After The Events in “Alien”, James Cameron Made It Clear That Ellen Ripley Refused to Be Part of Another Mission
Looking Into Why It Is So Important For The Story of “Aliens” That Ripley Refuses To Go On Another Adventure To Hunt For Aliens
There’s a link to the treatment and screenplay at the end of this article if you want to grab it beforehand and read along while going through this article.
Many things mentioned herein might not make much sense if you haven’t seen “Alien” and “Aliens”. So, if you haven’t already seen them, stop reading now and go see both movies before reading further.
And of course; Ripley battling it out in the end with the alien queen mother while commandeering a Power Loader. Now that’s a scene hard to forget.
When people refer to sci-fi movies, they are often using Aliens as a benchmark. The movie is “pure sci-fi” — monsters in space, spaceships, and travel to other planets. Aliens is also often mentioned as being a badass sci-fi action movie, which it is, no question. But beneath all the sci-fi and the action is a story about a mother trying to come to terms with her grief of losing her only child.
I was even surprised myself when I recently rewatched the movie for the first time in 10 years. I had completely forgotten how the story starts. The entire first act of the movie centers around Ripley waking from hypersleep on a way station. We are then taken through her struggles with the bureaucracy surrounding her role in the killing of the alien from the first movie. It’s not until 25+ minutes into the movie that the action parts start.
Not many comics or video games are based on this first act of the Aliens’ story arc. But I will dare to claim that fundamentals laid in the first act of the story, is one of the reasons why the movie had stood the test of time as well as it has.
It is in the first act the key pillars of the Aliens storyline is built. Without them, the story would most likely have felt flat and for most viewers, disinteresting.
To dwell further into the masterful storytelling of Aliens, we have to look a bit closer at what story structure is. We’ll look further into the storytelling elements that “The Hero’s Journey” consists of.
What is “The Hero’s Journey”?
“The Hero’s Journey”, or Monomyth as it’s sometimes referred to, is a term coined by mythological historian professor Joseph Campbell. In his seminal book “The Hero with a Thousand Faces” from 1949, Campbell examined the many myths found in tribes and religious groups around the world that they used as their cultural and narrative backbone.
Campbell’s work emphasizes that all these stories and myths are, at their fundamental core, simple variations on the same story. It’s the story of a hero that goes on a journey to a “special world” to solve some peril that has fallen upon himself or his tribe. The hero then returns to his “ordinary world” with the elixir to heal the tribe or having slain the monster treating the tribe.
George Lucas was one of the first filmmakers to publicly claim that he based much of his storytelling on the works of Campbell. Lucas’ use of the Monomyth catapulted the theory into the public sphere. Now, many filmmakers, writers and storytellers alike count The Hero’s Journey as one of the core elements in their storytelling tool belt.
Why is structure so important to a story?
Like music, movies almost always follow some kind of rhythm or harmony. I’m no musician but I can — as almost everyone can — clearly hear if a piece of music is out of tune.
Creativity — music, storytelling, paintings — has to follow some form of structure. There has to be a plan to the madness. If not, it’s everything reverts to the basic form, noise. It’s exactly the same with movies. Movies that don’t follow a structure often feels rushed in places or flat and boring or hard to follow.
And Campbell’s support exactly this; that The Hero’s Journey is the structure of all mass cultural modern stories. It’s the structure that we as the audience know and understand. Even though we might still be surprised by the story itself, the structure is known. We understand the rhythm and harmony of the structure. This gives us a calm feeling deep down when we presented with stories that follow this structure.
George Lucas and James Cameron are both masters of the Monomyth structure. They have proved that time and again. They know how to use the structure to provide scaffolding and pacing for their stories. That is the reason why their movies resonate so well with so many people. It’s new and exciting, and at the same time told in a way we instantly recognize and understand.
Metaphorically speaking, we are tapping our feet to the rhythm of the movie even though we have never seen it before. It’s a guttural feeling. Deeply ingrained in our storytelling culture, through thousands of years of storytelling tradition.
