Star Beasts: Taking A Look At The “Alien” Saga

alien poster

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LjLamj-b0I8

Just to be safe, this contains SPOILERS for every Alien movie ever made (& even some comics) so if you’ve not seen those, proceed with caution.

On many, if not most, lists of screenplays that are must-reads for screenwriters “Alien” invariably comes up.  But which draft?  The original “Star Beast” by Dan O’Bannon (Story by Dan O’Bannon & Ronald Shusett) or “Alien” by Walter Hill & David Giler?  Fear not, dear reader, I intrepidly read drafts from both parties then watched the final version of the film.  

“Alien” is a classic.  It’s hard to overstate its success, both commercially and creatively.  Obviously, I enjoyed this exercise very much and moved on to “Aliens” by James Cameron, so this week is all about some observations about the “Alien” Saga in general.  “Alien” was first released in 1979, before many of you were even born (I was a spritely 3, so no, didn’t see it during its original run). 

The thing that jumps out immediately to me about the “Alien” scripts (whatever drafts), is how unmarketable they’d be today.  In one of O’Bannon’s drafts he says that all the characters are interchangeable, to be played by men or women, with no physical descriptions and few behavior character keywords.  God almighty, Black List readers would have a heart attack and couldn’t type 0/10 fast enough.  And I wonder how it would do in the Script Notes “3 Page Challenge”.  I’m guessing not well.

Anyone up for some technobabble?  Both scripts are rife with plenty.

From O’Bannon:

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From Giler & Hill:

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I don’t think Giler & Hill even know what they’re talking about.

Structure?  Yikes:

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Step on it, fellas!  Oh and the chestburster scene, page 91.  In those days, that meant minute 91.  The early drafts are a very slow burn (more on that in a bit).

And of course, one of the clunkiest lines of exposition still exists in the movie:  “I saw it. Yellow light for my eyes only.” But that’s a very minor quibble, though Tom Skerritt doesn’t seem very comfortable saying it.

So should today’s screenwriters read the rest of these scripts?  YES, immediately.  

What does make them work is their almost austerity-like sparsity of words.  This is from the final battle between Ripley and the Alien by Giler & Hill:

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That is simply terrific.  Each line is a punch.  You can actually snap a rhythm to it (go ahead, the rest of the blog will be here when you’re done).  Simple, little jabs telling you not only that each word counts but also where to cut.  Each line is a shot, without having to describe camera angles.  Pretend you’ve never seen “Alien,” then read that sequence again.  Your mind will be instinctively directing and editing the scene based on the words, which at the end of the day, is the whole point of screenwriting. 

Not to be super clever or literary, not to impress anyone with your descriptive talents or audition as a director.  (Yes, I’ve been guilty of all of those).  It’s creating the movie with words so that when you read the script you can SEE the movie with instinctive ease.

O’Bannon was right not to dwell on character descriptions.  You learn who each person is from their words and actions.  You simply don’t need to know on page 2 (an all too common note these days).  And quite frankly, once the action starts, you kinda don’t care.  Is the Alien going to eat these people or not?  What would I do in their place?  Would I go back and save the cat?  (Unless you’re a psychopath, of course you would)

And the character stuff they get right, they get really right.  If only Ashe had listened to Ripley when it came quarantining Kane and the others, none of this would have happened.  She was the wisest one to see the danger and survives it at every turn. 

Despite the slow burn and slow start in both scripts, they get on with one job and one job only – telling you the movie.  Even though there are significant cuts to both scripts in the movie (did you spot that Ripley & Dallas are fucking? And what about Ashe & Lambert?  Does it work the same for androids?), there’s little wasted motion.  If there’s a word that’s not telling you the movie, you won’t read it because it has already been deleted.

