Welcome back (or welcome, if you’ve just stumbled across this series) to my analysis of how the Hollywood Formula plays out in the plotting and action of the movie Aliens! As of part four, I’m halfway through the movie. How do I know (aside from the time count)? Because we’ve identified our Protagonist (Ripley) and seen her make her Fateful Decision, then watched as she began to work toward her goal and encountered the Mid-Point Twist.
In theory, we should have met our Antagonist and Relationship Character by now, and wile we’ve been introduced to every character who’ll appear in the film, our supposed Antagonist, Burke, has taken clear action in Ripley’s aid twice, while our seeming Relationship Character, Bishop, has acted a bit squirrelly (there’s also some question as to whether Hicks, introduced with Bishop after the Fateful Decision but before the theoretical half-hour-mark end of Act One, is the real Relationship Character). At the movie’s halfway mark, a dropship crash changed the movie from a military action flick to a survival story. (Noteworthy point: So far we’ve only had the one action scene.)
So now, I’m tackling the rest of Act 2. Per the formula I’m looking for our Antagonist taking more direct action against Ripley and the event that signals the end of Act 2: The Low Point. This sees the Protagonist at her lowest ebb, when everything has turned against her, her resources have been stripped from her and the chances of coming out alive, let alone successful, seem infinitesimal.
As night closes in, our survivors regroup in the colony complex and Hicks catalogues their meager resources. Ripley asks the hard question: how long until rescue comes. Hudson starts to panic, but Ripley, not Hicks, shuts him down – by giving him orders. Suddenly the group has gone from hopeless to active, all thanks to her. It’s great watching her own this scene.
Purpose: Give Ripley a chance to really do something new: Take charge. Formula-wise, a brief appearance from Bishop allows Ripley to remind us that she trusts the android as far as she can throw him.
Geek Note (added 13 May 12): Did it ever bother you that no one seems to think of Bishop until now? No one called him and tells him to rendezvous at the APC for evac, no one seemed inclined to wait for him. His sudden pop-up here doesn’t even rate an “I’m sorry we were going to leave you behind.” All he gets is a cold response from Ripley, who would probably have been glad to have abandoned the android.
After realising that Bishop may well be one of a batch, though, it makes more sense; in a way, this Bishop is expendable. The Marines aren’t ditching Bishop, really, because he’ll be there when they get back (he just won’t be that specific Bishop).
What a strange future this is, where someone who looks and behaves so human can be disregarded (and discarded) so casually.
Planning the defence of the colony begins in earnest. Burke lurks nervously in the background as Ripley and Hicks work out how to stop the aliens from getting at them. While Hicks gets his people moving, it’s Ripley who comes up with the strategy – almost like a lieutenant and her squad NCO.
Purpose: Little movement on the Formula front, but it’s a great scene watching the survivors building themselves reason to hope.
The survivors busy themselves with reinforcing the barricades and sealing the access tunnel. Hicks gives Ripley a locator beacon, joking that it “doesn’t mean we’re engaged or anything.”
Purpose: Introduce the locator, which becomes a source of tension twice later on, and let Ripley and Hicks have some byplay. (Are we sure he’s not the Relationship Character?)
Ripley takes Newt into medlab so that the girl can get something the woman has been preciously short on lately: Sleep. Ripley tries to play cute with Newt, but the girl won’t have it – instead, the only comfort she wants from Ripley is the truth. Why do adults tell kids there are no monsters? Ripley is as honest as the universe will let her be, then gives Newt the locator that Hicks gave her.
Purpose: Let Ripley show her soft side in a quiet moment.
Geek Note: Even the freaking space heater has a Weyland-Yutani logo!
Outside in the medlab, Ripley questions Bishop about the aliens, brushing aside his observations on their chemistry to get to the important matter: If an alien is born of a parasite, and the parasite comes from an egg, where do the eggs come from? Though Bishop has no answer to that, he has a revelation that leads straight on to the next scene.
Purpose: Prepare the audience for the big reveal at the end of the film and set up the confrontation that follows immediately.
It’s interesting that the first time Burke acts the antagonist, he immediately starts talking money (the price tag of the colony Ripley wants to destroy), because the same happens here. The first sentence of the scene is his: “Look, those two specimens are worth millions to the bioweapons division, right?” From then on, we watch as he entirely misses the reason behind Ripley’s fury at him.
The Marines might have been bitching about dumb-ass colonists before, but Burke’s the one who really believes it. Ripley might tell him she’s happy to disappoint, but Burke really does seem like he thinks she’s let him down. How can someone be so obviously clever, he thinks, without grasping the obvious? There’s the people who do what it takes to get the dollars in this everyone-for-themselves galaxy and then there’s the stupid people, and who cares what happens to them?
Purpose: By the end of this scene, it’s pretty much official that Burke is our Antagonist. The only question remaining is, what will he do next?
