E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial Movie Review
For all the buzz about alterations made to "E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial" for its 20th anniversary release, the impact of these changes is insignificant at best. With or without them, the film remains the kind of unabashed delight that can make even the most cynical filmgoer feel like a kid wrapped up in the fantasy of it all.
Steven Speilberg tapped CGI technology to give the little hammer-headed, saucer-eyed, smoker's-voiced alien more life-like movements -- most notably in his desperate opening scene dash toward to his departing ship while the government man with jangling keys on his belt gives chase through the forest.
E.T. used to slide through the underbrush as if he was being pulled on tracks -- which he was, and the fact that it looked so fake became an awkward distraction in the first five minutes. Now E.T. rapidly lumbers on all fours like an ape. It may not sound like much, but believe me, it's a vast improvement.
Computer F/X have also been used to sanitize the film of any guns (the FBI guys now carry more family-friendly walkie-talkies), to give the creature more realistic mouth and eye movements, and to restore a scene of Elliott and E.T. playing in the bathtub that hadn't worked to Speilberg's satisfaction using anamatronics in 1982.
Not that any of this stands out particularly, but since nobody's going to read this review to learn about the plot (I mean, who doesn't know it's about a little boy helping an adorable lost alien "phone home"?), I though these changes would be a good jumping-off point.
What does stand out in the kind of reflective viewing a re-release inspires is just how good the film's performances are. It's almost mind-boggling the deeply emotional way young Henry Thomas (who as an adult has proven his acting chops in "Niagara, Niagara" and "All the Pretty Horses") connects with the special effect that is the "star" of the film.
Consider what he would have seen that we don't: a highway of wires and tubes running from the rubbery, high-tech marionette to just off screen where a dozen puppeteers fiddled with remote controls to make the thing breathe, blink, speak and reach out its glowing, healing finger. Yet despite all that, it is this 10-year-old boy, more than anything else, that makes us believe E.T. is alive.
Five-year-old Drew Barrymore is just as wonderful as Elliott's little sister Gertie, who dresses the lost alien for a tea party and smarts off at her brother with a sense of humor beyond her years. Robert McNaughton as the protective big brother and Dee Wallace Stone a their flighty mom concerned about her son's strange behavior give the family genuine cohesion.
While Speilberg does a sublimely subtle job with the family affairs, "E.T" is a good early indicator of the sledgehammer approach to emotions that would become a hallmark of the director's career -- and not just when he wants you to cry (e.g. the wilting/blooming pot of flowers that psychically indicate E.T.'s health condition). When government agents finally invade Elliott's home looking for the alien, Speilberg attempts to elicit fear by sending in guys wearing space suits -- honest-to-goodness astronaut's space suits -- lumbering with their arms out front like 1930s movie mummies. I mean, come on. Wouldn't a guy in a haz-mat suit have sufficed -- and been more sensible?
Seeing the movie as an adult, I also feel that the whole flying bicycles thing is too much. Not only does this scene -- in which E.T. levitates the kids as they escape from government guys giving chase in ominously nondescript sedans -- still look fake even with some CGI rejiggering, but it anchors a film firmly in kiddie-flick territory when it's otherwise perfect for all ages.
But just about everything else in "E.T." stands the tests of time and cynicism -- even John Williams' affecting but overbearing score. Speilberg's attention to detail helps the movie avoid drifting into alien-among-us clichés that might otherwise doom it as hokey and contrived. The way E.T. learns English, for example, is completely reasonable. The fact that his breathing is labored throughout the film is an intelligent indicator that he's not accustomed to Earth's atmosphere and that he may not make it if he doesn't "phone home."
None of the scenes that have become clichés unto themselves ("E.T. phone home!") have grown laughable the way, say, scenes from "Gone With the Wind" have. (Granted, "E.T." is still a few decades younger.) And after 20 years of rapid technological advances, it's even more fun to watch E.T. build his interstellar communicator out of virtual antiques like a Speak 'n' Spell and a record player. You really feel for the little guy, stuck on a planet so primitive it doesn't even have Pentium processors or cell phones to work with!