A few weeks ago, I caught an episode of the brilliant Writing Excuses podcast in which the hosts invited Lou Anders to talk about what he (and Dan Decker, whom Lou gratefully swiped the idea from) calls “The Hollywood Formula.” It’s a pattern which successful films tend to either follow or quite successfully play with, and Lou posits that it can be used to craft the plot of a novel just as well as that of a movie.
I highly recommend downloading and listening to the episode, as well as its sequel on endings, but if you’re pressed for time, Nathan Russell has whipped a handy summary up here. At its most basic, the formula is a plot formula; it posits that every movie has three key characters and plays out in a structure of three acts.
One point that Nathan misses and I think is very important relates to the Relationship Character, and that point is that the relationship character not only has a relationship with the protagonist, but he or she also has a relationship with the movie’s broader theme, which itself is manifest in the protagonist’s desires.
Now, Lou cites several examples of the Hollywood Formula in action, including Casablanca (which he considers the movie in which the formula was first codified) and The Dark Knight (which plays with both the character and act structure to great effect). But I thought that it’d be worthwhile to re-watch one of my favourite movies and see if I can identify the Hollywood Formula at work – or where the creators mess with it.
And given that I’m noodling with an idea relating to this film at the moment, I figured it’d be worth re-watching no less than the 1986 sci-fi classic, Aliens.
Wait – You’ve never seen Aliens? WHAT?! What sort of a – Go and fix that. Now. RIGHT EFFING NOW. Go Netflix or Blockbuster or iTunes or wherever you have to go. Hell – buy it on Blu-ray. Best whatever dollars and two hours plus you will spend in a good while.
According to the formula, a movie’s first act should introduce the three key characters – protagonist, antagonist and relationship character – and end on the protagonist making the Fateful Decision which starts the real action of the movie. My objective for this post: Identify whether and how Aliens adheres to the Act One formula (and maybe get a better idea of how it operates).
I’m also curious from a writing perspective as to how the movie breaks up into scenes and what each one accomplishes in terms of plot and character advancement by its end.
NOTE: While I’m using my DVD of the re-cut Special Edition, I’m going to largely disregard the additional scenes, as I think it’s worthwhile considering whether the original cinematic release was effective without them. I’m still a big enough geek to mention them once or twice, though.
Right then. Time to whack the disc in my PC’s player and get watching.
OPENING CREDITS. Spine tingling off the bat.
Space: Beautiful, empty, cold. A solitary ship containing a solitary, vulnerable sleeper. Her rescue is certainly not a joyous occasion. The ship that finds her is all dull greys and spiky metal, huge and looming, its capturing of the shuttle blunt, loud. The cutter is painfully loud, eye-stabbingly bright, machine precise. Then a big, looming, scanning machine inspects (sanitizes?) the interior. Finally, three humans, but masked, slow-moving. These are rescuers? No. They’re salvagers, disappointed to find our sleeper alive because they lose any profits from her ship.
Purpose: World and mood building. This is a cold, uncaring future.
Geek Note: Holy crap! There’s the grapple gun at the bottom of the shuttle’s door, the one she shot the alien with at the end of the first film! Wish they’d paid as close attention to continuity in Alien3…
The sleeper awakes, safe yet in unfamiliar surroundings. Enter Carter Burke who brings her sleeping companion, Jones the cat, but bad tidings. If the sleeper (I just realised – no one has mentioned her name yet) is our protagonist, is Burke the relationship character, here to help her on her journey? Maybe – he starts out less than helpful, mentioning her “unusually long hypersleep” without realising she hadn’t been debriefed yet.
Then she convulses, begs the medics to kill her. Too late, as the movie’s villain gets its introduction – yet the sleeper awakes again before it’s really revealed. Once again, the future is uncaring, as the nurse from her dream appears on a monitor, offering medication from a distance. Fifty-seven years asleep and they can’t even be arsed giving her some quality care?
Purpose: Scene 2 establishes our sleeper as the protagonist, introduces the villain (whether it’s actually her antagonist is still up in the air) and demonstrates how alone she is – everyone she ever knew is dead and no one, not even our potential RC, seems to particularly give a shit. Even in dreams, our sleeper can’t find comfort.
Geek Note: Those Weyland-Yutani logos really are everywhere. I’m starting to realise why they’re only ever called “the company” in these movies.
