A lovable alien lands back on big screen

"E.T. THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL" lands on Earth again next week, 20 years after his first arrival.

The movie has a smidgen of new footage and a freshly tweaked soundtrack, but it's mostly the same fantasy audiences took into their hearts a generation ago.

Will today's moviegoers welcome it back? Or have cultural tastes and Hollywood trends undergone too many changes for the lovable alien to flourish in the 21st century? We're now in the "Lord of the Rings" era, after all, when computer-generated visuals go far beyond the relatively mild FX sported by E.T.'s escapades.

"E.T." is also an Earthbound movie, taking place in an everyday suburban neighborhood. The most buzzed-about recent fantasies, "The Fellowship of the Ring" and "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone," bring us to otherworldly realms where exotic characters live in exotic surroundings.

Flamboyant fantasies were also popular 20 years ago, of course, and that's one reason why the initial success of "E.T." astonished even director Steven Spielberg.

He hadn't guessed his good-natured fantasy about a 10-year-old boy, a childlike space visitor, and an unlikely tagline – "E.T. phone home!" – would produce a starburst of such magnitude. Spielberg's surprise also stemmed from the difference between "E.T." and his earlier hits, which had followed somewhat different paths, although each had fantastic elements. "Jaws" was a horror flick. "Raiders of the Lost Ark" was an action-adventure romp.

Only the luminescent "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" had a similar set of interests, and in some ways "E.T." turns that film on its head: The mood is more intimate. The alien pops up at the beginning, rather than the end, of the story. And instead of a dad searching for his son, we meet a fatherless boy yearning for a kind of affection he misses in his jumbled suburban home. As critic Robert Kolker wrote in his book "A Cinema of Loneliness," in "E.T." Spielberg creates "two aliens, Elliott and the space creature, finding their way in the troublesome adult world."

The challenges of childhood are an enduring theme, which helps explain why "E.T." touched so many moviegoers. Spielberg stressed the movie's roots in his own youth when I discussed it with him in 1982. "There's lots of me in Elliott and lots of Elliott in me," he said with a smile. "I was a weird little outsider."

Seen from another perspective, "E.T." and "Close Encounters" marked a turning point in science-fiction filmmaking. Leaving aside the unique "2001: A Space Odyssey," most sci-fi movies of the '50s and '60s took a paranoid view of science and space. High-tech experiments produced monsters like the giant ants of "Them!" and the city-crushing "Godzilla."

Titles like "When Worlds Collide" and "Earth vs. the Flying Saucers" described the fearful thrills of typical outer-space adventures. Even the buoyant "Star Wars" showed a galaxy split between amiable Earth-lovers and an evil Empire, locked in cold-war-style animosity.

Spielberg took a new tack in "Close Encounters," suggesting that intergalactic aliens might be friendly and even loving. He went a step further in "E.T.," making the space creature so innocent and adorable that little kids are his natural friends.

Sci-fi movies have wandered in many directions since then, and Spielberg himself views science skeptically in his "Jurassic Park" pictures. But the optimism of "E.T." still strikes an emotional chord with audiences who remember it from 1982, and the response to next week's reissue will indicate whether that upbeat attitude resonates with today's viewers.

Spielberg's own career has also blazed different trails in the past two decades, suggesting that the fairy-tale simplicity of "E.T." had limited appeal even for him.

His more ambitious outings include the racial and historical melodramas "Amistad" and "The Color Purple," the Holocaust story "Schindler's List," and the unexpected hit "Saving Private Ryan," which single-handedly launched the American war-movie craze that's still going strong.

Those movies notwithstanding, it would be inaccurate to say the family-friendly fantasist of "E.T." and "Close Encounters" has become a cerebral storyteller with a penchant for big issues. His camera has also cranked out forgettable fluff like "Always," "Hook," and a pair of "Jurassic Park" epics in the past 12 years.

Even his most thematically earnest films, like "Schindler's List" and "Saving Private Ryan," fall back on time-tested Hollywood formulas, which he readily recycles while giving them enough energetic twists to strike many spectators as fresh.

His most recent release, "A.I. Artificial Intelligence," seemed designed to blend the childlike and adult aspects of his artistic personality into a whole, using an unproduced screenplay by intellectual filmmaker Stanley Kubrick as the basis for a series of elaborate Spielbergian whimsies. The results were as fascinating as they were peculiar, but neither critics nor audiences responded with enthusiasm.

Will the box-office fortunes of next week's "E.T." reissue affect Spielberg's future plans? Probably not. His new movie, "Minority Report," is almost finished, arriving in theaters June 28. And he's already in production on the fourth "Jurassic Park," personally directing it after handing the reins of "JP3" to a colleague.

In any case, it's likely the heyday of "E.T."-type fantasy is over. Look through "The A List," a new Da Capo book discussing "100 essential films" chosen by the National Society of Film Critics, and you'll find two Spielberg movies, "Close Encounters" and "Schindler's List," representing the ebullient and pensive sides of his career. "E.T.," which received a standing ovation at the 1982 Cannes film festival, didn't make the cut.

I don't expect audiences will flock to it now, either, save for a first-week rush of nostalgic fans, and parents who want to share it with their kids. "E.T." was just right for the upbeat moods of 20 years ago. Today the darker, more far-reaching mythologies of "Harry Potter" and "Lord of the Rings" have inherited its mantle.

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