The Aliens are Coming (Or Not)

1 Apr

Some time ago I had a conversation with someone that inspired a train of thought.
He had just seen Independence Day and he seemed to think he’d had some kind of revelation. It had occurred to him that science fiction films about alien invaders always had the same basic structure i.e. Aliens arrive, aliens turn out to be nasty. Humans fight back and suffer a massive defeat, humans have a period of despondency, giving us a chance to survey all the damage caused by the nasty aliens. Then the humans come up with a cunning plan. The cunning plan is then implemented, in spite of a few set backs, and the aliens finally get their comeuppance and everyone’s happy. (Except the aliens, but they don’t really count).

I wouldn’t say that this insight ranks alongside Vladimir Propp’s work on the morphology of folktales, or Joseph Campbell’s various tomes on narrative structure.

(Unfortunately these works have given rise to the theory that there are only six, eight, ten, or maybe even a dozen basic stories and that all the films, novels, plays etc that you will ever come across fit into one or another of the categories identified in whichever version of the theory you happen to have come across. Personally I think this theory is baloney, but a fair number of people have made quite a lot of money out of aspiring authors on it and who am I to argue against commercial success?)

Having said that, I do think it’s sometimes worth thinking in terms of the different permutations that can arise from any given story premise.

So on this basis we start with the notion of aliens arriving and look at the different scenarios that can follow on from it.

1/ Aliens don’t come.
There might seem to be no potential in this, but think of the panic caused by Orson Welles’s radio adaptation of War of the Worlds and you’ll see that you can actually make a story out of this. You could also go down the route of someone mounting a deliberate hoax in order to divert attention from something else. (I’m sure this happened in at least one of the Scooby Do cartoons).

2/ Aliens arrive and nobody notices.
Think of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, or even This Island Earth. Or you could simply tell the story from the point of view of the aliens and present their perception of humanity.

3/ Aliens arrive. They’re very nice. We’re nice to them. Everyone has a good time.
It might not seem to have much potential, but it could make a charming little story for very young children.

4/ Aliens arrive. They’re nice. We’re not so nice.
The Man Who Fell to Earth, The Abyss, ET (Which I hate) or, to a degree, The Day the Earth Stood Still. Some critics have over stated the benevolence of the aliens in the original version of this film. Michael Rennie is very personable, but his message isn’t as benevolent as the lazier commentators have suggested. He isn’t trying to save humanity, he’s telling us that we can do as we please on our own planet, but that his people and their allies won’t tolerate it if we try to bring our nasty habits with us when we venture into space. (The remake is very pretty to watch, but I found it a bit confused and I’m not even going to try to comment on it).
5/ Aliens arrive. They’re not very nice. Humans fight back, aliens get creamed.
This would make for a rather short story, but maybe you could make something of it. Who knows?

6/ Aliens arrive. They’re not very nice. Humans fight back and get creamed.
Rather a depressing story but you could make it work if there was something you wanted to say about living under an oppressive government.

7/ Aliens arrive, they’re not very nice, but they seem to be nice for a while.
This was the basic premise behind the original TV series V. (I haven’t seen the remake so I don’t want to comment on it).
This was a deeply frustrating series for me because it touched on a number of interesting themes and then immediately veered off into the banality of TV narrative conventions. For example, it touched on issues about when suspicions about the alien are well founded and when they might simply be prejudice, also questions about how far you can ‘just follow orders’ and when you have to rebel. There were also hints of the moral issues that arise from trying to resist occupation, such as who are legitimate targets and who are innocent victims, and questions about collaboration and collaborators and what to do about them. There were also issues about the extent to which our own leaders will sell us out to oppression and exploitation in order to secure their own positions of power.

8/ Aliens arrive. They’re not very nice. Humans fight back and initially lose, but later fight back etc and we’re back to where we started with the basic structure of Independence Day. (And also HG Well’s War of the Worlds, albeit with a bit of a twist, the Earthlings who nail the alien invaders aren’t human, they’re microbes).

This last permutation clearly isn’t the only one with real potential, nor is it even necessarily the best permutation. All you can really say is that it’s probably the best permutation for a Hollywood blockbuster. After all, it’ll give you plenty of scope for action and special effects, lots of dramatic tension and a nice ‘feel good’ climax to round things off.

