E.T. : Spielberg’s Masterpiece

Despite some new footage and astute digital enhancements, the 20th anniversary reissue of E.T. The Extra Terrestrial, Steven Spielberg’s most beloved alien fable, shows that the film is very much a product of its times, reflecting the zeitgeist and technology of 1982.

That said, it’s an excellent idea – and not just for commercial reasons – to introduce a new generation of filmgoers (the children of those who saw it two decades ago) to a quintessential American fantasy that has captured the imagination of movie lovers worldwide. With US grosses bordering on $400 milliom, the PG-rated E.T. is still one of the most popular works in cinema history.

The new edition may not score as high as the reissue of the Star Wars features did in 1997, but it will certainly do well; better, in fact, than the re-release of The Exorcist, which attracted a teen and twentysomething audience reared on the likes of Scream.

The film industry’s economics, technological base and marketing strategies have changed so much during the past two decades that the original tagline for E.T. – “He Is Afraid. He Is Totally Alone. He is 3,000,000 Light Years From Home” – now registers as naive, old-fashioned, and charming: attributes that apply to Spielberg’s acknowledged masterpiece as well.

It’s impossible to divorce E.T.’s cult status from the political context in which it was made President Ronald Reagans administration and economically and culturally depressed society – as well as the kind of industry that Hollywood was in 1982. The obsession with science-fiction and special effects began in 1977 with the release of two big event pictures: George Lucas’s Star Wars and Spielberg’s Close Encounters Of The Third Kind, an under-estimated work that’s superior to E.T. in several significant respects. Both Close Encounters and E.T. displayed Spielberg’s meticulous craftsmanship and his fascination with technology as well as mythology.

E.T. tells the story of a pint-sized creature from another world who finds himself stranded on Earth, when his frightened fellow travelers are forced to abandon him. E.T. hides in the outhouse of a typical American family, headed by a single working mother, of teenager Michael and Elliott (a splendid Henry Thomas) and Gertie (cute Drew Barrymore), two younger children. In a series of comic misadventures, E.T. joins the family, soon adding the very ingredient that’s been missing in the house: a strong center capable of holding the loose, free-floating individuals together, thereby giving order and meaning to their lives.

The children come to understand themselves better due to E.T.’s presence, as well as their growing ability (with the mini-creature serving as catalyst) to accept each other’s different ways. Similarly, their mother is shaken into a more sensitive awareness of her own children. Elliott also forces the entire community to “see” the creature that once was visible exclusively to him.

What stood out in 1982 – and still stands out today – is Spielberg’s beautiful evocation of childhood, sibling love and ordinary American family life in the suburbs. Most American films have looked down upon suburbanism with cynicism and outright contempt. By contrast E.T., which reflects its director’s biography and fantasy, shows three children, product of a broken home, who form a coalition, a small family unit, against the adult world.

Indeed, the picture’s point of view is coherent, telling the narrative from the children’s perspective and slicing or omitting entirely the surrounding adult world. All the film’s mature characters are bland and flat, and it’s significant that, for the most part, they are shown faceless, usually from the waist down. This includes a marvelous scene, in which a cold, impersonal teacher orders the class to dissect a frog, only to be defied by Elliott, who orchestrates a minor revolution by releasing the entrapped amphibians and sending them back to nature. The intimate and rewarding sense of the children’s milieu recalls the strong emotional effect of Rebel Without a Cause, with E.T. serving as a more youthful variation, taking on honest, rebellious kids, who opt to listen to their hearts – and save the alien – rather than obey the dictates of parents, cops and scientists.

For the new edition, Spielberg has made only few, subtle enhancements, incorporating state-of-the art digital effects that were unavailable in 1982. Special effects masters Dennis Muren and Bill George have supervised the insertion of the new visual effects at the Industrial Light & Magic Lab.

Overall, about 60 shots (5 percent of the footage) have been altered. Among these are the spacecraft landing, the flying bike-chases and the first encounter between Elliott and E.T. in the backyard. In the name of political correctness, the scene in which police officers brandish shotguns and set up pistols at a roadblock to stop the biking children, has also been altered: now the law-officers carry flashlights and walkie-talkies, as Elliott and his chums evade them and ride into the sky. (In the new version, the original 18-inch-tall bike-riding puppets are replaced with real-life actors, cast with reference to the original stars.)

The wordless, poetic, and suspenseful introductory sequence, in which E.T. is accidentally abandoned in a forest by his departing space ship, is still impressive in the way it utilizes cinematic – and Spielbergian – devices. A lovely scene of three or four minutes that depicts Elliott and E.T. sharing a bath, missing from the original, has also been restored. Perhaps most significantly, Rambaldi’s animatronic E.T. has received a CG makeover in order to improve his movement and smooth out his performance.

At the time of its original release E.T. was a merchandising blitz; 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.

Allegedly, even during production, Spielberg, his cast and crew felt they had something special on their hands. History proved them right: up until the reissue of the first Star Wars in 1997 (which combined its box office with the originals), E.T. was the top grossing in American cinema. In the wake of E.T.’s colossal 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 not to follow this path was right and smart: Spielberg was well aware that there was no way he could improve upon, or even match, the magic of the original feature.

The sense of awe at the universe’s magnitude, along with a positive mind-set, is what Spielberg shares with the typical Disney entertainment fare: a wondrous ability to dazzle audiences with the plausible impossible, achieved through magic effects. It’s worth noting that originally Mathison wrote E.T. for Disney, although that studio passed on it, to its doubtless everlasting regret. An optimistic filmmaker, Spielberg is effective at manipulating the audience into sobbing and feeling good about it. The parting of Elliott and E.T., when the creature finally goes home, is still an extremely moving scene.

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