If you treat the Hollywood Formula as gospel, then James Cameron must be a sinner.
By the end of Act One in the movie Aliens, he’s only identified one of the Formula’s three key characters – the protagonist, Ripley – leaving the antagonist and the relationship character unidentified. Still, he has introduced two more characters, Burke and Gorman, who look as if they’re going to be joining Ripley in her quest to get her flight licence back – okay, okay, fine, she’s off to confront the cause of her nightmares, but we all know it’s really all about that shiny ticket back to space in this crummy, what’s-in-it-for-me future.
Thankfully, he’s cut ten minutes off Act One in order to give us more time to figure out who’s who in Act Two. According to Nathan Russell’s summary of the Hollywood Formula, Act Two is the meat of the film; now that the protagonist has made the Fateful Decision to go and get what she wants, she works toward that goal while the antagonist works against her (the relationship character optionally assisting).
Still, that’s at least an hour and ten minutes of screen time until the resolution of Act Three and although Act One presented us with candidates in the form of Burke and Gorman, we’re still not quite sure who the antagonist and relationship character are. Okay, yes, there are the aliens – but given that they’re not “human” in a story sense, do they count?
But while Nathan doesn’t make mention of it, Lou Anders mentions in his Hollywood Formula episode on Writing Excuses that movies typically include a big twist at around the halfway mark, an event or (more commonly) revelation which shakes everything up and puts even more pressure on the protagonist. So I’m going to break Act Two’s analysis into two parts; I’ll stop at the mid-point twist and finish Act Two in the post following.
Grab some popcorn, folks. We’re covering around an hour of screen time tonight.
Our first look at another spaceship entire since we met the shuttle in the opening act: The troop ship USS Sulaco gets an orchestral introduction with military drum. It’s hard to get a sense of scale – there’s no sign of windows or hatches in her hull – but she certainly seems huge as she cruises past camera.
Inside, a monitor introduces the occupants of a row of hypersleep capsules, which disgorge a pack of grouchy Marines who are immediately ribbing each other. Ripley awakes in their midst but is talked around or, half a minute later, about, and not favourably. Yet Gorman doesn’t have any presence in this scene – I mean, he shows up, sure, but he’s not there.
Purpose: Introduce the Colonial Marines and make the point that while they’re a pack of badasses, Ripley is no less the outsider now than she’s been through Act One.
Geek Note: Two things about names: Firstly, the first initials of all the Marines bar Hicks on that monitor screen are taken from the first names of the actors who played them (Vasquez J comes from actor Jenette Goldstein). Secondly, unless you’ve seen the Special Edition, you might notice that the only character whose first name is actually mentioned by anyone in the cast is Carter Burke.
More Marine bonding in the mess hall, and though three of the Marines are female, the banter is distinctly macho – “There’s some juicy colonists’ daughters we have to rescue from their virginity.” The military of the future is still a boy’s club, something Ripley seems to notice – or maybe it’s the overall attitude toward “dumb-ass colonists.”
But when the smart-mouthed marine from the showers asks the skinny guy in the blue fatigues serving the corn bread to “do the thing with the knife” one of the other Marines decides his squadmate needs a lesson in humility. It’s hard to tell whether Hudson learns it, but Bishop’s blade tapdancing between both their fingers at inhuman speed is still one heck of a moment.
Two things happen next. First, the quietest marine so far, Hicks, observes that “the new lieutenant’s too good to eat with the rest of us grunts.” The new lieutenant? No wonder Gorman was so quiet in Scene 1 – his marines aren’t his marines.
Second, though, Bishop’s impossible dexterity is explained when he licks a drop of blood off his fingers – white blood. Ripley is horrified, Burke is dense then condescending as he explains to the puzzled synthetic that her reaction is because the “artificial person” on her last ship “malfunctioned,” resulting in “a few deaths.” Bishop tries to soothe Ripley with reassurances about his kind’s new “behavioural inhibitors” and a plate of corn bread, but she slaps it from his hand. “Stay away from me, Bishop,” she says in a cold fury. “You got that straight?”
Purpose: This scene doesn’t just quietly sow seeds of discontent among the Marines – it introduces what looks very much like our protagonist’s relationship character. She might keep it leashed, but Ripley is terrified of Bishop, almost as much as she is of the monster that stalks her nightmares, thanks to the android Ash‘s murderous mission from the first film. Even if you’ve never seen this movie before, it’s hard to imagine Ripley not addressing this fear as the movie progresses.
And holy crap – look at the time stamp. We’re just under half an hour into the film. Messrs. Giler, Hill and Cameron, you are a triad of sneaky bastards. Ripley’s Hero’s Journey officially started eight minutes ago, so Act One is technically over, but you still got everyone in on time. Slow clap, guys.
Geek Note: Did you know that James Cameron wrote the role of the Terminator for Bishop’s actor, Lance Henriksen (who turned up in that movie as a cop)? Oh, here’s something I didn’t know – apparently Lance Henriksen and Bill Paxton (Hudson) are the only actors to have played parts killed by an alien (Aliens for Paxton, Alien3 for Henriksen), the Terminator (The Terminator for both) and a predator (Predator 2 for Paxton, Alien vs. Predator for Henriksen). Thank you, Wikipedia!
