WHAT DOES THE PROTAGONIST WANT? Elliott is a middle child. He is too young to play with his older brother Michael and his friends and too old to divert his mother's attentions away from his younger sister Gertie. Elliott, essentially, wants attention. To expand a teeny bit more, he wants to play, but has no friends. When we first meet him, what he wants is to, literally, get in the game, that is, the game Michael and his friends are playing. What Elliott gets, of course, is more than a little attention and more than "getting in the game." He ends as the center of everything in the narrative and the leader of his brother's gang. More on the significance of this later.
The structure of E.T. is relatively unconventional, especially for a movie under two hours. As far as I can tell, it goes like this:
ACT I (0:00-24:00): This act could be called "When E.T. met Elliott," and is, essentially, a series of purely mechanical scenes illustrating that narrative demand. How does a lost man from outer space meet a lonely 10-year-old suburban boy? We meet both characters in the extremities of their situations (E.T. being chased by Keys and his men, Elliott being undervalued by his brother and the gang) and bring them, plausibly, together.
ACT II (24:00-57:00) This act could be called "The Education of E.T." Elliott secrets E.T. in his room and, first chance he gets, begins educating E.T. about everything important -- Star Wars mythology being first on the list, with Jaws coming a close second, then expanding outward to food and entertainment, and eventually basic science and broader concepts. When Elliott goes to school, E.T. furthers his own education by getting drunk and screwing around, pursuing an afternoon of wild free-association. By the end of the act, he's sufficiently educated to hit upon the idea of building a machine to contact his people.
ACT III (57:00-1:17:00) This act could be called "Building and Activating the Machine." Elliott, Michael and Gertie all help E.T. build his machine and conspire to activate it on Halloween night. Their efforts are, or seem to be, spectacularly unsuccessful, even though there is much wonder and humor on the journey to failure. At the end of this act, E.T. is found face down in a stream bed being investigated by hungry raccoons, Elliott is ill and his house has been invaded by Keys and his men.
ACT IV (1:17:00-1:34:00) This is almost too short to be considered an act, but the arc is too pronounced to ignore. It could be called "Keys Invades," and it involves Elliott's family's house being taken over by government scientists (at least I think they're government scientists -- I don't think the script actually specifies who Keys works for). It climaxes with E.T.'s death and concludes with the first hint of his resurrection.
ACT V (1:34:00-1:50:00) Here we have, perhaps the first Dreamworks "race to the finish line" final act: sixteen minutes of pure cinema -- Elliott and Michael slap together a hastily-considered plan to get E.T. to his spaceship and, miraculously, make it.
LOVING THE ALIEN: "Invert the cliche" is Bob Dylan's advice to the writer. This sentiment is expressed in the halls of Dreamworks as "Turn the idea on its head." This concept is central to Spielberg's success. If you're making a flying saucer movie, make the saucer-men friendly. If you're making a WWII movie, take the most irreverent approach possible to the war and its causes. If you're making a haunted house movie, make the house an anonymous suburban tract house. (In my case, if you're making a movie about an ant, make him an individualist ant.) In the case of E.T., if you're making a movie about contact with an alien, start by telling the story from the alien's point of view.
I am now going to spend a little time writing a little about the very beginning of the movie. Because it's sheer genius. This paragraph will take longer to read than it takes to watch the passage discussed, and much longer to write.
I'm watching E.T. at a Saturday matinee on opening weekend. The crowd is substantial and the energy is palpable. The lights go down and the Universal logo comes up, with its Earth spinning around in those odd little cosmic energy bands that hover around it.
Here's what happens next: the Earth in the Universal logo zooms away from us, and out of sight, leaving us in empty space. The audience laughs at this mild logo-joke, but then Spielberg goes to black and gives us his simple titles on a black background, with spooky music that prepares us for, perhaps, a redux of Close Encounters. After the titles, space comes back up on screen, as though we are back in that logo. The audience believes we're still in space and giggles with anticipation -- the movie seems to be starting over, or even running backwards. We're somewhere out in space, watching a movie called E.T.: The Extraterrestrial. What's going to happen next?
What happens next is the camera tilts down, the sky lightens a bit, and we come to a tree-line. After a brief pause, we cut to a shot of E.T.'s ship, already landed, in a clearing. The shot is from a tree-height camera -- one of the very few camera placements in the entire movie that's above belt-level.
