DVD Drop: Dial "E" for E.T.
Steven Spielberg's classic gets a glorious Blu-ray release
A scene from E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial.
For all the talk about physical media coughing up blood - metaphorically, at least - the Blu-ray format seems awfully robust right now. New films are arriving in increasingly complex special editions (the supplements on Fox's Prometheus BD are more interesting than the movie, frankly) and studios are digging into their catalogues for some spectacular high-def packages. And this week's release slate includes some fine examples of what's possible when a studio treats an existing property as a treasure rather than an obligation.
Universal Studios Home Entertainment has been doing some fine work in celebration of its 100th anniversary; August's long-awaited Blu-ray of Jaws was one of the best discs I've seen this year, combining a host of previously extant supplements with new goodies and a glorious HD restoration of Steven Spielberg's 1975 masterpiece. (Their Abbott & Costello remasters have been pretty nifty, too.)
This week, Universal brings another Spielberg classic to Blu-ray: E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial gets a 30th anniversary edition, constructed along the same lines as Jaws. In addition to a splendid new high-definition master of the original 1982 theatrical version - and not the ill-considered 2002 reissue, which infamously replaced FBI agents' shotguns with walkie-talkies in crucial moments - the E.T. BD includes the excellent supplements produced for earlier laserdisc and DVD releases and ups the ante with excellent new materials. The E.T. Journals uses production footage to reconstruct the creation of the film, and Steven Spielberg & E.T. digs into the development of Melissa Mathison's screenplay.
The movie's still the star, of course; Jaws and Raiders of the Lost Ark (released in its own lovely Blu-ray disc last month by Paramount) are at the top of my own personal Spielberg pantheon, but E.T. has its own special place, separate from his other accomplishments. It's Spielberg's softest and most heartfelt work, situated entirely within a child's state of mind. The emotional highs and lows play out as crescendos in John Williams' score (and the powerhouse DTS Master Audio soundtrack nicely matched my own first encounter with the film, seated too close to the screen at Toronto's Hyland 1 cinema on opening day), and the perpetually underrated leading performance by Henry Thomas as E.T.'s young protector, Elliott, gives every scene a humanity and a gravity that's doubly amazing when you step out of the movie and realize he's acting opposite an animatronic puppet. Of course, Spielberg and Thomas make E.T. so real and so believable that we'd never even think to step out.
And thirty years later, I've realized another wonderful thing about E.T: It doesn't have any villains, just people whose purposes are initially misunderstood by Elliott and his family - just as Elliott himself is first frightened by E.T.
By placing us at a child's point of view (often literally; cinematographer Allen Daviau frames many shots a foot or so lower than we'd expect), Spielberg plugs us directly into his young hero's head, letting us comprehend his first glimpse of the world - and the universe - beyond his subdivision. Just consider the way Peter Coyote's character, whom we know only as "Keys," is allowed to mature and expand over the course of that amazing third act. It's an incredibly compassionate screenplay, with Mathison and Spielberg giving full standing to even the smallest roles. What a remarkable film.
Now, if you balk at calling a 30-year-old movie a "classic" - or if your idea of a bona fide studio auteur is a little more starched - Warner Home Entertainment has a couple of BDs discs you might want to grab: Alfred Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train and Dial M for Murder. Originally scheduled to arrive alongside a massive Hitchcock collection Universal was supposed to release last month, they now serve as a teaser for that set, which was bumped to a Halloween release date at the last minute.
Strangers on a Train, one of Hitchcock's most unnervingly genteel thrillers, comes with HD transfers of both versions of the film - the theatrical release and the slightly longer "preview" cut - while Dial M for Murder offers both 2D and 3D presentations of the director's 1954 venture into the third dimension. The twist here is that the 3D version is not the original red-blue presentation seen in earlier theatrical runs, but a new digital 3D master reverse-engineered from a 2D print - the same master currently screening at TIFF Cinematheque in Toronto.
Both discs retain all the extras of the most recent DVD editions; I would have suggested Warner forget to include M. Night Shyamalan's pompous ode to Strangers on a Train, but that's why they don't consult me on these things.
This week's additional Warner special editions were unavailable for preview - a 50th anniversary edition of the kitsch-horror classic What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? and the long-awaited restoration of Frank Oz's 1986 musical Little Shop of Horrors, featuring the film's original ending in its entirety for the first time on home video. (The ending appeared in an unfinished version on Warner's 1997 DVD, which was immediately yanked from stores.)
Both of these titles have devoted cult followings, but only one of them is a musical about the love-hate relationship between a meek florist and his bloodthirsty plant. I know which one I'll spin up first.
E-mail Norman Wilner at email@example.com