E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial:Limited Collector's Edition Page 1

Henry Thomas, Dee Wallace, Peter Coyote, Robert MacNaughton, Drew Barrymore. Directed by Steven Spielberg. Aspect ratio: 1.85:1 (anamorphic). Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround EX (English, French), DTS 5.1 Surround ES. Two discs. 121 minutes. 1982. Universal 22257. PG. $29.98.

E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial is director Steven Spielberg's "small" film. At least that's what he expected it to be when he made it, hot on the heels of the would-be blockbuster 1941 and the actual blockbuster Raiders of the Lost Ark. E.T. is also his most personal film. And while it may not be his best or most polished movie, it may well be the one for which he will be best remembered.

As E.T. begins, an alien spaceship has landed in a forest at the edge of an American suburb. It's clearly a research vessel of some sort, gathering samples of the local plants. When humans approach, the ship takes off quickly, leaving one of its crew behind. He wanders into a backyard, where he's discovered by 10-year-old Elliott (Henry Thomas). Terrified at first, Elliott gradually befriends this strange creature and, along with his older brother, Michael (Robert MacNaughton), and younger sister, Gertie (Drew Barrymore), more or less adopts him. Elliott must protect E.T. against discovery and exploitation while at the same time helping him reconnect with his ship. Or, as E.T. puts it in one of the film's signature lines, until "E.T. phone home."

That's all you need to know. E.T. is a true original, and a genuine masterpiece—for once, the review quote on the DVD jacket is no exaggeration. When it first came out, Spielberg was criticized by a few critics for manipulating the audience's emotions. Duh! That's a legitimate function of film. But most critics and audiences were enthralled. The New Yorker's Pauline Kael called it a "mythic experience." Those two words sum it up as well as any I can think of.

It's not a flawless film by science-fiction standards. The government agents and doctors who (literally) invade Elliott's home are made to seem the villains, even when they ultimately attempt to do right by E.T. In the real world, the government would be derelict not to find out all it could about such a visitor; who knows what diseases aliens from another world might be carrying, or—Close Encounters of the Third Kind's warm fuzzies notwithstanding—what threats they may pose? And I've always been bothered by the scene in which medical personnel try to treat E.T. by applying procedures designed for humans on an alien about whose physiology they know virtually nothing.

And E.T.'s movements, while brilliantly performed using an animatronic figure designed by Carlo Rombaldi (who had also worked with Spielberg on Close Encounters), were sometimes a little jerky. It takes about five minutes to accept this, after which E.T. becomes just as real a character onscreen as any of the other performers.

But E.T. was filmed before the age of computer animation. When Spielberg contemplated a 20th-anniversary theatrical re-release, to be followed up by a DVD edition, he resolved to fix those shots that bothered him. The result was some 50 changes. Most of the alterations simply enhance E.T.'s lip movements and facial expressions, though a few of them, most visibly in the opening sequence, add full-body motion to the whole character. The alien spaceship is also jazzed up a bit; it now looks more like a real ship, less like a Christmas ornament.

The most extensive change is the addition of a major sequence in which Elliott attempts to give E.T. a bath—a scene Spielberg just couldn't get to work with the mechanically animated figure. It's not nearly as successful as the other changes: The totally computer-animated E.T. often looks jarringly different from the character in the rest of the film.

The most controversial change is the replacement of the federal agents' guns and rifles with walkie-talkies. The original version made sense—after all, only Elliott and his siblings know that E.T. is not a threat. But the change is dramatically valid, seamlessly done, and doesn't bother me as much as I thought it would.

But for purists who argue that classic films like this belong to everyone and shouldn't be changed even by the filmmaker, this 2-disc set has an answer: disc 1 contains the 2002 version, disc 2 the original, unaltered 1982 version. Oddly, there's no way to tell by looking at the outside of the shrink-wrapped, gatefold package that the set includes both cuts of the film. The fact is mentioned only on an insert inside the case. The packaging, by the way, is clever but also a little annoying. The accordion-fold cardboard sleeve isn't a good bet to hold up under heavy use, and its design leaves no room for a label on the binding—a problem for finding the DVD on your bookshelf.

There are different extras on each disc. These are relatively routine, for the most part, as special editions go—the usual "Making of" feature and a pleasant reunion interview with the cast and Spielberg that's more gushing than informative. Many readers will be disappointed to learn that Spielberg maintains his unbroken record of refusing to provide a commentary track for any of his films. In fact, there's no commentary track from anyone.

But one magnificent, one-of-a-kind extra feature makes up for it. When E.T. received that 20th-anniversary premiere at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles, the music track was replaced by John Williams conducting the score with a live symphony orchestra. Not only is there a special feature on disc 1 describing how this was done, but a separate track is devoted to that recording. This track can be selected for playback with the film—it's not simply an isolated music track, but includes dialogue, sound effects, the live music recording, and the audience's reactions to the film. The latter are quite audible but not intrusive. On the dialogue, you can sometimes hear what sounds like the subtle reverberation of the theater.

The picture quality of the remastered 2002 version (the version rated here) is clean and noise-free but a little soft. The 1982 version is a bit softer still, but still completely watchable. On the other hand, the soundtrack is magnificent. The 2002 release has been cleaned up a bit from the original; the music is a little better balanced (less bright), and the effects, particularly the spaceship taking off, are much more dynamic, with active surrounds when they're needed. I marginally preferred the Dolby Digital to the DTS track, but the choice is there for you to make.

The music as recorded for the 2002 premiere has an excitingly "live" feel to it, but ultimately I preferred the remastered original music recording; it has a heftier feel than the live orchestral mix, with a notably superior, weightier trumpet section. There's also a slightly more tentative feel to the live performance. The tension of maintaining sync with the picture with no room for error, not to mention the stress of playing for two hours without a break, must have taken something away from the performance, particularly the dynamic abandon needed to make the final scene really soar.

According to Universal, all versions of E.T. will be sold only through December 31, 2002, though copies still in dealer stock after that date may still be purchased. A pan&scan edition is also available, as is an Ultimate Gift Boxed Set, for $69.98. The latter has three DVDs, a CD of the remastered soundtrack music, and slightly expanded extra features. But it deletes the DTS soundtrack on the 1982 version of the film. Overall, the standard widescreen version is an excellent package. But E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial is so good that the extras are merely that. The movie itself is reward enough.—TJN