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Phone Home Again 

by Ed Symkus

When a film opens, there's one thing on the mind of every filmmaker, every studio, every distributor: Will it find an audience? Filmmaking is a business, and it all boils down to whether the film will make back its huge investment and then generate some profit.

But that question has been altered, and it now often goes like this: Will it find an audience if it's re-released? There have been recent successful re-issues of Apocalypse Now and Star Wars, even the limited rollout of Monty Python & amp; the Holy Grail did well.

But can a film that's recognized as one of the biggest blockbusters of all time (a $10.5 million budget has returned just over $700 million, worldwide), which has been seen repeatedly by young and old, and which has had a very good life on videocassette, work again in a big-screen release?

Yes, it has been 20 years since E.T. hit theaters, and because of videotape, it's not as if there's a whole new generation waiting to see it. Most kids today probably couldn't care less about going to a movie theater when they've seen it so many times at home.

Ah, but enough of my editorializing. On with the movie review.

For the record, I've never been a big fan of this incredibly popular movie. I saw it a few months after it originally opened, after it had already been given god-like status, and it didn't hold up to the expectations that were foisted upon me. I thought it was pretty good, but terribly marred by the pretentiously manipulative crisis near the end.

So I went back to see this new version, in which there are a couple of scenes reinstated that didn't make the first cut. There's a glimpse inside E.T.'s spaceship at the start; a bit more of him hopping around in the woods, also at the start; and a scene of him happy and quiet at the bottom of a bathtub. Still missing, sadly, is the scene of Harrison Ford -- shot in silhouette -- as the school principal who has a talk with little Elliot's mom after Elliot appears to be drunk in class.

Okay, for the uninitiated -- are there any of you out there? -- this family film involves some short, squat little aliens, cute and ugly at the same time, on a visit to our planet. When they realize they've been found out, they skedaddle back to their world, but one of them can't get to the ship on time and is stranded.

So we meet our protagonist and the mysterious bad guys who are hunting him for whatever purpose. One of Spielberg's most interesting decisions is never to show their heads. Neither, later, does he show the head of Elliot's teacher, nor the head of a cop who visits his home. A problem with authority, perhaps?

Next we meet Elliot (Henry Thomas, soon to be seen in Scorsese's Gangs of New York), who lives with recently separated mom (Dee Wallace Stone), an older brother (Robert MacNaughton) and a little sister (Drew Barrymore, who's really not very good here, but she does get the funniest lines). Elliot bumps into helpless and hungry E.T. in his backyard, eventually lures him into his bedroom with Reese's Pieces -- M & amp;Ms passed on the product placement opportunity -- and plans to keep him as a sort of pet or pal, letting his siblings in on the scheme, but not mom.

Much comic mayhem ensues after Elliot and E.T. form a sort of symbiotic relationship. (Has anyone ever noticed that both names begin and end with the same letters?) The reason Elliot was drunk at school is because E.T. had been downing Coors after Coors back home. There's also what's supposed to pass for the threat of terror, as government forces (those mystery men from the beginning) close in on the little fella, and there are equal doses of adventure and family dynamics.

The kids really do act like kids, and Mom is so busy trying to keep life normal -- and unable to stop thinking of her husband down in Mexico with another woman -- she's believably (and comically) unaware that a strange little creature is living in her home.

The only real problem, once again, is the ridiculous last reel, in which both Elliot and E.T. come down with some kind of ailment. It's supposed to be heart-tugging, but it comes off as maudlin, and all it does is drag the film down to a stop. Then, with no explanation, the story just restarts, as if nothing had happened.

So back to the question of whether this will make it at the box office again. Of course it will. It's one of those rarities -- a general crowd-pleaser. Besides, where else can you see little nods to both Star Wars and Jaws, and even a little stab at Star Trek?

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