Tuesday, April 23, 2013

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?
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 fa├žade 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.
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


j.s. said...

"The second half complications are more driven by plot than character (Ash revealed as a robot, etc…)"

This seems to be an inversion of your helpful formulation "plot motivates, character complicates." And I'm wondering if there might be a general lesson to be drawn here that would apply more broadly. Could this kind of structure be more common in horror films, which often tend to build slowly and hang out with their characters for a while before the plot ratchets into full gear?

Matt Bird said...

Yeah, horror movies are, as a rule, very light on character, as I'll get into tomorrow.

In the Alien commentary, Scott talks a lot about the studio's worries that the story takes forever to get going, and his attempts to assure them that he would make all the build-up moody and suspenseful.

j.s. said...

I think you're right that horror tends to be light on character, but perhaps not the very best of the genre. I guess what I'm asking is this: Is a more novelistic trajectory say, "character motivates, plot complicates" truer to the way horror stories tend to play out? ALIEN isn't so strong on character, but do other horror stories that also take a while to get going spend their early sections really getting to know the people who are soon to be haunted/eaten/damned?

Beth said...

Do they have some success/fun? you said no, but I disagree. Allowing viewers to imagine a gritty day job in OUTER SPACE was a type of fun. They are a competent crew that gets their jobs done. They find their jobs boring and mundane, but to the viewer in the early 80's it was futuristic and exotic, and showed the success of the idea of limitless exploration.