Something struck me last night when I saw the 20th Anniversary edition of ET: The Extra Terrestrial: how quiet the movie is in its first third. If this movie were to be made today, no doubt there would be a pounding rock soundtrack, especially during the scenes when the teenagers are playing “Dungeons and Dragons”. There would be constant (and dull) underscore, and the camerawork itself would be quicker, with more cuts and less time for the actors to use their time in close-ups to actually act. The scene at the family dinner table plays softly, with gentle humor (juvenile insults like “penis-breath” notwithstanding), and then there is sudden tension when the topic of the children’s absent father comes up. How easily the pain underneath what seems a perfectly normal scene — a suburban family sitting down to dinner — can be brought to the surface, through the matter-of-fact observation by Elliott that he can’t call his father to talk about what he saw the night before because “he’s in Mexico with Sally”. Children don’t mess around with the truth; when they state it they do so outright. That single line not only underscores the pain at the heart of this family (that ET will eventually heal), but it also establishes with certainty Elliott’s central honesty as a character. What a brilliant piece of writing that is; what brilliant directing to let the silences ebb and flow; and what brilliant acting as young Henry Thomas delivers what might be the best performance by a child in cinematic history.
The 20th Anniversary edition has, of course, been “touched up” digitally; there is a new scene that couldn’t be done convincingly before, and in all honesty it’s not entirely convincing now. But it goes by very quickly. The rest of the “enhancements” mostly involve digitizing ET’s facial expressions and giving a few new nifty lights to the spaceship. The worst decision is the one to remove the shot of the shotgun at the end of the picture; Spielberg has said that he really never wanted guns in his movie at all, which to me seems a bit disingenuous — are we to believe that Universal Studios ordered him to stick a single shot of a gun into the picture? The original shot worked perfectly, and in the original the gun in question is never even aimed at the children — it is merely pulled from the seat of a car. Just the sight of the gun heightened the tension to its highest point, and that point in the film seemed flat without it. But that’s not much of a flaw in an otherwise nearly-perfect film. And the John Williams score is heard in all its magnificent glory, especially in the remarkable closing sequence where Spielberg edited the film the fit the music.
How amazing it is, really, to see a story that isn’t drenched in irony; how refreshing to view a cinematic friendship that is based on mutual need and growing trust; how amazing to see a story of love and friendship that never, not once, involves contrived betrayals or manipulative misunderstandings based on selfish motives. And how depressing to see it in a virtually empty theater, even on a Monday night. Don’t people realize that they need movies and stories like this?