It’s sounds like a such a simple reminder but it’s one every screenwriter, myself included, needs to hear.  Myself very much included.  Just when I think I can’t take out a single thing, I invariably reread a script of mine and find not a few, but maybe as much as 10-12 pages to cut – all based on too many words.  Tell the movie.  Anything else is extraneous and as my screenwriting teacher, Emerson’s own Kevin Miller, told us many times – command-D is a screenwriter’s best friend.  (I know he wasn’t the only person to say that, but he was great teacher so I’m giving him a shout-out)

One other thing about the slow burn and today’s marketplace – yes, both of these drafts were improved greatly by quicker pacing over subsequent drafts.  BUT I hate hate hate the phrase, “Start late, leave early.”  It oversimplifies a storytelling technique (again a top for another blog).  “Alien” is a great example why I cringe when I hear it:

If these movies were made in 2014, “Alien” would begin with the shuttle landing on the planet, a quick recap of why they’re sidetracked and by minute 10, Kane would be back in the ship with the face-hugger on him.  All of that reality, all of the establishment of normalcy, (the cups of coffee, discussion of bonuses, etc.) would be lost.  Look me in the eye and tell me the truncated version is a better movie.

So yes, screenwriters, whether you’ve not finished your first script or if you’ve written 50, the Alien drafts are must reads.  And interesting challenge, see what words you would add.  I’m betting zero to none.  (Does anyone really miss the fact that the crew does not regularly refer to the alien as an alien?)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XKSQmYUaIyE

But as good as these scripts are – I almost think Aliens is better.  Now, I think “Alien” is a better film overall, but Aliens is a pretty unimpeachable sequel.  What do you do with a nearly indestructible killing machine?  Throw a squad of bad-ass marines at it, of course.

And the tag-line: “This time, it’s war.”  (Geek swoon)

I’ve not always been the biggest fan of James Cameron.  I didn’t like how Ed Harris nearly drowned on The Abyss.  I didn’t like that he hung Jamie Lee Curtis out of a plane (even though he did as well).  Many on-set and industry tales of his overall jerk-ness turned me off to him.

And then I saw “Avatar.”  Yup, I loved it.  Every single minute (another slow burn).  And so did the whole sold-out New Year’s Day theatre I saw it in.  Avatar has been much lambasted by Internet literati who think that similarities between “Fern Gully” or “Dances With Wolves” are some kind of indictment.  Maybe it is in your mind too or maybe you just didn’t like it.  Fair enough, but that sort of story borrowing is as old as movies themselves – but we’ll save that for another blog.

(Quick side-note, the overall stories to “Alien” & “Jaws”?  Not a million miles apart)

But how did Mrs. Cameron’s baby boy react to becoming (again) Hollywood’s most hated director?  He set a record for deep sea diving to one of the most dangerous locations on Earth: http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2012/03/120325-james-cameron-mariana-trench-challenger-deepest-returns-science-sub/

James Cameron is 100% certified bad-ass.  I’d be honored if I could one day shake his hand and just say “Well done, Jim”.  And one of those reasons is “Aliens” – both the movie and script.

Aliens is wordier than Alien, but dammit it works.  When Cameron goes long, it’s for real purpose, usually character driven:  Newt rolls her eyes as if to say “don’t pull that five-year-old shit on me, lady. I’m six.

Awesome.  Yes, literary, but still you can see the shot in your mind’s eye.  Cameron the writer is telling Cameron the director exactly what to say to his child actress to pull off the scene.

“Aliens” is also paced like a mother-fucker.  I found myself reading pages at time while holding down the scrollbar.  Cameron incorporates the best of “Alien” while ratcheting it up for the action-crazed 1980’s audiences.  The slow burn is there again but builds faster and faster.  Sure the Marines shoot off lots of guns but this is still at its heart a suspense thriller.  The guns are actually taken away and one could argue the most harrowing sequence is when Ripley and Newt are trapped with the face-huggers.