You may well feel that the approach to narrative structure outlined above is a bit too mechanistic and that it will produce mechanistic and stereotyped stories. And if you do, well, all I can really say is that I agree, and it’s not an approach I would use in developing my own stories. That’s not really what it’s for. All it’s really for is looking at the different choices available from a basic story premise in the hope of finding a starting point.

Once you have a point to start from I think it’s better to let the characters drive the plot, rather than forcing the characters into a predetermined plot. If you go down that route you’re liable to wind up losing credibility as your characters to behave in inconsistent and improbable ways.

I would also add that I would not analyse films or novels that I really like along these lines. (As a matter of fact, I don’t tend to analyse the stories that I really like to any great extent. I’m always worried that if I try to analyse them too much I’ll lose the magic).

As a matter of fact I only tend to analyse the stories that don’t quite work for me. (Crap films, TV programmes and novels can be amazingly productive as a source of ideas for stories. All you have to do is work out what you don’t like about them and then look for a way to ‘fix’ them).

I don’t think I’m alone in looking at alternative permutations on existing plot lines.
For example, I think it’s fairly well known that High Plains Drifter started off with a thought about what would have happened if you take the premise of High Noon and then think about what would have happened if Will Kane had been killed.

(There’s another story in there about what would have happened if Frank Miller turns out to be a reformed character who tries to go straight, and another one if Will Kane bows to pressure and tries to avoid the confrontation. Yet another permutation, and one that appeals to me, is a story where Will Kane is tempted into forming an alliance with someone just as bad as Frank Miller in order to have a fighting chance against Miller and his gang).

In a similar vein, there was a lot of talk about Quentin Tarantino ripping off a Hong Kong film called City on Fire for his debut film Reservoir Dogs. Having seen both films I think I can see the connection, but I also think it was greatly exaggerated in the anti-Tarantino backlash.
As far as I can see, the real connection between these films is that they’re both heist films, where the robbery goes wrong and the robbers believe that one of their number is an undercover cop. This leads to a stand off where a number of characters are pointing guns at each other. In City on Fire the confrontation goes one way and, assuming Tarantino was influenced by the film at all, he simply seems to have thought about what would have happened if that confrontation had gone the other way.

Personally, I wouldn’t see this as any kind of rip off or plagiarism. To me it’s nothing more than the licence that any storyteller has to explore the different permutations that can arise from any given story premise.

(There is also a brief homage where Harvey Keitel’s character shoots at a police car with a pistol in either hand, but this image of a central character blasting away with a gun in each hand was a staple of Hong Kong action films in general. It was used to great effect by John Woo, amongst others and the fact that Tarantino’s detractors associated it with City on Fire in particular just shows that they weren’t as familiar with Hong Kong action films as they might have been trying to pretend).

Every jazz musician knows that he, or she, has an inalienable right to take any tune that appeals to him, or her, and do whatever they like with it. And as far as I’m concerned every storyteller has the same rights with regard to any story that appeals to them.

After all, there’s some evidence that this is exactly what Homer did when he, or she (we really don’t know who Homer really was) wrote The Iliad and The Odyssey.

This is why I was able to enjoy Wolfgang Petersen’s film Troy, in spite of the fact that I’ve lived with the Homeric epics for long enough to see the main characters as neighbours, if not family.

So while I’d hate to see Achilles or Odysseus being cheapened or maligned, (I’ve never forgiven Virgil for his portrayal of them in the Aenead), I’m really not too precious about how people adapt or update the Homeric epics. What I care about is how well the stories are told and how well the characters are developed. And what I really care about is that the stories are still told and the characters still live.

So if you have a new take on Achilles or Odysseus then go for it. Just do it well and I’m with you.

All you have do is do it right.

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One Response to “The Aliens are Coming (Or Not)”

  1. Colin 02/04/2012 at 2:20 pm #

    For the most unique first contact type story I’ve read, you should probably check out Ken MacLeod’s Learning the World. Bit of a different take on the humans meet aliens.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Learning_the_World

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