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E.T. comes home to big screen

Twenty years ago, a promising young director named Steven Spielberg introduced audiences to a pint-sized scene-stealer whose big eyes, naive honesty and sense of childish wonder charmed audiences around the world.

Boy, that Drew Barrymore was a cute kid in 1982.

Such nostalgia is the most special effect found in the 20th anniversary re-release of E.T. the Extra-terrestrial, a movie we know by heart because we've kept it so close to our hearts. Spielberg tweaked his movie a bit to accommodate modern tastes, adding a few digital flourishes and extra footage. But the appeal of this fairy tale, told in a manner that seems minimalistic compared with today's high-tech epics, is timeless.

The filmmaker's enhancements don't reinterpret the movie, as Francis Ford Coppola's revision of Apocalypse Now did last year. This is still the same boy-meets-alien, boy-loses-alien, boy-gets-alien-back fantasy cheered by moviegoers when Ronald Reagan was president. With the exception of car models, hairdos and telephones with cords, E.T. feels as if it could have been produced last week.

Sympathy for Elliot (Henry Thomas) is easy, as a middle child in a broken family who finally has something special happening just for him. The suburb he inhabits doesn't look any different from the ones being refinanced by homeowners today. Family dynamics are universal: Doting, separated and stressed mom (Dee Wallace), a little sister Gertie (Barrymore) with all the self-assertion Elliot lacks, and an older brother Michael (Robert McNaughton) rubbing his nose in it. Life for Elliot isn't tough, but it's just life, as only a child can underestimate it.

Enter E.T., an alien botanist left behind by his spaceship when its collection mission is uncovered by government agents. He's as scared as Elliot when they meet, but the Reese's Pieces soon fall into place and an invader becomes a pet, then a pal. We know what's coming; close calls, deceptions, apparent death and a rainbow ending. Yet the movie still works, not only because of its craft, but also because we need this kind of fantasy now.

Spielberg added an amusing two-minute sequence featuring Elliot showing E.T. around the bathroom, a shot proving for the first time that the alien is amphibious. The rest of the extra footage either extends the chase scenes with more silhouetted agents or will be noticed only by the film's most devoted fans. The spaceship glows better, E.T.'s facial expressions are smoother, and most of the handguns carried by E.T.'s pursuers have been digitally changed to walkie-talkies, reflecting Spielberg's concern about their presence in such a gentle story.

And, contrary to previous reports, the memorably crude insult Elliot tosses at Michael over the dinner table is still intact. Michael still lets a couple of profanities slip. Spielberg's politically correct instincts don't deny the fact that teenagers talk that way, then and now. That was part of the film's honesty, which allowed Elliot to remind another boy: "This is reality, Greg!"

Seeing E.T. the Extra-terrestrial on the big screen again is a chance not to be missed, even if the reissue seems like a promotion for an inevitable DVD release, the first for Spielberg's movie. Each cast reunion interview seems like a preview of coming attractions on alternate audio tracks, but that's quibbling. Spielberg doesn't need to gamble as Coppola did and make this E.T. Redux. What could anyone possibly want to change?

REVIEW

E.T. the Extra-terrestrial

Grade: A

Director: Steven Spielberg

Cast: Henry Thomas, Dee Wallace, Drew Barrymore, Robert McNaughton, Peter Coyote

Screenplay: Melissa Mathison

Rating: PG; mild peril, brief profanity

Running time: 120 min.

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