To celebrate the 20th anniversary of ET: The Extra Terrestrial, Steven Spielberg followed George Lucas’ lead and digitally altered the film – but never again.
The close working relationship between Steven Spielberg and George Lucas has long been demonstrated – to varying degrees of success – across the four Indiana Jones films to date. The creative processes behind those films suggest to an outsider looking in that each is always seems pretty keen to make sure that the other is okay. If anything, Spielberg was always more willing to cede to Lucas on key Indy story matters, but there was mutual respect and friendship at the heart of those films.
But the influence of Lucas on Spielberg’s work has also been seen in the aftermath of the infamous Star Wars special editions. Ahead of the making and release of the much-anticipated prequel trilogy (that, of course, commenced with The Phantom Menace in 1999), Lucas went back to his first trilogy of Star Wars adventures and, in a story very well known, did his first (but not last) round of wholesale tinkering with them. He used computer techniques to achieve visuals he couldn’t at the time, weaved in new material, and when the films were duly re-released on the big screen again for the first time in a generation, they absolutely coined it in. The backlash at this stage hadn’t fully started, although it wasn’t far behind.
Steven Spielberg was one of those watching.
Whilst he’d made what was then the biggest film of all time, 1982’s E.T. The Extra Terrestrial, he’d envisaged the production as a smaller movie after the demands and rigours of Raiders Of The Lost Ark. The idea that the choice of a next film tends to be a reaction to the one you’ve just done. The irony in this case was that as he went small, the box office went bigger.
Furthermore, Spielberg didn’t really have anything to prove when he took on E.T. He shaped the film he wanted to make, including some late trims to it. He was working within the boundaries of practical filmmaking, but – with the skill of Carlo Rambaldi’s (pictured below) creation of a mechanical version of the title character – the audience utterly bought it. There was an alien on screen, treated as a 100% convincing character. Spielberg even managed to sneak a couple of Star Wars nods in there, surely to the delight of his old chum.
The film was a gigantic success, and Spielberg wouldn’t topple its US box office returns until 1993’s Jurassic Park.
It was only in the aftermath of the Star Wars special edition release though that Spielberg more overtly mentioned bits he wasn’t quite happy with in the film (although it would bubble up that in a 1995 interview, he was quoted as saying “if I ever reissue the picture, I’ll use the digital miracle of, you know, CGI to take the guns out of the cops’ hands. And I’ll just simply delete the shot of the cop holding the gun up, which, in the current film, causes E.T. to fly. I think those were, you know, distasteful moments to me”).
Appreciating that E.T.’d had slight cuts that Spielberg had to personally approve for when BBC One made it its Christmas Day UK television premiere in 1990, it turned out there were further moments in the original theatrical cut he seemingly wanted to tinker with.
Thus, as the film approached its 20th anniversary in 2001 – and we’re now approaching, er, the 19th anniversary of that 20th anniversary – it was announced that changes were afoot. Armed with digital tools and seemingly inspired by and perhaps even encouraged by Lucas, Spielberg debuted a Special Edition of the film on March 16th 2002.
Amongst the changes? A scene where E.T. and the character of Elliott take a bath together (a sequence that Spielberg had dropped originally due to the limitations of early 80s animatronics), some CG alterations to E.T., a bit of digital work to Elliott’s Halloween costume, and the replacement of weapons with walkie talkies. The word “terrorist” was changed to “hippie” too.
Whilst the changes weren’t met with the same level of protest as had greeted Lucas’ handiwork, there was still vocal displeasure. So much so that by the time the changes were set to debut, Universal Pictures – who was releasing the new version of the film – was on the defensive. Producer Kathleen Kennedy was put forward for an interview with the Los Angeles Times where she downplayed the alterations, arguing that at most the film was getting “a wide variety of subtle changes”. In relation to Star Wars, she argued that “there’s no comparison, because George went in and he redid whole scenes and sequences”.
Kennedy would add that “I don’t quite understand what the controversy is all about … It would be a big controversy if the studio was going in making a bunch of changes to movies and then releasing DVDs because they felt the movie was better or something. But if a director is reissuing a movie and wants to go in and make adjustments, that’s entirely up to the vision of the director”.
Still, Spielberg did divest from his friend on one key point. Lucas ultimately decided that the latest version of Star Wars was always the only version in his eyes. Once a bog standard DVD of the original cuts was begrudgingly put out, Lucas refused to release them again. Every streaming and disc release since has had altered versions of the films.
In the case of Spielberg, after the debut of the E.T. Special Edition, when it came time for the disc release of the new version, it was bundled into a set that pointedly included the original cut as well from the off. The original version has never been out of existence.
In fact, ironically, it’s the Special Edition of E.T. that’s now out of print (although there’s no shortage of second hand copies on eBay).
Furthermore, Spielberg has subsequently talked of his outright regret at making the changes in the first place.
At a special screening to mark the 30th anniversary of Raiders Of The Lost Ark all the way back in 2011, Spielberg appeared for a Q&A afterwards at the Los Angeles event. He was asked whether he would ever tinker with the Indiana Jones films, and whilst he went out of his way to be complimentary to Lucas, he said that “I tried this once and I lived to regret it”.
Clarifying that it wasn’t the fan outrage that changed his mind, he said that it was “simply because I was disappointed in myself. I was overly sensitive to some of the criticism E.T. got from parent groups when it was first released in 82 having to do with Eliot saying “Penis Breath” or the guns…and then there were certain brilliant, but rough around the edges close ups of E.T. that I always felt, if technology ever evolves to the point where I can do some facial enhancement for E.T. , I’d like to”.
After he’d made the changes for the 2001 release though, he admitted “I realised that what I had done was I had robbed the people who loved E.T. of their memories of E.T. And I regretted that”.
This admission reportedly went down very, very well with the assembled crowd for the event. He thus confirmed that he’d asked Universal with the DVD release to ensure that both versions were included. This Q&A furthermore took place before the release of E.T. on Blu-ray, and he took a straw poll of the crowd to see whether they’d object if it was just the original cut included. Spoiler: they didn’t object at all, and when Spielberg confirmed that was now the plan (and it’s what duly happened), it reportedly pretty much brought the house down.
If you’ve not seen the changes between the two versions before, then this excellent YouTube breakdown takes you through the alterations one at a time…
Spielberg has been good to his word since, and not digitally altered one of his older films again. What’s more, he’s been so vehement with his regret over the one time he did do it, it’s one of those rare cases where we can probably say that the words never say never may not actually apply…
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