Believe Care Invest: Alien

Okay, that went well, so let’s continue alphabetically and go on to Alien. How does the movie get us to believe, care, and invest in Ripley?

Why she might be hard to care for:
  • Because they’re intentionally hiding the fact that she’s the hero! This movie wants to do a fake out and kill the person who seems to be the hero halfway through, so they’ve got to subtly build up Ripley to be a compelling back-up hero without us noticing. A very tricky proposition!
  • As sci-fi, the biggest trick is to get us believe in the existence of this weird world. They do this with how un-sci-fi it is: how dingy the ship is, the way the lights flicker on unsteadily, etc. There’s an odd little drinking-bird toy sitting out. The space traffic control base being in Antarctica is a good example of “Make the strange familiar and the familiar strange.”
  • As for Ripley, she’s the only one who pets the cat. She says, “That’s not our system” in a sing-song-y voice.  She tells Brett to fuck off.  She’s wearing Converse All-Stars, which is always a likeable shoe.  I’m stretching here.
  • The others complain about being woken up early, but she doesn’t. Eventually we feel for her when she has to choose between the life of her crewmember and the safety of the rest of the crew ...and when she gets overruled, possibly because she’s a woman (though the part was written for a man.)
  • She’s the only one who’s willing to go from upstairs to downstairs to visit Parker and Brett. She seems to be the most careful about her job.  She takes the initiative to decode the transmission and finds out it’s a warning, then asks to go warn the others. 
Five Es
  • Eat: They all eat breakfast together right away.
  • Exercise: None whatsoever. It’s a very still movie.
  • Economic Activity: We begin with an onscreen title: “Commercial towing vehicle, ‘The Nostromo’ Refinery processing: 20,000,000 tons of mineral ore.” All they talk about is the company, what they owe it, and what it owes them. They act because of “Penalty of total forfeiture of shares.”
  • Enjoy: They enjoy breakfast and joke around right away: “I feel dead.” “Anybody every tell you you look dead?” They all laugh, even Ripley just slightly
  • Emulate: Not that I can see, but maybe James will point out something I missed again.
Rise above:
  • Not right away, but eventually.  Ripley doesn’t rise above her economic circumstances until near the end of the movie, when she finally breaks with the company.
High five a black guy:
  • The first we see of her is when she laughs at the black guy’s joke. In this case, he’s a fully realized character, so it’s not an egregious example.

Alien: The Archive (and Updated Checklist!)

I’ll also go back through the Checklists, archive their posts, and update them to the current list. Again, this is a lot of work for me without as much benefit for you, but the whole point of the checklists is to create a robust data set that I can mine for all sorts of purposes, which means they all need to be the same version. We’re going back to one of the earliest checklists here, which means I had a lot fewer follow-up posts about each movie. I should go back and generate some more.
Of course, the new checklist is a little shorter than the others (my book editor wanted to slim it down).  For the most part, we cut out questions that weren’t providing good answers, but sometimes I’ll have to cut out good answers, like this one:
Are unrealistic genre-specific elements a big metaphor for a more common experience (not how life really is, but how life really feels)? 
 Yes: the horror of childbirth, the evil of corporations, the dangers of mining, etc.

I do kind of miss that question.  Sorry buddy, that’s the price of progress!


Storyteller’s Rulebook: Have At Least Six Painful Decisions

My new big-deal manager gushed about how much he loved my horror-thriller in order to keep me from signing with another guy, but then as soon as he had locked me down, he told me that he wouldn’t actually send it out because, “Eh, at some point, the story all runs downhill.” Huh? What does that mean? But no clarification was forthcoming. I’ve tried to grasp his point ever since.

Here’s my best interpretation: the hero is fighting the villain, but neither one is really surprising us anymore. The story is locked onto a certain trajectory: there are still lots of exciting things going on, and near-death scrapes, and clever escapes, but these are all obstacles, they aren’t really conflicts. They’re hard to do, but not hard to want to do.

I’ve never stopped struggling with this. Surely, at some point, the hero can finally figure out what to do, right? I realize that the whole story can’t be a straightforward struggle of good vs. evil and still be interesting, but can’t we at least have the players sorted our properly in the final act?

As I’ve redone the 17 stand-alone-story checklists, I’ve focused in on one of the new questions: Does the hero have to face several smaller good-vs.-good or bad-vs.-bad decisions throughout your story. As I’ve been adding these up, I’ve thought about changing to the wording to “Does the hero face at least six tough good-vs.-good or bad-vs.-bad dilemmas spaced out throughout the story” (In screenplay terms, that would be about 15-20 pages.)