Deep, Rabbit Hole Geek Note (Added 4 May 12): There’s some subtle world / character stuff going on around Bishop in that scene. When Hudson asks Bishop to do his knife trick, there’s some chatter among the Marines, one of whom says, “Always wanted to see that!”
Which doesn’t make sense at first blush. Bishop’s presumably more part of the team than Gorman is, right? If there’s a newbie in the squad who hasn’t seen Bishop do his thing (which we assume Hudson has), no one treats him like fresh meat.
Then, when Burke notices Bishop bleeding, he says, “Thought you never missed, Bishop.”
… huh? How does Burke know Bishop, a synthetic assigned to a Marine unit?
This stuff never quite made sense to me, until recently, when I read some folks posting on a forum about the upcoming video game Aliens: Colonial Marines. I’d heard that Gearbox, the developer, had brought Lance Henriksen back on board, and had assumed that he’d be playing Bishop II, the questionably human character who turns up at the end of Alien3.
But what started all this was, one of them wrote that Lance had said that the writers at Gearbox really got Bishop.
But… hang on, (SPOILER WARNING!) Bishop, the Bishop, Aliens Bishop, dies in Alien3! How can he be back for A:CM? (No, I wasn’t buying that they repaired him.)
It took watching the David 8 advertisement for the new movie Prometheus for the penny to finally drop:
Bishop isn’t a unique model android. There are probably hundreds of Bishops out there, maybe thousands.
The thing with the knife may well have been part of an ad for his model! When Burke says he didn’t think Bishop ever missed, he’s not talking about that Bishop, even though he’s talking to him; he’s talking about the whole Bishop model.
(Can’t you just see the advert? Bishop holding up his unmarked hand, table pocked with stab-marks, looking into the camera and saying “And when it really matters: I never miss.”?)
Okay, okay. Lots of you figured out or subconsciously accepted that point ages ago. I’m slow. Fine.
But isn’t it incredible that James Cameron and the gang managed to tell us something about the characters and their world without making any overt reference to the idea that Bishop isn’t unique?
And not only that: it makes everyone at that table a new face to the Marine team. Gorman, Burke, Ripley… and Bishop.
Except, of course, that Bishop is the stranger everyone knows.
Slow clap #2, gang. Slow clap with amazed headshake.
The battle line is drawn in this scene with the squad on one side and Ripley and Gorman on the other. The Lieutenant is officious and the disdain he showed them in the mess is repaid with open disrespect from Hudson (nope, no humility learned there) and general discontent amongst the fighting men. Sgt. Apone stands next to Gorman in physical position only, but comes down on Hudson when he pushes toward insubordination. Burke is technically with Ripley and Gorman but as un-present here as he and Gorman were in Scene 1.
Ripley doesn’t fare much better, cut off when she falters in her recounting of her first encounter with the alien by Vasquez. Maybe the Latina needs to show the boys that she’s no fragile flower, maybe she’s just voicing the apathy of the squad toward a dumb-ass civilian – well, most of the squad, anyway. It’s Hicks who asks Gorman for specifics of what they’re flying into, Hicks who concentrates on Ripley’s part of the briefing. Have I been a bit too hasty in judging Bishop to be the relationship character?
The scene ends in Gorman seeming to prove Hudson right – assigning the squad combat readiness deadlines that they obviously believe are chickenshit.
Purpose: Widen the faults that will cause trouble – possibly fatal trouble – later.
Geek Note: Okay, I know this is old news to my fellow sci-fi nuts, but just in case: Did you know that Hudson’s “illegal alien” crack at Vasquez is actually an in-joke about Jenette Goldstein’s audition for the role?
If the Colonial Marines hadn’t already shown you why male geeks regard this film so fondly, the wonderful sci-fi tech porn in Scenes 4 and 5 should leave you with no doubt. Here, we’re introduced to the only real example of “powered armour” in cinema until Iron Man (and, arguably, The Matrix Reloaded and James Cameron’s own Avatar) – a device referred to only as a “loader.” The bonus? While one of the Marines does the introduction, it’s Ripley who winds up showing it off. In doing so, though, she breaks her crazy-alien-woman image down with two of the Marines, namely Hicks and Apone, the latter of whom goes from indifferent to amazed to embarassed at Ripley’s skill with the clunky, unwieldy but lovely machine. He’s even well mannered to her!
As for Hicks? Well, the grin he wears as Ripley warms the unit up and puts it through his paces makes me think he’s been waiting for Ripley to demonstrate what he guessed she had since the briefing.
Purpose: While not everyone accepts her, Ripley still seems to have found a place for the first time in the movie; at the very least she has more of a welcome with the squad than their own commanding officer. And in the middle of all that we get a little foreshadowing…
Geek Note: The novelisation and Lee Brimmicombe-Wood’s brilliant Colonial Marines Technical Manual identify this piece of kit as a powerloader, and I tell you what: As soon as they start mass producing these babies I’m quitting my job and going to work on the docks!
