Tuesday, December 22, 2009

E.T. Analysis Part 7 – The Midpoint

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

We’re now into Act Two in my scene-by-scene analysis of E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (written by Melissa Mathison). In this next section we’re going to see some more of the “fun and games” that often happens in the first half of Act Two, but we’re also going to start building to the midpoint. I’ll then look carefully at the midpoint, which spins the plot into a new direction.

We pick up the story with Elliot and Michael going to school the day after Elliot has faked being sick. There’s a brief bus stop scene where one of Michael’s friends mentions the word “extra-terrestrial” which will give E.T. his name. (Notice how Elliot’s name begins and ends with the letters E and T…a nifty little metaphorical connection between the two.) There’s also a cute girl who says hi to Elliot – a plant that will be paid off shortly.

Then we go to another brief scene back at the house where Mary hears something in Elliot’s room and goes to investigate. She almost finds E.T., but he hides by blending into a pile of stuffed animals. Just a little reminder of the risk of discovery.

Next we have a sequence where we intercut Elliot at school and E.T. exploring the house. E.T. tries beer and gets drunk, which causes Elliot to get drunk in school. In response to things E.T. sees on T.V., Elliot rescues frogs that are going to be dissected and kisses the cute girl we saw at the bus stop. This is primarily fun and games – the filmmakers are exploring the slapstick humor potential of the psychic connection between Elliot and E.T. This is called "milking" their premise.

But there are also several important things that happen subtly in these scenes to help the story along. First, there are plants for upcoming sequences – one notable example is the “Speak and Spell” game E.T. will use to build his radio. We also see E.T. getting the idea to build a radio from a long distance commercial and a Buck Rogers cartoon. Showing how E.T. comes up with his plan makes it feel organic and helps the plot flow from one sequence to the next.

The scene also slips in several little thematic bits. We have, of course, the reinforcement of the psychic connection. We also get Elliot’s first kiss. Though this isn’t really a big part of the plot or character arc, it does have nice resonance with the coming-of-age theme. I also noted when Elliot said, “save him,” while he’s looking at the frog after he gets a psychic impulse from E.T. This establishes Elliot’s need to save E.T. At this particular moment he’s transferred that need to the frogs – but then E.T. kind of looks like a frog!

Mary comes home and we get more slapstick humor as Gertie tries to introduce her to E.T. but she’s too preoccupied to notice the alien in the same room. Again, not an important plot point, but remember this movie’s supposed to be fun! The important thing that does happen in this scene is E.T. first speaks. Gertie then teaches him a few words, such as “phone,” that will be important for him to convey his plan.

Elliot and Michael return home and we see what I mark as the midpoint of the movie: E.T. explains, using the comic strip, his plan to phone home. Elliot responds, “and they’ll come.” The story has spun in a new direction – there’s now a plan Elliot needs to execute.

But that’s not all. We follow this up with the scene where Michael and Elliot are looking for material to build the radio in the garage. Elliot asks what kinds of things Michael thinks E.T. will need to make his device and Michael responds that Elliot is the genius; he’s the one with “absolute power.” In addition to calling back the earlier line this is a test on Elliot’s coming-of-age journey. He wanted to be in charge and now he has to deal with the responsibility of that.

This scene also shows Elliot and Michael reminiscing about when their father lived with them, which provides some good context for Elliot’s journey toward manhood. It reinforces Elliot's feelings of abandonment and the challenge of maintaining his relationship with his father from a distance. In the resolution of the movie we're going to see Elliot dealing with these issues when he has to bid E.T. goodbye and accept that it's the right thing even if he doesn't like it.

Another important point introduced in this scene is the idea that E.T. is getting sick. Michael comments that E.T. doesn’t look good (first we’ve heard that), and Elliot responds, “we’re fine,” ominously hinting that Elliot’s health is now dependent on E.T.’s. Meanwhile, we see the government van outside with its electronic listening equipment. The government men overhear the conversation.

The movie has just introduced two ticking clocks into the story. Elliot needs to help get E.T. home but he doesn’t have unlimited time to do it. He has to accomplish his goal before E.T. gets too sick and before Keys and his men capture E.T. The suspense has just been ratcheted up – a great thing to do at the midpoint.

In the next scene Mary reads a section of Peter Pan to Gertie in one room (the part about believing in fairies, a nice thematic complement to Elliot’s belief in E.T.), while E.T. builds the radio in the adjoining room. In this scene we see E.T.’s healing powers demonstrated when Elliot cuts his finger, and plant the word “ouch” which will be paid off in the climax. We also hear E.T.’s breathing getting raspy and see the flowers beginning to wilt – again affirming the stakes and the ticking clock.

The scene in the garage and the scene where E.T. builds the radio are scenes of preparation for the big Halloween sequence. We’re setting up the stakes – what could happen if the radio doesn’t work. In the second scene, Elliot insists, “it’s going to work!” We can see how anxious he is and sense how important this is to him. Scenes of preparation are often used to touch base with our characters’ emotions. These scenes also help us transition from the midpoint into the next section of the movie.

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