This week we’re analyzing the 1979 movie Alien, screenplay by Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett, and directed by Ridley Scott.
Here’s a synopsis adapted from Wikipedia:
The commercial space tug Nostromo is on a return trip to Earth with a seven-member crew in stasis.
The ship’s computer awakens the crew when it detects a transmission from a nearby planetoid. They land to investigate, sustaining damage. Two crew members discover that the signal comes from a derelict alien spacecraft and they go inside, where they find the remains of a large alien creature.
Warrant Officer Ripley, the protagonist who has remained on the Nostromo, determines that the transmission is not a distress signal, but a warning of some kind.
Meanwhile in the alien spacecraft, an officer, Kane, discovers a chamber containing hundreds of large egg-like objects. When he touches one it opens and a creature springs out, attaching itself to his face. He’s carried unconscious back to the Nostromo.
As acting senior officer, Ripley refuses to let them aboard, citing quarantine regulations, but a crew member named Ash ignores her and lets them in. They unsuccessfully attempt to remove the creature from Kane’s face. It later detaches on its own and is found dead.
After repairs, the Nostromo lifts off, and Kane awakens with some memory loss but otherwise unharmed. At dinner, he convulses in pain then dies as a small alien creature bursts from his chest and escapes into the ship.
The crew attempts to locate it. One member follows the ship’s cat into an engine room where the now fully-grown alien attacks him and disappears with his body into an air shaft. After heated discussion, the crew decides that the creature must be in the air ducts. The captain is its next victim, leaving Ripley in command. The four remaining crew want to abandon ship, but the shuttle won’t support four people. Ripley insists on flushing out the alien.
She discovers that Ash is an android who was assigned to the Nostromo to ensure that the creature was returned for analysis at any cost, including the crew’s lives. The android taunts them about their chances against the “perfect organism.” Ripley disconnects it and they smash its remains with a flamethrower.
Ripley and the two remaining crew escape to the shuttle, but the other two are killed by the alien while gathering life-support supplies. Ripley initiates the Nostromo’s self-destruct sequence and heads with the cat to the shuttle, only to find the alien in her path. She retreats and attempts to abort the self-destruct, but it’s too late. She narrowly escapes in the shuttle as the Nostromo explodes.
Ripley is preparing for stasis when she finds that the alien has gotten into the shuttle. She forces it into the airlock and in a series of mounting complications, manages to blast the alien into space. She records her final log entry for the Nostromo, and places herself and the cat into stasis for the trip home to Earth.
The Six Core Questions
1. What’s the Global Genre? Performance
Alien’s global genre is an external genre: Horror > Uncanny (the force of evil is explainable). The value shift is Life > Unconsciousness > Death > Death would be a mercy. Ellen Ripley’s want is to destroy/neutralize the alien any way she can.
The internal genre: It’s not always necessary in horror but—and this is squishy—the argument can be made for disillusionment, but Worldview > Revelation feels more solid. Ripley moves from ignorance about Ash and her company’s true objective (wanting the alien for its weapons division) to knowing.
- JARIE suggests that this is Status/Sentimental (weak protagonist succeeds against the odds). Ripley is the lowest ranking officer, but becomes the leader.
- KIM suggests that it is Worldview/Disillusionment (protagonist changes from belief to disillusionment). Ripley starts out as a true-believer, a good and well-trained employee.
- LESLIE suggests that there is no internal genre because Ripley doesn’t change and her behavior doesn’t change as a result of learning that Ash is an android sent by the company with the objective to gather specimens of organisms they may encounter. Also, she doesn’t pay a price for her change in status.
2. What are the Obligatory Scenes and Conventions?
- An Inciting Attack by a monster: Kane is attacked by an alien life form while exploring the planet.
- Speech in Praise of the Monster: In the infirmary, the crew examines the alien and discovers that its “blood” can eat through the hull of the ship. They realize that they “don’t dare kill it.” Later, Ash tells Ripley that it is the perfect organism.
- The protagonist becomes the final Victim after a series of “kill-off” scenes of the minor characters: The Crew of the Nostromo is killed off one by one until Ripley is left to defend herself against the alien. Notably, one minor character – Jones the cat – also survives. (phew! – we care about that cat, and we love Ripley all the more for saving him.)
