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E.T. returns to the big screen twenty years later.

E.T. (PG)
Universal Pictures

Allow me to show my age. When Steven Spielberg's film valentine to childhood, family ties and the movies, E.T., was first released in 1982, I took my six-year-old daughter to see it at the Hawaiian Theater in Honolulu, a wonderful decaying old art-deco gem tucked among souvenir shops, Chinese restaurants and walk-up law offices in the shady part of Waikiki.

The Hawaiian's former grandeur had long ago gone dusty but it still maintained its charm. Papier-mache palm trees lined the outside aisles and when the lights went down, overhead on the high vaulted ceiling, the effect of clouds swirling above was created with glow-in-the-dark paint and a filtered spotlight.

We loved going to the movies there and on this particular night the place was packed. But a minute or two into the coming attractions, the film broke and the house lights came up. Everyone shuffled impatiently in their seats, nibbling popcorn, waiting for the show to resume.

Across the aisle from my daughter and I, a man in a white linen suit and a jaunty Panama hat sat slouched way down in his seat. An elegantly dressed woman with her hair pulled back in a severe bun patted his arm. Naturally, since he appeared to want to be hidden we wanted to know who he was. Finally we realized it was Jack Lord of Hawaii 5-0 fame, trying his best not to be recognized.

The lights went down, the movie began with long minutes of silence in the lush California woods, accompanied by the haunting beginnings of John Williams' musical score. We were transported. Two hours later, the audience came to its feet and roared applause for Spielberg and E.T. Our Jack Lord spotting was a vague memory.

Twenty years later, the spell has not been broken. In many ways, the qualities that endeared the film to a generation are even sweeter and more poignant now. Spielberg has made some good films in the interim, but E.T. remains his best.

And here's a recommendation: If you are of the video generation and think you've seen E.T. so many times it could not possibly interest you, go and see it on the big screen. Williams' score, the looming redwoods of the forest, the chase scenes and the little flat-headed extraterrestrial are all mesmerizing in a the theater in way a television screen simply cannot capture.

The plot is bare: An extraterrestrial is left behind on Earth when his space ship takes off prematurely. He finds shelter in the house of a suburban family where he befriends a little boy who, by virtue of his hyperdeveloped empathy, helps the creature figure out how to reunite with his people and his ship. That's it. What fills the screen for two hours is the development of a relationship between the boy, Elliott (Henry Thomas) and the creature he dubs E.T., and the subsequent strengthening of his ties to his own family -- older brother Michael (Robert MacNaughton), little sister Gertie (Drew Barrymore) and mom (Dee Wallace).

The performances director Spielberg drew from his child actors stand among the best of any time. Henry Thomas, who has done some fine work as an adult, was so real and compelling as Elliott that all future roles must have felt thin to him. Elliott is smart, spunky and temperamental -- a normal boy caught in an extraordinary circumstance.

MacNaughton's Michael is endearingly awkward with his too large, crooked teeth and lanky limbs. There's something so touching about watching him haul his little sister around as naturally as a woman with ten kids and a hip slouch.

And Barrymore's natural outspokenness as 5-year-old Gertie is a continual pleasure to watch. The lines that come out of these kids' mouths are not borrowed from television commercials or action-adventure flicks, and they don't talk like smart-ass miniature adults.

Freshly injured by their parents' separation, their father's absence and uncertainty about their future, these kids bond together in their mutual efforts to keep E.T. from harm. Meanwhile, he quietly teaches them to look to each other for whatever they need. "Hoooooome," he intones, looking longingly at the night sky through the mini-blinds of Elliott's bedroom. "Ouch," he croaks, pointing to his aching, exiled heart.

The humor in E.T. transcends the years as well. The scene where everyone's at school and the little alien, bored and trapped indoors, raids the refrigerator and gets buzzed on a couple of beers still elicits howls.

And Spielberg's mastery at seasoning a tight situation with a sprinkle of wit shines through. When Michael takes off in a government issue van with Elliott and E.T. in the back, he yells: "I've never driven in forward before!" having only backed his mom's car out of the driveway up to now. "I'm gonna die," he grumbles, screaching around a corner of his postcard suburban neighborhood, "and they're never gonna let me get my license."

Much was said at this year's Academy Awards ceremony about the movies' capacity to provoke wonder. But frankly, contemporary movies are more likely to provoke fear, anger and cynicism on any given weekend. E.T. honors the qualities Hollywood continues to revere but rarely achieves, in the tradition of The Wizard of Oz, Star Wars and this year, The Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring.

The restored scenes that have been added to the footage do little to enhance and little to detract from the film we first saw in 1982. I remember coming out of the theater then and seeing the full moon completely differently. This time, I walked out of the theater in Colorado Springs in broad daylight and saw the mountains and the looming grid of our sprawling town with new eyes. Now that's entertainment.

-- Kathryn Eastburn

  • E.T. returns to the big screen twenty years later.

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