Who can really say why films catch on, much less stick around? Twenty years after its release, Steven Spielberg's E.T.—a combination boy-and-his-dog movie and Christian allegory, with more than a bit of post-Watergate paranoia thrown into the mix—still seems like an odd addition to the list of one-time most popular films ever made. Nixon's visage even has a cameo in the form of a trick-or-treater in one of this new anniversary edition's few restored moments, but the most striking thing about E.T. isn't its timely touches, but its timelessness. Freed of its initial blizzard of publicity, countless parodies and forgotten knockoffs, and general ubiquity, the film now looks better than ever. This has nothing to do with the new version's added scenes (only one is of any length) and cherried-up special effects, which neither add to it nor detract from it. It has much to do with the way Spielberg and screenwriter Melissa Mathison find fairy-tale possibilities in the anonymity of a decidedly unmagical California suburb. Magic arrives in the unlikely form of a waddling, saucer-eyed alien, created through a combination of puppetry, rubber suits, and now the occasional digital effect, but never less than convincing as a living creature. His rescuers come from a broken home, but that information is relegated to the background: Like the film's almost anthropologically detailed realization of early-'80s suburbia, it's significant without being overstated. Not that Spielberg avoids overstatement entirely, or that he should. Already well-established as one of the most powerful visual storytellers around, he works E.T.'s story for all it's worth, taking his characters to the outer reaches of slapstick and pathos without losing his grip. Occasionally he leans on the levers too hard, but only a hardened curmudgeon could fail to respond. The precisely executed uplift never seems phony, and the heroes' goodness is never adulterated by cynicism or even ambiguity. Maybe that's why the subsequent Spielberg-shepherded projects almost seem like attempts to purge E.T., by tracking malevolent home invaders (Poltergeist, Gremlins) and sending an established hero through a theme park of gore and child slavery (Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom). Unchecked goodness has its price, after all, and childhood wonder wouldn't be nearly as sweet if it didn't fade. That may explain the film's appeal. It trapped that feeling, and its sense of possibility, in amber—then, now, and for any time.
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