- Victim at the Mercy of the Monster Scene: there are two, and that feeds into the false ending convention. First, Ripley must evade the alien and get to the escape pod before the Nostromo self-destructs. Once she escapes, the real – and more dramatic – victim at the mercy of the monster scene happens aboard the escape pod.
- False Ending: the audience thinks that once Ripley has made it off the Nostromo, she’s safe. However, once she discovers that the alien is in the escape pod with her, the true victim at the mercy of the monster scene happens, and we have the second ending of the film. [Cool fact: This wasn’t in the original script. Director Ridley Scott added it.]
- The Monster cannot be reasoned with. It is possessed by the spirit of Evil and is present to devour and annihilate. Ash tells them it’s a perfect organism: its structural perfection is only matched by its hostility, it’s not clouded by conscience or delusions of morality (similar to an android).
- Conventional settings within fantastical worlds. (Shawn uses Alien as our prime example here) Alien is set on a spaceship, but the spaceship is a futuristic blue-collar trucker transport operation. The story makes use of the familiar to ground the fantasy. It’s not like our world, but exactly like our world.
- Labyrinths … settings are claustrophobic, concealing the dangers within the locked and closed space. In Alien we’re on a spaceship, wearing space suits, in caves and airlocks and tight corridors. [The movie set for the inside of the ship’s decks had different decks built above the others, so it gave the actors the sense that they were in a labyrinth.]
- Perpetual discomfort … conceal the Monster, attack randomly, never let the audience settle. The monster is not shown in full until the end, and even then not clearly. There are some jump scares (tray falling over, cat) but not too many. In Alien the attacks seem to have a rhythm, similar to series of tests in an action story.
- Mask the power of the Monster … progressively reveal more and more levels of power. Dallas speculates about how the fossilized alien species died (exploded from the inside out), the monster attacks Kane but keeps him alive. It’s revealed that the blood is acid, and then Ash looks at it under microscope and comments on its unique makeup. “It’s a tough son of a bitch” (mini speech in praise of monster). Kane is killed in a unique/horrific way with the alien tearing through his stomach. The monster takes out crew members easily; no one can stop it. Events escalate to the killing of Parker and Lambert at the same time, and the alien’s intelligence is shown when it stows away on the escape pod.
- Sadomasochistic flip flop … let the reader experience the power of the monster while empathizing with the victims. Check!
- Keep the monster offscreen as long as possible. As mentioned above, we don’t get a close look at the monster, but only brief, partial views until the end.
- Use technology to have victims experience the horrific attacks at a remove; they see the attack on a screen or hear it. On the radio with Dallas and Lambert watching on the tracking screen, Over the radio with Lambert and Parker.
3. What is the POV? What is the Narrative device?
This is 3rd person POV/omniscient and distant (almost like CCTV cameras). We’re not following any one character to the exclusion of others. Ripley is the protagonist, but we’re not inside her experience any more than we are the others on the ship (Interestingly, the novelization of the movie has a strong omniscient narrator who delves into thoughts and opinions of and about the characters. https://www.amazon.com/Alien-Novelization-Alan-Dean-Foster-ebook/dp/B00F8EYW66/).
Ridley Scott used handheld camera to shoot footage from perspective of those who left the ship to mimic the less-clear image they would have had.
When we talked about Billy Elliot, Valerie mentioned how POV is handled differently in novels and film. What film does best is convey extrapersonal conflict, and that’s what we have with Alien. [McKee, Robert Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and The Principles of Screenwriting, 366.] Of course, we still need to have some sense of what’s going on within the character sometimes. In Alternative Scriptwriting, Ken Dancyger and Jeff Rush say that the filmmaker uses rhythm, lighting, and cutting patterns to indicate, for example, that a character has made a decision and how important it is. [Dancyger, Ken and Rush, Jeff Alternative Scriptwriting: Successfully Breaking the Rules, 282] What does this matter if you’re writing or editing written stories only? Words can make writers over-dependent on telling or summary, and it’s useful to remember we can direct focus and emphasis (not with a filmmaker’s tools, but with writing tools) to show these important moments.
4. What are the Objects of Desire–in other words, wants and needs?
Wants: Ripley wants to survive.