Camera angles are done through looks and expressions.  When “Ripley’s expression becomes sober” your mind’s eye will probably go to a tight close-up.  Atmosphere is established by the emotions the visuals are supposed to evoke, not just picture perfect description.  Cameron is admittedly dictatorial about production design so he knew he didn’t have to go crazy filling the script with the details he wanted on set blueprints.  All screenwriters should remember that one.  Scripts should give the production team emotional direction, not tell them exactly what and how they should be building things.

Possibly the most amazing thing pulled off by Cameron is his sleight of hand.  The script is filled with cool sci-fi shit, tons of technobabble about the various weaponry, and the word EXPLOSION sprinkled throughout.  But what is the script about?  A woman who gets a second chance at motherhood.  Underneath all the blood, guts and shredded hardware is a touching mother/daughter story – and it even has a wicked happy Disney ending (anyone mind that really?).  This ability to hide all the happy stuff under the things that producers worried about (the action pieces) is nothing short of brilliant – and at the same time, pragmatic. 

And my favorite favorite favorite thing about the entire “Aliens” script (and it’s STILL in the movie) is during the highest point of drama:

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Fuck yeah!  One of the rare examples where a story doesn’t rely on the “we’re out of time” cliché.  And yes, Cameron underlines & boldfaces wherever he wants.  And I don’t blame him.

And as far as I’m concerned, that’s the end of the Alien Duology.  The stories continue in the highly recommended Dark Horse Comics world where Ripley, Hicks, Bishop and a grown-up Newt launch great new adventures fighting both the unstoppable aliens and the military/corporate forces that wish to control them:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aliens_(comic_book)

But what about “Alien 3”?  “What about it?” says I.  Look, David Fincher is a master filmmaker.  “Zodiak” and “The Social Network” are masterpieces.  Fincher is in a class of his own, especially thanks to Se7en which continues to stun audiences today.  “Alien 3” is a beautifully made film.  But as a story…

It’s been well-documented in the “Alien” Quadrilogy boxed-set that well, no one really wanted to make “Alien 3” but it was a cash cow so a script about a monastery was commissioned eventually becoming a story about Ripley trapped in a prison but the prisoners had sort of taken a vow of spiritual celibacy something.  

The contracts for Newt and Hicks were not retained so their characters were killed off in a terrible narrative move.  Immediately the story suffers from taking an uncomfortable wide left, not dissimilar to the feeling of waiting for Steve Guttenberg to show up in “Police Academy 5”.  You just don’t WANT Newt and Hicks to be killed so the movie is already buzzkilled.  And what does Ripley do now that she’s so broken up that Newt died?  She bangs the Doctor.  Yeah, previously movie, she walked through an industrial alien hell to get the girl back.  Now, we’re supposed to believe she just “accepts” Newt’s death?  

Charles S. Dutton does a fine job playing Dillon (cool name).  Actually nothing wrong with the cast at all.  But when Dillon says he’s a murderer and rapist of women….ummmmm, why I am rooting for him again?  Because he’s human and the alien is an alien?  Um, sorry.  We don’t hate the shark in “Jaws” because it’s a shark.  We hate the shark in “Jaws” because it kills a little kid.  Yeah, OK, the alien uses either a dog or cow to come to life (depending on the draft you read) but not sure I shouldn’t root for the alien against the serial killers and rapists. 

Let’s put it another way:  Adam Lanza, the BTK Killer and Charles Manson vs the Alien.  Whose T-Shirt are you wearing to the fight?  I’m wearing the guy with two mouths who’s mother is a face-hugger.

Most offensive of all is the attempted rape of Ripley.  So in “Aliens,” this is a character who goes through hell and back to save Newt, confronting the entire alien menace and their Queen as an industrial superstructure melts and explodes around her – but that same character is overpowered by 3 prison skinheads and then needs help from Dillon to free herself?  “Oh, but she’s weakened by being pregnant with the Alien queen.”  I’m not buying it.  Andy Dufresne getting raped in prison?  I’ll buy that.  Ellen Ripley?  Not on your life.  She would skin any would-be attacker alive.  You wouldn’t do it to John McClane or Dirty Harry or any number of male action heroes (or at least they wouldn’t have needed rescuing).  It shouldn’t have been tried with Ripley.

