Phoning Home to a New Generation

E.T. may phone home this weekend, but will audiences recognize him when he calls?

After being relegated to fans' VCR collections since 1982, Steven Spielberg's E.T. is celebrating its 20th anniversary with a modern makeover.

"There were some parts where he couldn't get exactly what he wanted in 1982," said Marvin Levy, a longtime spokesman for Spielberg.

Among the approximately 100 shots that Spielberg overhauled, the most controversial is his choice to crop out the guns carried by federal agents chasing down Eliot and E.T., replacing the weapons with walkie-talkies.

"He wanted to change [the guns] from the mid-1980s, when he became a parent," said Levy.

The director didn't think it was responsible to portray agents chasing kids with guns.

"[Spielberg] said, 'if I ever get a chance to change it, I'll change it,'" Levy added.

In a similar move, one bit of dialog was also altered: Elliott's mother once criticized her son for going out on Halloween looking like a "terrorist." In the post-Sept. 11 release, she says the boy looks like a decidedly nonviolent "hippie."

"We perceive the entirety of the movie differently now its simplicity and innocence often don't resonate as fully as they used to," said Glen Oliver, a frequent contributor at movie news Web site IGN FilmForce, who recently watched the updated E.T. "This isn't a degradation of the film as much as an illustration of how we've changed as a society over the last 20 years."

While uncommon, the politically correct modifications made by Spielberg are not without precedent.

When George Lucas re-released Star Wars in 1997, he rejiggered one scene featuring Harrison Ford as Han Solo. In the original, Ford shot another character after being verbally threatened. But in the remake, the other character fires at Solo first, changing the killing from cold-blooded to being an act of self-defense.

Most of E.T.'s other changes can be chalked up to a face-lift for the little guy. The effects team at Industrial Light and Magic edited the space character's eyes and face, and made them more lifelike and expressive.

"You can get better expressions from [computer generated characters] than with a rubber suit," said Sandra Scott, a Visual Effects Producer at ILM. "Sixty-five shots were 3D character shots, where we replaced all of E.T. or did a partial replacement where we just replaced his face."

Many of the revisited scenes involved the puppet of E.T. which, after 20 years, looked "rickety," according to Scott. "When Gertie dresses him up like a girl, we put a new CG face in ... His eye expressions brought it to life."

The team also reworked the flying bikes sequence, so there is a fluid image of jackets and blankets whipping in the wind as the kids soar through the air.

"The goal was to enhance it without changing it," Scott said.

However, they also added two scenes: one in which Elliott's mom searches for her son on Halloween, and one in which E.T. and Elliott play in a bathtub. "The scene brings into play that E.T. is from some kind of water planet ... He shows he can breathe underwater," Scott said. "And it is a cute bonding moment."

Changing movies after they have been released, though, brings up questions for audiences.

"Movies are becoming more like software," said Steve Daly, senior writer at Entertainment Weekly. "If there is a bug in the program, upgrade it."

Despite some of the controversy, the trend of reworking films is likely to grow as digital technology empowers filmmakers and interest in film formats, like DVDs, generates interest from fans.

"No matter how much tinkering a film might go through, it's imperative to preserve the original product, and keep it available for mass consumption," Oliver said.