SWEET MAGIC OF SPIELBERG’S ‘E.T.’ IS STILL THERE

Twenty years is far too long an absence between friends.

Much of the ink on the 20th anniversary re-release of “E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial” has been on its legacy. It gave director Steven Spielberg the courage to pursue later projects such as “The Color Purple,” “Schindler’s List” and “Saving Private Ryan.” Its role reversal of the kind, frightened alien and looming, hostile Earthlings reflected how America’s concerns turned from the Cold War to our domestic state.

What the theatrical revival has done is to underscore what has gone missing: the patient, sweet devotion to storytelling. More than anything, the tender intelligence and sweet humor of “E.T.” remind us how much cinematic shorthand has truncated emotion in the mad rush toward special effects.

Even the first credits (in ’80s lavender) set up the rules of suspense: Introductions first, but not one snippet will be given away. As the film begins to unfold under a night sky, the faint, hollow notes of John Williams’ score instills a commingling sense of fear and dread, yet with a haunting beauty.

When vague, otherworldly outlines gradually appear, these figures inspire uncertainty, not terror. From the beginning, we see our world through their eyes, as their extra-long, quivering brown fingers gently uproot saplings in a forest. Especially for one visitor, every sight inspires a palpable sense of awe as he wanders among the tall slender redwoods or sits on a slope, sighing contentedly, to see the glowing township below him.

Fear comes in the form of humans, unseen figures whose pickups suddenly tear into the serenity. Too far from the ship (which resembles an enormous silver Christmas ornament), a fearful E.T. is left behind, and he begins to make his way down to the anonymous grid of California suburbia.

Where he ends up is the home of Elliott (Henry Thomas). His parents have recently separated, and the unseen father has for the time being left his fractured family to be in Mexico with another woman. Into this lonely void steps not so much a paternal figure or a substitute son — even when Elliott declares to his older brother, Michael (Robert MacNaughton), that he’s keeping him — but a friend who introduces the possibility of hope that he is not alone.

Nowadays, children in movies have become calculatingly cute or superkids. Elliott, Michael and younger child Gertie (Drew Barrymore) feel wondrously real. When Elliott mentions that Dad is in Mexico with Sally, Michael angrily scolds him for thinking only of himself as their mother, Mary (Dee Wallace-Stone), retreats to the sink in tears — then in the next moment tries to get out of dishwashing duty. Gertie and E.T. scream in terror at their first face-to-face meeting. Despite this unfortunate introduction, the 6-year-old quickly becomes curious about the little visitor, criticizes his feet and plays dress-up with the obliging creature.

Elliott, whose trail of Reese’s Pieces earned the trust of the alien, shows E.T. his toys and goldfish to introduce Earth life. Their bond extends to a psychic link: When E.T. is left home alone to raid the refrigerator (including sampling the Coors), Elliott becomes inebriated.

Besides restoring scenes such as E.T.’s bathtub sequence, Spielberg made several notable changes as an artist, father and post-9-11 American. When E.T. first flees from the humans in the forest, his linear progression (a cutout on a rail) is now a short-legged hopping. (If Spielberg ever updates “Jurassic Park” to current scientific theories, this is likely how T-Rex should be running.) He changed the word “terrorist” to the rather misguided choice of “hippie” when Mary angrily criticizes Michael’s Halloween costume, and he replaced government agents’ guns with walkie-talkies.

What hasn’t changed is the government as an invasive dark undercurrent. As the children befriend E.T., radar-equipped black vans eavesdrop on their conversations. They search the house when it’s empty, and finally take it over in a frightening home invasion.

Although the airborne bicycle ride has become forever branded in American culture (and literally branded when it became Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment company logo), the special action effects are minimal. The most exciting sequence is when E.T., Elliott, Michael and three friends elude pursuing agents on their bicycles. What makes it thrilling is that the fantasy takes place in the realm of adolescent expertise, both in the suburban landscape and in their mode of transport.

For those who saw the original release, you could review the video, scrutinize every scene and compare what has been added or excised from its onscreen revival. Or you can settle in your seat with vague memories of youthful sentimentality and realize that it wasn’t gullibility, but a child’s wonderful insight of what is real.

Vera H-C Chan can be reached at 925-977-8428 or at vchan@cctimes.com.

REVIEW

What: “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial”

Starring: Henry Thomas, Robert MacNaughton, Drew Barrymore

Rating: PG (language and mild thematic elements)

Running time: 2 hours

Where: Opens today at area theaters

GRADE: A

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