Geek Note: A mate of mine back in the day once reckoned he couldn’t watch Paul Reiser in anything after this because he kept seeing Burke. Watching it now, I have to give the man props – his is a solid, consistent performance. It’s a reminder that you don’t have to be scary or badass to be a bad guy.
There are some theories of plotting that hold that a story needs a setup, three crises and a resolution. If that holds true here, does Bishop’s second revelation count as crisis #2? The team can no longer afford to wait for rescue; in four hours the atmosphere processor will explode, destroying everything in a thirty-kilometre radius.
Does it seem odd that it’s only now that anyone remembers that the Sulaco has another dropship, and that it’s Ripley? Maybe it’s because the Marines believe there’s no way of bringing it down; maybe it’s just because they’ve all been through hell and that (as Hicks notes in scene 21) they’ve all gone at least a full day without sleep. There is one slim hope, but it means someone has to leave the barricade, go outside the colony and sit by the orbital communication tower for a couple of hours bringing the second dropship down by remote control – being alien bait the whole time.
Hudson anti-volunteers and Hicks is too busy arguing with him (again showing that he’s not exactly leadership material) to notice Bishop say, “I’ll go.” Turns out he’s the only one with the skill to pilot a spacecraft by remote anyway.
Purpose: Two things happen in the last shot of this scene. The altruistic android admits that he doesn’t really want to risk his arse either – then becomes busy looking elsewhere. Is it simple embarrassment at cracking a joke that goes nowhere, or discomfort at the look on Ripley’s face as she realises that she has to put her trust in the other monster in her life? Looks like Bishop is back in as our Relationship Character.
While we’re not sure whether Ripley really trusts Bishop yet, she has another conversation with him as he clambers into the service conduit. Vasquez hands him a gun, which he hands off to Ripley – another holy shit moment for her, no doubt, so much so that she actually wishes him luck. His last words to them in this scene are, “Watch your fingers.” As Vasquez welds the pipe shut behind him, Bishop commences a long, lonely, claustrophobic journey down a conduit to the radio tower.
Purpose: Let the audience know that Bishop’s work won’t leave the team with much time to spare; give Ripley a chance to build some kind of bond with him; let him demonstrate that he walks his pacifist talk.
Hicks orders Vasquez and Hudson to patrol the barricades and then starts acting like a leader with them (people need to make up their minds in this freaking film). After reassuring Ripley that he’ll make sure neither of them become hosts for more aliens, he finally gives her something of real use; the last of their four pulse rifles and some training in firing it. Nerds the world over get the phrase, “over-and-under thirty-millimetre” CHA-CHACK! “pump-action grenade launcher” burned into their brains. Who needs Sigourney Weaver stripping down to her tank top and panties at the end of the first film when you have gun porn like this?
Purpose: Establish that Ripley can now shoot a gun.
Geek Note: What does the ammo counter on Ripley’s rifle read? Forty-Two. Seriously. Check ye the screenshot!
A newly-revived Gorman meets a civilian who looks more badass with her new pulse rifle than he’ll ever hope to. Ripley brushes his apology off, heading for medlab to check on Newt, but an ending shot at the still but menacing Vasquez reminds us of whom he really owes the apology to. This man’s a long way from the cool officer we met in Ripley’s apartment.
It’s worth noting that Burke was in the room behind Gorman, and that the company man looks still more pensive. Maybe he tried to get Gorman on side against Ripley, but the penitent lieutenant wasn’t buying – or even listening.
Ripley enters medlab and finds Newt hidden under her bunk – after weeks of hiding in the vents, she’s only really comfortable in confined spaces. Ripley settles in behind Newt, comforting the child’s troubled dreams with her presence.
Purpose: Reintroduce Gorman and drop a subtle hint that Burke is running out of options – maybe getting desperate.
Outside, the atmosphere processor is running very hot. Nearby, Bishop is hard at work linking his laptop computer to the uplink terminal. He realigns the dish, sends a sequence of commands… and far above, the Sulaco begins preparing its second green bird to leave the nest.
Purpose: Remind us not only of the threat of nuclear annihilation but that our Relationship Character is taking action on behalf of the heroes.
Ripley wakes up under the bunk with Newt – and discovers two empty specimen tubes near the medlab door. Not only that, her pulse rifle has somehow gone from the bunk to outside the operating room doors – which are now locked. Ripley tries to signal Hicks for aid by way of the cameras, but Hicks is too busy talking with Bishop to notice Burke switch the operating room monitor off.
He does notice when the resourceful Ripley out thinks Burke, using her lighter to trigger the sprinkler system. See, all you anti-smoking activists? The habit can save your life! The Marines arrive just when things look their worst, and Hudson uses up a little too much ammo venting his frustration.
Purpose: Once again, the Antagonist takes action against the Protagonist, and now there’s no arguing Burke’s role any more.
This is another one of those long ones. In an inversion of movie cliche, it starts with the hero laying out the villain’s evil plan. In fact, Burke stays quiet right until the end, when he falls back on condescension, the only tool in his kit. “Listen to what you’re saying! It’s paranoid delusion. It’s really sad!… It’s pathetic.”
