In the tradition of the angels has Steven Spielberg created his transitory masterpiece, "E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial." It is a work so timely, so plush with the humor and pathos of the 1980s, the video games and psychodrama, that it may endure only so long as Pac-Man, pizza and Marin County.

But if "E.T." lives no longer than Camelot, that is the nature of fantasy and of now. Modernity is a Spielberg hallmark. No other director has so captured us as we are at the moment; his films could have been made the week they open, they are so apt, so full of exact slang. And in his new Spielbinder, the bittersweet story of an abandoned alien, the 34-year-old director/producer wraps modern metaphors around ancient allegory. It's like reading the Bible while chewing bubblegum, and running through the forest primeval while playing John Williams on your Walkman. Awesome.

The film has a layered polyurethane-and- foam-rubber messiah in the title role. He/she is a warm-blooded, warmhearted wrinkly Muppet who heals a wounded family while marooned light-years from home in a Tujunga Canyon toolshed. It is there that the terrified creature first encounters Elliott Taylor (Henry Thomas), a lonely kid whose father has just left the family for another woman. Both E.T.s are strangers in strange lands.

Rejection, abandonment and alienation are strange themes, too, for Spielberg and for comedy. But there are plenty of laughs in "E.T.," simultaneously one of the funniest and saddest films ever made. The sight gags are endless, with Spielberg laughing at himself, snapping his "Jaws" in Elliott's fish tank. Then he plays with "Star Wars," Yoda of the Empire, the "Wizard of Oz," "Mary Poppins" and "Peter Pan." The film leaves behind much of the austere technocracy of "Close Encounters," returning us to the more romantic Walt Disney days.

So it seems only right that "E.T." brings us the saddest moment in films since the hunters shot Bambi's mother. You'll need two large bandanas and a box of M&Ms to get through this one. "Ouch," as E.T. would say. It is a word which we can soon expect to mean some poignant torment. A farewell, for instance.

But don't be afraid to see this film. It's an ecstatic return to childhood. A catharsis for adults and a triumph for children. That is another of Spielberg's talents. He uses every film technique from George Lucas' to Kurosawa's to strip away our inhibitions, to push us back to vulnerability, so we can feel what a child feels. He did it in "Poltergeist" with fear and demons. He does it in "E.T." with joy and magic and yearning.

He never lets us down, not once. He does not cop out. We get to kiss the prettiest girl in school, we get to be heroes among our classmates. The sky's the limit, and no one is left out or left behind, not the least of the children: Elliott's baby sister Gertie (Drew Barrymore), nor his older brother Michael (Robert Macnaughton). E.T. might even have forgiven Mary (Dee Wallace), Spielberg's first kind-of-mean screen mommy.

Mary Taylor, still shaky as new head of her household, is all caught up in the agony of her divorce. Like most well-meaning adults, she just doesn't notice the magic around her, nearly toppling over E.T. as he goes about his systematic search of her refrigerator. Likewise, she has not all that much time for her kids, united to care for E.T., who becomes a frightening responsibility once they learn that he must go back home or will die.

It is a simple premise, plotted and timed to perfection. It is a sweet, fast-forward trip over the rainbow. And if we are crying when we leave, it is not for E.T. or Elliott, but because we must come down from this incredible experience, one we may never again have for the first time. Ouch.

E.T. THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL Opens Friday at 13 area theaters.