Despite some new footage and astute digital enhancements, the 20th anniversary reissue of E.T. The Extra Terrestrial, Spielberg's most beloved alien fable, is very much a product of its times, reflecting the zeitgeist and state of technology in which it was made, back in 1982. That said, it's an excellent idea–and not just for commercial reasons–to introduce a new generation of filmgoers (basically the children of those who had seen it two decades ago) to a quintessential American fantasy tale that has captured the imagination of movie lovers all over the world.
With domestic grosses bordering on $400,000,000, E.T. is still one of the most popular works in the history of cinema. New edition mat not score as high as the reissue of the first Star War movies in the late 1990s, but will certainly do well, better in fact than the 1973 The Exorcist, which was also recently re-released.
The film industry, its economic conditions, state of technology and special effects, and marketing, have changed so much over the past two decades that the original advertising for E.T.–”He Is Afraid. He Is Totally Alone. He is 3,000,000 Light Years From Home–registers as naive, old-fashioned and charming, attributes that still characterize Spielberg's acknowledged masterpiece.
It's impossible to divorce the cult status of this classic from both the socio-political context in which it was made–the early years of Reagan administration–as well as the kind of industry that Hollywood was in 1982. The obsession with sci-fi genre and special (both visual and audio) effects began in 1977 with the release of two quintessential films: George Lucas's Star Wars and Spielberg's on Close Encounters With the Third Kind, an underestimated picture which is superior to E.T. in several significant respects.
The wordless, poetic, and suspenseful introductory sequence, in which E.T. is accidentally deserted in a forest by its departing space ship, is still impressive in the way it utilizes specifically cinematic–and Spielbergian–devices, such as
Allegedly, even during production, Spielberg, cast and crew felt they had something special on their hands, and history proved them right, when, up until the reissue of the 1977s Star Wars, E.T. was the top grossing in American cinema.
In the wake of E.T.'s bonanza success, Spielberg found himself under pressure to make a sequel, and for a brief time rumors circulated about a new treatment, co-scripted by Spielberg and Melissa Mathison (who wrote the original). However, his staunch refusal proved out to be right and smart. Not only is E.T. a product of its time and a reflection of Spielberg's sensibility as a filmmaker back in 1982, but the helmer also knew there was no way to improve upon or even match the film's magic, and the idea was shelved for good.
For the new edition, Spielberg has made only few, subtle enhancements, incorporating state-of-the art digital effects that were simply not available in 1982. Masters Dennis Muren and Bill George supervised the insertion of the new visual effects (which in 1982 won Oscars) at the Industrial Light & Magic Lab.
Overall, about 60 shots (less than 5 percent of the running time) of the film were altered. Among those are the spacecraft landing, the flying bike-chases, the first encounter between Elliott and E.T. in his family's suburban backyard. In the name of political correctness, the original scene in which police officers brandish shotguns and set up pistols at a roadblock, to stop the biking children, has been altered and the law-officers now carry flashlights and walkie-talkies, as Elliott and his chums evade the police and literally ride into the sky. Technically speaking, in the 2002 version, the 18-inch tall puppets (standing in for the kids) on miniature bicycles were replaced with actual kids on bikes, with casting based on photo doubles of the 1982 actors.
A lovely scene of 3 minutes that depicts Elliott and E.T. sharing a bath (and E.T. falling into the tub), which was shot but cut in the editing room, has been put back into the new version
Perhaps more significantly, Rambaldi's animatronics E.T. figurine was replaced with a computer-generated version of the character in order to improve the creature's movements vis–vis its surroundings, and smooth out its performance.
E.T. was, of course, a product placement and merchandising blitz (for example, candy from the film became popular). But more significantly, it also had a religious impact, similar to that of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, propagating the message that benevolent aliens, in this case a Christ-like alien, will descend from heaven and fix things up.
What stood out in 1982–and still stands out today–is Spielberg beautiful evocation of childhood, sibling's love, and ordinary family life, as it is lived in the burbs. Contrary to most American films (and novels) that looked upon suburbanism with cynicism if not outright contempt, E.T., reflecting its director's biography and fantasy, showed three children, product of a broken home (they're raised by a single mom, while the estranged father is in Mexico with another woman), who form a coalition, a small family unit against the adult world.
The picture's point of view is consistent and coherent, telling its visually-oriented narrative from the children perspective, slicing and omitting the surrounding adult world. All the mature characters in the film are bland or uninteresting, and it's significant that for the most part they are shown faceless, from the waist down. This includes a charming school scene, in which a heartless, impersonal teacher (who walks in the classroom like a sheriff) orders the kids to dissect a frog, only to be defied by Elliott, who orchestrates a minor revolution by releasing the entrapped frogs and sending them Back to Nature.
The intimate, all-rewarding nature of the children's world recalls and registers the strong emotional effect as that of Rebel Without a Cause, with E.T. as a younger variation on honest, rebellious kids, listening to their heart rather than to their parents and authorities.
E.T. is the tale of an isolated child who forges a friendship with an alien, a pint-sized creature from another world. The movie displays Spielberg's meticulous craftsmanship and his fascination with technology as well as religious mythology.