The audience wants to play along at home. To a certain extent, watching a hero overcome obstacles is like watching someone else play a videogame, which can be a dreadful experience. When you watch a hero overcome a physical challenge, you might think, “Ooh, I know what I what I would do in that situation,”, but there’s never a satisfying pay-off to that: Either they do what you would have done, and you’re mildly gratified, or they don’t, and you just get frustrated.

What the audience really wants to say is “Ooh, I don’t know what I what I would do in that situation!” Even better is when they follow that up with, “…and I don’t want to know.” That’s when they really start playing along at home.

Let’s look at Alien:
  1. Answer the distress signal? (Risk our lives to help people we haven’t met?)
  2. Break quarantine? (Risk all of our lives for one friend’s life?)
  3. Remove the face-hugger or not? (Risk killing our friend in order to save him?)
  4. Kill the alien or try to preserve it for the company? (Risk our ability to make a living for personal safety?)
  5. Blow up the whole ship to kill it? (Destroy everything we’ve done for personal safety)
  6. Go back for the cat? (Risk my life to save a small creature?)
The dilemmas just keep on coming, and they’re all questions that we wouldn’t want to answer ourselves. And they keep going right up to the end. What if we didn’t have that tough last-minute decision? What if the final act had all been a gung-ho woman-vs.-alien struggle without any more painful dilemmas? It would be inert.

I briefly posted and then postponed a version of this post a few days ago, but a commenter had already said that saving the cat always annoyed him, because it seemed to contribute to the deaths in future films. To me, that only shows the value of the dilemma: you can never be sure if it was worth it, even years later. 

Next time, let’s look at what we can learn about genre structure from looking at the six impossible dilemmas.

New Checklist and Rulebook Casefile: Morally Ascending in Alien

I’ve updated the Checklist road test for Alien and you can check it out here. Now let’s look at one of the new answers in more depth:

On the one hand, the basic situation in Alien would seem to the typical “man up” story, of the type I complained about before:
  • There’s first contact with an enemy that is humanoid but seems to be devoid of feeling. When deaths ensue, there are those who are reluctant to kill their enemy because he’s a living creature, but the ones we agree with say, “Who cares? It’s clearly a monster so let’s just kill it.” Over the course of the story, those who wanted to maintain contact are proved to be wrong and hypocritical, and the “kill it with fire” side is vindicated. Our hero is a woman, who starts out unassertive and then become more assertive as she realizes that she has to kill the creature mercilessly.
But of course it’s far more complicated than that. The seemingly right-wing narrative above runs in tandem with a far more left-wing narrative:
  • The ship is run by an evil corporation, acting with complete impunity with no government in sight, and sacrifices its workers one by one in the interest of developing a new weapon. When the workers ask for better pay, their demands are dismissed with the same language that will later be used to justify sacrificing them to the alien.
The two narratives contrast nicely and counterbalance each other, keeping it from seeming overly-strident either way.

But let’s focus on Ripley’s arc. Even though the culmination of her arc is, “let’s just kill it and blow everything up,” it still feels like morally ascending, not descending. She starts out the movie as a drone, blandly defending standard procedure, but she becomes more human as the story progresses, and ironically, as she decides to kill the alien, she becomes a more compassionate person, endangering her life to literally “save the cat”.

Usually, coming to value one’s own survival over the values of one’s society is a moral descent, but in this case it’s an ascent: Serving the needs of her society is actually a terrible idea, because her society serves death, demanding its workers sacrifice their lives for company profits. In discovering that she values herself more than she’s allowed to, she becomes more fully human, and more empathetic towards others, as shown by her belated protectiveness towards the cat.

In this movie, and in many subsequent anti-corporate stories, we’ve exposed the hidden sub-basement of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, below self-preservation: profit. Moving from that level to cold-blooded self-preservation feels like a rise, not a fall.
This helps explains why journeys like Walt’s on “Breaking Bad” feel oddly uplifting despite the hero’s horrible actions. The twin evils that launch Walt’s quest, (a for-profit health care system and income disparity that pays a chemistry entrepreneur billions while paying a chemistry teacher less than a living wage) outrage us more than his crimes. Tellingly, it was only in the final season of that show, when Walt’s business finally became consistently profitable and he took on employees, that the audience started seriously rooting for his downfall.

Specific Genre Structures, Part 3: Horror

Yesterday, we looked at thriller, mystery/conspiracy, and action movies. The horror movie has much in common with all three, but it’s fundamentally different. In horror, the audience has less identification with the hero than in any other type of story.

In action and conspiracy movies, we identify with the hero the whole time. Even when the heroes are kicking themselves in the third quarter for being overconfident in the second quarter, we fully identify, since we shared their adrenaline rush, and we, too, failed to see the disaster coming.

