Sunday, March 24, 2002
Los Angeles The wrinkly, crinkly munchkin from outer space is coming back to Earth, his fairy-tale journey a bit longer and more benign than when he first landed in theaters 20 years ago.
Steven Spielberg's "E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial" returns to theaters Friday, updated with a couple of previously unreleased scenes, visual enhancements, improved sound and excisions that have annoyed some purists who dislike tampering with beloved films.
And "E.T." is about as beloved as they come. Debuting June 11, 1982, the tale of a lovably homely alien befriended by a 10-year-old boy became a cultural sensation. The sight of E.T. and his buddy flying on a bicycle silhouetted against the moon is one of Hollywood's most memorable images, and the film produced one of the pithiest movie quotes ever:
"E.T., phone home."
Nominated for best picture and eight other Academy Awards, winning four, "E.T." remained the all-time top-grossing film domestically for 14 years, till it was passed by the reissue of "Star Wars" and later "Titanic" and "Star Wars: Episode I ï¿½ The Phantom Menace."
A film that delighted young children, "E.T." also has been analyzed and overanalyzed, with E.T. examined as a Christlike figure and his fall to Earth compared to a reversal of Dorothy's trip from mundane Kansas to glorious Oz.
"People love to talk about 'E.T.' It holds an important place in their hearts, where they remember it from their childhood or it marks some key moment they remember in their adult lives," said "E.T." producer Kathleen Kennedy.
Many changes in the re-release are cosmetic, relying on advancements in computer imagery to enrich E.T.'s motions and facial expressions, upgrade special effects and refine backgrounds.
In a few instances, Spielberg replaced the animatronic E.T. puppet with a digitized version. That technique allowed him to restore a scene between E.T. and his human pal Elliott (Henry Thomas) in which the little alien splashes into a bathtub; the scene did not make the original film because the E.T. puppet was acting up.
The other main addition is a scene where Elliott's mother (Dee Wallace Stone) goes looking for the boy on Halloween. Cut for length in the 1982 release, Spielberg restored it because it offered a nice comic moment from 6-year-old co-star Drew Barrymore.
Two alterations have mainly bothered hard-core fans. Spielberg digitally removed guns in the hands of the government agents pursuing E.T. and Elliott, replacing them with walkie-talkies.
"The climate for guns was not as inflammatory in 1982 as it is now. ... I notice some people have accused me of being Pollyanna and too soft, and I'm sure the NRA is angry at me for taking out the guns," Spielberg said in a studio interview provided by "E.T." distributor Universal.
Since soon after the film's initial release, Spielberg had "regretted having police chasing children with guns drawn," Kennedy said.
Spielberg also had Wallace Stone record a new line to replace her character's edict that her older son (Robert MacNaughton) could not go out on Halloween dressed as a "terrorist." The word "hippie" was substituted.
The terrorist line had been deleted from the film in video releases, and it was altered in the new theatrical release in light of the Sept. 11 attacks.
"I don't think anybody wants to make light of that in any way right now," Wallace Stone said.
Complaints circulated among critics and especially on Internet message boards when details of the "E.T." revisions became known last year.
"I feel that Spielberg, who is my favorite director, is going too far. ... Please leave your very best film alone," one fan griped on a Web site devoted to Spielberg movies.
Not erasing the original
Kennedy notes that both the original film and the updated version will be available on video releases later this year.
"For purists, it's not as though we're erasing any sign of the original," Kennedy said.
The new version of "E.T." opens in about 2,500 theaters, more than twice the number for the original's debut. The film took in $359.2 million domestically in its initial run, which would equate to almost $700 million today factoring in ticket-price inflation. "E.T." grossed $40.6 million more in a 1985 reissue, and its worldwide receipts topped $700 million.
"Adding the new footage I would guess was a darn good business move," Wallace Stone said. "It's like getting some extra prize for going back to see it again."
The real value, though, is revisiting a tale of innocence, hope and compassion, she said.
"I think there probably couldn't be a better time for 'E.T.' to be coming back out," Wallace Stone said. "After Sept. 11, we all had a choice about which way we wanted to go. Are we going to live in anger, live in the fear, live in the revenge? Or we could say, 'You know what? That route is a mess. It doesn't work for them, and it doesn't work for us. It's got to stop."'