One of the underlying themes found in many works of science fiction is that of science and technology run amok. Whether it's the results seen in "Frankenstein," "The Terminator" or "Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan," the message is clear that just because new technology allows us to make or accomplish something that we previously couldn't, that doesn't necessarily mean that we should.
That certainly applies to the 20th anniversary re-release of "E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial," Steven Spielberg's universally beloved story of a young boy and the ugly but ever-so-cute space alien he befriends and helps. Of course, the "technology can be bad" issue doesn't really apply to the film's story, but rather the tinkering that's been done behind the scenes for this new print.
While new director's cuts of former films aren't anything new (especially with the advent of home video), it's not necessarily always a good, desired, or needed thing. Nevertheless, years ago, Spielberg ("A.I." "Saving Private Ryan") commented that if he had the chance, he'd like to fix certain things in the film, both technical and artistic.
He's done both with this new version of the classic film, and although they're pretty much negligible from a viewing standpoint, they do make one question the permanence of art and how much the potential added revenue that's at stake here affected the decision for the modifications. After all, how many people would return to the theaters to see the same old film, versus one that had new additional scenes and enhanced effects?
If I were the suspicious type, I'd begin to think that perhaps those responsible for the former number one domestic box office champ of all time (that's currently in the number four slot) would like to make a run for the top again (which is how "Star Wars" made it back to the number two position with its enhanced re-release a few years back).
For all of the insider hype and external attention paid to them, the new scenes - namely that of E.T in a bathtub and another showing some post-Halloween street chaos - and some apparently extended footage don't add much substance to the film and certainly don't change its tone or outcome.
Other changes are less noticeable to all but diehard fans and critics with press kit notes as their guides. Some computer effects have been added to E.T.'s face and movements (overtop the original puppetry), guns in agents' hands have been replaced by walkie-talkies (to remove the potential menace to kids element), and the mother's pre-911 comments about her son's costume making him look like a terrorist have been altered to have her complaining about him looking like a hippie.
Beyond the questions and debate about whether Spielberg should have modified his work, the film still stands up quite well, with only a few references and visuals dating it back to the early '80s. One can easily see why it garnered 9 Oscar nominations back in its day (it took home 4 for Best Score, Visual Effects, Sound and Sound Effects Editing), as it's a terrifically engaging and heartfelt tale, and continued Spielberg's theme of friendly aliens after "Close Encounters of the Third Kind." Oddly enough - and perhaps a sign of getting older and more sentimental -- I enjoyed the film more with this viewing than of any of it in the past (in the theater, on TV or home video).
Despite the limited technology of the time, the E.T. character was and still is a marvelous cinematic creation - both visually and artistically - and he and the story by screenwriter Melissa Mathison ("The Indian in the Cupboard," "The Black Stallion") manage to bring out the kid in all viewers, both young and old. Speaking of kids, I particularly enjoyed seeing young Drew Barrymore ("Riding in Cars With Boys," "Charlie's Angels) in what was just her second film appearance at the time. Cute as a button and a natural ham, she steals every scene in which she appears.
Performances by Henry Thomas ("Gangs of New York," "All the Pretty Horses"), Robert MacNaughton ("I Am the Cheese," HBO's "Vietnam War Story") and Dee Wallace Stone ("The Frighteners," "Cujo") are all solid and work perfectly for the film, while Peter Coyote ("Erin Brockovich," "Random Hearts") is good but goes a long time without uttering many words.
Like many of his other efforts - both past and present - however, Spielberg does somewhat allow certain flaws to undermine and/or partially offset the picture's good and even brilliant moments. Most notable is using composer John Williams' engaging and lively score to drive the emotional element of certain scenes too much rather than simply accompanying them. While musical composition is an important part of any film, a good one should be able to stand on its own and elicit much of the same reaction without any music. I'm not sure how this one would come off without its occasionally bombastic, overriding score.
In addition, there are various illogical moments - even for a fantasy film like this with its acceptable fantastical elements - such as the government agents walking or trying to get into the house for the first time in such a menacing, but old-fashioned zombie/mummy fashion (with their arms straight out, reaching for the family). Then there are the agents/doctors allowing the kids to be near E.T. during their frantic moments to save him, as well as the presence of the pivotal bellwether flower in the "operating room" at the end.
Such moments, of course, are present to elicit specific reactions out of the viewer, but they're a bit too obvious, manipulative and/or illogical for the rest of the film. Nevertheless, they're thankfully not too much of a factor in distracting one from enjoying this otherwise terrific, engaging and highly entertaining film. Withstanding the tests of time - regardless of the recent modifications - this is a classic that's sure to please viewers of all ages. "E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial" rates as an 8 out of 10.