James Cameron’s Aliens (1986) shows us how it’s done
There are certain types of scene that are just naturally boring. There’s no immediate conflict, no one trying to manipulate the focal character, fill them full of lead, punch their lights out, or get to the finish line before them. In writer-speak, you might say the focal character’s line of action has no counter-action to challenge them.
Maybe what one character wants is exactly the same thing the opposing character wants. A great example of this kind of stock scene is the ‘mission briefing’. Think Police Commissioner Lee Van Cleef offering Snake Plissken a do-or-die deal in Escape From New York, the Feds visiting Indiana Jones on campus and sending him off on a quest for the Lost Ark, Lt. Gorman explaining the bug hunt to his crew in Aliens.
Let’s take Aliens as an example of how to approach a scene like this…
Gorman’s objective in this scene is to explain the mission while the marines’ objective is pretty much to just sit there and listen. Plotwise, there’s no conflict, no tension. Boooooring. Faced with a scene like this, most writers might glance at their deadline and get with the info-dumping.
Not Jim Cameron.
In this potentially tedious scene, Cameron focuses not so much on conveying the needs of the plot, but on the emotional tensions between his various characters. This allows him to convey his exposition invisibly, concealing all that dull instructional stuff (we need you to go here, do this, etc.) within exchanges of dialogue. It’s the characters and not the writer who are conveying the story. Cameron approaches this stock scene not as a checklist to race through, but an opportunity to give us insights into the characters with whom we’re about to embark on this adventure.
Remember, all the pyrotechnics in the world count for nothing, unless you care about the characters under fire.
We start off with a helpful establishing shot of the deployment bay of the Sulaco as Gorman (William Hope) strides in with Ripley (Sigourney Weaver). (I love the way Hope turns away and smooths down his buzzcut before speaking, as if to psyche himself up.) We quickly see that Gorman – for all his spit-shine demeanor - isn’t quite as on the ball as he appears. He can’t even remember the names of his crew! (‘Hudson, sir. He’s Hicks.’) Straight away, we’re aware of a power dynamic here. The grunts don’t have the greatest respect for their Lieutenant, and the Lieutenant knows it.
We move on as Gorman styles it out by starting to explain the mission. (‘Still no word from the colonists… Yadda, yadda.) But Cameron’s marines are not attentive; they’re restless and bored. In other words, the writer has found an interesting counter-action. Gorman wants to explain the mission, but the grunts aren’t really listening. This emotional tension isn’t as spectacular a counter-action as coming under machinegun fire or wrestling Thanos, but it’s every bit as compelling. And compelling is what is needed to get through any scene.
Now Ripley steps in, struggling to relate the horrifying events of what happened to her aboard the Nostromo. She falters and gulps, clearly traumatized, reminding us just how much courage this woman must possess to have agreed to this mission in the first place. (Man, but Sigourney Weaver is brilliant throughout. And Cameron knows when to keep his camera tight on that wonderful face, making sure we see the emotions playing out under the surface of the main character.)
But still the grunts aren’t interested. (‘I just wanna know one thing… wheeeere they aaaare…’) Now we’re really cooking. Ripley’s objective is to get these swaggering jerks to take her seriously and that objective is now directly challenged by the marine’s boredom.
Stung by their dismissal, Ripley recovers for a moment, then unsheathes her inner steel. ‘Just one of those things managed to wipe out my entire crew in less than 24 hours. Do you understand?’
Well, that sure shut them up!
We’ve also gotten the first hint here that Ripley has got way more about her than fragile Lieutenant Gorman, as we’ll find out for sure later on… It’s called ‘foreshadowing’, kids.
But the scene’s not done yet. Ripley’s objective has been achieved, but the tension between Gorman and his crew remains unresolved. Hudson sticks up his hand with an impish grin. ‘What is it, private?’ (I’m pretty sure Gorman still doesn’t know the marine’s name!) Hudson’s sass-mouth receives a sharp interjection from Sergeant Apone (the late Al Matthews, wonderful in this movie). By now, the Lieutenant’s pissed and decides to show everyone who’s boss (‘I want DCS and tactical database assimilation by 08.30!’). Mic dropped, objective achieved, Gorman marches off, leaving the marines grumbling in his wake.
And what a memorable closer this scene gets… (‘Alright, sweethearts. You heard the man and you know the drill. Assholes and elbows. Hudson, c’mere! Come heeeeeere!’)
It’s a brilliant, brilliant scene, gold spun out of genre straw. And the viewer notices none of it, and THAT’s why it’s great writing.