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HAPPY 20TH, <i>E.T.</i>

Written by movies  |  25. March 2002

Thanks to that newfangled VCR contraption, my friends and I grew up watching Steven Spielberg's kid-friendly movies. Two months ago, while I was re-watching Close Encounters of the Third Kind, it occurred to me that I might as well be watching the movie for the first time. I hadn't seen it since I was little. Ditto Raiders of the Lost Ark. Ditto Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Ditto Hook. Ditto E.T. I have fond memories of those movies. I gather that my friends do as well. The same goes for most of the impressively rude audience that watched the new 20th Anniversary Edition of E.T. on Friday night with me, several members of which burped and talked through the trailers and opening credits. But once the first image appeared on screen, the audience pretty much shut up and watched the movie reverently. Spielberg's classic had hooked them again. It's not that they weren't familiar with the film. Let's face it: E.T. is so ingrained in pop culture that even if you hadn't seen it, you might think you had. When I reviewed Apocalypse Now Redux in August, I assumed that everyone interested in reading about the new version of that film was familiar with the details of the old one. I can't make that assumption with E.T. Even I, who claim to be an expert, found that watching the film last week -- first on video, then in a theater -- was like seeing it anew. Therefore, a plot summary is in order. Elliott (Henry Thomas) is a middle child whose parents are divorced. He's the butt of his older brother Michael's jokes. He lives with his mother (Dee Wallace). His younger sister, Gert, is played by a then-seven-year-old Drew Barrymore in one of the most endearing child performances ever. Elliott befriends E.T., an alien who shows up in his tool-shed one day. They ride a bicycle through the sky, discover the true meaning of friendship, and yada yada yada. There's nothing terribly original in Melissa Mathison's screenplay. E.T. is enduring because Spielberg appeals to our most basic emotions -- our fears and our desires. He's an expert at whetting our curiosity, giving us only glimpses of the spaceship in the opening shots and back-lit shots of the aliens, and not giving us a clear look at E.T.'s face until Elliott sees him. The second time I watched the movie this week, I was struck with the notion that E.T. was merely an invention of Elliott's subconscious. After all, for reasons never explained, Elliott and E.T. experience the same emotions. E.T.'s face looks sort of like a distortion of the human skull. When asked about E.T., Elliott constantly refers to him using the plural pronoun "we" -- as if he and E.T. were the same person. Late in the film, we learn that E.T. and Elliot's brain waves are in precise synchronization. E.T.'s last words to Elliott are "I'll be right here." Then I came to my senses. If E.T. were just a figment of Elliott's imagination, then none of the other characters would be able to see him. The kids who go flying over the woods with Elliott and E.T. at the end wouldn't have been able to fly over the trees. And so on. But either way, E.T. does help Elliott to learn something about himself -- responsibility. Elliott insists on keeping E.T. a secret from his mother, and he succeeds in sending E.T. home without her help. Spielberg recognizes that every child occasionally fantasizes about being more "in charge" than his or her parents. We all relate to Elliott's story. That's what makes it so appealing. E.T. isn't perfect. The second half isn't as miraculous as the first, and the moment at which the government agents show up is just plain bizarre (although perhaps that's the way the incident might play from a child's perspective). But for children, E.T. is the best of Spielberg's movies: the characters are understandable, the creature at the center of the picture (unlike the shark in Jaws) is friendly, and there's a lot of comedy, too -- especially in the scene where Elliott inspires his classmates to set free their ready-for-dissection frogs. Spielberg has added to and modified the movie for its reissue, but the changes are really just gimmicks to get people to return to theaters. (It's worth the trip anyway, though, to be surrounded by John Williams' soaring score.) The major addition is a funny new scene that shows E.T. and Elliott playing in the bathroom. Also, the government agents' guns have been digitally altered so that they are now look like blurry walkie-talkies -- although the agents still hold them like guns. The E.T. creature has been enhanced using digital effects. As much as Spielberg has tried to change, he hasn't hidden the dated Fresca and Coca-Cola logos. Nor has he diminished the film's essential magic.

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