Saturday 2 September 2017

Ten lessons for improvisers from the movie Alien

Alien (1979, dir: Ridley Scott) is a great example of a science fiction movie. You may have seen it. Frankly you should have seen it. I don’t think you need to have to follow this post, but why resist seeing it, you’re only depriving yourself.

Improvising in science fiction is fraught with danger. These dangers are the same that film-makers also face. So looking at a successful science fiction movie can give us some insight into how to do it well. The same goes for horror, which is relevant, as we will see. Let’s look at Alien and find ten lessons about improvised genres and improvised narratives.

People still eat, no matter what era it is.
  1. People have always been, and always will be, people. People in science fiction don’t have to be weird, unrelatable aliens. In fact they rarely are. The crew of the Nostromo are blue-collar workers doing a hard job. They are the crew of a towing vessel. Today they would be the crew of a freighter. They are all people we could and relate to in our ordinary non-future lives. 
  2. Establishing character through dialogue. Our main introduction to the crew is through a conversation over a meal. Here they chat, joke, argue and generally show their outlook on life through how they talk and what they say. Again, it should be noted, they are not talking about weird space stuff, they are talking about getting paid and what their job entails, and the sorts of things we talk about when we’re at work. People will not be radically different in a few hundred years time.
  3. Science Fiction often has another genre. Although most people would say the genre of the movie Alien is science fiction, the story is pure horror. Science fiction is almost always a filter put over the top of another genre. At least, that’s how I like to view it. Science fiction is actually very broad as a genre, and in a way gives us very little concrete to start with, and plot-wise gives us even less. A science fiction story can be set in any time or place, both real and imaginary. It doesn’t have to be set anywhere near space. However, if a story is set in space, it is automatically science fiction. (At least it will be until space travel is boringly routine for us as a species.) Alien goes for what could be called a classic setting for science fiction, a space ship. But it is not an exploration ship on a voyage to explore new planets; it’s not a battle cruiser off to battle against the interplanetary federation; no it’s basically a tug taking a cargo of something mundane back to Earth.

  4. Relationships. It’s important to establish the relationships of the main characters early on in a story. A lesson here is that, most relationships are not going into in much depth. This is not a relationship-driven story and in fact not so much time is spent on it, but you do get to learn some of the connections that people have to each other – it’s mostly who gets on with whom and who doesn’t get on so well together. This is partly because there are 7 characters at the start and so we can’t keep track of 21 relationships. (The equation is n(n-1)/2, if you were wondering.) It’s also because horror is not (usually) a relationship-driven genre. The action is not dictated as much by the actions of the main characters as it is by some outside entity. Plus most of the people you meet at the beginning ain’t going to make it. In horror, as a rule, we don’t follow and identify with the main characters because we are fully invested in their character but because we empathise with their predicament and don’t want them to be brutally murdered.
  5. Alien is not about the alien, but about the crew’s attempts to avoid getting killed by the alien.
  6. Baby killer aliens can be cute too.
  7. Gore or lack of it. Although we see some of it, we don’t actually see too much of the alien killing the victims. Horror (aside from the gore and slasher subgenres) is much more about the build-up of suspense and the reactions than the actual horrific acts. Which is good for improvisers as it’s hard to mime a good decapitation. Especially one that isn’t funny. But atmosphere and reaction we can do. However, the trick is that atmosphere and reaction require total commitment to it. Which sounds like the realm of improv, but, in improv the commitment is often only to the funny, and applied far less to the dramatic or real side of things. But with commitment (and good music) a scary atmosphere can be achieved pretty easily. One good tip is your character should genuinely be scared. At no point in the movie do you think, “that actor is just playing scared.” You certainly don’t see what you too often see on an improv stage, a character playing some sort of vaudevillian, knowing spoof of a scared person. You see the fear of the characters. That’s the only way horror works.
  8. Establish the rules of the world. Some sci fis have wildly different rules to the world we know, but most don’t. The one’s we relate to most do not have that much which makes it alien to what we know. There should probably be some new rules, as this is an important part of sci fi, but there do not have to be many. And the characters are usually used to the rules of this world, and so live them, understand them and are not surprised by them. Rules can be small or large. Things that are different have to be explained or demonstrated. In Alien it is explained that they have to respond to the SOS beacon because that’s one of the rules AND that their pay depends on it. Also, the rules of the autodestruct system (in particular that there is a time-limit to the over-ride function, which only makes sense plot-wise) are explained by the autodestruct’s own voiceover. Also in Alien it is enough to show that steam coming out of vents at various points of the ship is a regular thing for us to accept it is an important part of the workings of the ship, even if part of us doesn’t get why, once we see it a couple of times, we accept it as something that happens in the world of that ship.
  9. Technology changes the way we do some things but we are still humans. We won’t spend all of our time talking about technology (okay, some of us will, but most of us won’t), but we will use that technology in our everyday lives. This is easier to do in a movie where we can show so much without having to talk about it, but even in stage-bound improvisation, we can have scenes where we have a lot of new technology around us, but we just use it rather than talk about it or over explain it. Note this last thing is not just a trap for improvisation, but a lot of terrible sci fi does it too. The trick is to talk about what’s going on with the characters and not about the tools you are using.
  10. Androids and robots are only really interesting when they have or want human emotions. The biomechanical android is so convincing as a human, it only becomes clear it’s an android when it’s head gets knocked off. And although looking back, the seemingly emotional choices of the android had a less emotional driver, it does reveal some emotions we can (sort of) relate to in that it has the capacity to admire. Although it admires the alien for being “unclouded by conscience, remorse, or delusions of morality.”
  11. In horror (certainly since the seventies), just when you think it’s over, it isn’t.

  12. Attitude.

    Any other lessons you’ve seen from this movie? Any alternative takes you have? That’s what the comments are for.


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