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E. T. - THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Dee Wallace, Henry Thomas, Robert MacNaughton, Drew Barrymore, Peter Coyote
Director:  Steven Spielberg
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1 ES, DTS 5.1 ES
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1
Studio:  Universal
Features:  See Review
Length:  121 Minutes (Anniversary Edition)
Release Date:  October 22, 2002

“I’ll believe in you all my life…”

Film ***1/2

Nothing has made me feel so old as considering the fact that E. T. is celebrating its 20th anniversary.

I still remember when Steven Spielberg’s opus about a benign alien visitor befriending a little boy first hit theatres, and how it seemed, at the time, the event movie to end all event movies.  Everyone was talking about it.  Parents were ushering their kids into see it.  “Phone home” became the catch phrase of the early 80s.  It doesn’t seem so long ago.

I even remember the first re-release some years later, which came with Steven Spielberg’s promise that his beloved film would NEVER see the light of day on home video.  What did Mary Poppins say about pie crust promises?  Easily made, easily broken?

But 2002 saw our favorite little visitor from another world come back one more time.  Only this time, he was twenty years older.  The years were kinder to him than they were to me.

For the anniversary release, Spielberg “Lucasized” his picture a little bit:  tweaking with the special effects here and there, adding a long discarded sequence, and even making the movie a little more kid friendly than it already was.  Those handgun and rifle toting law enforcers had their weapons digitally replaced with walkie-talkies.  I wonder if that movie cost the movie an NRA endorsement?

Not that it matters…if you show E. T., they will come…though from what I’ve read, not quite in the numbers that Spielberg and crew had imagined.  True, countless people like me who delighted to the film as children were now taking THEIR kids to experience it for the first time, but still…it wasn’t what the industry expected for such a monumental re-release.

Could it be that some were a little put off by the notion of Spielberg tampering with such a beloved classic?  Possibly…at any rate, it would explain his last minute decision to insure that all DVD copies of E. T. would include the original theatrical release in addition to the anniversary one, a feature originally only slated for the more expensive gift set.

I think it was a wise decision.  For one thing, it gave me time to switch my pre-order from the big set to the regular offering, which saved me some dinero!  Secondly, it will allow people to compare both versions with as much scrutiny as they care to put forth and decide for themselves whether or not George Lucas’ famed saying is true, that films are never completed, merely abandoned.

My feelings are mixed.  I think there was a certain charm in E. T.’s lack of mobility and his limited, though communicative facial expressions.  For me, every digital enhancement stands out like a sore thumb, calling rude attention to itself.  The new expanded scene showing E. T. in the tub just looks fake from top to bottom.  On the other hand, the enhancements to the spaceship are cool, and I was glad to see both Elliot’s (Thomas) cape blowing in the wind as the two took their iconographic flight across the moon, and to see the guns go.  I never thought about it much before, but the scene before the boys’ bikes take flight that shows the close-ups of the cops cocking their rifles is a bit disturbing.  Were they going to shoot the kids?

But technical quibbles aside, what remains intact for E. T. is the appealing story.  When humans frighten away his compatriots, E. T. is left stranded on earth, with no way to contact his people and without a friend in the world.

He meets up with Elliot, and they become friends.  E. T. reveals his wonders one at a time to both Elliot and the audience, while Elliot teaches him to talk while learning from him that there really is no place like home.

Many filmgoers cherish this movie…I love it, but never have quite elevated my feelings for it to that extent.  Certain sequences rank amongst Spielberg’s best work, including the bicycle chase near the end (which remains one of the most exciting action pieces I’ve seen), and the grand finale, which hits all the right emotional notes.  Other aspects continue to bother me after two decades…for example, I still don’t understand when, where or how E. T. and Elliot started sharing a complete physical bond.  I’ve also always thought that the school scene with the frogs running free was gratuitous and silly, and seemingly striving for a response that it doesn’t get.

But still, as I’ve said… E. T. has certainly aged better than me in twenty years.  I suppose now I can look forward to the 40th anniversary edition and feel even older than I do now. 

Video ****

Simply astonishing!  Whichever version of the film you choose, Universal has done their homework with this glorious pair of anamorphic transfers.  Though the 80s are usually problematic for DVD, you’d never guess it to look at this picture, where Drew Barrymore’s youth is the only indication of it’s age.  Colors are bright, vivid, well contained and natural looking from top to bottom, and images are sharp and crisply defined.  Light scenes and dark scenes play with equal effectiveness, and there’s no noticeable grain or compression artifacts interfering.  The print itself is in remarkable condition.  Reference quality all the way!

Audio ****

The 5.1 sound (DD or DTS ES mixes) is equally astounding.  I don’t think I’ve ever heard a John Williams score sound as full, detailed and dynamic as this one.  Action sequences and effects keep both front and rear stages active, and the .1 channel gives extra bass to the score and to the bigger sequences, such as the spaceship’s arrival and departure and more.  Best of all, you get both ES soundtracks on both versions of the movie…thanks, Universal!

Features ***1/2

Only the continual absence of Steven Spielberg on a commentary track keeps this score just a notch below perfect.  The first disc, which contains the anniversary edition, also includes Spielberg’s brief introduction and arguably the coolest feature on the disc, which is John Williams’ live performance of the score for the anniversary edition’s premiere.  You can listen to it in its entirety as a separate track…it’s amazing, and is even peppered with the sounds of the audience reacting to the movie!  The first disc also includes something for the kids…a look at the solar system with E. T. as host.

Disc Two contains a 20 minute featurette on the making of the film, a reunion special that brings Spielberg together with all his principals again for their recollections on the film (yep, feeling older still), trailers for this movie and the DVD release of the Back to the Future Trilogy, talent files, production notes, galleries of production design, marketing materials and publicity photos, the 1982 Special Olympics commercial featuring E. T., and DVD ROM extras including a “Total Access” feature, which supposedly gives you weekly access to even more materials not included on the disc.

Summary:

I’m glad to have both versions of Steven Spielberg’s fantastic film E. T. in one set…it was a terrific judgment call on his part.  With amazing video and sound quality and a nice package of extras, not to mention being a modern landmark family classic, this is unquestionably a must-own.