The Sulaco arrives in orbit over LV-426 and the tech porn kicks into high gear, complete with pounding drumbeat. Frost introduces us to the Marine sidearm of choice, later identified as a ‘pulse rifle,’ while we find out that one of the reasons tall, pale Drake and short, dark Vasquez act like siblings is a common specialisation in a machine gun on a gimbal arm.
Next comes the dropship, an odd, broad combination of a Chinook cargo chopper, an Apache gunship and a Harrier jump jet. Ripley watches two Marines prep their bird, then a rolling green ingot, the armoured personnel carrier, makes its appearance.
The drums ease off as the Marines armour up and Apone gives them a little pep talk, then pound in again as the sergeant starts shouting his badasses into place by the APC’s hatch.
Once again, Ripley’s surrounded by activity and feeling a little out of place. Hudson is, as usual, talking badass as he locks everyone into their seats like a hyper rollercoaster attendant while Ripley notices Hicks keeping an eye on her. Bishop backs the APC into the dropship, the dropship is lowered into a massive airlock and then – it drops. A rollercoaster, a meteor, it plummets from the Sulaco, carrying its bellyful of death-dealers, android, company man and nervous spacer from low orbit to the clouds of LV-426.
Purpose: Give the audience an adrenaline shot of invincibility. The Marines are going to walk right over anything in their way – just ask them.
Geek Note: Drake and Vasquez’ man-carried cannons are called “smart guns” in the novelisation and Technical Manual; in actuality, their stabiliser arms and harnesses are those found in a Steadicam rig.
As soon as the dropship hits the clouds, the adrenaline bleeds off and the drop becomes any regular plane flight – all waiting turbulence and awkward conversations with strangers. Speaking of which, Ripley’s attempt to distract Gorman from some nerves reveals an unfortunate fact: The squad’s new lieutenant is a new lieutenant. This is only Gorman’s second actual deployment. Somebody in Colonial Marine command must have assumed – or been assured – that this mission was a milk run, perfect for fresh meat straight out of Officer Candidate School.
We’re introduced to the colony and Burke attempts to share some company pride with Ripley (heh). The pace picks up again as the APC deploys from the dropship, then the Marines deploy from the APC into the colony rain. No welcoming committee, no panicked locals, just empty buildings. The macho swagger is gone; now the Marines are a team of professionals about their work.
Purpose: Put a couple of cracks in that armour of invulnerability and change the atmosphere from bombastic to tense and uncertain.
The Marines reconnoitre the steel corridors of the colony complex as Gorman, Burke and Ripley watch on at the APC’s command post. The colony can be summed up in one word: Empty. Hicks and Hudson unlimber a new toy: the motion tracker, a kind of hand held radar keyed to locate anything moving. Nothing does. It’s the worst kind of too quiet – the kind where nothing happens to break it.
Marie Celeste empty – if there’d been signs of a fight aboard that ill-starred ship. Evidence of gunfire without a single body, yet signs that some powerful liquid ate through sections of the ceiling and floor. “Somebody must’ve bagged one of Ripley’s bad guys here,” Hicks states – the first admission from anyone that Ripley might be right.
Purpose: Build suspense and the audience’s interest in Hicks.
Gorman, Bishop and the civilians enter the complex. A shortcut provides another horribly familiar sight for Ripley: Six parasites suspended in fluid in the company’s medical lab. Of these, two still live.
They’re not the only things, though. Frost’s motion tracker leads them to another lifeform: A young girl, the only colonist they’ve found. She flees into an air duct. Only someone without blocky armour could follow; only Ripley does.
The girl flees to a nest in one of the vent junctions, filled with possessions, toys, other assorted junk. She tries to break past Ripley, who catches her. The girl struggles, but runs out of steam.
Purpose: Simultaneously remind us of the movie’s antagonist whilst releasing some of the built tension. Also use the discovery of the girl to raise more questions – where’s everyone else?
He Mostly Goes To Bed At Night… Mostly.
Eight scenes in and it’s almost 11PM on a Thursday evening. So much for covering an hour of screen time. Sorry, folks; I’m going to wrap this here and continue Act 2, Part 1 in another post – sort of an Act 2, Part 1, Part 2!
So far, though, we seem to have another potential relationship character in Hicks – or maybe just a traditional love interest. Ripley’s had a couple of opportunities to show that she still matters but the antagonist still hasn’t made any major moves yet.
Or has he? Ripley looks straight at Burke when Gorman reveals his inexperience; that man’s practiced puppy dog expression makes you think he had a hand in getting Gorman assigned to this mission. Could our potential relationship character be something else instead?
But before you go, why not leave a comment or two? Also, I’ve updated the first post in the series with some questions, too – please have a look and respond!
Until next time – try not to dream…
What’re your favourite moments from Act Two, Part One so far?
If you’ve seen the Special Edition of Aliens, do you think Act Two benefited / suffered from the addition of any of the scenes (Hudson’s ultimate badass rant, the motion tracker false positive, Ripley’s pause outside the colony)? If so, which?
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 them to be illustrative and not an infringement of Twentieth Century Fox’s intellectual property rights.