Originally released in the summer of 1982, Steven Spielberg’s classic sci-fi heart-tugger is celebrating its 20th anniversary by returning to theaters with enhanced visual effects, never-before-seen footage and a re-mastered soundtrack. A young boy named Elliott, coping with his parents’ recent separation, makes a new friend when a stranded extra-terrestrial wanders into his backyard. With the help of his older brother Michael and little sister Gertie, Elliott tries to keep E.T. a secret—especially from grownups—while making the creature feel at home. But “home” is where the heartlight is, and E.T. misses his glowing family. The alien falls ill and into the hands of scary government scientists, only to be rescued by his friend and taken (on flying bicycles) to rendezvous with his space ship.
about the changes: Most of the filmmakers’ tinkering is subtle enough to go virtually unnoticed. A sharper print. A more vivid score. The story is exactly the same, though a couple of scenes (your basic DVD bonus material) were rescued from the cutting room floor and reinstated. The most noteworthy addition is one in which E.T. explores the family bathroom. Cute moments include emptying a tube of toothpaste, sneezing, getting sprayed by a can of soda and toppling into a bathtub (there’s brief concern that the alien may be drowning, but all ends well). Another “new” sequence involves Mary driving through what looks like a suburban riot zone to locate her trick-or-treating children.
What’s more impressive than the added scenes is how computer-generated special effects take E.T. to another level of authenticity without drawing undue attention to themselves. They range from lights on the space ship to more natural movements and facial expressions by E.T. And in the roadblock scene, Spielberg, bothered by the notion of men brandishing guns to deal with innocent kids, has even replaced the FBI’s shotguns with walkie-talkies—one of several PC tweaks.
One might think that odd jobs such as helming Jurassic Park, Schindler’s List, Amistad, A.I.: Artificial Intelligence and Saving Private Ryan might have kept the director busy enough over the past two decades to close the book on E.T., one of the most successful box-office hits of all time. Not at all. “I’ve seen the film many times on videotape with my kids as they grew up, and I would always flinch at technical flaws that perhaps only I noticed,” Spielberg explains. “For example, I always wanted to fix E.T.’s run at the beginning of the film when Keys is chasing him, because he was simply an outline of E.T. on a rail with his heartlight moving through some weeds.” Now E.T. makes a mad dash through the forest, bounding along with an almost simian rhythm.
Spielberg’s partner, producer Kathleen Kennedy, agrees that advanced computer technology led to this reissue. “We were remembering things like, ‘Remember that day when E.T.’s lip got caught and we were never able to fix it for the shot?’ . . . The key to these creative changes was Steven’s proviso that he wanted these enhancements to really assimilate into what people remember about this movie.”
That artistic restraint is most colorfully articulated in an analogy by Industrial Light & Magic’s Bill George. “It’s kind of like the difference between sending grandma to the beauty parlor, or sending her to the plastic surgeon,” he says. “We wanted to send grandma to the beauty parlor, because she’s someone you love. You don’t want to change her, just make her more attractive.” For the record, grandma’s looking better than ever!
positive elements: Elliott and E.T. develop a deep friendship. The boy exhibits patience and kindness as he gently lures the alien into his room and proceeds to explain his world. Michael, Elliott and Gertie give each other a hard time, yet there’s the sense that they really do love each other. The proof lies in the way they pull together to support one another as they help E.T. It’s also good to see a peace-loving alien visit earth again (in recent years, Hollywood has shifted toward violent invasion films like Independence Day and the mean-spirited Mars Attacks). Reading from a children’s story, Mary shares the section in which Tinkerbell nobly drinks poison intended for her friend, Peter Pan. The movie alludes to the power of entertainment as a teaching tool when E.T. learns about interstellar communication from a comic strip and spends hours in front of the television set soaking in Western culture. Elliott exhibits conviction and compassion when he frees a group of frogs destined to be dissected in science class. References to the parents’ separation (and the dad’s dating exploits) indicate how destructive divorce is to families. In fact, Spielberg says of the film, “I always wanted to tell the story of a child’s reaction to his parents splitting up when he’s still only about 10 years old, and how it impacts the rest of his life. . . . It was a childhood dream of a special friend who rescues a boy from the sadness of divorce.”
spiritual content: Older boys interact over a fantasy role-playing game akin to Dungeons and Dragons that involves “throwing spells” (mentioned, not shown). The film’s ambiguous spirituality could be read a couple of ways. On one level, the idea of a special friend coming from above, healing hurts, connecting with us at an emotional level, dying, rising from the dead, bidding farewell to his friends and returning to the heavens should sound familiar to Christians. For years I’ve used this parallel of events in the life of Christ as a prime example of how secular entertainment can unintentionally borrow from the divine drama of the Gospel. However, scenes in which E.T.’s feelings are essentially being “channeled” by Elliott are strange at best. And when E.T. gets ill, so does Elliott (“We’re sick . . . I think we’re dying”).
sexual content: None, though male anatomy factors into crass name-calling between brothers.
violent content: Mild violence includes neighborhood mischief at Halloween (lighting fires, TP-ing houses, egging cars). Several costumes are a bit gruesome, such as Michael’s fake “knife-through-the-head.”
crude or profane language: Several crude expressions, five profanities (including two s-words) and a half-dozen exclamations of “oh my god.”
drug and alcohol content: When we first meet Michael and his friends, several are smoking cigarettes. E.T. downs a six-pack of beer, which not only results in his drunkenness, but makes Elliott tipsy as well.
other negative elements: This “kid empowerment flick” sends some subtle messages parents may wish to address. First, adults are antagonists not to be trusted (even Mom isn’t brought in on the E.T. secret until he’s too sick for the boys to handle on their own). Second, although Mary is a new single mom who obviously loves her three children, it’s clear that the inmates are running the asylum in that home. Kids rule. They’re smarter and more savvy than their elders. Elsewhere, Michael and his teenage friends gamble on a role-playing game. Dishonest or illegal behaviors are deemed acceptable when the ends justify the means (Elliott lies about being sick so he can skip school; the kids deceive Mom; Michael steals an ambulance and drives without a license, etc.). Very young viewers may be spooked by tense encounters early in the film (Elliott tracking a mysterious intruder in the dark) and frenzied chases near the end. They may also have a harder time handling E.T.’s sickness and apparent death.
conclusion: I first met the little brown guy with the glowing finger in June of ’82, just as I was graduating from high school. I remember the theater I went to. The girl I was dating. And how both of us couldn’t wait to see the movie again with our parents. It was a magical time and E.T. was part of it. So it’s possible that my memories of the film are a bit idealized. At least, that’s what I thought before attending a screening of the 20th Anniversary Edition. The crowd (mostly adults) was enraptured by it. Had they all graduated that summer? Were they all dating a cute underclassman? Maybe, but odds are each had his or her own reasons for being moved by revisiting the tender boy-and-his-alien story. Keep in mind, there was no home video in 1982. And summer blockbusters had yet to become prefab spectacles long on special effects and short on heart. So perhaps some across-the-board romantic attachment is understandable. But baby boomers eager to share that theatrical experience (richly enhanced and beautifully restored) with young children should use caution. Some content—profanity in particular—may not be quite as ideal as they remember it. Those moments notwithstanding, E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial is an enduring, out-of-this-world fantasy that’s still fun 20 years later.