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April 01, 2002|BY KEVIN CLAPP

kevinc@herald-mail.com

A 26-year-old settles into his seat as coming attractions begin to flash across the screen:

Kinetic, frenetic trailers for upcoming live action versions of Spiderman and Scooby Doo, choreographed to a collage of pop hits and familiar catch phrases.

Less frenetic, but still quick cutting, are two more teasers, for forthcoming animated films, one about a horse, the other about a girl and the alien she befriends.

And then, without much pomp or circumstance, a dated title sequence begins. Faded purple letters followed by a short list of credits to signal the start of nearly two hours of true cinematic magic.

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But this is not where the story begins.

The year is 1982, and a six-year-old with tussled dark hair enters a movie theater in northern Connecticut with his mother and five-year-old brother.

On tap: A chance to see some kid's movie called "E.T."

Truthfully, I don't remember much about going to see Steven Spielberg's movie while it was racking up more than $400 million in '82. But I do know that moviegoing was relatively rare for my family and three films stand out as events in my young mind:

Return of the Jedi in '83; Pinnochio at a theater in West Springfield, Mass., with my grandmother; and staring in awe as bicycles flew through the air in E.T.

My memories of the film, though, are very much tangential - acquiring a jones for peanut butter candies that continues to this day; hours of time on the Atari 2600 playing the E.T.-based video game.

And developing an absolute dread for "Turn on Your Heart Light," the Neil Diamond-penned epitome of schmaltz, an AM radio staple that to this day will cause the hair on my neck to stand on end.

What I remember most vividly is developing an antipathy to the film in later years. For years after, any opportunity to watch the video was rebuffed; no way I was going to be tethered to a couch for what I felt was sappy and altogether inappropriate for a boy to watch.

So, it was with quite a bit of curiosity that I settled into my seat last week to revisit the film. Three impressions:

1. E.T. is one funny flick.

Much like watching Looney Tunes shorts, its humor works on two levels. Simple sight gags work well for kids, but fans of Spielberg's original blockbuster, "Jaws," can chuckle at the following exchange between Elliot and E.T.:

"Fish eat fish food," a 10-year-old Henry Thomas' says to E.T., pointing to his fishbowl.

"Sharks eat fish," he says, gripping a toy shark head on a stick, whose jaws clench when squeezing a lever.

"Nobody eats sharks."

2. This is one dark film.

So much of the action occurs in shadow with all adults save one, Dee Wallace as Elliot's mother, projected as faceless for a full two-thirds of the film. It creates a memorable me-against-the-world atmosphere for kids rooting for Elliot and his siblings to thwart adults who just don't understand.

3. Its simplicity serves the story.

I watch movies. A lot of movies. And one of my eternal frustrations is the need to explain everything, the desire to drag a story out beyond its natural conclusion either to ensure a happy ending or to tack on a coda where we find out what happens to characters.

E.T. is different in that it ends with Elliot's eyes skyward, following E.T.'s spaceship as it ascends to the heavens. There's no group hug with the other actors, no explicit moralizing.

One other thing: Much has been made of the decision to add a couple of scenes, and to replace guns with walkie-talkies in the hands of adults on the trail of Elliot and his friends.

They don't dramatically alter the look, feel or tone of the film a bit. In fact, if the changes hadn't been reported, they wouldn't have registered, and certainly not with kids experiencing the movie for the first time now.

My assignment was to compare viewing the film then and now. Leaving the theater though, two feelings ran through my mind. One was regret for ignoring the film for so long. The other, appropriately enough, was awe at the story I had been wrapped up in once again.

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