Thursday, December 17, 2009

E.T. Analysis Part 6 – The Beginning of Act Two

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

We now come to Act Two in my scene-by-scene analysis of E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (written by Melissa Mathison). The beginning of Act Two is often the “fun and games” part of the movie where we explore all the fun angles of the premise. It’s also the time in the mythology structure where our hero is learning about the special world. We’ll see both of those things in this section of E.T.

We start with Mike arriving home. Elliot decides to show him E.T. We get a callback to an earlier line when Elliot demands “absolute power” from Mike.

I particularly noticed how this scene starts with some very mundane dialogue from Mike. He’s talking about another kid getting a high score on the Asteroids video game. This is a nifty example of “preparation in opposition.” Often writers use this technique to heighten an extremely sad or extremely happy event. If you’re going to deliver bad news to a character, get them in a good mood first and the news will hit even harder. E.T. often uses this technique to heighten our sense of wonder by preparing us with very mundane scenes just before something magical and alien is about to happen.

Mike is introduced to E.T., then immediately Gertie bursts in. She begins screaming and just then Mary comes home. These elements add some obstacles to the scene to give us conflict and therefore drama. Elliot is most interested in proving E.T. exists to Mike, the one who most mocked him. But he doesn’t want Mary to find out about E.T. So throwing Gertie and Mary into the scene complicates Elliot’s goal.

Once the immediate threat from Mary is overcome, Mike and Elliot have to convince Gertie not to tell on them. Here is a small example of “alternative tactics.” Elliot first tells Gertie adults can’t see E.T. (to which she responds, “give me a break”). When that doesn’t work he and Mike resort to threatening her doll. Having a character attempt to solve a problem unsuccessfully a few times gives a scene some back and forth.

It seems to me a lot of this scene is about Elliot taking charge, something he hasn’t been able to do up until now. And near the end of the scene Elliot declares, “I’m keeping him,” referring to E.T. Elliot finally has something important that’s just his.

Then we get a quick reminder of the bigger threat: a shot of Keys and his men looking down on the suburbs.

And we’re back to Elliot’s room for more interaction between E.T. and the kids. Now that the movie has defined who the allies are (Elliot, E.T., Michael and Gertie) and who the enemies are (Mary and Keys), the kids begin to learn more about the special world of E.T.

First, they focus on what E.T. is and where he comes from. In order to show that he comes from outer space, E.T. levitates some clay balls to form a solar system. This is particularly important because it’s defining E.T.’s powers. Later on in this scene he brings the dying flowers Gertie brought back to life (a “plant” that will pay off in Act Three – and sorry for the unavoidable pun!). We now know E.T. can levitate and heal. These are all the powers he will ever really have.

By setting up all of E.T.’s special abilities at this point in the movie we don’t feel cheated when he wields them in more critical moments. Imagine how you would react if E.T. suddenly shot lasers out of his eyes during the escape in Act Three. It would just feel wrong. But when he levitates the bikes we don’t question it because we know levitation is one of his powers.

(I’d like to point out something at this juncture: despite the presence of an alien, E.T. is not really a science fiction movie. It’s a fantasy. E.T.’s powers aren’t explained in any way scientifically. He’s so far advanced he can just do things that are like magic to us. Real science fiction bases the fantastical elements on real technology projected out into the future. I’ve noticed that when Spielberg tackles “science fiction” it’s most often this more magical fantasy approach.)

Finally we are reminded of the threat of Keys yet again. E.T. gets upset, Michael asks what’s wrong and Elliot says “something scary.” He goes outside and hears Keys and his men in the wilderness behind the house. They’re getting closer. It’s fun and games for now, but it’s not going to stay that way!

No comments: