Rated PG - Running Time: 2:00 - Re-released 3/22/02

It's difficult to know how to review a classic film when it is re-released 20 years after its debut, especially a film so influential and pervasive as Steven Spielberg's E.T. There almost seems no point in writing my lame little commentary when so much has been said about it and so many films and TV shows have copied, spoofed, or referenced it. But I decided I'll give it my best in order to satisfy my faithful, beloved fans (both of you).

This film was first released in 1982, late in the early period of Spielberg's now legendary directing career, after Jaws, Close Encounters, and Raiders Of The Lost Ark, but before Jurassic Park, Schindler's List, or Saving Private Ryan. He has said that before E.T. he did not intend to have children, but working with Henry Thomas, Robert MacNaughton, and Drew Barrymore (with whom he has remained a close paternal friend) changed his mind. He now has 6 children. When I first saw E.T. I was a college sophomore, and I didn't think I wanted any kids either. I now have three children, the youngest of whom sat on my lap during much of our screening of the film's 20th anniversary re-release. It's interesting how differently I react to the film upon this viewing.

E.T. isn't my favorite movie; it's not even my favorite Spielberg movie, but no one can deny the powerful effect it had on the film industry, our attitude toward extraterrestrial life, and our culture. It (and to a lesser extent its Spielbergian precursor, Close Encounters Of The Third Kind) was the first major "creatures from space" story to treat extraterrestrial visitors as benign, vulnerable, and lovable to humans. Close Encounters left the issue open, but E.T. drove home the point with unmistakable clarity, even drawing parallels between its title character and Christ himself. The message of E.T. is Love Thy Neighbor, even if he comes from another planet.

Written by Melissa Mathison (a.k.a. Mrs. Harrison Ford), E.T. begins with a dark, eerie scene of a spacecraft landing and strange, short, half-seen creatures waddling out and exploring the planet Earth, at least the area of Los Angeles where they landed. Wrinkly, three-fingered hands reach out and pull up plants, strange, gurgly sounds are made, and small naked chests glow with red-orange internal organs. Then the tranquility is broken when Earthbound vehicles (mostly Ford trucks) lurch to a halt and several flashlight-wielding figures get out. The creatures scurry to their ship in a panic, but one is too far away to make it back. As it runs screaming toward its ship, it sees the craft lift off and disappear into the stars. The creature is left behind.

Next we see a family playing a noisy game, and a 10-year-old boy named Elliot (Thomas) goes outside into the dark and discovers something in the backyard shed. It turns out to be the creature, lost, scared, and alone. After a face-to-face meeting and several mutual screams, Elliot sees the importance of having an extra-terrestrial friend. He hides the alien in his room and shows it to his siblings, teenager Michael (MacNaughton), and 6-year-old Gertie (Barrymore), who have similar reactions of fear turning to fascination. Harboring the creature (whom he dubs "E.T.") in his closet without the knowledge of his single mother (Dee Wallace), Elliot teaches E.T. about earthly things, and the creature learns very quickly how to speak rudimentary English. As they grow closer, Elliot and E.T. begin to share a sort of symbiotic relationship, simultaneously experienceing various physical and emotional symptoms, a fact that proves to have graver consequences than it first seems.

Beyond the well-known excellence of this film, its effects, and the amazingly real performances of the starring children and the animatronic/puppet creature (whose voice was performed, uncredited, by Pat Welsh and Debra Winger), it is interesting to consider the ways in which watching the film itself, the original document, if you will, is different, given all that we know now. For example, seeing little Drew Barrymore in one of her first major motion picture roles, acting and reacting and doing her famous family proud at the tender age of 6, and being truly affected by the experience, is astounding. Given what we know now about her difficult and tumultuous life after this film was over, the drug problems, the years of B-movies and rehab, before she came into her own as a young woman and regained her life, how differently we view her innocent and angelic and beautiful E.T. performance. Mentioning Barrymore, of course, reminds us of the genius of Steven Speilberg, the director who was able to draw that performance out of her and the talented young actors who played her older brothers. When you see the performances of those children, you imagine what must have occurred offscreen, what kind of relationships were built and what boundaries were broken.

Before all the E.T.-related merchandising and theme park rides, TV commercials and T-shirts, there was E.T., the film, the character, the idea. The fact that this version has a few more scenes or a newly digitized soundtrack doesn't make that much difference to me, but it's important to see it again on the big screen, and offers an opportunity tell your kids, or your grandkids, how different things were when it first came out. *****

Copyright 2002 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

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