In 1939, renowned English mystery writer Agatha Christie wrote and released the novel now known as And Then There Were None. (It was originally known by the staggeringly racist title Ten Little Niggers, from a song of the same name that was popular in blackface minstrel shows. When the novel was first published in the United States, it became known as Ten Little Indians, which was also kind of racist, so the title was eventually changed to the one by which it’s currently known.)
One of the best-selling novels of all time, And Then There Were None is a classic Christie yarn: ten people are stuck on an island and, one my one, each of them is murdered by an unknown assailant. Instead of having one central protagonist, like Christie’s famous detectives Poirot and Miss Marple, the novel’s narrative uses a process of elimination that allows surviving characters to gradually take on a more prominent role in the story until only one character remains.
While it’s unclear whether or not Alien’s resemblance to And Then There Were None was intentional, no less than Ridley Scott himself has compared the film’s narrative to that of Christie’s novel. This ‘process of elimination’ type murder narrative has a history in slasher movies, though at the time of the making of Alien it was a far less common trope than it has become in subsequent years; endless Friday the 13th and Nightmare on Elm Street sequels have brought the trope to greater prominence, as have films from the late-90s/early 00s slasher revival cycle, like Scream and I Know What You Did Last Summer.
In Alien, the xenomorph (that’s the fancy word that Alien franchise fans use for the alien creature itself) kills off each member of the crew until only Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) is left standing. For a film that took numerous narrative and stylistic risks, this was perhaps one of its greatest, as it flew in the face of traditional Hollywood thinking.
As explained by screenwriting guru Syd Field in his numerous instructional manuals, the three-act structure present in most Hollywood films features an Act I encompassing roughly the first half hour of the film, an Act II accounting for the middle hour, and an Act III making up the remaining half hour of the roughly two-hour running time. In between each Act is a “plot point,” an incident that “‘hooks’ into the action and spins it around into another direction.” These plot points are a function of the film’s main character: they represent the point at which the character typically acquires some kind of goal and the point at which that goal is accomplished and the film’s story begins to resolve itself. The vast majority of Hollywood films adhere to this pattern.
Like so many other great movies, though, Alien’s main-character-by-elimination narrative throws this rigid paradigm out the window. Instead of being positioned as the main focus of the story from the beginning of the film, Ripley gradually steps out of the pack and into a leadership role as the people around her are killed. In the first half of the film, Ripley has relatively little dialogue, and this changes only when her superior Dallas (Tom Skerritt) is killed and Ripley is forced to take command. Without a clear main character to hang the story on, the film chooses to have its major turning point – the famous “chestburster” scene – take place almost an hour into the film instead of the customary 30 minutes.
For the audience watching the film, it has the potential to be a bit disconcerting: no clear-cut main character with whom to identify, no familiar three-act structure, and a scenario that sees most of the cast get killed by end of the film. You might even call the effect… alienating.
Pretty appropriate if you ask me.
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