From the above diagram, we can see that there are 12 distinct story beats or sequences to a story that follows The Hero’s Journey. You don’t have to have all structure beats in your story. Just like you don’t have to have all instruments in your music piece. What you do have to have, is a baseline for your story. Just like the drums or bass creates, well, the baseline of a piece of music. Without the baseline, the story becomes messy and confusing. We understand the scenes individually but we struggle to see where the story is heading or why different plots are presented to us.
Even though the structure is a scaffold, it is not, as many claims, the reason why stories sometimes feel formulaic or a “paint by numbers” story. That is due to boring characters or an unimaginative overall story. Applying a solid structure to your narrative does not help with that.
Refusal of the Call
When most people give a summary of Aliens it is something along these lines: It’s about mankind’s folly and inability to learn from past mistakes. While this is true — that is what Aliens is about. But beneath this main story is a very strong story about a mother seeking atonement for not keeping her promise to her daughter.
If we look at the storyline of Aliens through the lens of The Monomyth you can clearly see that Cameron used this as a backbone for his story.
One of the most powerful structure beats is the “Refusal of the call” (shown in the diagram above). And it is this structure beat that Cameron utilized so masterfully in Aliens.
This beat usually happens after we’ve spent some time on establishing the world of the story — the “ordinary world”. The main character of the story is presented with a “Call to Adventure”. Something has happened and the main character has to take action. The situation in the ordinary world as we know it is no longer sustainable and it is the hero’s job to fix it. The main character has to refuse this Call to Adventure. Why should they risk everything to fix the problem? There has to be someone else, someone more capable of solving this.
Just like Luke at first refuses the call to adventure from Obi-Wan, because he already planned on going to the Imperial Academy. Like Indiana Jones refuses the call from the government to help find the covenant. And Alan Grant from Jurassic Park refuses the call to adventure from John Hammond to help build Jurassic Park.
It’s such a powerful storytelling element because it’s something that everyone can relate to. It’s the “You know what you have, but you don’t know what you are going to get” element.
Adventure comes knocking on the door — literally
In Aliens, the Call to Adventure happens after we’ve seen that Ripley is heartbroken over the loss of her daughter. The daughter died as an elderly woman while Ripley was floating through space in hypersleep.
The scene is shorted a great deal in the final edit of the movie. Even worse, the first theatrical release of the movie the scene was entirely cut out — which is quite baffling as it is one of the key points of the story. This was thankfully corrected in later releases, even though the somewhat on the nose remark about “take my promises with a grain of salt” never made it back into the movie.
But, on page 6, and about at the 9-minute mark in the movie, we learn about Ripley’s daughter and we clearly see that this breaks Ripley. Something that at the time in the story might just be added to give depth to the Ripley character. We later learn this is a vital part of the story.
That Ripley even had a daughter, is something Cameron added to the Alien universe. It’s was never mentioned in Alien.
Ripley is down on her luck. She doesn’t fit into this new world she has awoken into. A lot of time has passed, and many things have changed. But Weyland-Yutani, the corporation that owned the spaceship that Ripley blew up in Alien, is investigating her role in the loss of the ship.
In the end, they decided to not hold her directly responsible for the destruction of the ship, but as a last-minute blow, they ground her as a pilot. This basically renders her unemployed.
So, when Burke comes knocking on Ripley’s door to enlist her help in a new incident with a Xenomorph, she not one to jump on the opportunity, to say the least.
Cameron had this structured very early on in the writing process. Even in the very first drafts of the story, the setup is there. You can find it in the 40+ pages treatment that Cameron wrote together with David Giler and Walter Hill in 1983 (You can download the treatment here). It’s interesting to watch how Cameron worked with the story and the structure in the early versions.
The treatment is dated September 1983 and the final version of the screenplay is dated September 1985. So we can assume that Cameron worked on the story on and off for at least two whole years.
