Monday, December 28, 2009

E.T. Analysis Part 8 – The Halloween Sequence

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

We’ve now reached the second half of Act II in my analysis of E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (written by Melissa Mathison). This is the Halloween sequence. What’s interesting is that in most movies this sequence is kind of slow and quiet. Often we deal with subplots, give the audience some time to catch their breath after the midpoint, and perhaps recap the situation in case anybody’s lost. Though E.T. does a little of all of these, this sequence is actually one of the most action packed outside of the third act. Just goes to show that each story is a unique animal.

Last time I mentioned a couple scenes of preparation leading up to this sequence. The movie continues with another scene of preparation where we see Elliot and Gertie putting on make-up as Elliot makes sure Gertie understands the plan. This is another use of scenes of preparation: if we know the characters’ plan we can tell if it’s going well or not. E.T. disguises this exposition a bit by having Elliot not trust the young Gertie, which gives him an excuse to recap.

The mission is to sneak E.T. out of the house disguised as Gertie so he and Elliot can set up E.T.’s radio and call for help. Mary becomes an obstacle here – they must get E.T. past her, thus the need for the ruse to have E.T. pretend to be Gertie in a ghost costume. This obstacle adds some drama and tension to the scene. And remember Halloween was advertised way back in the dinner table scene in Act One, so the idea that they can use costumes to overcome this challenge seems clever rather than convenient.

The movie makes this a brief but tense scene of suspense. Mary wants to take the kids’ picture in costume. Several things threaten to undo their charade: E.T. thinks Michael’s fake wound is real, he says “thank you” when Mary compliments their costumes and he falls when the camera flashes. But in the end Michael and Elliot manage to overcome all of these challenges.

There is some more fun and games with the premise here relating to E.T. not understanding Halloween – E.T. trying to heal Michael’s fake wound and shouting “home, home” when he sees a kid in a Yoda costume. We also get another ticking clock – Mary orders the kids to be back by an hour after sunset. Michael reiterates this deadline when Elliot and E.T. prepare to head for the woods. It’s a deadline Elliot will of course fail to make.

Now there are several intercutting storylines. We see Elliot and E.T. going to the woods and making the radio. There is the scene where E.T. makes Elliot’s bike fly. It’s a wonderful bit of magic that maintains the uplifting, joyous tone of the film. Tone is a subtle and important concept often overlooked by screenwriters. Remember, this is supposed to be a positive transformative experience for Elliot. As we’re moving into the more traumatic part of the movie it’s nice to be reminded of the pluses Elliot gets from knowing E.T. It also serves as preparation-in-opposition…make the character happy before delivering the bad news.

This is intercut with Mary getting more and more worried as the kids miss the deadline for returning home. And when Mary leaves to go look for them, we see Keys and his government men enter the house and search it. Danger is coming. The tension and suspense are ramping up.

Meanwhile, back in the woods, Elliot can’t get E.T. to leave his radio and come home. E.T. indicates to Elliot that he is getting sick. Elliot then tries to convince E.T. to stay with him, promising to protect him. He tells E.T. they can “grow up together.” Elliot, getting desperate, is revealing his true inner feelings. I find at this stage in movies there is often a scene where the main character finally confesses their real emotions. We also see the pull between what Elliot wants and what he knows he has to do…a crucial element of coming of age.

Note that in the mythology structure we’re in the “innermost cave.” The escape from the house and building of the radio is a “supreme ordeal” that will allow Elliot to “seize the elixir” that will allow him to finally succeed. In this movie the elixir is contacting E.T.’s alien pals. Often neither the character nor the audience knows that the elixir has been seized. The true nature of the elixir is hidden at this point. But it is the character’s emotional growth – in this case Elliot standing up and taking charge – that leads to them getting the elixir.

When Elliot wakes up the next morning, E.T. is gone. The movie cuts to the house where Mary is talking to the police. Elliot returns, looking sick. He tells Mike he has to find E.T. When Mike takes off on his bike, he realizes a car is following him and has to lose them. Elliot is getting sick, E.T. is lost and the government is about to pounce. Things are not going well as we build to the Act Two break.

Mike finds E.T. passed out in a stream and brings him back. Things have gotten out of hand. So Mike finally brings Mary up and shows her E.T. Elliot tells her that he and E.T. are “sick…I think we’re dying.” The movie is ratcheting up the stakes. This is now life and death, not just for E.T. but for Elliot. Unfortunately, Mary reacts just as they feared she would – she is disgusted by E.T. and drags the kids away. And at that moment the government men seize the house.

Things are spinning out of control as we move into the final sequence of Act Two and build toward the turning point.

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