Thursday, December 10, 2009

E.T. Analysis Part 4 – The First Sequence

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

I’m going to continue my in-depth analysis of E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (written by Melissa Mathison) by looking closely at the first sequence. I know I indicated I’d be discussing character next, but I think I’m going to hold off on that until after I’ve examined the movie sequence by sequence.

The opening shot of a movie is really important. It sets the tone and draws the audience in. It’s very important to consider the opening image when you’re writing your script. Much like in a movie, the first page of a script sets a tone in the reader’s mind.

The opening shot of E.T. is a starry night sky, which hints at the elements of wonder and outer space that are such a big part of this movie. We then tilt down to a woods and cut to the alien space ship in a clearing.

It’s crucial if you have something fantastic like aliens in your story that you introduce them early. In the first ten minutes or so we’re learning what the world of the movie is. If during this time you tell us aliens exist in this world, we believe it. But if you tell us this is the world as we know it and then introduce aliens in the middle of the movie, your movie will seem silly.

These opening scenes take care to show the aliens as non-threatening. They are small compared to the towering trees and they are shown gathering plants. We are also introduced to the aliens' heartlights and see how they are connected psychically when all the heartlights come on simultaneously. We don’t ever get a good look at the aliens in these scenes – they are kept in shadow and mist. This saves the reveal of what E.T. looks like for a better moment.

One of the shots shows E.T. looking out over the glittering lights of the suburbs. It suggests the same kind of wonder of the shot of the night sky. This and the fact that the aliens are kid size helps connect E.T. and Elliot.

Suddenly, humans arrive, roaring up in cars in a very threatening way. E.T. is separated from his friends who flee back to the ship. The first human we see is Keys. We don’t see his face but are given a close-up of his jangling ring of keys. The script I have (which is most likely a hybrid of the shooting script and a transcript) makes a big deal out of how threatening the sound of these jangling keys should be. This sets Keys out as the "hero villain" or the representative of the group of men chasing E.T. If your antagonists are a group, it's a good idea to set one apart as the primary representative of this group.

I love the way Keys is portrayed. He remains faceless but is given an identifying characteristic so we will be able to track him. The big ring of keys suggests adult bureaucracy and authority and by keeping the more human characteristics like his face hidden, he seems threatening. This is important to build tension early since he will turn out to be a fairly sympathetic guy in the end.

This bit ends with E.T. getting left behind, which is the domino that sets the story in motion.

We then move into Elliot’s house and are introduced to the key characters. We see Michael playing a role playing game with several friends. The mundane and very realistic teen dialogue grounds us in the real world after the mysterious alien opening.

We are introduced to our main character, Elliot, as an outsider in his own home. He wants to play with the older boys but can’t get their attention. Michael comments that they have to let him play for their mother. We see Elliot as an underdog, struggling for recognition. This gives him room to grow in what is a coming-of-age story and builds audience identification because we always sympathize with the underdog. I think it’s significant that throughout the movie Elliot doesn’t seem to have any friends his own age.

There is a subtle plant here as well. Elliot appeals to Michael to be allowed to play (thus singling Michael out as Elliot’s brother). Michael then refers to another boy and says Elliot will have to ask him as he is game master and therefore has “absolute power.” This absolute power phrase will be paid off later when Elliot demands that Michael give him absolute power before he reveals E.T.

Elliot goes out to wait for the pizza delivery – the price he must pay to play with the older boys. We’re then introduced to Mary, the mother of the family. She’s dancing to the radio as she cleans, and we see one of Michael’s friends make a motion to touch her butt. This introduces her as a younger, more fun, sexier character than many suburban moms. We also see through the next few scenes that she’s not really that good at enforcing discipline as the kids often ignore her commands.

These character introductions are crucial because these first impressions shape our idea of who these people are. As writers it’s important to consider how you want the audience to view your characters and craft an appropriate intro.

As Elliot returns from collecting the pizza, he hears something in the back yard and goes to investigate. This is where he throws the ball into the shed and it is thrown back out. He then runs in fear to the house. I think this is a great scene because throwing a baseball is a playful pastime. When E.T. throws the ball it’s almost like an invitation to play. But Elliot is too scared to engage yet. There are many other ways the filmmakers might have let Elliot know something was in the shed, but most would have been much more frightening.

Elliot runs into the house to tell the others. Here we see again that nobody takes him seriously. As soon as he says, “nobody go out there” the older boys immediately head outside. Upon finding E.T.’s tracks Michael explains it away as a coyote. Nobody respects Elliot’s concern.

Which is why when Elliot hears noises at two in the morning he goes to investigate by himself. This is where he goes into the garden behind the house, follows E.T.’s tracks, and finally sees E.T. for the first time. Both of them scream and E.T. flees. This is the catalyst of the movie. Elliot now knows that what he saw is no coyote.

The sequence ends with Elliot looking after the fleeing alien in wonder. I think this is important to keep us from becoming too afraid of E.T. This is not a horror movie after all!

So to summarize, this first sequence has effectively introduced us to most of the major characters (Gertie being the big exception probably because she’s even younger and smaller than Elliot and they didn’t want that to weaken his introduction as the underdog of the family); established that aliens exist but that otherwise this world is very much our world; and introduced the main tension by showing E.T. getting stranded and his first encounters with Elliot.

We the audience are now sympathetic to both Elliot and E.T. We wonder what will happen to E.T. and are worried about the scary men pursuing him. And we expect (partly because of our familiarity with story conventions) that these two underdogs will be forming a bond.

1 comment:

Googleguy said...

"main tension by showing E.T. getting stranded and his first encounters with Elliot." I'm still confused about the <main tension< in <E.T. It seems like you pinpointed it different in you blog post E.T. Analysis Part 2. I thought E.T. getting stranded was the catalyst...or is that the domino...or the prologue. Also can you give me more examples of difference between catalyst and main tension? The seem very similar.