Tuesday, December 1, 2009

E.T. Analysis Part 2 – Three-Act Structure

(SPOILERS: E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial)

Okay, I’m going to begin my analysis of E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial (written by Melissa Mathison) with a breakdown of the three-act structure. I’ll note the rough times the various beats of the structure occur. The times will exclude the minute and a half of opening credits that run over a black background (so if you’re looking for these times on your DVD player, you’ll need to add 1:30 to the running time). Note the total running time of the theatrical release, minus these credits, is about 1:49:00.

Main Character: The main character is Elliot. I’ll deal more with his character in a later post.

Prologue: There is short prologue where we see the aliens gathering plants (though in shadow), the arrival of the government men and the hurried departure of the aliens. You could reasonably argue that this really isn’t a prologue since the movie would suffer greatly without it. I’m considering it a prologue for structural purposes since the story would still be understandable if you just started with Elliot at home.

Domino: E.T. is left behind (0:06:00). This puts our story in motion but it doesn’t rise to the level of Catalyst because we don’t have our main character yet. Note that the domino occurs during the prologue, which is not unheard of.

Catalyst: Elliot sees E.T. (0:13:00) and nobody believes him. I chose the moment where Elliot goes into the wilderness behind his house and actually sees E.T., though you could argue for the moment when Elliot discovers something is in the shed (which occurs at about ten minutes in). However in the shed scene Elliot doesn’t know what he’s encountered and everyone agrees something was in there. When he sees E.T. Elliot knows he’s dealing with something abnormal (he thinks it’s a goblin at first) and everyone discounts this knowledge. Elliot now has a problem.

Main Tension: “Can Elliot save E.T.?” Elliot’s problem isn’t entirely clear to him at the catalyst, but we, the audience, have enough information to begin to grasp it since we know E.T. has been left behind and we’ve seen his pursuers. We also now realize that Elliot is going to get involved with the lost little alien. (I’ll discuss the main tension more when I discuss Elliot’s character.)

Act One Break: I’m going to say it’s the moment when E.T. opens the umbrella, gets scared, and Elliot feels the same fear even though he’s downstairs at the refrigerator. (0:29:30). The obvious alternative is when Elliot brings E.T. home (which occurs at about 0:22:30). But the moment with the umbrella is when we first see the psychic connection between E.T. and Elliot. This gives us a nice “point of no return.” We now know Elliot can’t walk away from this relationship. His fate is intertwined with the alien.

It’s important to note in these breakdowns that it isn’t necessary to pick an exact frame of film where the beat occurs. Sometimes an entire scene several minutes long constitutes an act break or catalyst. Perhaps with E.T. it’s most useful to think of the group of scenes where Elliot brings E.T. home, communicates with him, and becomes connected to him as the end of Act One. Act Two then begins when Elliot starts figuring out what he’s going to do with his new friend.

Midpoint: “E.T. phone home” (0:54:00). E.T. has concocted a plan to build a communicator to call for help. With his newly acquired handful of words, he explains to Elliot his plan: “E.T. phone home.” Elliot’s response is, “and they’ll come.” They’ve now found a potential way to save E.T. Remember, the midpoint should mirror the resolution, so if the movie ends happily, the midpoint should be a successful moment.

Also tied into this beat is a scene quickly after where the listening truck patrolling the neighborhood overhears Elliot and his brother talking about E.T. The government is closing in, upping the stakes. And perhaps even more important we then learn that E.T. is starting to get sick from being out of his environment. The stakes have been raised even more.

This strikes me as a smart way to handle the Midpoint. You have the upbeat element but along with it an increase in the stakes to keep the tension high.

Notice also how this midpoint successfully spins the story in a new direction. The first half of Act Two was Elliot learning about E.T. while keeping him hidden. Now we have a new plan of action, a clearer goal, and increasing danger.

Act Two Break: E.T. “dies” and Elliot’s psychic link with him is broken (1:25:00). The moment of biggest failure, all seems lost.

Epiphany (A.K.A. the twist): Elliot discovers E.T. is not really dead and that his people have returned for him (1:32:30). Elliot now sees the route to success. But there are still major obstacles in his way. He must get E.T. out of the house and past all the cops and government people outside – a tall order for a young boy.

Resolution: Elliot gets E.T. to his ship. E.T. says goodbye and goes home. Elliot has saved E.T. A bittersweet but ultimately happy ending.

And there you have the three-act structure of E.T. In the next couple of posts I’ll look at the characters and at the mythology structure. One thing I might note, I have no particular expertise in this movie. I am studying it and trying to figure it out as I do these posts – and hope to learn something myself in the process!

1 comment:

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