Movie review, 'E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial: The 20th Anniversary'

EntertainmentMoviesFamilyHenry ThomasDrew BarrymoreSteven SpielbergJohn F. Williams

Some movies strike an almost universal chord, and one of them is "E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial," Steven Spielberg's gentle science-fiction tale about a little boy from a broken home and the lost space creature with whom he secretly bonds.

Spielberg has said that 1982's "E.T." - being rereleased for its 20th anniversary - is his most personal movie, and it's a film that tends to break down all defenses, carrying the audience along on waves of emotion through scenes of rapturous fantasy, exhilarating flight, and harrowing fear and loss. Following the relationship of 11-year-old Elliot (Henry Thomas), his family (Dee Wallace as mother Mary, Robert McNaughton as older brother Michael and 6-year-old Drew Barrymore as sister Gertie) and the strange, sweet, reptilian alien left behind by an expedition from outer space, "E.T." is a movingly sincere family fairy tale, a cinematic marvel and a genuine popular myth.

It seems almost confounding, in fact, that a movie so gentle and sweet-natured, so fully in tune with the innocence and wonder of childhood, could be so universally popular on first release. It was the box-office champion of an entire decade, the 1980s, whose movies were hardly known for gentleness or sincerity. Yet Spielberg took the stuff of real childhood trauma for his tale. Elliot's family suffers from the effects of a shattered marriage. Little E.T., who looks something like a deshelled turtle with an elastic neck and Albert Einstein eyes, becomes the secret friend easing Elliot's sense of abandonment.

In the film's daring, lyrical, often wordless opening sequences, underscored by John Williams' Hitchcock-Herrmann-style score, the human-alien pair meet in the misty dark, overcome their fears and become inseparable, as Elliot hides E.T. in their Northern California hillside house, unknown to anyone but Michael and Gertie. Meanwhile, a surrogate father figure prowls around the edges: Peter Coyote as the mysterious, initially menacing government agent known as "Keys" (because of the full keychain always dangling form his belt loop). All this moves toward a shamelessly poignant ending, a climax that sets out to break your heart and drain your eyes - and usually does.

"E.T." was always a magical film. For its anniversary rerelease, though, it's been extensively restored and even partly reshot by Spielberg. It now looks better than it did back then. Scenes trimmed from the original have been restored - including one of E.T. playfully submerging in a tubful of water as Elliott plays hooky from school, and another of Mary alone in the house on Halloween - and there is lots of technical refurbishing and tweaking. (The film's most famous shot, of Elliot on his bike with E.T. on the handlebars flying past the moon, was completely reshot in order to add the nuance of Elliot's clothes billowing in the night breeze.)

The film seems every bit as fresh as it was in 1982, and perhaps even more moving - because we know the subsequent arc of Spielberg's career, the more ambitious roads he took. And there's also special pleasure in seeing the actors as they were then: Henry Thomas as the wide-eyed, empathetic Elliot, and the impudent 6-year-old Drew Barrymore. I remembered how adorable she was, but not how funny; with her whimsical delivery and half-grin, she's the comic start of the film, for a director whose one major weakness has always seemed his penchant for overly broad comedy.

The comedy is balanced by rich pathos. "E.T." is about the wonders beyond our gaze, but it also digs deep into the realities of childhood pain as a framework for its fantasy. Spielberg's first real masterpiece, it deserved all the hearts it won - and wins still, 20 years later.

4 stars
"E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial"

Directed by Steven Spielberg; written by Melissa Mathison; photographed by Allen Daviau; edited by Carol Littleton; production designed by James D. Bissell; music by John Williams; produced by Spielberg, Kathleen Kennedy. A Universal Pictures release; opens Friday, March 22. Running time: 2:00. MPAA rating: PG (language, mild thematic elements).
Elliot - Henry Thomas
Mary - Dee Wallace
Keys - Peter Coyote
Michael - Robert McNaughton
Gertie - Drew Barrymore Tyler - Tom (C. Thomas) Howell

Michael Wilmington is the Chicago Tribune movie critic.

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