E.T. keeps on flying

Despite Spielberg's tweaks, extraterrestrial retains his charm

Yes, the guns are gone.

As you've undoubtedly heard by now, Steven Spielberg has celebrated the 20th anniversary of 'E.T. The Extraterrestrial' by going over the film with a fine-toothed comb and tweaking a few things that he thought needed updating.

The most widely publicized of these changes is the digital removal of guns from the hands of the police officers pursuing Elliott and his friends in the climactic bike chase and the substitution of the word 'hippies' for 'terrorists' in reference to the older brother's choice of Halloween costume.

Despite the understandable protests of film purists, the good news is this: The changes work.

Let's face it, it was heavy-handed to have cops with guns chasing a few kids on bikes; the threat of a crowd of grown-ups is obvious enough without the overkill of all that firepower. And yes, the 'hippies' line change is silly. But numerous other updates have given 'E.T.' just enough of a face-lift to freshen it for modern audiences who've come to expect more sophisticated film wizardry since 1982.

E.T.'s face, for example, is given more life through computer enhancements, and some rickety special effects (like E.T. running through the woods in the opening scenes, originally done with a dummy rolled on a track) have been improved just enough to actually make them less noticeable than they would have been if left alone.

A few scenes have been restored, including a graphically enhanced sequence with Elliott and E.T. in the bathroom. All are welcome additions, done with Industrial Light and Magic's usual deft touch.

As for the film itself, Spielberg has called 'E.T.' his 'most personal film.' Watching it now, two decades after its release, his surprisingly deep poem to love and family betrays an awful lot of the director's own fears.

The similarly named Elliott (Henry Thomas) and E.T. both seek the same thing: a return to their home. Elliott's newly single mom (Dee Wallace) is barely holding the family together after abandonment by her husband. Indeed, she's the only adult with any teeth in Elliott's world Ñ for most of the film, all male adults are shown in shadow or from the chest down, faceless figures that are either menacing or aloof.

While Melissa Mathison's script is obviously based on classic 'boy finds wild animal and family grows closer' stories such as 'The Red Pony' and 'The Black Stallion' (the latter of which, not coincidentally, Mathison also wrote), Spielberg brings a darker perspective to the tale. This was still the Spielberg of 'Poltergeist,' 'Jaws' and 'Close Encounters of the Third Kind,' the Spielberg who feared and distrusted government (and, by extension, adult male authority).

With 'E.T.,' Spielberg has done a fine job of updating a film that needed a little spit and polish, and we can all breathe a sigh of relief. Don't relax too much, however: He's now talking about doing the same thing to 'Raiders of the Lost Ark.' Whether that 'fix' will be as successful, we'll all just have to wait and see.