Okay, okay. Unlike the last time I tried to analyse Act 2, Part 1, I’m actually writing this during the day, so I won’t get the urge to nod off before I finish.
When I left off my analysis of how the Hollywood Formula plays out in the plotting and action of the movie Aliens, we finally had solid candidates for the roles of Antagonist (Burke) and Relationship Character (Bishop) by the half-hour mark, if not by the end of Act One. As we progress through Act Two, we’re looking for signs of the Antagonist getting in the way of the Protagonist’s goal (Ripley’s desire to wipe the aliens out) and the Relationship Character aiding the Protagonist’s mission and / or discussing the Protagonist’s motivations. We’re also waiting for the mid-point twist, a plot event that shakes the story so far up, changing its direction.
Lt. Gorman demonstrates his lack of sensitivity as he questions the silent young girl, which leads to Ripley discovering something else she’s good for as the girl tells Ripley to call her Newt. Gorman then further demonstrates his cluelessness while Hudson and Burke search for the missing colonists, not to mention his quickness to “saddle up” once they’ve been located.
But there’s this quick little scene in there when dropship crewman Spunkmeyer brings some supplies to Bishop, who’s dissecting a dead parasite – and Bishop gives him the oddest look. Could we be dealing with another android operating on secret orders?
And, of course, right before Hudson finds the colonists in the bowels of the atmosphere processor, Newt tells Ripley that the soldiers “won’t make any difference” – and you can just tell from the look on her face that Ripley’s thinking, “Damn it, kid, I’ve been trying to ignore the voice in the back of my head saying just that all day…”
Purpose: Reinforce our existing impressions of Ripley and Gorman – and make us wonder whether Bishop mightn’t be our antagonist after all.
Geek Note: News Limited actually used some of the footage of the colony schematics in their company orientation video. I spotted it when I joined The Cairns Post in 2005. Yes, I know – lost cause.
We’re back in the APC as it rolls toward the towering atmosphere processor, and unlike last time we were in its armoured cocoon the atmosphere isn’t expectant, it’s subdued. The score lays the foreboding horns and long string notes on thick; no undercurrent of military drum any more. No one (except maybe Gorman) seems to have any illusions as to what they’re driving into. Even if they’re not on the same page as Ripley, there’s no argument that Something Is Wrong.
The Marines deploy, and this time we know something’s going to happen. And it does. As soon as they reach the basement level the colonists are on, the Marines find… something woven about the structure, a substance Dietrich identifies as “some sort of secreted resin.”
Much as the cool stuff is happening with the Marines, the interesting character stuff belongs to Gorman, Ripley and Burke. Right before he orders the Marines in, Gorman actually asks Ripley for her opinion. The “something’s wrong” clue has finally dropped, and for the first time he needs someone’s help. Unfortunately, Ripley can’t; this thing has her just as baffled. Feeling let down and probably as isolated a Ripley’s been for a good chunk of the film, Gorman orders the Marines in.
Things get worse for Gorman’s perceived competence a minute later when Ripley asks him about the pulse rifles’ ammunition. She tries to explain why, but here we see Ripley’s flaw. It’s been said that James Cameron has a flair for creating believable, intelligent women, and he shows that flair here. Ripley points out the team’s proximity to the processor’s cooling system and the potential for their armour piercing ammo to damage it. Gorman gets neither point. Ripley can’t quite grasp that Gorman, a trained Marine lieutenant, can’t understand why he’s not coming to the obvious (to her) conclusion.
But Burke does, and for the first time he’s not condescending towards Ripley at all. “Whoa-ho, yeah. She’s absolutely right.” Another first: He complements Ripley’s intelligence with his people skills, boiling her point down to the basics for Gorman and adding a little gallows humour to help the medicine go down. “We’re talkin’ ‘thermonuclear explosion’ and ‘adios, muchachos.'”
And Gorman starts to panic. Is ordering Apone to collect the pulse rifle’s ammo a bad call? Yes, but in a sense, no. Given the sudden context Gorman finds his mission in, it makes sense. But Gorman already had the information he needed when Hudson told him the colonists were under the processor’s main cooling towers earlier on. It’s a bad call compounded on Gorman’s rush to ride in and save the day, and it’s maybe the hope of saving face that prevents him from pulling his team back while he assesses his options in arena he wasn’t expecting to be hostile.
