'E.T.' returns, refreshed The fairy tale about an extraterrestrial still works 20 years later.

Posted: March 22, 2002

How do you explain E.T. the Extraterrestrial to a generation that has not seen this most transcendent of fairy tales on the big screen? You don't. You give a gentle shove in the direction of the multiplex, and whisper: "Seeing is believing."

To celebrate his brainchild's 20th birthday, Steven Spielberg has refreshed the original with subtle computer-generated effects not yet invented when he and screenwriter Melissa Mathison gave birth to the one about how the creature who is left behind redeems the kid who is left out.

Yet today, as in 1982, the film's sparing effects and animatronics are almost superfluous. E.T. works because its flabbergasting principals, 14-year-old Robert MacNaughton, 6-year-old Drew Barrymore and 10-year-old Henry Thomas, convince us of the existence of the wise, wizened visitor from a faraway planet.

Their reactions evolve from horror of the unknown to curiosity, from curiosity to rapture. It is this collection of dimples and pigtails and freckles who make us believe in the fable about an imaginary friend who turns out to be as real as a heartbeat and as endlessly involving as an action figure.

Spielberg bathes everything in an amber light that gives people haloes and places auras, including obnoxious teenagers and characterless California suburban tract homes that have never looked so good before or since.

Once upon a time near a forest that reminds us of Hansel's and Gretel's stomping ground lands a spaceship that resembles an intergalactic colander. Aboard are Munchkin-scaled botanists from a distant galaxy who disperse to collect plant specimens. Detected by earthlings with flashlights, the visitors scurry back to the Mother Ship. One does not make it in time, and watches the Mother Ship take off without him.

This forlorn creature resembles nothing so much as a turtle who has lost his shell and his way. And he is discovered by the equally vulnerable Elliott (Henry Thomas), a 10-year-old who has lost his Father Ship: Dad's gone off with another woman, leaving his wife (Dee Wallace) and kids raw and unmoored. What we have here are two displaced creatures who each find a home in the other's heart.

The sequences of E.T. and Elliott getting acquainted is one of the great courtships in movie history. So simpatico are the two that there is a mystical synchronization of their brainwave patterns: If E.T. drinks a beer, Elliott gets drunk.

Though Spielberg has digitized out the guns of the federal agents who come to hunt down the alien, these scenes are no less threatening than in the original. Because of that and because E.T.'s brush with death is unnerving, I don't recommend the film for children under 6. My 5 1/2-year old, a fearless moviegoer, has seen it on video, and told me categorically: "Too scary to see on a big screen."

Revisiting a landmark - whether it's a place, or a book, or a movie - enables the tourist to measure her own internal evolution as well as the cultural changes that have taken place in the intervening years.

To see E.T. today is to recognize that Spielberg and Mathison imagined New Age spirituality (imparted not by God, but by a guru) and glasnost well before we had the vocabulary to describe these phenoms.

I leave it to psychologists and clergymen to tease out the deeper meanings of E.T., the eco-deity who fell to Earth. Any lay person can appreciate the eloquence of Spielberg's and Mathison's moral, an update of the wisdom of Hillel and the Golden Rule. If we approach the unfamiliar with fear and apprehension, we will be met with fear and apprehension. But if we approach with sympathy and curiosity, we will be rewarded with same. And our souls, not to mention our bicycles, will soar to the heavens.

Contact Carrie Rickey at 215-854-5402 or crickey@phillynews.com.

E.T. the Extraterrestrial **** (Out of four stars)

Produced by Steven Spielberg and Kathleen Kennedy, directed by Steven Spielberg, written by Melissa Mathison, photography by Allen Daviau, music by John Williams, distributed by Universal Pictures.

Running time: 2 hours

Elliott. . . Henry Thomas

Michael. . . Robert MacNaughton

Gertie. . . Drew Barrymore

Mary. . . Dee Wallace

Keys. . . Peter Coyote

Parent's guide: PG (earthy language, intimations of mortality)

Showing at: area theaters

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