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Film of the Week: New version of 'E.T.'

By STEVE SAILER, UPI National Correspondent   |   March 21, 2002 at 11:20 AM   |   Comments

LOS ANGELES, March 21 (UPI) -- Steven Spielberg's 1982 film "E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial" held the all-time domestic box office record until the director smashed it himself in 1993 with "Jurassic Park." On Friday, "E.T." heads back into the theatres in a slightly spiffed-up 20th Anniversary edition.

Reactions to "E.T." generally fell into three categories: Most folks adored it. Yet, a surprising number of people who saw it as terrified preschoolers report today things like, "I defy you to find someone born in 1977-1980 who loves it. We were all scarred for life." Finally, those who saw it first as young men were often annoyed by Spielberg's emotional manipulativeness.

Despite its stupendous earnings, "E.T." never generated a cult following like "Star Wars" or "Lord of the Rings." It's a science-fiction movie, but not one for obsessive nerds. Rather, it's for fourth-graders, their moms, and other people who have a life.

It never particularly appealed to intense movie fans. For instance, in the poll asking registered users of the Internet Movie Database (IMDB.com) to name their favorite films, "E.T." comes in way back at #202. In contrast, "Lord of the Rings" is currently at #2, trailing only "The Godfather."

I first saw "E.T." at age 23. I guess I must be a nerd, because I didn't particularly like it then, or now.

It lacks star power. Blessed with those famous Barrymore genes, Drew Barrymore steals all her scenes. Yet, when a 7-year-old blows everyone else off the screen, it reflects poorly on Spielberg's other casting choices.

Spielberg shot most of the movie as if it were a Charlie Brown TV Special, with the camera held at a kid's eye-level. This intentionally dehumanized the adult male authority figures in the movie by showing only their lower bodies, not their faces. This irritated me in 1982 because I was planning on becoming an adult male authority figure myself. Granted, in the 20 years since, I've made remarkably little progress toward that goal (just ask my kids), but "E.T.'s" demonization of men doing dangerous jobs still gets on my nerves.

There's something creepy about how Spielberg sides with the aliens against the sensible precautions taken by the government men. The film's misanthropy recalls Gulliver's disturbing last journey, when Swift's character learns to idolize a master race of horses who rule over feckless humans. Maybe it's intolerant, but I can't help feeling: "My species, right or wrong!"

The arrival of an extra-terrestrial starship would precipitate the gravest crisis of our existence. We are a rather fragile species that adapts poorly to the sudden arrival of outsiders. For example, Columbus' discovery of America led to a catastrophic decline in the New World Indian population of somewhere between 60 percent and 95 percent, mostly due to the unintentional introduction of Old World diseases. No matter how benignly intended we assume the extra-terrestrials to be, how could we know they weren't bearing dangerous new germs or new drugs?

The European conquerors, such as Cortez, typically received crucial help from disaffected Indian tribes. Likewise, if aliens ever did land, Spielberg would no doubt be there to welcome them in order to show the rest of us how non-xenophobic he is. Hopefully, this wouldn't turn out like the welcoming scene in Tim Burton's hilarious "Mars Attacks," in which Earth's Spielbergian elites imperil us all by assuming the best about the inhumanly hostile Martians.

Of course, these are geeky, literal-minded complaints about a fable that's both funny and moving. While Spielberg may not possess the most refined tastes or the most vaulting artistic ambitions, he may well be the most gifted director ever.

So, if you like "E.T.," is the theatrical version a must-see?

Spielberg's changes are, while minor, an overall improvement. In contrast, in his "Special Edition" reworking of "Close Encounters," the director unaccountably deleted the famous scene where a Devil's Tower-obsessed Richard Dreyfuss builds a mountain of mud in his living room.

Here, Spielberg adds five minutes of footage and fixes minor glitches that few moviegoers would even notice. Controversially, he digitally changed some guns into walkie-talkies. Personally, I would have deleted instead the three or four pointless vulgarities in this family film, but, hey, it's Spielberg's movie, not mine.

It's not a film that you can only enjoy on the big screen. Spielberg originally spent merely $10.5 million, and it shows. Most of the night time and interior scenes are either backlit or under-exposed. And the daytime scenes are wrapped in the kind of smog blanket seldom seen in the San Fernando Valley anymore.

On the other hand, it can be hard to find a VHS copy for home viewing. Spielberg stopped manufacturing them to pump up the theatrical release. And no DVD exists yet.

Rated PG, although compared to the similarly rated "Harry Potter, "E.T." is scarier and features worse language.

© 2002 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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