E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial
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 the movie.

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?

Directed by:
Steven Spielberg

Dee Wallace-Stone
Henry Thomas
Peter Coyote
Robert MacNaughton
Drew Barrymore
K.C. Martel
Sean Frye
C. Thomas Howell
David M. O'Dell
Richard Swingler
Frank Toth
Robert Barton
Michael Durrell
David Berkson
David Carlberg

Written by:
Melissa Mathison

PG - Parent Guidance
Some material may not
be appropriate for children.






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