In the final screenplay, they opted to tone down the “Fuck off” remark to simply having Ripley slam the door in Burke’s face.
The scene happens at the 21:30 mark in the movie and goes on for a couple of minutes. Ripley is very adamant about refusing the Call to Adventure. Burke, on the other hand, keeps putting her down for not being able to find any better jobs than working the cargo docks. He’s saying to her; you have nothing to lose and everything to gain. But still, she refuses.
Alas, Ripley cannot escape her inner demons. Haunted by vivid nightmares and a nagging feeling that she indeed has nothing to lose, she calls Burke back in the dead of night.
She’s in. She has accepted the Call to Adventure.
Watch the entire scene from the director’s cut of the movie, and observe all the little nuances and minute details laid into the scene. There so much not being said.
Sidenote: Sequels and The Refusal of the Call
The refusal of the call — or lack thereof — is also sometimes the reason that sequels don’t work as well story wise. The refusal is not as powerful. The sequels have to up the ante somehow because the hero already refused the call in the first movie. And that is clearly why Cameron opted to include the aspect of the lost daughter. Without it, Ripley’s later actions in the movie would not have had the same strong impact as they had.
The Journey is complete
Because Ripley at first refused and only reluctantly accepted the Call to Adventure the movie manages to tie an almost perfect knot on itself. Ripley will never see her own daughter again, but she saves another little girl from a gruesome fate.
In the treatment from 1983, Cameron had the movie end right when Newt calls Ripley “Mommy” and Ripley not correcting her.
In the final version of the story, when all but one of the Marines are dead, Ripley manages to kill the alien and save her own life and that of Newt. Ripley then takes the final step into the role as a (surrogate) mother for Newt and finds some hard-earned redemption through this.
The circle is closed for Ripley. She heeded the Call to Adventure and passed through the special world (again) to come out as the heroine. The heroine that saved us all by defeating the monster and got herself whole as a human being in the process. That is very powerful storytelling.
Ripley might never be able to see her own daughter again and to apologize for missing her 11th birthday — but she managed to save Newt. That she also saved mankind in the process is — in this regard — just an added side-effect, a bonus.
The circle is closed. The entire movie is bookended by hypersleep. Ripley was in the first scene awoken from hypersleep and in the very last scene, Ripley and Newt goes into hypersleep and the movie fades to black.
Sidenote: The Mothers of “Aliens”
You can properly read a lot into the fact that Ripley is trying to atone herself and her broken promises to her own daughter by being a surrogate mother for Newt and in the end, killing another mother — the alien queen mother.
But that’s a deep Freudian analysis rabbit hole that I will not decent into here. That we’ll save for another article.
Aliens closely follow the structure of The Hero’s Journey. All the steps of the journey are there and the story hits all the marks perfectly. Added to this is Aliens fantastic story. It’s a story about universal human struggle and finding your footing in the world when the rug has been pulled from underneath you. It’s about a mother finding atonement in becoming the (surrogate) mother of another young girl.
This might very well be the reason why Aliens to revered by so many people. Because of the human struggle. Even though it takes place in the sci-fi world filled with aliens with acid for blood, it’s still just a tale of a mother’s coming to terms with the grief of losing her daughter and not keeping her promise towards her.
Everyone, even teenage boys, and childless old grumpy men can relate to this. That is what makes Aliens is such a powerful and timeless classic. It’s a fantastical, beautiful and moving story. But first and foremost it’s a movie and a story that is structurally sound.
>> You can download the 40-page treatment and the first and final version of the screenplay for Aliens here
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In the 90s, Simon Lund Larsen was a production runner on a couple of movies, a sound engineer on others and a producer of some. He later founded two companies; one that made short films and one that made multiplayer online games. Sold one of the companies and dissolved the other.
Now he works Product Manager at a large toy maker in Denmark in the daytime and writes short stories, screenplays and posts like these in his spare time. When he is not polishing his latest post on Medium, he can be found on Twitter as @SimonLundLarsen or at SimonLundLarsen.com