Needs: Because I don’t see an internal genre in this story, I think there is a single object of desire that is both want and need: stay alive. If one of the internal genres were to apply, we would conclude that Ripley needs knowledge, to pay the price needed to rise in social standing, or sophistication.
5. What is the Controlling Idea / Theme?
Life prevails when people are persistent in outwitting monsters.
This seems really simplistic, and I want to object to it, but it feels accurate. The only other elements I might add are refusing to give in to the terror and being strong and resourceful.
*Specific moments where the theme is expressed: The best example is when Ripley is on the shuttle and realizes the alien is aboard too. She goes in the closet, gets dressed in a space suit, and opens the hatch. She then fires a grappling hook to make it let go and fires the engines when the grappling hooks gets caught.
Contrasting examples: Ripley says let’s get rid of what’s left of the facehugger when it releases Kane (Ash argues, Dallas overrules Ripley); Brett finds something the alien has shed, inspects it, and then drops it. Another contrast: Lambert freezes while confronting the alien when Parker tells her to get out of the way.
6. What is the Beginning Hook, Middle Build, Ending Payoff?
Beginning Hook: The start of the beginning hook is when the crew of the Nostromo, after being woken up, realize that they need to divert to a planet to check out a distress call.
- Inciting Incident: The crew gets awaken to check out a distress call
- Complication: On the surface, Kane gets attacked by the alien
- Crisis: How can we remove the Alien from Kane?
- Climax: The Alien comes off of Kane’s face
- Resolution:Found the alien that was on Kane’s face and it’s dead
The beginning hook ends when, miraculously, the alien is off of Kane’s head.
Middle Build: The middle build, in these types of stories, is all about the monster. In Alien, it’s no exception. The middle build starts with Kane waking up and the famous eating dinner scene.
- Inciting Incident: Kane wakes up
- Complication: The alien comes of out Kane’s stomach
- Crisis: Where did the Alien go?
- Climax: The Alien is growing and gets Brett and Dallas
- Resolution: Need a new plan. Ripley talks to mother to get answers
The middle build ends when both Brett and Dallas get taken and Ripley is now in charge. Ripley is feeling the pressure to resolve how to kill the Alien.
Anne mentioned the Midpoint Shift, which is a Larry Brooks concept for when the protagonist turns to “face the strange.” This movie demonstrates this beautifully when Ripley shifts from being on the run to taking the offensive.
Ending Payoff: The ending payoff starts with Ripley talking to mother about how to kill the Alien. She then finds out about order 937.
- Inciting Incident: Ripley finds out about order 937. Collect the alien at all costs.
- Complication: Ash is an Android and tried to kill Ripley. They kill Ash.
- Crisis: How can we kill the perfect organism (according to Ash)?
- Climax: Ripley makes it on the shuttle but has a stowaway.
- Resolution: Ripley blasts the Alien out of the shuttle airlock and kills it
The movie ends with Ripley killing the Alien and telling her story into the ship’s log before she hibernates.
7. Bonus Question: Good Examples?
Special Scene Types, Outstanding Tropes, clear tie-ins to other genres…?
[Kim & Valerie]
- Alien is an excellent example of why, in the Story Grid Universe, Science Fiction is considered to be a setting or style rather than a genre (as well as affecting the Reality genre). Although this story takes place on a spaceship, it’s actually a horror story and follows all the OS&C for horror. True, the setting informs the story (for example, Ash is a robot), but Alien is at its heart, a horror film (and that was Director Ridley Scott’s intent).
- False ending: The second ending wasn’t in the original screenplay, but Scott seems to have understood it was needed for a Horror story.
- Alien is a great example of progressive complications. Every scene does this job and creates a steady build. Consider the BH:
- Woken from sleep early for distress call, the characters must answer or lose their wages.
- The ship is damaged on landing.
- They find fossilized alien died in obscene way then find eggs that seem to be aware and able protect themselves with electricity.
- Kane is attacked but still alive.
- The quarantine protocol argument in which Ash undermines Ripley.
- It’s an innovative choice to have Kane attacked but still alive/have hope for survival. The alien detaches itself, making us think Kane would be okay, only to have it turn so harshly in the dining scene. This is such a great setup and payoff, and so much more rewarding than if Kane had just been attacked and killed outright. This in itself is great example of setup/payoff and pacing—not going too big too soon, which Shawn worked on with Tim in the podcast.