Wednesday, April 24, 2013

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.)


j.s. said...

I feel like it's heresy to ask, but what would the Meddler do to this script? Is there anything you could do to address the problems you're highlighting without killing what's good and original about the film?

Matt Bird said...

Nothing. It works just about perfectly.

I can't stress enough: not every movie should check off every box on the checklist. It's okay to be a little weird, but only if you *know* you're being weird and you know it *might* be a problem unless you compensate. In the commentary, Scott makes it clear how aware he was of the movie's oddities, and the step he took to counterbalance them.

I think that one reason that Ripley and her arc are hard to notice in the first half of the movie is simply to increase the shock of Dallas's death: "WHAT?? Our hero is dead?? And now we're stuck with who...that random chick?"

This is a classic example of presentational irony: upsetting viewer's expectations based on previous movies. It's very tricky, and it quickly wears out its welcome once the expectation you're fighting doesn't actually exist anymore (See: Don't Fight Straw Men), but the first few times, it's a great jolt.

Harvey Jerkwater said...

I'd guess that leaving the protagonist unclear for the first half of the movie also increases the sense of dread. We expect the protagonist to survive, of course. If we don't have a protagonist at all, everyone's a legitimate target.

Also, maybe keeping the viewer from locking on to a single protagonist alienates us from them a little bit, puts us on edge. We don't have a "way in," and we aren't getting what we expect. It leaves us a little cold and unsettled. Then when the most obvious default protagonist, the captain, gets killed, we're really thrown.

j.s. said...

I asked mostly because I'm still very curious to see whether ALIEN a one-off special case or its lessons apply more broadly to a genre like horror.

The sense of dread that Harvey mentions from the undefined protagonist, for instance, is very Ten Little Indians. And in a good film of this sort you really don't know who's going to live or die, because the film doesn't telegraph its final girl/guy.

I don't think it's impossible to do a Hitchcockian protagonist shift anymore. You just have to be a little more clever about it. See Park Chan Wook's SYMPATHY FOR MR. VEGEANCE for a a great recent example.

Anyway, I do think that Cameron's sequel, ALIENS, addresses most of your concerns with the first script. In part it's because Ripley's character is clearer just from our prior experience with her, but I'd say it's mostly because of a shift of genre. It's easier for an action film like ALIENS (maybe the best one ever?) to have a hero who is volatile, physically active and misunderstood.

Matt Bird said...

In both cases, I agree:

It's no mistake that that movie's lack of early identification is *alien*-ating: the major theme is how corporate power has alienated us from ourselves and our own self-preservation. Ripley doesn't become a hero until the second half because she doesn't become a person again until then.

And yes, it's hard to separate out our love of Ripley in this movie from our admiration for her in the sequel, where she got a much richer showcase.

I'll do another horror movie next week and we'll see which lessons carry over.