And there you have it -- Spielberg, in that brief, wordless sequence, has essentially made his movie's argument. By putting the logo joke up front, he got us used to the idea that we are out in space, far away from home. Then, as the titles end, he puts us back in that shot, then tilts down to reveal that, yes, we are out in space, far away from home, on Earth. We are put in E.T.'s POV before we even meet him. By shooting the ship from above, he deliberately removes any sense of threat or menace -- the exact opposite of his approach in Close Encounters, where the alien ships are always above us, messengers from the heavens.
LOCATING THE METAPHOR: While watching E.T. during its 2002 theatrical re-release (with the superfluous extra scenes and the idiotic federal-agents-wielding-walkie-talkies redaction) it was my first viewing as a professional screenwriter and I pressed myself to locate the screenplay's metaphor. All fantasy screenplays must have a metaphor or else they inevitably run off the rails. I hit upon this notion that Elliott needs to be noticed, and E.T. is God, leaning down and saying "It's okay, Elliott, I see you, in your loneliness and fatherlessness. I see you and I love you -- you're the most special kid in the world." This is a moving and worthwhile metaphor, but on closer inspection I've decided I'm wrong. Unlike the aliens in Close Encounters, and contrary to the Michaelangelo-inspired poster art, E.T. is not an emissary from Heaven.
Rather, he springs from a more internal location -- Elliott himself. E.T. is a movie about a kid who knows he's special but finds himself in a position where he is undervalued and overlooked. He needs badly to be noticed, to be counted -- and so he creates a situation where that happens in a very profound, unexpected way. E.T. is a part of Elliott himself -- that's why the alien's name is a compression of the protagonist's.
Elliott makes the point over and over that E.T. is "his." He is horrified when Gertie dresses him in girls' clothes and disdainfully snorts "he's a boy" when Gertie suggests otherwise. The bulk of Act II exists to demonstrate that they are psychically linked. E.T. is the "special" part of Elliott, as though Elliott has found a way to take his specialness and make it physical. When Elliott says "I believe in you" to E.T., he is really talking to himself.
From there it's not too much of a leap to see that Elliott is the boy Spielberg and E.T. is his filmmaking talent -- his artistic impulse. Like an artistic impulse, E.T. is weird, unpredictable, simultaneously ancient and innocent, powerful, wily and difficult to harness. Spielberg, like Elliott, grew up in a suburban house with an absent father, and it's not hard to see in Elliott the young Spielberg, anonymous and slighted, convinced of his genius and determined to one day prove it to everyone. The fact that Elliott yearns to be recognized by his older brothers' gang suggests (to me anyway) Spielberg's yearning to be taken seriously as an artist by his older, better-reviewed director pals. If we say that Michael is Steven's "brother" George Lucas, the rest of the gang could be seen as Scorsese, Coppolla and DePalma. That might sound like a stretch, but I can't think of any other reason why the "gang" needs to participate in the action of Act V. Elliott and Michael simply need to get E.T. to his spaceship -- the gang have nothing to do with the effort but tag along anyway, specifically to show that Elliott, once the tag-along squirt, is now the leader and center of the group.
On the other hand, one of the gang members wears a hat marked "Camus," which, well, I don't know what to do with. Maybe Spielberg is shooting at bigger fish than his film buddies.
THE ARTISTIC IMPULSE: E.T. is thrust out into our world, abandoned and alone, fragile and terrified. Anyone who's ever created a work of art knows this feeling. You feel tender, exposed and fearful -- you created a thing out of love and who knows what people are going to do with it? E.T. is born into and emerges from the forest, which any folklorist will tell you is a metaphor for the subconscious. He is inspired by, and assembles his machine from, the detritus of suburban American homelife -- toys and gadgets and comics and TV. In this way, E.T. the movie is exactly like E.T. the character, and Spielberg's artistic impulse, finding magic and wonder in the pop-culture garbage that sits strewn around every American household. "Want a Coke?" pipes up Elliott when he isn't sure what to say next to E.T., making America's most universally recognized brand, well, more universally recognized.
If E.T. is Spielberg's artistic impulse, then who is Keys? Is he "the critics," eagerly pursuing E.T. in order to examine him, tie him down, quantify him and maybe kill him in the process? Or is he the studio hacks, the capitalists who can't wait to get their hands on the artistic impulse to package it, brand it and make a ton of money off it? Elliott's desperate cry in Act IV, "You're just going to cut him all up!" takes on new meaning in this context -- he could be talking about E.T., or he could be talking about the filmmakers terror at turning in an edit to the studio.
