire summer. Parents could take children. Teenagers could take dates. And older viewers were pleased to find a movie with old-fashioned values. Over the years, E.T.'s strengths have been magnified and its weaknesses diminished. In its latest re-release, it will draw crowds for the same reasons it did in 1982 (in addition to the nostalgia factor).

This "special edition" of E.T. is the fruit of the successful re-launching of Star Wars a few years ago. Emboldened by his friend George Lucas' triumph, Spielberg went to work on E.T., employing modern-day special effects to enhance some of the film's more awkward moments. Some of the CGI work is evident, although not in a distracting way. The government agents now carry walkie-talkies rather than guns (not a big deal). Two short scenes of no great moment have been added (one featuring E.T. taking a bath). However, contrary to some rumors, the "penis-breath" line has survived. And Harrison Ford is still M.I.A. (Ford filmed a cameo that was cut from the original release; Spielberg elected not to use it in this version, either.) Essentially, though, it's the same movie. The changes are minor, bordering on inconsequential.

There are those who castigate Spielberg for having the temerity to make changes to a classic. Such claims are frivolous. Nothing Spielberg has done has an impact on the essence of the movie. The alterations amount to cosmetic touch-ups. And this is a case when the director, the creative force and cinematic "author", is the one making the changes. Plus, it isn't as if the existence of the "special edition" is designed to expunge the memory of its predecessor. This is not a replacement; it's an alternative. Reportedly, both versions will be available on the Special Edition DVD that Universal Studios plans to release for the 2002 Holiday Season.

The original E.T. boasted impressive special effects for its day. Spielberg has worked to make sure that what appears on screen in 2002 doesn't look dated or silly. With the exception of one or two clunky shots, he has achieved his goal. One thing that has not stood the test of time is John Williams' mediocre score. With the exception of the soaring "E.T." theme, the movie's music is unmemorable and unspectacular - easily the weakest of Williams' major motion picture efforts.

One of the real oddities of watching this movie two decades later is seeing Henry Thomas and Drew Barrymore looking so young. Thomas' career has survived the transition from child to adult, but he has taken the road less traveled by appearing primarily in low-profile, independent features. Barrymore, on the other hand, has gone on to become a big star and bigger tabloid attraction. There are times when it's difficult to believe that innocent, smiling Gertie has grown up to become one of Charlie's Angels. The adults in E.T., Dee Wallace and Peter Coyote, have continued making movies, but have remained character actors working outside of the spotlight.

So, 20 years later in a shiny new package, what should we make of E.T.? On inherent merit, the movie would not warrant such a highly publicized re-release, but this is one of those films that transcends what's on the screen. It has touched so many lives and means so much to so many people that it's hard to see it as just another motion picture. I have always viewed E.T. through a jaundiced eye (seeing it initially as a cynical 14-year old may have had something to do with that), but, even considering its mawkish tendencies and unsubtle manipulation, it's impossible to deny that E.T. represents effective storytelling. It's a fairy tale with a heart, an allegory whose themes of peace and anti-prejudice will not be lost on those who don't recognize the allusions. For those who have previously seen E.T., this is a chance to recapture something. And for those who haven't, this is an opportunity to see a movie that, at its best, is almost as special as its reputation indicates.

E.T. (United States, 1982)

Director: Steven Spielberg
Cast: Dee Wallace, Henry Thomas, Peter Coyote, Robert MacNaughton, Drew Barrymore
Screenplay: Melissa Mathison
Cinematography: Allen Daviau
Music: John Williams
U.S. Distributor: Universal Pictures
Run Time: 1:57
U.S. Release Date: 1982-06-11
MPAA Rating: "PG" (Nothing Objectionable)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1