LOS ANGELES - The wrinkly' />

Everyone's favourite alien is getting a facelift, 20 years after he was first asked to phone home. DAVID GERMAIN reports.

LOS ANGELES - The wrinkly, crinkly munchkin from outer space is coming back to Earth, his fairytale journey a bit longer and more benign than when he first landed in theatres 20 years ago.

Steven Spielberg's E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial is returning to theatres - updated with a couple of previously unreleased scenes, visual enhancements, improved sound and excisions that have annoyed some purists who dislike tampering with beloved films.

And E.T. is about as beloved as they come. Debuting June 11, 1982, the tale of a lovably homely alien befriended by a 10-year-old boy became a cultural sensation.

The sight of E.T. and his buddy flying on a bicycle silhouetted against the moon is one of Hollywood's most memorable images, and the film produced one of the pithiest movie quotes: "E.T., phone home."

Nominated for best picture and eight other Academy Awards, winning four, E.T. remained the all-time top-grossing film domestically for 14 years, until it was passed by the reissue of Star Wars and later Titanic and Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace.

A film that delighted young children, E.T. also has been analysed and overanalysed, with E.T. examined as a Christ-like figure and his fall to Earth compared with a reversal of Dorothy's trip from mundane Kansas to glorious Oz.

"People love to talk about E.T. It holds an important place in their hearts, where they remember it from their childhood or it marks some key moment they remember in their adult lives," said E.T. producer Kathleen Kennedy.

Many changes in the re-release are cosmetic, relying on advancements in computer imagery to enrich some of E.T.'s motions and facial expressions, upgrade special effects and refine backgrounds.

In a few instances, Spielberg replaced the animatronic E.T. puppet with a digitised version. That technique allowed him to restore a scene between E.T. and his human pal Elliott (Henry Thomas) in which the little alien splashes into a bathtub; the scene did not make the original film because the E.T. puppet was acting up.

The other main addition is a scene where Elliott's mother (Dee Wallace Stone) goes looking for the boy during Halloween. Cut for length in the 1982 release, Spielberg restored it because it offered a nice comic moment from 6-year-old co-star Drew Barrymore.

Two alterations have bothered fans. Spielberg digitally removed guns in the hands of the government agents pursuing E.T. and Elliott, replacing them with walkie-talkies.

"The climate for guns was not as inflammatory in 1982 as it is now ... I notice some people have accused me of being Pollyanna and too soft, and I'm sure the NRA is angry at me for taking out the guns," Spielberg said.

Soon after the film's initial release, Kennedy said Spielberg had regretted having police chasing children with guns drawn.

Spielberg also had Wallace Stone record a new line to replace her character's edict that her older son (Robert MacNaughton) could not go out on Halloween dressed as a terrorist. The word hippie was substituted.

The terrorist line had been deleted from the film in video releases, and it was altered in the new theatrical release in light of the September 11 attacks.

"I don't think anybody wants to make light of that in any way right now," Wallace Stone said.

Complaints circulated among critics and especially on internet message boards when details of the E.T. revisions became known last year.

"I feel that Spielberg, my favourite director, is going too far ... Please leave your very best film alone," one fan griped on a website devoted to Spielberg movies.

The original film and the updated version will be available on video releases this year. "For purists, it's not as though we're erasing any sign of the original," Kennedy said.

The new version of E.T. opens tomorrow in about 2500 North American theatres, more than twice the number for the original's debut. The film took US$360 million domestically in its initial run, equating to almost US$700 million ($1.6 billion) today, factoring in ticket-price inflation. E.T. grossed US$40.6 million more in a 1985 reissue, and its worldwide receipts topped US$700 million.

"Adding the new footage I would guess was a darn good business move," Wallace Stone said. "It's like getting some extra prize for going back to see it again." The real value, though, is in revisiting a tale of innocence, hope and compassion.

"There probably couldn't be a better time for E.T. to be coming back out," Wallace Stone said. "After September 11, we all had a choice about which way we wanted to go. Are we going to live in anger, live in the fear, live in the revenge?

"Or we could say, 'You know what? That route is a mess. It doesn't work for them and it doesn't work for us. It's got to stop."'


* The updated E.T. opens in Auckland tomorrow