Thrillers are trickier. We share the thrill of transgression in the second quarter, but we do see the disaster coming, and we withhold some of our sympathy even then. In the third quarter, when the sinning hero suffers consequences, we switch to a judgmental attitude and look down on the same transgressions that we just vicariously enjoyed.

In horror, we always empathize with the heroes, in that we share their fear, but we rarely sympathize, because their suffering is usually somehow their fault. The transgression usually happens much earlier, in the first quarter or before the movie starts, and we take no joy from it. Instead, our joy comes from a mix of sharing the heroes’ fear and sharing the evil force’s desire to punish them. As the advantage keeps shifting between the two sides, we win either way.

Transgression / Denial and Dread of Unseen Consequences / Horror at Visible Consequences / Triumph or Succumb:
  • Frankenstein (transgression = creating life)
  • King Kong (transgression = fetishization of the exotic)
  • Rosemary’s Baby (punished for the ambition of her husband)
  • Halloween (Laurie is punished for the sexual transgressions of her friends)
  • Alien (transgression = defending company)
  • The Shining (transgression = drinking and abusing child, happened before movie)
  • Scream (transgression = lack of desensitization to horror combined with old-fashioned teen horniness)
Tellingly, even in movies where we don’t see any transgression, we’re so hard-wired to blame the victims that we spend the whole movie trying to figure out what the heroes might have done to deserve this, because they must have done something. You can see the audience dynamic in such movies as…
  • The Birds (Critics have twisted themselves into knots trying to figure out why the opening scenes justify the attack. I think Hitch’s true point is that people will always blame themselves for nature’s fury, even when they shouldn’t.)
  • Night of the Living Dead (“What did humanity do to deserve this?” is the implied question, which is ironically answered by the final scene)
  • The Exorcist (The priests keep asking why the devil would choose this girl)
  • Saw (Victims try to figure out what they did wrong)
  • 28 Days Later (Again, “What did we do to deserve this?” is asked many times)
Tomorrow: Drama and Tragedy

Straying From the Party Line: The Muted Hero of Alien

This movie somehow manages to be both an edge-of-your-seat nail-biter and a quiet, almost meditative tone-poem.  How does it pull that off?
    Deviations: Our heroine is not volatile, not physically active, not misunderstood, and her dialogue isn’t bouncy.

    The Potential Problem: Most viewers of this movie don’t even realize that super-still, whisper-quiet Ripley is the hero until halfway through when the male captain dies, leaving her in charge, where she finally shows some badassery.  One consequence is that the viewer doesn’t identify with Ripley until very late.  We’re not experiencing the first half of the movie from her point-of-view…or anyone’s.  Instead of identifying with any one character, we’re floating in space, where no character can hear us scream. (This totally violates Monday’s rule: “All Events must be Character Events”) 

    Does the Movie Get Away With It?  Yes.  The chilliness of the movie’s point-of-view plays into the tone and theme. What makes it work is that we do eventually identify with Ripley because, on a subtle lever, she does have a full arc, it’s just very muted: she’s the one who’s the most loyal to the company and to protocol—She defends the company against the complaints of Brett and Lambert, she alone tries to maintain quarantine, etc.  She’s also the most adaptable: only she is equally at home in the bowels of the ship and on deck.  When she realizes that the company, as represented by the cyborg Ash, is willing to sacrifice them all, she’s the one who has to do something that’s hard to want to do: ignore protocol, blow up the ship she’s in charge of, and shoot the company’s prized specimen into space.  (As for violating the “character events” rule, I think Alien gets away with that, barely, because it’s a movie, not TV, so it can be more event-focused, rather than character-focused.)

    The Ultimate Story Checklist: Alien

    Now updated to the sixth and final version of the checklist!

    The crew of a deep space freighter (Dallas, Ripley, Ash, Kane, Lambert, Parker and Brett) answer a distress signal, discovering a crashed ship filled with eggs, one of which latches itself onto Kane’s face. The others bring him back onboard the ship, overruling Ripley’s attempt to maintain quarantine.  The creature’s offspring soon pops out of his chest and begins killing the crew off one by one.  After Dallas is killed, Ripley discovers that Ash is a robot serving the company, and he’s been keeping the alien alive for them.  Ripley kills Ash, blows up the ship, and escapes in a shuttle, but the Alien escapes with her, leading to a final confrontation.

