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SYFY WIRE E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial

Walkie-talkies? Special effects tweaks? Digging into the infamous 'E.T' 20th anniversary changes

Remembering the special edition that the director himself later regretted.

By Matthew Jackson
E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982)

Forty years ago, Steven Spielberg released E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, his remarkable sci-fi family film about children reeling from their parents' divorce who forge a life-changing friendship with an alien creature stranded on Earth. Twenty years ago, he tried to tweak it for a special anniversary edition, and lived to regret it. 

With E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial now available to stream on Peacock, and airing this weekend as part of a mini-marathon on SYFY from 12 p.m. until 7:30 p.m. Saturday, we take a look back at what exactly happened with those tweaks to commemorate the film's 40th anniversary.

The 20th anniversary "special edition" of E.T. arrived five years after the Star Wars special editions, and was greeted with similar fanfare. The anniversary re-release got a star-packed world premiere, complete with a live orchestra performance conducted by John Williams himself, and fans who were paying attention at the time no doubt remember the endless TV ads for the re-release that showcased the updated version. This was, the marketing at the time suggested, the definitive version of E.T., with better visual effects, new scenes, and more to love about one of the most successful and acclaimed family movies of all time. 

So, why has the special edition of E.T. all but vanished 20 years later? Because Spielberg himself was disappointed, not so much in the film, but in himself. 

The 20th anniversary of E.T. is, in many respects, a simple visual effects update, calling on Industrial Light and Magic to up the level of detail in some shots, improve the compositing in others, and generally fill in certain visual setbacks that 1982 technology couldn't accommodate. You see things like a slightly tweaked design for E.T.'s spaceship, for example, and a brighter starfield in the night sky. But Spielberg also went further, adding back in certain scenes that were made more plausible by the use of CGI E.T., and tweaking others with CGI to make E.T.'s movements a little more animated, including the early scenes of him running through the woods.

But of course, the new version also infamously made a few other more questionable changes, including tweaking certain dialogue and, in a move that would go down in pop culture history as one of cinema's silliest tweaks, replacing the guns government agents held in the film with walkie talkies. It's a move so widely lampooned that it basically got its own South Park episode. 

Speaking about the changes at a Los Angeles Times event in 2011, Spielberg explained that he'd tweaked E.T. after years of self-conscious concern over complaints the film received upon its original 1982, noting he was "overly sensitive" to parent group complaints from the original release. That sensitivity, combined with his desire to play with some of the original shots of the E.T. creature via digital effects, eventually led to the special edition. With the benefit of hindsight, Spielberg later called it the wrong decision.

"Then I realized what I had done was I had robbed the people who loved E.T. of their memories of E.T.," he said in 2011.

In an effort to remedy the situation, Spielberg demanded that Universal Pictures make the DVD release of E.T. a two-film set for the price of one, giving viewers the option to watch the original cut or the special edition, but noting in later interviews that he always steered viewers toward the original cut. By the time of Blu-ray, the special edition cut was gone from the release entirely, and it's now only available to watch if you're willing to dig around on eBay.

Speaking to Ain't It Cool News back in 2011, Spielberg noted that the E.T. ordeal had cemented his view, contrary to that of his friend and collaborator George Lucas, that digital tweaks to his old films wasn't a thing he'd like to keep pursuing.

"(In the future) there’s going to be no more digital enhancements or digital additions to anything based on any film I direct," he said. "I’m not going to do any corrections digitally to even wires that show.

"If 1941 comes on Blu-ray I’m not going to go back and take the wires out because the Blu-ray will bring the wires out that are guiding the airplane down Hollywood Blvd. At this point right now I think letting movies exist in the era, with all the flaws and all of the flourishes, is a wonderful way to mark time and mark history."

E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial is available to stream on Peacock. The sci-fi classic will also be airing this weekend as part of a mini-marathon on SYFY from 12 p.m. until 7:30 p.m. Saturday afternoon.