(SPOILERS: E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial)
In my last entry in my analysis of E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (written by Melissa Mathison) we were approaching the end of Act Two. E.T. and Elliot were sick and the government had just moved in and taken over the house.
The next few scenes of the movie show the government men isolating the house and setting up a medical lab. They are designed to feel oppressive and scary. This is everything Elliot feared would happen. Though not much advances in the plot here, these scenes are important for setting tone and mood. In a noteworthy counterpoint, though, we finally see Keys’ face. In this scene he’s going to become a more sympathetic character. Kind of a version of Elliot but grown up.
This sequence does not really have a lot of plot twists. Instead it’s all about maximizing the emotional impact. Very little dialogue is needed, nor is there much exposition. That’s because everything has been set up earlier. We’ve reached the point in the movie where all that groundwork is going to be paid off. This allows the movie to now focus solely on hitting us emotionally.
The scene in the impromptu medical lab starts with Elliot’s (and by extension, E.T.’s) reaction to what’s going on. Elliot shouts, “you’re scaring him,” and later, “leave him alone. I can take care of him.” When Keys talks to Elliot, Elliot at first doesn’t want to tell him what the communicator does. Elliot says, “he came to me.” These lines, in very simple, straightforward ways, are paying off the character arc that’s been developing. Finally Elliot explains what the communicator is and tells Keys that E.T. needs to go home.
At its core this is an extended scene of suspense. We watch E.T. slowly deteriorating; hoping E.T.’s people will arrive in time to save him. The references to the communicator give us that hope, but as the scene goes along it looks less and less likely the outcome will be positive.
Here’s where the doctors and scientists become useful. We can track E.T.’s deterioration through their dialogue and actions. Nurses first call out that E.T.’s temperature is dropping. A little later they shout that his blood pressure is dropping. Toward the end of the scene they note that E.T.’s blood pressure is bottoming out, and finally, in case anybody missed it, someone actually says, “we’re losing E.T.” It’s all to dramatize the ticking clock.
In the middle of this E.T. separates psychically from Elliot. Again the medical equipment helps show this: we’ve been watching an EEG monitor with parallel waves for both of them, but suddenly E.T.’s diverges. Elliot doesn’t have to explain what’s going on in cumbersome, on-the-nose dialogue. He can simply reach out to E.T. and say, “stay.” He also calls back the line, “I’ll be right here,” from the beginning of Act Two. This line serves as a symbol of Elliot’s loyalty throughout the film.
There’s also a nice bit with Mike. As things are going badly he goes to sit in the little nest E.T. had made in the closet. Character behavior is the best way to show emotion without being heavy handed. Mike’s behavior tells us exactly how he’s feeling. He goes to the closet because he wants to be close to E.T.
Mike falls asleep in the closet and awakes to see E.T.’s flowers die before his eyes. Hey, another payoff! Because the movie set up the flowers earlier, it can now use them to show E.T.’s approaching death.
The act ends with the doctors frantically trying to resuscitate E.T. while the kids watch and cry. It’s all emotion. But structurally this is the moment of Elliot’s biggest failure. It appears E.T. has died. Elliot could not save him. Sometimes the end of Act Two is referred to as the "All is Lost" moment. It sure looks that way here.
And then we’re into Act Three.