E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial: The 20th Anniversary

Reviewed By Stephen Groenewegen
Posted 03/28/02 13:39:04

4 stars (Worth A Look)

E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial is a modern fairy tale about a lonely boy who befriends a lost alien. When it was released in Australian cinemas in 1982, E.T. had a ‘G’ rating (General admittance). Twenty years later, the re-release has been slapped with a more restrictive ‘PG’ (Parental Guidance recommended for children under 15). Who’d have thought Australian children in 2002 needed greater protection from the phrase “penis breath” (gasp!) than they did 20 years ago? Perhaps the Office of Film and Literature Classification is stuck in 1962 (this is what six years of an ultra-conservative federal government will do to a country).

Steven Spielberg also wants to protect us from exposure to naughty words. Mary (Dee Wallace Stone) no longer forbids her son to dress like a “terrorist” at Halloween. Instead, she’s been overdubbed telling him not to look like a “hippie”. Never mind that he’s wearing combat boots and army camouflage pants - hardly typical pacifist get-up. Spielberg’s decision to digitally substitute police guns with walkie-talkies produces an equally absurd result. The police may be holding radios now, but they’re still pointing them at the children as if they were weapons.

Unusually for a major re-release, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial - 20th Anniversary Edition boasts only a couple of new sequences. For the first time, we see Elliott (Henry Thomas) giving the newly arrived E.T. a bath, and Mary searching the streets for her kids on Halloween night. The new scenes aren’t essential, but they’re an added reason to revisit the film and they don’t add much to the running time (E.T. still clocks in at under two hours).

The major work has gone into restoring the print, remastering John Williams’ catchy score and cleaning up the visual effects. Thankfully, only subtle cosmetic enhancements have been added to the E.T. character, such as digitally widening his range of facial expressions. Kids have learnt to relate to entirely computer-generated characters like Shrek, but part of the rough charm of E.T. came from his being a combination of mechanical puppet, model and human movement.

E.T. is never predictable because he behaves differently according to how he’s being rendered in the scene. As well as employing short actors to don the “E.T. suit”, a mime artist (Caprice Rothe) contributed E.T.’s graceful hand movements. E.T.’s alien voice – which veers from phlegmatic croak to purring cat – was mostly the electronically altered tones of Pat Welsh, mixed in with sounds from 18 other sources, including various animals.

What struck me most watching E.T. again was the simplicity of the story. The subplot of Elliott’s psychic connection with E.T. is only padding. It’s not necessary to the plot because we already care about E.T., and recognise Elliot’s bond with him – putting Elliott in mortal danger as well verges on overkill. The screenplay, written by Melissa Mathison (who developed Spielberg’s initial idea), speaks directly to kids by giving them characters and issues they can relate to: Elliot is lonely because his parents are separated and because he’s a middle child; E.T. is homesick. Spielberg shoots most of the adults in the first half of the film as if he was only waist-high, and begins with a lengthy sequence in the forest that takes place without dialogue.

Spielberg operates on the level of primal emotions – he preys on our natural urge to protect, or fear for, a defenceless child in danger or an injured, helpless animal. He shot the film in continuity to make it easier for his child actors and they reward him with terrific performances. There’s a special shock of recognition seeing six-year-old Drew Barrymore as Elliott’s little sister. Who’d have guessed in 1982 that she would be the film’s most recognisable star 20 years on?

The polished effects are an improvement and should prevent the savvy kids of MTV-generation parents dismissing E.T. as a museum piece. E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial - 20th Anniversary Edition has been polished till it shines.

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