“Alien: Resurrection?”  Has real merit.  The first hour is pretty bad-ass.  Aliens using their acid to get free.  The underwater fight.  A Ripley clone that’s part alien?  OK, pretty cool.  And the scene where she finds the clones that “didn’t work” – very powerful stuff.

But the whole hybrid monster thing.  I can’t help but find that all a bit sad.  They created this poor creature who must be put to death for the good of humanity or something.  Now, thematically, this is a call-back to the first movie which was filled with reproductive motif in which Giger designed the face-hugger after a vagina and the alien after a penis (even the computer is called Mother) but still, the movie just loses me at this point.  It’s not a selling point – “Want to go see Alien 4 where a Ripley clone has to kill an experimental monster who thinks she’s its mother?”  Do you want to see that?

It’s always easy to Monday Morning Quarterback after the fact but I can’t help but do that after revisiting the saga.  After revisiting the first two scripts, there’s only one natural story for Alien 3 if one follows the narrative at its most basic thread – the aliens come to Earth.  Sigourney Weaver didn’t like all the guns in “Aliens” (which influenced some of the creative on “Alien 3”) but that’s fine, she still could have used her wit, guile and cunning to find a way to save the Earth from aliens that somehow came back with her and her new family of Hicks, Newt & Bishop – who should absolutely have lived into “Alien 3.”  Whether they all lived until the end of the film is another story – and another source of drama.

What about “Alien Vs. Predator?”  I liked the first one.  Granted, I’ve only seen it once.  But I liked the action scenes, dug the Alien-Predator hybrid and incorporating Lance Henriksen as the original Weyland was a nice throwback – and also helped explain his heirs’ obsession with getting the creature. (I guess the first AVP is technically the first Alien prequel.)

“Alien Vs Predator: Requiem.”  Lots of fun action sequences but again muddled morality.  The Predator blows away a Sheriff – and then I’m supposed to root for him the rest of the movie?  There’s edgy and dangerous storytelling and then there’s stuff like that, which expects too much at times out of an audience.  Some people bought it, of course.  It turned me off to the rest of the film.  As did the small town melodrama which tried way too hard.  But I salute the filmmakers for trying to wrap honest story around the action set-pieces.

The AVP sagas: OK, fun, action movies.  But overall, I was disappointed.  A friend of mind indignantly said to me, “What did you expect, it’s ‘Alien vs Predator’?”  Exactly.  It’s “Aliens Vs Predator,” the two best sci-fi horror franchises of the past 30 years.  They should have been a lot more than OK, fun, action movies.  They should have been classics.

OK, only one left…

I don’t feel too bad about being critical of movies that are well over ten years old.  (I don’t think David Fincher would consider “Alien 3” his finest work)  But I thought long and hard about what to say about the other “Alien” film.  The film is still wet, relatively speaking.  I know people who worked on the film and I know people who know the people who made the creative decisions.  I don’t find it to be in good taste to be overly critical of fellow professionals’ work.  You may hate my scripts, dear reader.  I doubt it – but you might.  So who am I to rip apart a recent film?

That said, I don’t think I’m talking out of school when I say “Prometheus” wasn’t a successful picture.  I know of many people who left the theatre furious.  I was one of them.  Much as been written about the many problems with the piece.  For me, I’ll say this: I was never given a reason to buy-in to what I was seeing – and given plenty of reasons to check-out.

Side-Note: I never really liked the idea of the alien as a bio-engineered weapon.  I always felt that it being an animal, evolved in the harsh climates of space, was much more interesting.

