For three decades, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial has earned a deserved reputation as one of the most praised American films of its time and the crowning achievement in a commendable career for director Steven Spielberg. If there’s something to take away from its recent release on Blu-Ray, though, it’s this: E.T. is NOT a children’s film.
Sure, everything from Free Willy to Mac and Me has copped E.T.‘s narrative of a boy and the inseparable bond between his non-human creature friend. And the gee-whiz special effects and ugly-but-cuddly countenance of our title character have fooled audiences into lauding it as a family film. But rewatching E.T. on Blu-Ray reminds me of the sometimes-painful territory the film treads upon – things typically ignored in most family films.
While the bond between E.T. and lonely suburban child Elliott (Henry Thomas) powers the movie, consider the lonely scenes where Elliott doesn’t have his long-necked friend to interact with. Early in the film, not long after Elliott believes has seen “the goblin” in his backyard, he eats dinner with his older brother, Michael (Robert MacNaughton), younger sister Gertie (Drew Barrymore, in her breakout role) and mother Mary (Dee Wallace). It’s immediately clear that Elliott is the middle child lost in the shuffle of a single-parent household. “Dad would believe me,” he pointedly tells his mother about the creature seen outside. But when he’s awkwardly encouraged to call him and discuss the matter, Elliott’s words turn venomous. “I can’t,” he all but snarls. “He’s in Mexico with Sally.” Thomas’ delivery is so pointed it brings Wallace to tears.
That’s not to say that E.T. lacks moments of genuine wonder or warmth – quite the opposite, of course. The tender meeting between Elliott and his intergalactic friend is visual poetry. E.T.’s drunken refrigerator raid (and Elliott’s telepathically-inspired classroom antics) are still really funny. And the film’s third act, which starts with despair and tragedy and gives way to one of the most bittersweet endings in film history, will put you through an emotional experience you’re not going to get with, say, Transformers.
E.T. remains a technical triumph, too. The stunningly expressive alien, bought to life by mechanical puppets, dwarves in suits and a mime with expressive, long-fingered gloves, is a living, breathing character in and of itself. (In an early scene, E.T. carefully, subtly plucks an errant piece of fruit off of his mouth. The attention to detail is astounding.) Allen Daviau’s cinematography is intimate, almost documentarian; Spielberg rarely allows the camera level to go above the sight lines of his young cast. And the beautiful effects shots of the alien’s shimmering spaceship or a climactic bicycle flight still hold up after 30 years.
In fact, that’s one of the most satisfying things about the E.T. Blu-Ray. While Spielberg oversaw an enhanced version of the film in 2002 with added footage and special effects (think the Star Wars Trilogy Special Edition, with the same amount of backlash), he’s gone back to the original film for high-definition remastering. The restored picture and newly-expanded 7.1 surround sound mix don’t make the movie look or sound new, but they do bring a level of technical clarity that your old VHS tapes were obviously missing.
If the package stumbles anywhere, it’s with special features; most are replicated from the 20th anniversary DVD release, including, perplexingly, a severely-edited version of a two-hour documentary made in 1995 for a laserdisc box set. (That full doc, which featured a deleted scene with Elliott encountering his school principal – played by a largely-unseen Harrison Ford – and an alternate ending, has never been properly released past that laserdisc.)
There are two new special features, though: one’s a simple, new interview with Steven Spielberg, and the other, The E.T. Journals, takes over an hour of behind-the-scenes footage shot by documentarian John Toll (some of which can be seen in the other documentaries) and edits it in continuity with the film, offering no additional commentary. It’s a fascinating fly-on-the-wall look at E.T., particularly its director, whose direction of and candor with his young cast really indicates what a killer director he is. Spielberg coaxed tremendous performances out of E.T.‘s junior leads, all the while remaining firmly in control of a movie that was considerably smaller than his previous blockbusters. These features are a nice reminder of that, particularly given the recent deluge of Spielberg films on Blu-Ray (JAWS in August, all four Indiana Jones movies last month).
It may not be the all-out crazy super deluxe fan edition a movie like this might command, but the Blu-Ray edition of E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial is an essential, emotionally resonant title for you to bring home.