Wednesday, January 13, 2010

E.T. Analysis Part 10 – Act Three

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

We’ve made it! We’ve reached the final act in my analysis of E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (written by Melissa Mathison). You’ll recall the turning point from Act Two into Act Three is E.T.’s apparent death. Let’s quickly look at how Act Three plays out structurally.

The act is divided into two sequences. The first begins with the aftermath of the Act Two break. We get an extended scene of mourning. We see Keys close E.T.’s eyes, see Mary comforting Gertie, and then Keys gives Elliot time alone with E.T. In this scene Elliot says a heartfelt goodbye to E.T. He assures him that he will “believe in you all my life.” It’s an emotional payoff to the theme of belief set up in the opening act, and it tears at the audience’s emotions.

Then we have the “twist” or “epiphany.” E.T. is actually alive! This is an interesting moment because it might seem to be a deus ex machina twist. Elliot hasn’t really done anything to achieve this surprise success, has he? Actually, yes he has. He is the one that enabled E.T. to build the communicator that called for rescue. It’s just that we didn’t know it worked up until this point. So this twist is indeed grounded in the main character’s actions.

E.T.’s resurrection also runs the risk of seeming awfully convenient and thus unbelievable. I think it works because certain clues have been slipped into the story earlier that it’s possible. We’ve seen that the scientists don’t know a lot about E.T.’s physiology. And, when Mary is comforting Gertie, Gertie asks, “is he dead?” and Mary responds, “I think so.” She doesn’t say “yes,” because she doesn’t know how aliens work – and neither do we. Also, there was that bit of foreshadowing when Mary read Gertie the section of Peter Pan where Tinkerbell is resurrected. It’s a tricky bit of subtlety. The film doesn’t want to broadcast the resurrection but it has to lay enough groundwork to make it plausible.

This sequence ends with another scene of aftermath, but this is a celebration – Elliot telling Mike that E.T.’s alive. And that becomes a scene of preparation when Elliot starts telling Mike the plan (which we aren’t privy to).

Now we’re into the final sequence, which is an escape/chase sequence that leads to E.T. being reunited with his people and an emotional ending (both of which I’ll deal with in a moment.) The key to solving Elliot’s ultimate problem has been revealed – E.T.’s people are here – but there’s a new challenge. Elliot must get E.T. out of the government’s clutches. The movie ends with a successful resolution as E.T. boards his ship.

One of the things to note here is how many payoffs we get. Act Threes should be climactic – all action and emotion, no exposition. We’ve spent the movie preparing for this big ending. Look at some of the payoffs in E.T.:

  • E.T.’s heart light comes on when he comes back to life. The heart light was planted in the opening sequence and tells us his people are near.
  • The flowers coming back to life is actually what lets Elliot know E.T. is still alive. E.T.’s connection to the flowers has been well established throughout Act Two. The flowers are also paid off in the final scene when Gertie gives them to E.T. as a goodbye present.
  • This one I love: Michael driving the van. The movie set up early in Act Two that Mary sometimes allows him to back the car down the driveway. But he’s not very good at it – he doesn’t know how to drive yet. This is paid off when he has to drive the van and shouts, “I’ve never driven forward!” We get the joke immediately – no explanation necessary.
  • The flying bicycles. This power of E.T.’s was established earlier and now he uses it to make the final escape during the chase.
  • The word “ouch” at the end. Note the emotional element of this payoff. Previously E.T. has used this word to indicate a physical wound. Here he uses it to indicate he is in emotional pain. What a touching one-word line of dialogue! And it would be meaningless out of context of the preparation.
  • The line, “I’ll be right here.” Elliot said it to E.T. in their first evening together. Now E.T. says it to Elliot while pointing at Elliot’s head (indicating he’ll live on in Elliot’s memories). Again, the context created by previous usage gives the line its emotional impact.

I also want to talk a bit about the escape and chase. This is an important sequence because it makes the final challenge the most dramatic part of the movie. Now all the government forces are arrayed directly against the kids. Notice how the elements of the chase such as the under-construction neighborhood and bicycles have all been laid out for us previously. That’s not always the case but it works well here. I think the key is the forces arrayed against the kids are greater than any they’ve faced before so it feels fresh.

Notice how many nice twists and turns we get in the chase. Escalating obstacles are key to a good action scene. Elliot and Mike aren’t able to just sneak off quietly. Gertie reveals their plan too early and one of the government men spots Mike in the van. They have to deal with the two guys in the tube hanging off the back of the van. Then they have to escape the police by going overland on their bikes. Just when one of the characters shouts, “we made it,” they’re faced with a roadblock. And then E.T. flies them off into the sky. The near misses and reversals of fortune keep the tension high.

When they finally reach the landing site and E.T. is reunited with his people the main tension is over. The question asked at the catalyst – “Can Elliot save E.T.?” – has been answered. Now the movie luxuriates in emotional aftermath as the kids and E.T. say goodbye. The movie takes its time with this. Why not, it’s earned it!

But notice how as soon as the spaceship flies off into the sky we get one close up of Elliot and then the credits. The movie doesn’t spend any time showing us what happens to the characters. Many writers, perhaps even yours truly, would add a scene where Elliot is back in the kitchen playing the role-playing game, but now fully accepted by the older boys. The doorbell would ring. It would be Keys coming to pick Mary up for a date. But E.T. doesn’t do that.

What the movie does is end at the peak of triumph, joy and heartbreaking farewell. Those are the emotions the audience feels as they walk out of the theater. I think this is a good lesson to take away from E.T. Think carefully about the emotion you want the audience to leave with. Don’t undercut it by trying to wrap up every loose end.

I will make at least one more post with some final thoughts on E.T. In other news, I was a guest this week on the Popcorn Mafia podcast. If you’d like to hear me discuss Crazy Heart and Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus with the hosts of the show, you might like to check it out.

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