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

Reviewed By Rob Gonsalves
Posted 12/25/06 22:06:06

"Still masterful after twenty years."
5 stars (Awesome)

The part that always gets me is when the dog trots onto the ramp of the spaceship, wanting to join his new friend and not understanding why he can't. That moment remains unchanged in the new 20th-anniversary version of "E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial," and everything else lovable and honorable in it has likewise been left intact. The classic moments are still there, large and small:

- The subtly enchanting visual joke of several E.T.s frightened by the hoot of a nearby owl and flashing their red heartlights simultaneously;

- The later echo of this joke when government agent Keys (Peter Coyote) and his cadre of alien-chasers hear the mournful distant bleat of the newly marooned E.T., and all of the men simultaneously point their flashlights at the sound;

- Elliott (Henry Thomas) and older brother Michael (Robert MacNaughton) sifting through the garage for junk to use for E.T.'s communication device, and finding one of their dad's old shirts, sniffing it wistfully. "Old Spice," says Michael. "Sea Breeze," Elliott corrects him immediately;

- The absolutely perfect cameo of Yoda, in the form of a kid in a Yoda Halloween costume, and E.T.'s perfectly reasonable response to same;

- The other part that always gets me, when the doctors try defibrillating the fading E.T. back to life and Steven Spielberg cuts to Gertie (Drew Barrymore, all the more charming here since we've seen her mature) crumpling into shocked, helpless tears -- you could swear you saw what she's flinching at, but you didn't.

I've bitched considerably, in private and public, about Spielberg tampering with his masterpiece, but the new version turns out to be more or less the same in spirit and event. The FBI guys now have walkie-talkies instead of guns, but why did they need guns in the first place? To shoot a group of kids (not to mention a sickly, benevolent alien) in broad daylight? E.T.'s facial expressions have been digitally flexed up a bit, but usually not to the point of distraction. There's a new scene involving E.T.'s dip in a bathtub, which does add to the movie -- it points up E.T.'s froglike nature and gives new context to the later scene where Elliott gets psychically drunk and delivers all the classroom frogs from dissection (the only scene I've always found a bit too forced and slapsticky, right down to Elliott stealing a kiss from future Baywatch babe Erika Eleniak).

E.T. is the gentlest of fantasies, yet Melissa Mathison's drum-tight script still finds room for the kids' exasperated mother Mary (Dee Wallace), realistically bitter about her husband dumping her for some bimbo. The suburban-California milieu is peerlessly detailed -- the scene of Michael and his friends harassing each other over a game of Dungeons & Dragons is very 1982, but if you were a boy around that age back then, you probably sat at that table at one point or another. Into this disorganized, comfortable-but-on-the-verge-of-angst household waddles a gray and wrinkled stranger, who could be Christ or a wizened visiting uncle.

Where does the movie fit into Spielberg's ouevre? Some would say he peaked here, and then went into a decade-long phase of unrequited longing for the respect of adults. (His next feature after E.T., not counting his execrable contribution to Twilight Zone: The Movie, was the much-maligned Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, but I enjoy that film precisely because of its loud unimportance; it's just Spielberg larking away.) But if Schindler's List was Spielberg's masterpiece of the '90s, and either Jaws or Close Encounters (take your pick) was his time-capsule entry for the '70s, then E.T. is unquestionably his seminal '80s work. Certainly none of his subsequent dabblings in fantasy -- especially not that sad, sad specimen known as A.I. -- come anywhere near E.T.'s purity of vision and clarity of purpose. You could call it manipulative, which it is; you could call it a domesticated, Disneyfied account of unearthly life, which it also is. But scene for scene, you understand why even the acerbic Pauline Kael approvingly called it "a bliss-out." At heart it's a very small movie about two friends in a room; the movie is homey and warming in its modest scale, and looks that much better next to most of its overblown 2002 competition.

Unlike George Lucas's Greedo-shoots-first redux of Star Wars, Spielberg's second draft of E.T. does no special harm to our memories, and if you've got young ones who weren't around in 1982 you can safely bring them to this edition without fretting that they're missing the version you fell in love with.

Henry Thomas still gives one of the most believable and unaffected child performances on film, Spielberg's technical mastery and emotional restraint are still almost unsurpassed, John Williams' score still knows when to perk up and when to chill out and listen to the dialogue, Gertie still introduces E.T. to the world of crossdressing, Michael still whacks his head when jumping for joy, E.T. still turns his nose up at the potato salad and dumps it on the kitchen floor to the delight of the dog, the dog still heads up that ramp to be with his friend, and that still gets to me after twenty years.

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