Even though his recent films A.I. and Minority Report have been the mildly disappointing, Steven Spielberg is still a major player in Hollywood, largely because of his past success. And back in 1982 when he broke all box-office records with E.T. and earned that success, he was still making old-fashioned movies that were populated with real people.
Part of E.T.'s brilliance lies in its relatively thin plotline. Barely more than an "alien follows boy home from school" tale, the story's weightlessness allowed Spielberg to infuse every moment of screen time with an honest evocation of childhood. Keeping his camera at the level of his pre-teen protagonists, and only showing the sides of a broken marriage that a child would naturally see, Spielberg took grown-ups into the lives of an emerging generation. And for children, he firmly endorsed the idea that sometimes imagination is your best friend. Forget the other kids on the playground, and don't turn to your family for support -- look to the stars.
This degree of sincerity can't be faked; even a mechanized rubber puppet couldn't ruin it. And his cast, particularly the very real children Henry Thomas and Drew Barrymore, never once destroys the illusion. They weren't making a "hit movie," they were telling a story.
All of this is painstakingly detailed in the love-fest sections of Universal's two-disc DVD set. Making-of features and interviews about the film's impact are to be expected, but unless you need to have your $30 purchase affirmed, they're not really necessary. What is necessary is the inclusion of both the original version of the film and its slightly modified 20th anniversary incarnation. While the latter merely smoothens out some of E.T.'s mechanical facial expressions and adds a few scenes, the candor and familiarity of the original aren't helped at all by these additions.
There's also a live performance of the score conducted by John Williams. Performing an entire film score live is a masterful feat, and movie music buffs will probably love it. But it's still a minor extra. By including the 1982 original film, as well as by refusing to record a director's commentary track, Spielberg gives us the original with as little contamination as possible. His recent films may suffer from trying to include too much, but this time everything works out.