As a result, his team lose yet more respect for their CO, which may be the main reason why Vasquez defies orders by slipping Drake a spare connector for his smart gun and reconnecting her own. The Marines are pissed off, neutered, nervous, jumping at shadows.
Then the shadows start killing.
The invincible, ultra-competent Marines are a mess. In under a minute, two are dead, two are MIA and their precious pulse rifle ammo and grenades are gone. Vasquez and Drake are laying waste to anything that moves and Apone can’t hear Gorman’s desperate attempts to restore order over the smart guns’ din – which results in the sergeant being ambushed. One minute thirty and the Marines have lost over half their combat strength and their real commander. Gorman is useless and everyone knows it.
(Even strong, silent type Hicks folds right when he’s needed. “Where’s Apone? Where’s Apone?!“)
Naturally, it’s Ripley who takes real action, taking the wheel (?) of the APC and sending it down the ramp to Sublevel 3. Gorman’s panic becomes rage and he tries to stop Ripley – and once again Burke comes to her aid.
A couple of minutes later, Ripley has evacuated the remaining Marines from the processor and squashed an alien for good measure. At the end, though, it’s Hicks who helps her when the fight-or-flight reflex keeps her pedal to the now broken metal.
Purpose: After Bishop’s sinister turn in the last scene, we get an about-face from Burke. Maybe we’re wrong about who the relationship character and the antagonist are here. Oh, and in case we forgot who the real antagonist was, the aliens start doing what they do and we geeks get one of the most awesome sci-fi action scenes ever – even if the heroes are receiving the arse-kicking instead of delivering it.
Safe for the moment in the immobile APC, the question of what the fuck do we do next comes up. Naturally, Ripley has the answer, and this time it’s short and sweet: “I say we take off and nuke the entire site from orbit. It’s the only way to be sure.”
And right when we thought we finally had a handle on Burke, he goes and yanks the rug on us. “This is clearly an important species we’re dealing with and I don’t think that you or I or anybody has the right to arbitrarily exterminate them.” So much for having his word that wiping them out was the plan. If Ripley’s goal is to wipe the aliens out, he’s now actively working against it – he even tries to pull rank on her.
Ripley won’t have it, though, informing Burke that as the highest ranking (conscious) military man, Corporal Hicks is now in charge of the mission. Though Hicks isn’t happy with it, his attitude changes when Burke makes the very un-savvy move of questioning his decision making ability in the third person. Hicks calls for evac and declares the mission’s next move: “I say we take off and nuke the site from orbit. It’s the only way to be sure.”
Purpose: Okay, you bastard scriptwriters. Will you please quit playing with the Formula? Shouldn’t we know who we can trust by now? Grumble…
The survivors evacuate the APC to await the arrival of the dropship, which it does – by crashing. By the time it hits ground, though, both Ferro and Spunkmeyer are already dead, victims of the alien that crept aboard. None of our survivors buy the farm… but the crash takes the APC out and now they’re trapped.
If our opinion of Burke hadn’t suffered before, he joins Hudson in bitching about their circumstances, and of all people it’s the quiet Newt who takes their fate in stride, simply saying that they need to get back to the colony before dark.
She had it called all along.
Purpose: And there’s our mid-point twist. One crash changes our movie from SF military action to SF survival horror.
So where’re we sitting, formula-wise? Well, we’re at the mid-point twist right on schedule; one hour in, one hour to go. Pretty good, timing-wise. Our antagonist (if you take the aliens out of the equation) and relationship characters keep switching around, though. Hicks has been lurking around or a while and has started taking some positive, helpful action in Scene 11, but aside from a few sparks of interest, we’re yet to see any deeper involvement with her issue. Bishop directly addressed her fear of him in Scene 2 but has hovered quietly in the background since – except for that quick scene with Spunkmeyer that made us wonder whether Ripley really had noting to fear from him. And Burke? Well, he goes from condescending jerk to unexpected help to arsehole. Just how is he going to jump?
Tune back in in a couple more days for my first tilt at Act 2, Part 2. In the meantime, though, please stick around for some…
What’re your favourite moments from Act Two, Part 1?
What’s the most memorable mid-point twist you’ve seen in a film?
Which other films play with their characters’ roles in the plot as much, if not more so? 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.