Hicks decides to “waste him”, but Ripley gets between Hicks and Burke: She wants to make sure the right person is held publicly responsible for the deaths of the colonists – maybe if she starts with Burke she’ll get all the way back to whomever gave Ash that “crew expendable” order nearly six decades ago.
Then the power goes. The emergency lights come on, of course, but they outline the scene in a ghoulish red. Things get worse when Hudson and Vasquez bring out our old friends, the motion trackers, which identify movement – within the perimeter. Yet their eyes can’t back the scans up. Once again it’s Ripley running things; Hicks makes the dodgy decision to question a panicky Hudson’s competence with the tracker while the still-invisible aliens close in.
It’s not until the scanners show movement inside Operations that the penny drops: They’re in the ceiling.
From then on, it’s a final desperate gunfight against the charging aliens. Burke runs for it early, with Ripley and Newt not far behind. An approaching alien distracts Ripley for long enough that Burke gets to the only exit first and locks it on them. He’s too busy running from her, though, to notice the medlab door open.
Maybe then, when death comes for him, he realises how mistaken he’s been all along.
He’s not the only one who makes a mistake. Hicks, Gorman and Vasquez are intent on their escape, but for the first time this movie, Hudson has a loaded rifle, an enemy he can see and a clear field of fire. They took his friends and his macho swagger, and now he’s going to make some alien motherfuckers pay. He’s so intent that he ignores his friends’ pleas to fall back – and an alien comes up from beneath the flooring and drags him back down.
Thanks to some more blowtorch work, the survivors are through the door, and it’s Newt who gives them an alternative escape route – the main air ducts. (why they didn’t ask the kid for advice from the beginning – even Ripley acknowledged her survival skills when Hudson was throwing a tantrum – is beyond me).
Purpose: Kick off the movement toward the Low Point and remind us that while Burke is certainly an antagonist, he’s not the true one.
Geek Note: Is there a sound so uniquely Aliens as the whine of the motion tracker? There’ve been a few video game translations of the Aliens franchise, and any that include the Colonial Marines make damn well sure that they get that sound, and the odd coughing bark the Marines’ weapons make, right.
It’s an awkward race through the air ducts with the aliens in hot pursuit. Vasquez gets ambushed, then sprayed with acid when she puts a couple of bullets into her attacker. For the first and last time, Gorman shows he has some green in his blood by sending Hicks on while he goes to get Vasquez, only to see them both trapped between approaching aliens. He and Vasquez find a grenade each – and the explosion sends Newt tumbling down the wrong vent.
Ripley and Hicks pursue using the locator, and catch up with Newt, who’s trapped in the colony subflooring. Unfortunately, she’s not alone. Hicks drags a hysterical Ripley toward a lift and fends off another alien, but not without being splattered with its blood. It’s Ripley who carries Hicks out to Bishop, who brings Dropship Two in to land with just under half an hour to spare.
Purpose: A hostage in an enemy lair that doubles as a nuclear bomb less than half an hour from exploding and anyone who can help her dead or rendered ineffective. How’s that for a Low Point?
Geek Note: In the awesome Star Trek love letter / parody Galaxy Quest, Sigourney Weaver, playing the blonde, buxom actress Gwen deMarco, winds up accompanying Tim Allen’s Jason Nesmith on a desperate attempt to get from one side of their spaceship to another – during which she mumbles to herself, “Why is it always the air ducts?”
Well, we’ve seen some interesting back and forth during this act. As said previous, Burke goes from smarmy to helpful to complete and utter git, so much so that the helpful bits seem out of character. Looking back, though, I think that they were there to make us think that while Burke might have been a corporate prick, he probably wouldn’t go too far – would he? After all, the bit with the colonists was probably a miscalculation of the threat the aliens really posed – wasn’t it? Neat way to surprise your audience, guys.
Still, the Formula maintains that the Protagonist must resolve their issues with the Relationship Character in the final act before facing and defeating the Antagonist. How can that work if the Antagonist is now dead? Are we being set up for a surprise twist with Bishop, especially as he’s not only been so helpful – in fact, he’s gone out of his way to help, risking his life with no backup or support himself – but also forced Ripley to deal with her prejudice against androids again and again? Could Hicks be the Relationship Character after all?
Or what if Burke was the Relationship Character? That line of Ripley’s about how “(y)ou don’t see them fucking each other over for a God damn percentage” sounds like a resolution of sorts. Maybe the writers are being as sneaky with it as they were with introducing Bishop after the technical end of Act One.
What’re your favourite moments from Act Two, Part Two?
What’s the most memorable Low Point you’ve seen in a film?
Do you feel the movie benefited / suffered from the addition of any of the extra scenes (the various robot sentry sequences, Ripley and Newt’s discussion about children, the discussion in medlab about a queen)? How?
Which movies are straight up with their characters’ roles from the beginning?
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.