    PART #1: CONCEPT 17/19
    The Pitch: Does this concept excite everyone who hears about it?                                                                 
    Is the one sentence description uniquely appealing?
     The crewmembers of a space freighter are hunted down and gutted one by one by an alien bio-engineered to be the ultimate killing machine.
    Does the concept contain an intriguing ironic contradiction?
     Sort of: answer a distress signal, almost all of them get killed as a result.
    Is this a story anyone can identify with, projected onto a bigger canvas, with higher stakes?
     Yes, it’s the ultimate unsafe workplace.
    Story Fundamentals: Will this concept generate a strong story?
    Is the concept simple enough to spend more time on character than plot?
     There’s not a lot of plot, but not a lot of character either.  Both are sacrificed in favor of tone.
    Is there one character that the audience will choose to be their “hero”?
     Not until very late, when we finally settle on Ripley once she takes over.
    Does the story follow the progress of the hero’s problem, not the hero’s daily life? 
    Does the story present a unique relationship?
     Yes, bickering working-class space crew.
    Is at least one actual human being opposed to what the hero is doing?
     Yes, Ash.  (Well, sort of human)
    Does this challenge represent the hero’s greatest hope and/or greatest fear and/or an ironic answer to the hero’s question?
     Ironic answer: “Whatever happened to standard procedure?”  She finds out the pros and cons of standard procedure.
    Does something inside the hero have a particularly volatile reaction to the challenge?
     Only slightly.  She’s the most loyal to protocol and the company, until she realizes that Ash isn’t worth being loyal to.
    Does this challenge become something that is the not just hard for the hero to do (an obstacle) but hard for the hero to want to do (a conflict)?
     Somewhat.  Again, she’s the most loyal, so she’s the most reluctant to admit that the company wants them dead and blow up the ship.
    In the end, is the hero the only one who can solve the problem?
     Yes, only she tries to keep the ship quarantined, only she figures out what’s going with Ash, only she survives. In the end, everyone else is dead.
    Does the hero permanently transform the situation and vice versa?
     Yes, she obliterates it.
    The Hook: Will this be marketable and generate word of mouth?
    Does the story satisfy the basic human urges that get people to buy and recommend this genre?
     Yes, lots of big scares and gory kills
    Does this story show us at least one image we haven’t seen before (that can be used to promote the final product)?
     Oh hell yes: eggs, face huggers, the alien, etc…
    Is there at least one “Holy Crap!” scene (to create word of mouth)?
     Oh hell yes: the chest-bursting scene (and also later when the “hero” dies)
    Does the story contain a surprise that is not obvious from the beginning?
     Yes, Ash is a robot.
    Is the story marketable without revealing the surprise?
    Is the conflict compelling and ironic both before and after the surprise?
    PART #2: CHARACTER 20/22
    Believe: Do we recognize the hero as a human being?
    Does the hero have a moment of humanity early on? (A funny, or kind, or oddball, or out-of-character, or comically vain, or unique-but-universal “I thought I was the only one who did that!” moment?)
     No, not at all.  She doesn’t really stand out until she refuses to let them back on the ship.  We don’t realize that she’s the hero halfway through.
    Is the hero defined by ongoing actions and attitudes, not by backstory?
    Does the hero have a well-defined public identity?
     Yes, the chilly, no-nonsense navigator.
    Does the surface characterization ironically contrast with a hidden interior self?
     Not really.
    Does the hero have a consistent metaphor family (drawn from his or her job, background, or developmental state)?
     Yes, regulations.
    Does the hero have a default personality trait?
     Yes.  Resentful fuming.
    Does the hero have a default argument tactic?
     Yes, cites the rules.
    Is the hero’s primary motivation for tackling this challenge strong, simple, and revealed early on?
     Yes: company loyalty, then self-preservation.
    Care: Do we feel for the hero?
    Does the hero start out with a shortsighted or wrongheaded philosophy (or accept a false piece of advice early on)?
     Yes, “Whatever happened to standard procedure”
    Does the hero have a false or shortsighted goal in the first half?
     Yes, defend the company, follow protocol.
    Does the hero have an open fear or anxiety about his or her future, as well as a hidden, private fear?
     Open, fear of breaking the rules. Hidden, an implied universal fear of childbirth.
    Is the hero physically and emotionally vulnerable?
     Just slightly, in both cases.  Cracks in her tough façade show through at the end.
    Does the hero have at least one untenable great flaw we empathize with? (but…)
     Yes, the same good instinct that led her to try to maintain quarantine causes her to be blind to Ash’s treachery until it’s almost too late.
    Invest: Can we trust the hero to tackle this challenge?
    …Is that great flaw (ironically) the natural flip-side of a great strength we admire?
     We don’t notice at first, but we gradually realize that she has certain key strengths: from the beginning, only she is equally at home on the bridge and in the hold and only she tries to maintain quarantine.  She’s the canny one.
    Is the hero curious?
     Yes, but not overly-so: only she is unwilling to bring it on board.
    Is the hero generally resourceful?
     Yes, she does some clever things.
    Does the hero have rules he or she lives by (either stated or implied)?
