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E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial: The 20th Anniversary   B

Universal Pictures

Year Released: 2002 (Original Version: 1982)
MPAA Rating: PG
Director: Steven Spielberg
Writer: Melissa Mathison
Cast: Henry Thomas, Dee Wallace, Peter Coyote, Robert MacNaughton, Drew Barrymore, K.C. Martel, Sean Frye, Tom Howell.

Review by Rob Vaux

Of all the films in Steven Spielberg's repertoire, E.T. always seemed the most puzzling to me. Heralded as his shining masterpiece (at least until "mature" works like Schindler's List displaced it), it always came off as... calculated. The emotions felt a tad homogenized, the corporate mentality a little too blatant. Certainly, the film was impressive, but it never moved me the way it did so many others. Nevertheless, I concede E.T.'s moments of genuine magic and grudgingly acknowledge its place in the canon of motion picture classics.

It would be easier if Spielberg hadn't insisted on mucking with it.

Updated editions are quite the rage in Hollywood these days. While a few represent genuine artistic improvement (Blade Runner comes immediately to mind), most feel like narcissistic self-indulgence -- a big-name director's need to tinker with his work while simultaneously making a fast buck for the studio. Sci-fi films are particularly vulnerable. The advent of digital technology offers the chance to update rubber puppets and blue screen sets with cutting-edge imagery. What the filmmakers don't realize is that it remains as vulnerable to time as any other technology. In 20 years, the effects we currently herald as so groundbreaking will look as tacky and fake as 1982's. By "updating" films -- inserting today's technology into yesterday's creation -- they mar and distort the original vision for a few short years of ephemeral relevance.

So it goes with E.T. Apparently dissatisfied with the limits of the original, Spielberg and company have spruced it up with "enhanced" visual effects and a few new scenes. Each and every one of them is utterly superfluous. Certainly, the face of the cute little title character is now far more fluid and expressive... and more artificial as well. The "new" images jar with the older effects, disrupting the film's well-developed atmosphere. Abandoned on Earth during what appears to be a botany expedition, E.T. makes his way into a nearby suburb, where he befriends a lonely little boy named Elliott (Henry Thomas). The depiction of Elliott's life, and the remarkable relationship he develops with his new acquaintance, form the film's justly celebrated core. Yet every time we see E.T.'s newly digitized face, we're reminded that we're not watching an alien, but an effect. It throws the movie off its stride, detracting from its better elements.

The new scenes don't add much either. The largest (in which Elliott and E.T. explore the family bathroom) contains the worst intrusion of the new effects, and the rest feel tacked-on and extraneous. Contrary to early rumor, the filmmakers kept in Elliott's famous "penis breath" line (though they changed a bit about his brother Michael's Halloween costume -- he was originally going as a terrorist). They should have stuck with those instincts.

If the original incarnation had a failing, it was its overabundant cuddliness: moments that felt too cute or emotional buttons pushed too hard. Even the sinister agents chasing E.T. were led by New Age nice guy Peter Coyote, who wanted the little guy to get home just as badly was we did. In this new edition, the edges are filed down even more... the government agents no longer have firearms, replaced via computer with flashlights and walkie-talkies. God forbid we should actually feel threatened by the bad guys. This sort of infernal tweaking haunts every moment of the new edition, and even when they're not on-screen, their fingerprints can be sensed.

Despite that, E.T.'s undeniable appeal survives all of the pokes and prods. Only Spielberg could realize that flying on bikes was much closer to a child's mindset than simply flying, and only he could display such a notion with unqualified wonder. The government agents remain menacing (even without their hog-legs), and the interplay between Elliott and his siblings rings just as true as it did 20 years ago. E.T. has its share of priceless moments, signaling Spielberg's legitimate status as a master filmmaker. I still believe that those qualities found more potent ground in other films, but it's hard to argue with the wide-eyed young faces who were watching in the theater with me. Anyone who somehow missed E.T. all these years should catch a viewing with all deliberate speed -- and the big screen is still the only proper venue to see it.

In light of that, the new material poses a troubling paradox: if the movie were so good, then why would you want to make changes? If Spielberg couldn't achieve an effect 20 years ago, it didn't show back then. Why should it be any different now? Films like E.T. are classics for a reason. They didn't need any bells and whistles to make us watch. So repeat after me: Captain Willard did not run into a French plantation; Father Dyre did not go off with Lt. Kinderman; Greedo did not shoot first; and E.T. was just fine in 1982... rubber puppets and all.

Review published 03.25.2002.

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