A hearing in a small, cramped room. Our sleeper is annoyed. No one is heeding her warnings about the alien; the only thing she can prove is that she blew up her expensive starship. Our sleeper doesn’t suffer fools, getting angry at the bored indifference and smug superiority of her interrogators. The hearing ends on her impotent fury, but the chair of the meeting’s dismissal gives us our sleeper’s name: “Thank you, Officer Ripley, that will be all!”
Burke, our potential relationship character, only offers mild criticism of how Ripley handled herself, but she storms off to confront her interrogator about the planet she landed on, now identified as “LV-426.” Van Leuwen blithely tells Ripley that people have been living unmolested on LV-426 for over twenty years.
What bothers Ripley most, though, is not just that there’s a population on the planet where the alien waits, but that they’re families – husbands, wives, children. Van Leuwen, of course, doesn’t see this as a big deal – they’re part of the product, the “shake-and-bake colony.”
Purpose: Scene 3 isolates Ripley even more from the home she ought to feel safe in but shows her empathy, even when the rest of the future is trying to batter it out of her.
The battering appears to have been successful. Ripley has a tiny apartment (barely more than a room) and spends her leisure time sitting, smoking and staring at the wall.
Burke arrives with Marine Lieutenant Gorman, and Ripley cares so little for the only person vaguely resembling a friend she has that she slams the door on him. But she still cares, else she wouldn’t open the door again at the news she saw coming: Contact with LV-426 has been lost.
Gorman is professional but disinterested. Burke is patronising about her dead-end job, then makes the offer: Return to LV-426 “as an advisor, and that’s all.” Ripley says no and Burke sweetens the pot with reinstatement of her license to go to space (and we know she’s tempted because instead of saying no, she clarifies the condition: “If I go?”)… but his attempt at negative reinforcement (he’s read her psych reports) fails; she’s too afraid, maybe of the aliens, maybe of discovering that she really is fifty-seven years obsolete – “I am not going back and I am – I would not be any good to you if I did.” They leave and – is it me, or does Ripley look a touch more animated?
Purpose: Set the stage for the Fateful Decision in the next scene by serving up a can of Campbell’s Call to Adventure soup, which the protagonist rejects.
Geek Note: Much as the restored scene with van Leuwen’s sentencing of Ripley was interesting, that one weighted question of Burke’s was more than enough to let us know what Ripley had lost.
The sleeper awakes a third time, once again from the nightmare. She looks herself in the mirror – then calls Burke and extracts a promise that the trip’s objective is “not to study, not to bring back, but to wipe them out.” On that promise, Ripley makes her Fateful Decision.
Purpose: Close out act one.
So, twenty minutes in – that’s one-sixth, or seventeen percent, of this film, which is actually around ten minutes under the Formula’s estimate for a two-hour film – and we have five scenes (average four minutes each), a protagonist with a semi-abstract goal (conquer her fear / find her place) with a concrete expression (get her flight licence reinstated) and a complete Act One. Do we have an antagonist and a relationship character yet? Well, we’ve met the alien (sort of) and Burke, but the former has yet to get square between the protagonist and what she wants and the latter seems to have been distinctly unhelpful (not to mention that Burke’s quickness to agree to Ripley’s condition about the mission makes us wonder what he’s really up to). Given that we’re still missing two clearly-defined core characters, it’s no surprise this Act One has been wrapped so quickly.
Yet that lack of definition seems to be kind of the point. Thus far, we’ve been introduced to a future where everyone except Ripley is out solely for him or herself. Introducing characters who care about Ripley’s fate enough to aid or hamper it this early would undermine the establishment of Ripley as the one character who actually gives a shit about anything.
Aliens has diverged from the Hollywood Formula in character terms, but it’s done to to very specific effect. And we definitely have a protagonist with a goal; not just “get back on the horse” as Burke puts it, but to find out whether this future alien to her as much as us has a place for her after fifty-seven years of sleep.
Next Up: Act 2, up to the first half of the film. Do the antagonist and the relationship character stand up to be counted before the Mid-Point Twist?
What’re your favourite moments from Act One?
If you’ve seen the Special Edition of Aliens, do you think Act One benefited / suffered from the addition of any of the scenes (the park scene, the sentence, the Hadley’s Hope sequence, Burke’s explanation of why he’s going)? If so, which?
Can you think of any movies that clearly identify all three core characters before the protagonist makes his or her Fateful Decision?
Can you think of any movies that buck the trend?
NOTE: All images from Aliens are copyright Twentieth Century Fox and therefore outside this site’s Creative Commons license. Used without permission. The author intends the to be illustrative and not an infringement of Twentieth Century Fox’s intellectual property rights.