     Stick to procedure, do it myself, I deserve respect.
    Is the hero surrounded by people who sorely lack his or her most valuable quality?
     Yes, no one else respects quarantine.  Everyone else loses it at some point.
    …And is the hero willing to let them know that, subtly or directly?
     Sort of. She’s very hesitant to speak up at first, to the degree that we don’t even guess she’s the ultimate hero. She lets herself be steamrolled over when she tries to maintain quarantine, for instance…but she gradually becomes more and more assertive as she grows into her hero role.
    Is the hero already doing something active when we first meet him or her?
     She’s trying to figure out where they are.
    Does the hero have (or claim) decision-making authority?
     She gets it after Dallas dies, which is when she becomes our hero.
    Does the hero use pre-established special skills from his or her past to solve problems (rather than doing what anybody would do)?
     Yes, she knows the ship and the rules better than anyone else, even the captain.
    PART #3: STRUCTURE (If the story is about the solving of a large problem) 20/21
    1st Quarter: Is the challenge laid out in the first quarter?
    When the story begins, is the hero becoming increasingly irritated about his or her longstanding social problem (while still in denial about an internal flaw)?
     Slightly.  She clearly feels she doesn’t get enough respect, but she’s not going to say anything about it.
    Does this problem become undeniable due to a social humiliation at the beginning of the story?
     Yes, she tries to keep the ship quarantined, but no one else lets her.
    Does the hero discover an intimidating opportunity to fix the problem?
     Yes, when things start going wrong, her status improves.
    Does the hero hesitate until the stakes are raised?
     Yes, she hangs back and doesn’t assert much authority as the problem grows.
    Does the hero commit to pursuing the opportunity by the end of the first quarter?
     Only slightly, she gingerly starts to assert herself, but waits until after the midpoint disaster to assert herself.
    2nd Quarter: Does the hero try the easy way in the second quarter?
    Does the hero’s pursuit of the opportunity quickly lead to an unforeseen conflict with another person?
     Yes. Ash opposes her throughout.
    Does the hero try the easy way throughout the second quarter?
     Yes, at first they try to keep the creature alive.
    Does the hero have a little fun and get excited about the possibility of success?
     No, we in the audience enjoy the gory deaths, the creeping dread and final reveal of the creature, so we’re having fun, but she isn’t.  This is typical for horror movies.
    Does the easy way lead to a big crash around the midpoint, resulting in the loss of a safe space and/or sheltering relationship?
     Yes, the captain dies, and they realize the whole ship is not safe.
    3rd Quarter: Does the hero try the hard way in the third quarter?
    Does the hero try the hard way from this point on?
     Yes, they try to kill it.
    Does the hero find out who his or her real friends and real enemies are?
     Yes, she realizes that the company is not her friend, Ash is evil.
    Do the stakes, pace, and motivation all escalate at this point?
     Yes, they realize they have to blow up the ship.
    Does the hero learn from mistakes in a painful way?
     Yes, she almost gets killed by Ash.
    Does a further setback lead to a spiritual crisis?
     Somewhat.  Decides to save the cat, showing that she’s now more empathetic.
    4th Quarter: Does the challenge climax in the fourth quarter?
    Does the hero adopt a corrected philosophy after the spiritual crisis?
    “We’ll blow it the fuck out into space. We have to stick together.”
    After that crisis, does the hero finally commit to pursuing a corrected goal, which still seems far away?
     Yes, blowing up the ship.
    Before the final quarter of the story begins, (if not long before) has your hero switched to being proactive, instead of reactive?
     Yes, she’s standing up to everybody and trying to blow up the ship.
    Despite these proactive steps, is the timeline unexpectedly moved up, forcing the hero to improvise for the finale?
     Yes, the alien attacks, ruining the plan.
    Do all strands of the story and most of the characters come together for the climactic confrontation?
     Everyone and everything left alive, yes.
    Does the hero’s inner struggle climax shortly after (or possible at the same time as) his or her outer struggle?
     Pretty much.  She has no time to process her decision to break from the company until after she kills the thing.
    Is there an epilogue/ aftermath/ denouement in which the challenge is finally resolved (or succumbed to), and we see how much the hero has changed (possibly through reversible behavior)
     Yes, she gives a matter-of-fact unapologetic account of blowing up the ship, then goes to sleep with the cat.
    PART #4: SCENEWORK 18/20 (Representative scene: After the deaths of the Kane, Brett and Dallas, Ripley becomes captain, so she has a meeting with the other survivors, Ash, Parker, Lambert, to decide what to do next.)
    The Set-Up: Does this scene begin with the essential elements it needs?
    Were tense and/or hopeful (and usually false) expectations for this interaction established beforehand?
     Yes, we saw briefly how devastated they were by Dallas’s death…except for Ash. It also contrasts with two earlier scenes where they met to decide what to do.
    Does the scene eliminate small talk and repeated beats by cutting out the beginning (or possibly even the middle)?
     Yes, it starts late, in the heat of the conversation.
    Is this an intimidating setting that keeps characters active?
