Sequels must be in a different genre to work

Posted on | February 17, 2021

So, the subject of Alien and Aliens came up again, and I want to circle back to something I wrote awhile ago., in which I excoriated a writing teacher for completely missing the point of Ripley’s character.

In the first movie, Ripley is the executive officer of the starship Nostromo, in charge of an active cargo worth billions of dollars. She’s an insider, and it’s literally her job to enforce the regulations. Captain Dallas may have to be the one to interpret orders from above and instruct his ship, but it’s Ripley’s job to turn those instructions into commands among his crew. That’s why she’s the one who yells to get Parker’s attention when he starts bitching about how this “emergency” is going to make him late back to Earth.

In horror– and Alien is definitely a horror film, a classic “monster in the house”– there is a trope that called “good girl survives.” Most horror films show evil as a form of punishment against sins: in the various slasher franchises (Nightmare on Elm Street, Friday the 13th, Halloween), it’s always the horny ones who die first, followed by the greedy, the vain, the angry, etc. Ripley follows all the rules; that’s what her argument against Dallas and Ash at the airlock are all about. “If you let that thing in there we could all die,” she says, and she’s proven to be right. In the first movie, Ripley shows up to the plot with everything to lose.

In the second movie, Ripley is an outsider. She has no say with these marines, and Burke is so far above her in the company hierarchy she doesn’t matter to him… and after confronting the alien, he doesn’t matter to her. The scene where she asks Apone if she could help and shows she can run the forklift establishes her skills, but it also shows she’s willing to break a rule and dive into “Marine Country” to avoid being a passive bystander.

When the fight breaks out, she’s the one who crashes the APC into the reactor and saves as many of the marines as she can, defying Gorman all the way. She has nothing left to lose… until she finds Newt. And then she has a mission: not just nuke them from orbit, but also save Newt. She breaks every rule, and she teaches Bishop that sometimes the rules must be broken for life to be meaningful.

Alien and Aliens are amazing back-to-back because they do something important: they recognize that the heroic character can go on more than one journey. Sequels that have the main character go on the same journey over and over don’t have the same punch.

This was the failure mode of the Dead Space trilogy. The first game was about Issac’s survival; the second was about the survival of everyone still alive on Titan, lots of innocent people who did not blunder into a Marker site. The third game has the same journey as the second; it’s only saving grace is the scope of its setting and the recognition that, really, Isaac has made the Ripley transition to action hero. The thing is, Isaac no longer knows what he’s trying to save.

Ripley goes on a different journey in the second film. It’s no longer a horror movie; it’s an action film, a survival film. The horrors are the same, but the presentation is now that the good guys supposedly show up with munitions and training… and it still doesn’t do them any good. It undoes the hubris of the military response, leaving Ripley and Bishop to deal with the final monster alone.

The other interesting detail about Ripley is that she doesn’t change much at all in the first movie. She keeps every rule, even the one about destroying the ship, as rigidly as possible… and that’s why she wins. She’s right, and it’s the world around her that has to changed. In the second film, she’s right again, but now she has to change, to fight, to break herself to understand how to make other people understand why she was right.

These beats of Ripley’s character are what make the two movies so dynamic against one another. Both scripts are the work of craftsmen, and it’s important to analyze these two movies in detail to see how those beats work, and how the writers work at least two plot points into every last scene.

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