Universal Appeal

20 years later, Steven Spielberg's film about a lost alien still touches the heart. And spiffed-up special effects make 'E.T.' extra terrific.

March 22, 2002|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

In its digitally spruced-up edition, with a few audiovisual alterations and added scenes, E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial remains the least fussy great movie ever made.

Let's get those alterations out of the way: True, the word "terrorist" has disappeared from a throwaway gag; the far inferior punch line "hippie" has been substituted. But contrary to advance reports, you still get to hear the youthful hero call his older brother "penis breath."

For a barely perceptible second or two, walkie-talkies replace firearms in the hands of federal agents during the climactic chase. A charming scene with the title figure investigating a bathroom has been added; however, I could have done without an extra minute or two of Halloween high-jinks.

But what's crucial is that computer magic has gone into detailing the creature's existing face and movements, and giving the marvelous flight of kids and alien on bikes an even more real and immediate tingle.

The glories of the unself-conscious acting and the master strokes of fantasy and melodrama remain all of a piece. And John Williams' yearning music on the re-mastered soundtrack mirrors and intensifies the wonders on- screen.

Director Steven Spielberg, with an ace script by Melissa Mathison (The Black Stallion), came up with a science-fiction classic about empathy. It never will lose the power to revive a sense of magic and fellowship here on Earth, and give us hope about worlds beyond.

Working from the vital center of his creative being, Spielberg achieved a miracle -- he transformed the shiny toy pop culture of most Americans' youth into a realm of danger, mystery, discovery and, most of all, feeling.

Spielberg seizes on cultural elements that usually are denigrated as "escapist" and views them with respect, as the beginning of a search for transcendence. When Elliott (Henry Thomas), the movie's 10-year-old champion of the lonely and oppressed, lures the stranded big-eyed alien into his home, he takes the creature on a tour of his bedroom and shows off his Star Wars action figures. You see the purity behind a kid's impulse to get lost in an alternate universe.

The movie is emotionally tumultuous and evenhanded and serene. It celebrates the odd pockets of imagination and individuality that can be nurtured in middle-class suburbia.

And Spielberg knows this terrain so well and is so confident in his knobby-headed muse that he lets every shade and mixture of love, joy, grief and fear play out fully. In recent interviews, the director has emphasized the movie's roots in his own childhood background of divorce and his adult need for family. That makes the film sound more maudlin and less wise than it is.

Elliott's mom (Dee Wallace Stone, then billed as Dee Wallace) has recently separated from her husband, who's off in Mexico with a new gal. When Elliott blurts out that information, his older brother Michael (Robert MacNaughton) hurls down the movie's key challenge -- that he learn to think of someone else's feelings for a change. (The someone turns out to be E.T.) Without ever using the word "dysfunctional," the movie renders a portrait of a traumatized household that's all the stronger for being so matter-of-fact. "Mexico" even becomes a running joke.

Of course, this picture primarily takes Elliott's point of view. But what is surprising is not how childish it is, but how mature.

The opening scenes of Michael (Robert MacNaughton) hosting a Dungeons and Dragon party for his friends is full of unstressed humor about the combination of flirtation and protectiveness that goes on when pubescent boys surround a single mom. Wallace's working parent may be flustered and preoccupied, but she's also loving and determined.

The movie is designed so that she comes to a full understanding of her children at just the right moment -- after she sees the depth of Elliott's bond with the stranded alien, and his dedication to sending the creature back to his home planet. The other prominent adult is a scientist (Peter Coyote) who is sympathetic to Elliott and E.T. Only the arrogant bureaucrats and technicians who reduce science and humanity to nuts and bolts earn Spielberg's unmitigated ire.

From the start, Spielberg imbues the movie with sublime beauty. The title creature misses his spaceship home because he's enraptured both by the natural splendor of an evergreen and redwood forest, and by the lovely latticework of houselights and streetlights in the planned community of the valley below.

Like E.T. himself, Elliott is a fairy-tale outsider, out of sync even with his family, neither as ultrasensitive to his parents' estrangement as Michael nor as oblivious as his kid sister Gertie (the 6-year-old Drew Barrymore). Finding evidence of E.T.'s existence on his way back from a pizza run, Elliott is unable to persuade anyone that the creature is anything more than an imaginary goblin or a marauding coyote. His imagination inflamed, Elliott strives to connect with the creature by himself.

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