E.T. returns to heal our cynical hearts.

E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial: The 20th Anniversary
Universal's new edit deftly substitutes Elliott's malt - liquor with grape Fresca.
Universal's new edit deftly substitutes Elliott's malt liquor with grape Fresca.
One of the fun things about the media is that many people who work in it lie almost constantly, creating a social minefield that keeps everybody hoppin'. For instance, take the big studios (please). Sometimes we call them up and say, "Hiya, we noticed that you have a major motion picture coming out in a few days. Any chance we could see said product so we can review it, as is our wont?" Not infrequently, the dubious response we get from beleaguered PR assistants is that the movie, due on 20,000-plus screens in a mere week, isn't ready yet. As is also our wont, we politely thank them, then hang up the phone and begin bitching in earnest about limp-wristed execs and the hapless studio underlings they train to lie.

Not so, Universal. Well, actually, they're kind of a repeat offender, often feigning the no-print-ready scenario and/or deigning to screen films for us only a couple of days before national release. But in this case, they were blatantly honest. When asked if we could view E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial: The 20th Anniversary in time for publication, they said, quite simply, no.

This is particularly strange, given that -- in terms of this movie's box-office returns -- even a scathing critical pan would amount to about as much damage as keying a battleship. Weirder still, despite a few new nips and tucks, the touchy-feely juggernaut is 20 years old, so it's not as if we can blow any narrative surprises. But no means no, so there was only one option: Behold, a loose review of the videocassette, with extras.

Written by Melissa Mathison (The Black Stallion), directed by Steven Spielberg (1941), novelized (and improved) by William Kotzwinkle, celebrated in song by Neil Diamond, and transformed into an annoying, overpriced video game for the Atari 2600, E.T. is the story of a grotesque, gibbering rubberhead who is abandoned in the middle of a boring middle America and forced to entertain its dull denizens by means of metaphysical gimcrackery. Thus, it's something of a prequel to Forrest Gump. It's also a kindly follow-up to Spielberg's alien obsession in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, which wasn't as good as Jaws --but then again, what is?

E.T. stars Drew Barrymore and Henry Thomas (both cute as buttons, both still doing good work, and neither convicted felons -- congratulations!) as, respectively, adorable little Gertie and her winsome brother Elliott. With their brash older brother, Michael (Robert MacNaughton), they inhabit a prefab town not unlike the one seen in Poltergeist, a more enjoyable movie which came out around the same time as E.T. and -- despite the heavy influence of Spielberg -- was allegedly directed by Tobe Hooper. But that aside, the basic gist is that a bunch of ugly little interstellar botanists land in the woods in a giant Christmas ornament and are harassed into bleating and scampering by government meanies, and one is left behind to be discovered by our diminutive heroes. Sugar and saccharin ensue.

The kids live in a preternaturally foggy house with their divorced mother, Mary (Dee Wallace), and bicker a lot, but once they're visited by the eponymous E.T., played by Steve Buscemi, they discover a communal mission. It turns out that E.T. is friendly and fun and handy with tools, so the kids set him up with Mary, the couple elope, and they have a really unpleasant-looking baby. Nah, what actually happens is that the suburban youngsters conspire to help E.T., you know, phone home and all that, so he can rejoin his mates in collecting fungi on Saturn or whatever. There's finger fun, fear, and flight (literally), and then it ends with E.T. being captured by diabolical agents, dying, coming back to life, and ascending into heaven. But you already know this familiar story.

There's plenty to impress about E.T., including Allen Daviau's glowing cinematography, John Williams's deft incidental music (try to ignore the main theme), the hypnotic slow build of E.T.'s arrival, and respectful nods to classic fictional characters such as Peter Pan and Elvis Costello. There are fine laughs, too, as the kids desperately try to conceal their squonking charge from the cruel rationalism of the adult world. The nods to George Lucas (a Halloween Yoda costume, Darth Vader-like respirators) are also amusing, and the film ends with a huge rainbow symbol of gay pride across the night sky, so there's something for everyone.

We're told that this new version is tweaked and enhanced, with the E.T. puppet digitally smoothed out and the guns in the meanies' hands removed (silly, but bravo). Unconfirmed rumors also suggest that benevolent agent Peter Coyote has been replaced with Freddie Prinze Jr. and Raggedy Ann morphed into a Powerpuff Girl. Some dialogue has been altered as well, with the children's offensive comments, such as "penis breath" and "son of a bitch," being replaced with the more benign "Visit Citywalk" and "Own it on DVD!" Yes, we're fortunate to have E.T. back among us, if for no other reason than to remind us how much can change in 20 years.

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