The Mother and the Beast: The Importance of the Midpoint
The Midpoint of a story is a soft spot that completely changes the narrative. It can turn a Monster into a Queen and a Grease Monkey into a Warrior.
James Cameron’s ALIENS has more than 40 aka’s around the world, I’ve just found out. In Argentina it’s ALIENS — EL REGRESO (or ALIENS — THE RETURN), in Italy it’s ALIENS — SCONTRO FINALE (or ALIENS — THE FINAL ENCOUNTER). In Portugal, it’s ALIENS — O RECONTRO FINAL (or ALIENS THE FINAL RE-ENCOUNTER). Of course, at that point (1986) there was no way of knowing there would be at least 7 or 8 more movies on the infamous alien (if I’m counting the Prometheus and the AxP storylines correctly), so it wasn’t the final encounter by any measure. I actually watched the Cameron movie in the theatre, before I watched the Ridley Scott groundbreaking first installment, and even though I’ve watched both several times since then, I still like the Cameron movie better. But that’s just me: I love military action and I think ALIENS is one of the best Scifi military action movies ever made. And as I watched it last night one more time I concluded three things: 1)Cameron is a really talented director; 2) Cameron, Giler and Hill’s screenplay is really-really good, and; 3) the Midpoint in this movie is very powerful.
Let me go through these conclusions one by one, with special emphasis on the last one.
James Cameron is a household name. Just in Scifi, you can’t avoid icons like THE ABYSS, TERMINATOR, or AVATAR, whatever you think of the movies themselves (thumbs up for those who think AVATAR is a downgraded, hyper-marketed, silly version of DANCES WITH WOLVES). But you can also speak of the very solid TITANIC phenomenon and, of course, it is doubtful the ALIEN would have become a franchise if the second movie of the series, Cameron’s ALIENS, wasn’t such a great film. But as I watched it again last night I couldn’t help but notice the little things that make it so. Cameron’s use of sound is brilliant. There’s not a lot of music and a lot of the movie is very silent and quiet… until it isn’t. The feeling throughout a large part of the movie is of eeriness and discomfort. And then there are some scenes I absolutely love. Several of them. As the moment Newt is fearful with water to her waist, grabbing her doll’s head in her hands while waiting for Ripley and Hicks to cut the metal grid above her to bring her to safety… but too late. It’s a stunningly tense and beautiful scene and Cameron’s choice of camera work and the actor’s directing is very strong. Or the moment of the first confrontation with the aliens, where the confusion is so intense that only yesterday did I understand that about half the casualties of the Marines were self-inflicted or acid-induced (pun intended).
The script is also very well written. You can see it in the richness of the supporting characters, like Bill Paxton’s Hudson. But mostly, the first half-hour or so is brilliantly paced. It’s a constant build-up with little action, but you feel the tension rising relentlessly. The way the script keeps hiding the final act is perfect. Only in the final act do we see the Alien Queen and real danger Ripley is facing. We know ‘it must be something we haven’t seen yet’(as Bishop puts it) but we don’t really know what it is. And the way Ripley goes from ‘fifth wheel’ to a leader is also very interesting.
But this script also features an impressive Midpoint. I always have trouble explaining the Midpoint beat of a movie. Why is it there? What does it do? What do we do with it? Blake Snyder used to say: “If you can crack the Midpoint, you can crack the story.” And in most stories I write, I find he was right. The Midpoint changes the movie. It divides it in two. Before the Midpoint we were watching a movie, or reading a story, after the Midpoint we’re looking at something else entirely. Like in MATRIX. At the Midpoint, Neo meets the Oracle. Until that moment we thought ‘he must be the One’, or ‘it’s Neo against the Machine’. After that point he’s just there to save Morpheus — and he becomes the One in the process. After the Midpoint, we’re just watching Oracle’s prophecy unfolding. Or in GRAVITY: until the Midpoint we had Bullock’s Ryan and Clooney’s Kowalski trying to get to the Space Station, but after the Midpoint we see Kowalski dying and Ryan is alone trying to save herself. The best Midpoint I’ve seen in recent years, though, was in MANCHESTER BY THE SEA. The event at the Midpoint completely changes our perspective and we don’t watch a completely different movie after that but we notice we’ve actually been watching a different movie than we thought we were all along.
The Midpoint is very important but it’s difficult to explain both what it is and why it’s so important. It’s like we had a period of maturation of our relationship with the characters until then and at this point we’re ready for the final challenge, to face the real danger, to go for the moon.
ALIENS Midpoint makes it great. Until the Midpoint, we were watching a gung-ho military action thriller. After the Midpoint, we are faced with a strong, unpretentious, feminist plot. What happens at the ALIENS Midpoint? This happens: after the first disastrous battle against the aliens, a group of survivors manages to escape to an Operations room where they settle and plan their way to safety. After they have prepared, Ripley goes kiss little girl Newt good night. Newt says she doesn’t want to go to sleep because she dreams of monsters. Ripley tries to calm her down saying she will be in the next room and that she will never abandon her. Newt asks her: «Promise?» and Ripley replies: «Promise.» And that’s it. Until then, the movie was about Ripley confronting her fears and facing the monster in her past. It was her against the Alien. From the Midpoint on the movie is something else: it’s a fight between two strong females protecting their young. The Alien Queen and the Human Leader will face each other to the death. That’s the Final Encounter. Not a ‘Return’ as they would say in Argentina, nor a ‘Re-encounter’ as the Portuguese title would suggest. Ripley is not there to face the Alien anymore. It’s an Encounter, as the Italian title affirms. It’s the face-off between two bad-ass females. After the Midpoint, Ripley is there to do only one thing: to protect Newt and bring her to safety. Period. Whatever it takes. Even when she has escaped already, she will go back to the lion’s den to retrieve the lost little girl.
This Midpoint actually makes this movie, in my view, both more powerful and relatable but also in a class of its own. It’s a feminist movie. It’s bold and discrete at the same time. ALIENS is one of those action thrillers that might be commonly undervalued and rejected as a shallow narrative. As Cameron himself, I’d bet. But that ignores the power that it conveys. It’s for sure one of my favorite Scifi movies. Maybe not in the Top 5, but somewhere close. How about you? What do you think of it?