Steven Spielberg’s lovable alien is back, and we can all rejoice at his return. When “E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial” was first released in 1982, it proved a luminous film, eagerly embraced by viewers–as the old phrase goes–from six to sixty. It should receive an equally enthusiastic reception today, especially in a version which looks–and sounds–as superb as this one does. Classics don’t age, however technique may advance; at “E.T.” is unquestionably a classic.
Happily, the modifications found in this twentieth-anniversary edition are minimal. Some of the effects have been enhanced, and a few scenes added (most notably a bath-tub sequence with E.T. and Elliott, and a Halloween-night conversation between mom Dee Wallace Stone and tyke Drew Barrymore). A reference to “terrorist” in the original dialogue has been removed (although, if memory serves, this had already been jettisoned in tape releases), and–per Spielberg’s desire–images of all firearms have been digitally covered or simply cut–in the scene when agents converge on the abandoned white van in the park toward the close, for example, guns have been replaced, fairly successfully, with walkie-talkies. The soundtrack has also been remastered, and the result is gorgeous. John Williams’ score comes across better than ever. (Has it ever been noted how the “creepier” portions of the music–not the soaring theme of course, but the growling “menace” cuts–are perhaps the most Herrmannesque stuff that Williams has ever written? Some of the low rumbles at the beginning are distinctly reminiscent of the moody melody with which “Citizen Kane” begins and ends. No complaints from this quarter–Williams could hardly choose a better model–but the similarity is strong.)
There’s no need to go on at length about the story, of course. Suffice it to say that the tale of the boy from a broken family who bonds with a rubber-faced visitor from space while governmental officials track down the extraterrestrial guest has the wonderful simplicity of the best fairy-tales, and that Spielberg’s treatment of it is technically skilled and unfailingly affecionate. Melissa Mathison’s screenplay touches all the bases clearly and with considerable charm–few pictures have dealt with the relationships among suburban siblings so deftly (contrary to rumors, some of their stronger bits of dialogue–“penis breath” and “son of a bitch,” for example, are still present)–and the effects are even smoother this time around. Henry Thomas’ exquisite performance as Elliott has long been recognized, and Barrymore’s scene-stealing turn is well-known, but Robert McNaughton’s older brother has never gotten the recognition it deserves. He conveys an undercurrent of sadness that’s actually quite touching.
It’s a real pleasure to have older films like “E.T.” come back to theatres, because they’re so enjoyable in themselves. Unfortunately, there’s a downside. They remind us of the quality Hollywood efforts used to have, fairly regularly, in the 1970s and 1980s, and demonstrate–rather brutally–that most of today’s supposed blockbusters don’t even begin to measure up in comparison. So there’s a twinge of sadness, as well as joy, in watching this reissue of “E.T.” Of course, that tear in your eye might simply come from the triumphant escape and farewell that close the film, too. After all, anyone whose heart isn’t touched by “E.T.” probably doesn’t have one.