Sunday, January 17, 2010

E.T. Analysis Part 11 – Final Thoughts

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

I’d like to wrap up my analysis of E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (written by Melissa Mathison) with a few final thoughts. At the beginning of this exercise I noted that I am not an expert on E.T. My goal was to show you how I approach a movie when I set out to analyze it. I’m trying to learn something myself by doing this.

(This is NOT how I approach a movie when I go out to the theater on a Friday night, by the way! I love movies and this process necessarily leaches a lot of the joy out of watching them. Please try to hang onto that joy upon first viewing of any movie.)

Throughout my previous ten posts on E.T. I’ve mentioned a bunch of things that I was impressed by in the movie. I’d like to note one more: the use of signifying objects. This is a term for objects that are given special story meaning. E.T. does this particularly well. One example is the key ring hanging off the belt of Elliot’s primary nemesis among the scientists. This object becomes the way we identify the character until his face is shown in Act Three.

Another great signifying object is the pot of flowers that E.T. brings back to life. The relative heath of the flowers allows us to track E.T.’s health. Rather than give us clunky expository dialogue, the movie imbues this object as a visual signal to help the audience understand what's going on inside E.T. It also reveals Mike and Gertie's inner feelings when they carry the flowers around during the third act.

I also never really focused specifically on the characters, though of course I addressed character in many of my posts. So let me talk a bit more in depth about Elliot. I have noted that this is a coming-of-age story. It’s also a story about dealing with loss – Elliot deals with his feelings about his absent father as he comes to terms with having to say goodbye to E.T. Finally, there are themes of belief and faith that are expressed through Elliot's arc.

The movie starts by showing us a boy who is alone. His father has moved out of the house and the older kids he wants to play with don’t really want him around. Moreover, once he sees E.T. nobody believes him. This backstory makes Elliot an excellent character to find an alien in need of rescue. It gives us thematic and emotional reasons why this particular story happens to this particular character.

Over the course of the movie Elliot finds a friend – E.T. This new friend is in danger. It will fall to Elliot to save him. From this we can start to see two key elements of Elliot’s character, his “want” and “need.” Elliot wants to be accepted – he wants a friend. And he wants to be taken seriously. What he needs is to become responsible and mature.

Elliot’s want is pretty obviously defined in that opening sequence. His need I find a little more difficult to detect. I think it is most clearly shown when Elliot runs from the shed after E.T. throws the ball out. He looks for someone else to deal with the mystery. It is only when nobody takes him seriously that he heads out into the yard on his own.

This is again reflected around the midpoint when Mike reminds Elliot in the garage that he’s in charge – that it’s up to him to figure out a solution. And we see Elliot’s arc completed in Act Three when Elliot directs the other kids in executing the escape. Finally, we see his maturity in letting his friend go home even though he really wants him to stay. He's learned to do the right thing even if it means personal sacrifice.

It strikes me that what draws us into the movie the most is our identification with the love Elliot feels for E.T. We feel Elliot’s yearning for a companion, we feel the bond created between the two, and we are afraid when something threatens that bond. In other words we hope that Elliot and E.T. will stay together and fear that they will be kept apart.

Hope and fear are the elements that cause an audience to become emotionally invested in a story. One of the big things I take away from this movie is how well it builds our hope and fear in the early scenes and then plays on those feelings. I think it’s wise to identify those elements in your own stories and tailor your scenes to heighten them.

Ultimately I think E.T. has withstood the test of time because of our emotional attachment to Elliot and the bittersweet outcome of his relationship with E.T. Doing this kind of deep analysis of successful movies can help all of us become better writers.

2 comments:

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cfan said...

Doug,
This was an extremely helpful exercise. I appreciate all the hard work it took to put this massive analysis together. So, when I say, more, more, more, realize that I understand how much time it must take to put this together. But, this is the kind of thing that really helps understand structure, character, tone, and technique in all kinds of genres. Any future movie analysis you do like this would be great.