At least we have a truly amazing trailer:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5UEv03g51kU

How does a disappointment like “Prometheus” happen?  Lots of reasons, probably best saved for another blog.  Was it the writer’s fault?  The director’s fault? The producers’ fault?  All of the above.  Was it just a (well-documented) troubled script development and then once they found a usable script, they thought “yes, we got it”?  Maybe.  When they replaced a puppet with a guy in a suit on “Howard The Duck,” they thought they solved all the problems.  I don’t want to point any specific fingers (though some involved certainly have publicly) because it’s hard in the world of movies to see the forest for the trees.  It happens.  It’ll probably happen to me and my colleagues one day.  We all work hard to prevent it and I’m sure everyone on the crew of “Prometheus” did as well.  But it gets us all sooner or later.

But revisiting “Alien” again, I couldn’t help but wonder – and maybe this will happen in one of the (gulp) “Prometheus” sequels – should not the last few minutes of “Prometheus” been something like this:

-The newly discovered aliens get away from the company, taken by a revived Engineer in one of their ships.  The ship ends up crashing landing on a planet designated LV-426.  What’s the company to do?  They want the aliens but that planet is waaaay out of the way and they don’t want to get their hands dirty.  Someone plucky, young executive (Carter Burke Sr?) discovers a freighter, the Nostromo has flightpath toward LV-426.

-Last scene: Dallas gets his crew together to take off on their journey.  The last minute, his regular science officer is replaced by Ashe.  The ship takes off. And the crew descends into hyper-sleep.

Where did I get that idea?  It’s all right there.  In the “Alien” scripts.

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2 thoughts on “Star Beasts: Taking A Look At The “Alien” Saga

  1. Interesting and thorough observation. I wonder if you have read the original PROMETHEUS script and what you thought of that (hint: Space Marines).

    I believe the times played a big role in what made each of those movies great (or not great). To me, ALIEN is not only a great sci-fi movie, but it is a classic 70’s film. Gleaning character from overlapping dialogue and striking verisimilitude even in space, it’s more akin to DOG DAY AFTERNOON or TAKING OF PELHAM 1-2-3 than Star Wars.

    ALIENS is the 80’s through and through. Perhaps it started it, but regardless, big guns, action hero, soldiers. It’s very much at home with other 80’s action movies.

    ALIEN 3 is classic 90’s, not only because Fincher did so much to set the tone for that decade, but it’s dark and moody themes and look, whether successful or not, was in line with the theatrical and musical culture of the day. We are all bad people doing bad things, it’s not just some faceless ‘company’.

    ALIEN 4 is not only true to the more surreal films of the late 90’s/early 200’s such as the MATRIX, THE FIFTH ELEMENT. Our obsession with body modification and distorted reality. Perhaps what we are is not what we thought we were and what our place in the world really is given we are just a grain of sand among the beach of human civilization.

    I can’t speak to the AVP series, so I won’t.

    …and PROMETHEUS. A bummer of a movie even if it is strikingly beautiful. Some would argue (I among them) that it is not a prequel, but a film that takes advantage of an established universe. Your suggested ending is brilliant and it would have done wonders for the film. Regardless, a scientific preoccupation with ‘god’ aliens and the ‘Alien’ aliens as weapons, it perhaps stove to be more than it’s parts, but failed in the execution.

    Regardless, great post. I look forward to more.

  2. Mark says:

    A thoughtful analysis. I tend to prefer Alien 3 to the rather ridiculous (in my opinion) transmogrification of the Alien queen into a bearer of live birth, and the offspring she hatched (if I can use) that word. Too much slime. And that Alien baby… Sheesh! But Alien 3 had a starkness to it, a bleakness that I thought was born (no pun intended) out of the dark themes it represented. I especially like the death of religion (or at least Christianity) motif that was best embodied by Ripley’s descent into the hell flame of the iron forge, where she spread her arms, Christ-like, while the Alien queen hatched from inside her. And Resurrection’s final comments between Weaver and Ryder were so lame… (Paraphrasing) Ryder: “What do we do now?” Weaver: “I don’t know.” Sort of sums up the problem of plotting for me.

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