     Somewhat: it’s a meeting table, which doesn’t usually intimidate people or keep them active, but it’s also now a war-room and it’s the first visit to the captain’s domain since he died.
    Is one of the scene partners not planning to have this conversation (and quite possibly has something better to do)?
    Is there at least one non-plot element complicating the scene?
    Does the scene establish its own mini-ticking-clock (if only through subconscious anticipation)?
     Only in that we know the alien is hunting them.
    The Conflict: Do the conflicts play out in a lively manner?
    Does this scene both advance the plot and reveal character through emotional reactions?
     It’s more of a plot event, but character issues are bubbling up. Ripley finally gets emotional as she gets fed up with Ash and Parker, for different reasons.
    Does the audience have (or develop) a rooting interest in this scene (which may sometimes shift)?
     Yes, for the first time, we know that Ripley is clearly our hero.
    Are two agendas genuinely clashing (rather than merely two personalities)?
     Yes, they come to realize that Ash has a different agenda.
    Does the scene have both a surface conflict and a suppressed conflict (one of which is the primary conflict in this scene)?
     Yes: “how do we kill it?” suppressed: “why are you protecting it, Ash?”
    Is the suppressed conflict (which may or may not come to the surface) implied through subtext (and/or called out by the other character)?
     At first, then Ripley finally calls it out.
    Are the characters cagy (or in denial) about their own feelings?
     Yes, Ash and Ripley don’t directly confront each other.
    Do characters use verbal tricks and traps to get what they want, not just direct confrontation?
     They’re mostly in direct confrontation mode, but Ripley is still trying to get the truth out of Ash indirectly.
    Is there re-blocking, including literal push and pull between the scene partners (often resulting in just one touch)?
     Yes. Parker tries to leave, Ripley stops him with her voice.  Then Parker leaves, then Ash leaves. There’s one touch when Parker puts a hand on Ash to keep him from coming with him.
    Are objects given or taken, representing larger values?
     Parker slams down Dallas’s flamethower to show that he’s dead.  Later he goes to refill it, to show his decision.
    The Outcome: Does this scene change the story going forward?
    As a result of this scene, does at least one of the scene partners end up doing something that he or she didn’t intend to do when the scene began?
     Lambert is convinced to join the plan, Parker is convinced to hear Ripley out.
    Does the outcome of the scene ironically reverse (and/or ironically fulfill) the original intention?
     Not really.
    Are previously-asked questions answered and new questions posed?
     Previous:  Who’s in charge now?  New: Can they get away on the shuttle?  Why is Ash dragging his heels?
    Does the scene cut out early, on a question (possibly to be answered instantly by the circumstances of the next scene)?
     Slightly early, on her line “I’ve got access to mother now and I’ll get my own answers, thank you.”
    Is the audience left with a growing hope and/or fear for what might happen next? (Not just in the next scene, but generally)
     We have a surging hope that Ripley is finally going to kick some ass and solve the secondary mystery (What’s up with Mother/Ash?) and a fear for what will happen to Parker when he goes off alone.
    PART #5: DIALOGUE 14/16
    Empathetic: Is the dialogue true to human nature?
    Does the writing demonstrate empathy for all of the characters?
     Yes, everybody is treated humanely, and gets to hold their own.
    Does each of the characters, including the hero, have a limited perspective?
     Yes, it takes her a while to catch on.
    Do the characters consciously and unconsciously prioritize their own wants, rather than the wants of others?
     Very much so.
    Are the characters resistant to openly admitting their feelings (to others and even to themselves)?
    Do the characters avoid saying things they wouldn’t say and doing things they wouldn’t do?
    Do the characters interrupt each other often?
     Yes, they all keep ignoring each other’s concerns.
    Specific: Is the dialogue specific to this world and each personality?
    Does the dialogue capture the jargon and tradecraft of the profession and/or setting?
     Yes, lots of navigation and regulation talk.
    Are there additional characters with distinct metaphor families, default personality traits, and default argument strategies from the hero’s?
    Metaphor Family: Not really, the voices are all fairly similar and bland, which contributes to the atmosphere of coldness. Personality Traits: Ash: bland faux-deference, Parker: fiery, etc. Argument Strategies: Dallas: let’s you talk, then tells you his previous decision.  Ash: creates flimsy lies, Parker: artlessly segues into his complaints.
    Heightened: Is the dialogue more pointed and dynamic than real talk?
    Is the dialogue more concise than real talk?
     Yes, it’s very slight and muttered.
    Does the dialogue have more personality than real talk?
     No.  There’s very little personality in this movie, except for Parker.
    Are there minimal commas in the dialogue (the lines are not prefaced with Yes, No, Well, Look, or the other character’s name)?
    Do non-professor characters speak without dependent clauses, conditionals, or parallel construction?
     Yes, only Ash the robot uses dependent clauses.
    Are the non-3-dimensional characters impartially polarized into head, heart and gut?
     Yes.  Ripley and Ash are both head (good head and bad head), Kane and Dallas are both (slightly) heart, Parker and Brett are gut.
    Strategic: Are certain dialogue scenes withheld until necessary?
    Does the hero have at least one big “I understand you” moment with a love interest or primary emotional partner?