It is, of course, to Spielberg's credit that he doesn't demonize Keys. Whether Keys symbolizes critic or studio exec, he knows the artistic impulse and, in Act IV, admits that his impulse is identical to Elliot's. "I've been to the forest," he says, and, "He came to me too. I've been dreaming of this since I was ten years old." Keys is not evil, and neither are critics or studio execs -- they just don't have the power that Elliott has to make their artistic impulse flesh.
OTHER THOUGHTS IN NO PARTICULAR ORDER:
I very much appreciate Spielberg making Michael an Elvis Costello fan. And I imagine Elvis Costello appreciates it too.
My son Sam (6), of course, sat up wide-eyed and amazed when he saw the interior of Elliott's room, festooned as it is with Star Wars toys. "Hey! He's got a Hoth Rebel Cannon with Probot Playset!" is a typical exclamation from Sam as E.T. is shuffling around Elliott's room.
(For those curious, Sam's reaction to E.T. is curiously muted. He enjoyed it and had no complaints, but he didn't spark to it the way he sparked to Jurassic Park or Raiders of the Lost Ark. I cannot account for this -- I thought it would hit him like a sledgehammer.)
The Peter Pan references in E.T. seem to be there primarily to lift the burden of Christ comparisons from E.T.'s shoulders. E.T. doesn't come back to life like Jesus, the movie insists, he comes back to life like Tinkerbell. Both plot turns hinge on issues of faith, but one doesn't need to believe in Jesus to believe in E.T., one only needs to believe in fairies. And the power of storytelling devices.
Elliott's father is missing. He, like E.T., has been abandoned. I don't quite buy the scene in the garage where Michael and Elliott contemplate their father's shirt, but otherwise I greatly admire the way the missing father is delineated. One of my favorite moments is in Act III, when Mom, storming out the door to go look for her truant kids, backs the car out of the garage and says only "Mexico," the country, we are told, the father ran off to.
I love the slowly-uncoiling yellow extension cord, which is all we see of the scientists doing recon work on Elliott's house. Perfect example of Spielbergism, the object standing for the thing, the thing more frightening because we can't see it.
I do, however, have some reservations about the acting in E.T. and, really, all of Spielberg's 80s work. The warm naturalism that abounds in Sugarland Express, Jaws and Close Encounters was turned into eye-popping cartoonism in 1941 and movie-movie shorthand in Raiders. Now, and for the foreseeable future, Spielberg's actors are all very good, but never quite as human as the least supporting player is in his early movies. This is, I'm guessing, a symptom of the "high concept", er, concept that E.T. created that went on to sweep Hollywood in the 80s. Story, it was decided, does not spring from character any longer -- it springs from an irresistible "concept," and the acting is there to help illustrate the concept.
Of course, no besieged family in a Spielberg movie can be left that way, and by the end of E.T. we are to believe that Keys, far from being an antagonist, will replace Elliott's father. This is indicated by Keys checking out Mom's rack as E.T. prepares to blast off.
In addition to Peter Pan, Spielberg also refers to Jaws, of course, and John Ford's The Quiet Man, and also puts Wile E. Coyote in the kids' closet, a reference to The Sugarland Express. Michael finds E.T. in a stream next to a storm drain, a visual reference to a key scene in Amblin.' Spielberg then takes the most terrifying scene in Close Encounters, the siege on Gillian's house, and stands it on its head at the climax of Act III, when Keys and his men invade. Mom in E.T. responds exactly the same way that Gillian does, and the otherwise-unmentioned suddenly self-operating electric train set makes the link permanent.
In addition, E.T.'s afternoon-long journey from innocence to experience echoes that of Dumbo, who, the viewer will recall, was also an overlooked child with hidden specialness. Spielberg forges the link to Dumbo by having E.T. make his breakthrough the same way Dumbo does -- by getting drunk. A drunken alien and a drunken 10-year-old boy seem like odd things to put in a children's movie, but Disney used to do it all the time -- all the way from Dumbo through The Rescuers we find characters getting drunk, getting high and having hallucinatory experiences. For E.T., the road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom. E.T.'s technological breakthrough is echoed, cinematically, by Elliott's sexual breakthrough. As E.T. brainstorms his machine, Elliott grabs his pretty blond lab partner and plants a juicy kiss on her lips. He is led off to the principal's office as the blond swivels her foot in rapture. This sexual side of Elliott's maturity is,oddly, out of the blue and never referred to again -- I have the feeling Spielberg is working out something private in this sequence.
Then, for good measure, in the closing moments of the movie he throws in the tympani roll from 2001, not being able to resist forging a link between Kubrick's masterwork and his own, taking the narrative conceit of the grandest of science-fiction movie of all time and placing it in a suburban back yard.