As the old saying goes, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." Pretty simple. But what if it ain't broke, yet could be wonderfully enhanced by technology that didn't exist back in the day but can rather lucidly bring to life a character, that in retrospect, was pretty inert? It's a confusing and maddening idea, to allow directors to go back and alter their own films to meet the need of today's audiences, and I generally don't like it. However, the new, 20th anniversary release of the classic "E.T." (IMDb listing) is another story.
We all know the plot, right? A lonely and sad little boy named Elliot (Henry Thomas) comes across an extra terrestrial in his backyard shed. The alien, nicknamed E.T., has been left behind by his colleagues' spaceship when government agents interfere with the peace loving species' scouting mission. Elliot takes the alien back home to his older brother Michael (Robert MacNaughton), sister Gertie (a marvelously adorable Drew Barrymore) and mother (Dee Wallace). E.T. and Elliot become fast friends, but soon enough, government agents locate the missing alien, and it's up to Elliot and his family to make sure the little green (actually more brown) man returns home safely.
"Schindler's List" and "Saving Private Ryan" are Spielberg's historical achievements. The "Indiana Jones" trilogy and "Jaws" are Spielberg's unparalleled audience-pleasing classics. But "E.T." is Spielberg's masterwork. A film of unequaled beauty and warmth that the director has never been able to conjure up again. The big screen is where this picture belongs, and this 20th anniversary edition is the perfect way for a whole new generation to catch up with this timeless film. The jokes still hold up, the magic still seems real, and that ugly little title character can still make you weep like it's Christmas Eve at the North Pole. But now, 20 years later, the heartbreaking themes of divorce are perceptible where they weren't before. The friendship between Elliot and E.T. seems more urgent and genuine, and the aforementioned Barrymore is a cuteness bomb that could decimate entire cities compared to today's "Village Of The Damned" child actors. I'm jealous of those seeing this film for the first time, but now, years later, "E.T." is an even more emotionally rewarding and fundamentally entertaining experience than I ever thought before.
While there are a series of scene extensions that fill out the film a little more for this anniversary edition, the biggest change to the picture comes in the form of a scene with E.T. learning the inner-workings of Elliot's bathroom. It is a delightful episode that doesn't interfere with the flow of the film, but instead goes a long way toward heightening the friendship between the two characters. Another major change is the deletion of the guns the government agents carry as they chase E.T. and Elliot. A nice choice, and though it slightly devalues the danger the two are in as they try to escape, I can understand why Spielberg made the alteration.
The rest of the alterations to this edition are simple computer manipulations of the facial expressions on the E.T. puppet. Sure, the plastic creation worked fine in 1982, even going so far as to convince an entire planet that he was real. But the limits of the wonderful Carlo Rambaldi work are a little more obvious in today's film world, and Spielberg makes a nice choice by allowing the wizards at Industrial Light + Magic to go in and give E.T. new life. While one can easily spot the alterations done to E.T. (computer effects just aren't perfected yet), the changes work immensely to give the character even more personality and wonder. E.T. now smiles, can portray fear and sadness and even has a little playful side, as evidenced in the new bathtub scene. I can understand the film purists out there who scoff at the notion of altering a classic, but this isn't the "Star Wars" special editions of 1997, where George Lucas got a little out of control with his changes to the space operas. The new "E.T." is far more restrained in the modifications, giving new life to elements like the flying bicycle scenes and the E.T. spaceship, not to the overall narrative. I would even go so far as to think of the film as a work in progress, where 20 years from now the ILM boys can go back and perfect the work that they've started here. "E.T." is such a rousing cinematic treat that it can withstand the years of change. I don't see a problem in trying to soup up the film a little for today's terribly cynical audiences.
What is readily apparent once the opening credits roll is how much "E.T." is deliberately paced. The picture is quite slow compared to today's family films. It takes its time to roll out the story, in return allowing the audience to absorb the details of E.T.'s journey. The film still holds its appeal after all this time, and it's a treat to enjoy the lazy charms of the picture with the children of today, who are deluged with Japanimation, wisecracking Disney cartoons and commercial after commercial. Will today's children delight in seeing E.T. get drunk? Look in awe when E.T. heals Elliot's finger wounds? Marvel at the ancient technology when E.T. uses a Speak And Spell to call home? Cry when E.T. almost dies? Get goosebumps when the local boys use their BMX bikes to save E.T.?
For the love of Pete, I hope so. Kids today need the palate-cleansing "E.T." now more than ever. Years of "Home Alone" clones and "Spy Kids" action (though both are fine films in their own right) has numbed them to the joys of a true emotional connection. I hope "E.T." can turn that around, if only for a little while.
Now back in theaters where it belongs, I strongly implore everyone to check it out again. The new effects might not be to your liking, but the strength of the filmmaking, the power of the story and the wonder of E.T. should be more than enough to warmly remind you of the last time an honest film about childhood innocence was made.
Filmfodder Grade: A+