    Is exposition withheld until the hero and the audience are both demanding to know it?
     Yes.  We get only scant details of the situation: who these guys are, what they’re doing, who they work for, what industry they’re in, what the alien is, where it came from, what was the deal on that planet, etc., and we don’t mind at all.
    Is there one gutpunch scene, where the subtext falls away and the characters really lay into each other?
     Yes, literally, with Ripley and Ash.
    Part #6: Tone 10/10
    Genre: Does the story tap into pre-established expectations?
    Is the story limited to one genre (or multiple genres that are merged from the beginning?)
     It consistently and successfully combines sci-fi and horror.
    Is the story limited to sub-genres that are compatible with each other, without mixing metaphors?
     Yes, the creature feature, the haunted house movie and the “ten little Indians” thriller.
    Does the ending satisfy most of the expectations of the genre, and defy a few others?
     Yes, it fulfills all except one: the male leader dies and a subordinate woman survives and becomes the sole survivor.
    Separate from the genre, is a consistent mood (goofy, grim, ‘fairy tale’, etc.) established early and maintained throughout?
     Yes, chilly, airless, distanced, cold, cool, creepy, etc. We begin with empty helmets talking to each other: this is a dehumanized world in every sense. And the ending is as hushed as the beginning.
    Framing: Does the story set, reset, upset and ultimately exceed its own expectations?
    Is there a dramatic question posed early on, which will establish in the audience’s mind which moment will mark the end of the story?
     Yes, when will they kill the alien?
    Does the story use framing devices to establish genre, mood and expectations?
     In-story onscreen type describes the situation in an intentionally unclear, cold, formal, corporate-speak way.
    Are there characters whose situations prefigure various fates that might await the hero?
     Yes, she’s afraid of getting killed like the others, afraid of becoming Ash.
    Does foreshadowing create anticipation and suspense (and refocus the audience’s attention on what’s important)?
     Very much so.
    Are reversible behaviors used to foreshadow and then confirm change?
     Yes, she dismisses Parker and sides with Ash early one, and she shows little empathy with others, but she’ll later go back to save the cat.
    Is the dramatic question answered at the very end of the story?
     Yes, the alien is killed at the very end.
    PART 7: THEME 12/14
    Difficult: Is the meaning of the story derived from a fundamental moral dilemma?
    Can the overall theme be stated in the form of an irreconcilable good vs. good (or evil vs. evil) dilemma?
     Yes, loyalty vs. self-preservation.
    Is a thematic question asked out loud (or clearly implied) in the first half, and left open?
     Yes, discussion about whether or not they can re-negotiate their contracts.
    Do the characters consistently have to choose between goods, or between evils, instead of choosing between good and evil?
     Yes, break quarantine to save Kane or not, for instance.
    Grounded: Do the stakes ring true to the world of the audience?
    Does the story reflect the way the world works?
     Yes. It takes the reality of extremely unsafe workplaces (such as actual non-unionized mines) and amplifies it.
    Does the story have something authentic to say about this type of setting (Is it based more on observations of this type of setting than ideas about it)?
     Yes, it’s a very believable freighter crew with real-world concerns.
    Does the story include twinges of real life national pain?
     Yes, it’s quite prescient about the rise of corporate sovereignty in the ‘80s.
    Are these issues and the overall dilemma addressed in a way that avoids moral hypocrisy?
    Do all of the actions have real consequences?
     Yes. She isn’t able to kill the alien without blowing up the ship.
    Subtle: Is the theme interwoven throughout so that it need not be discussed often?
    Do many small details throughout subtly and/or ironically tie into the thematic dilemma?
     Yes, every little decision on the ship speaks to the larger dilemma.  The metal-organic design of the ship on the planet and the alien itself speak to the melding of human and industrial consciousness.  Eggs are a recurring theme.  They try to call “Antarctica traffic control”: it’s a cold future.
    Are one or more objects representing larger ideas exchanged throughout the story, growing in meaning each time?
     Not really. The “mother” computer “changes hands”, I guess, but it can’t actually be placed from hand to hand.
    Untidy: Is the dilemma ultimately irresolvable?
    Does the ending tip towards one side of the thematic dilemma without resolving it entirely?
     No, this movie resolves its moral dilemma far more definitively than most movies: corporations are completely evil, quarantine is totally sacrosanct, self-preservation is entirely better than protecting new life-forms. Personal safety is entirely better than job loyalty. This is fine: horror movies are less ambiguous than most genres.
    Does the story’s outcome ironically contrast with the initial goal?
     Yes, they kill the object of their rescue mission, the most loyal one blows up the ship.
    In the end, is the plot not entirely tidy (some small plot threads left unresolved, some answers left vague)?
     Very much so.  We know very little at the end about what was really going on.  If only someone would do a prequel!
    Do the characters refuse (or fail) to synthesize the meaning of the story, forcing the audience to do that?
     Yes.  She doesn’t say anything about the evils of corporate sovereignty in her final recording.
    Final Score: 111 out of 122

    Now You Can Revise, Part 5: Set Up More of Your Pay-Offs

    A little bit of repeat here from much-older pieces as I continue to recontextualize and tie things together for the book…

    It took me a long time to realize that heroes need special skills.  You can’t just start out with a blank-slate everyman who encounters a problem and solves it by reacting in the way that anyone would. 

    Instead, the hero must rely on a specific set of special skills that pre-date the movie.  Harrison Ford in The Fugitive was a doctor, so he finds ways to use his medical skills to clear his name.  Will Smith in Enemy of the State is a lawyer, so he uses thoseskills to get the NSA off his back. Neither one of them suddenly busts out with kung fu moves...

    In those cases, the heroes made use of their day jobs, but often you’ll find that those aren’t enough to get the hero out of every scrape, and the hero suddenly need a heretofore unmentioned skill in order to overcome a specific obstacle.  Each time this happens, you can stop, go back, and pre-plant a reason those skills exist, or you can do what I do: just keep going, and fix it later.

    You wrote your screenplay by going forwards, but now’s your chance to re-write it backwards.  Set up a plant for every pay-off, so that, as the audience gets to gets to each twist, they’ll say “Ah ha!” instead of “Yeah, right!”

    The trick with pre-establishing special skills is to do it subtly and organically.  Here are contrasting examples:
    • In Aliens, Cameron establishes early on that Ripley can run the fork-lift exoskeleton, which will come in handy later.  He hides the significance of this by turning the plant of it into a nice little stand-up-and-cheer moment, wherein Ripley proves that her lowly dock-loading job can be useful in her new military setting.  By giving the moment a meaning of its own, he hides the fact that he’s really just setting up a special skill that Ripley will need later.
    • In Salt, on the other hand, Salt’s husband is an expert on spider-venom, which seems random and apropos of nothing.  Only later, when Salt uses a ridiculous spider-venom bullet do we realize why they put that in there.*
    You can also write backwards to pre-establish things that will go wrong for your hero.  A recent episode of “Breaking Bad” began with an odd little scene establishing that a young boy was motor-biking around the collecting spiders.  The audience then forgot all about it until he showed up later, at the worst possible time.  (This also provided a nice visual thematic metaphor: you can’t bottle up evil for long.)

    This is why, as per the breakdown I got from Simon Kinberg, producers are so focused on the amount of plant-and-pay-off in your script: it shows that you literally know your stuff backwards and forwards, that you’ve been circumspect, tightened all the screws and battoned down the hatches.  This assures them that the script won’t fall apart under pressure.

    *Referring back to the debate in the comments of this post, this is another reason why I allow myself to make minor decisions, such as the hero’s previous jobs or the spouse’s expertise, somewhat randomly as I write the story, instead of trying to make every detail thematically significant in the first draft.  I often have to change those details later in order to shore up developments in the plot, and I would be reluctant to do so if I had already made them thematically significant.