Wednesday, March 24, 2010

The James Cameron School of Writing

Alas, my "ruling the Internet" powers were not as strong as I hoped, and my friend didn't win the baldness contest. I suppose I can count this as a trial run on that Ongoing Plan for World Domination, which means I may need to go back to the drawing board. And maybe recruit more minions.

Just catching part of Aliens on TV Sunday got that story stuck in my brain, and it's had me pondering quite a bit. I may be one of the few people in the world who hasn't yet seen Avatar, which is odd because I'm actually a fan of James Cameron's work. I probably would like it. I know he generally gets categorized as making movies full of spectacle but with weak scripts, but when I really look at the storytelling in his films, it works. I don't much remember the spectacle and the effects. It's the characters that haunt me, and I think it's because the best of his movies have characters with stories that extend beyond the movie and leave you thinking about what comes next for them (or, in the case of The Terminator, what happens before/after, since it gets all wibbly wobbly, timey wimey). These stories are also about transformation, and that's a very powerful theme.

The Terminator is a transformation story, and also something of a coming of age story. Sarah Connor transforms from meek and mild waitress to kick-ass warrior woman, and it's also a powerful love story in that part of this transformation comes about because of a man who sees the kick-ass warrior woman in the meek and mild waitress. He doesn't transform her. He just sees her potential, shows her the potential, and teaches her a thing or two about high explosives. And isn't that what we all want from the people who love us? Okay, maybe not the high explosives part, but we want people to see the best in us, to maybe even recognize aspects of ourselves that we don't appreciate. We want someone who thinks we're beautiful, even first thing in the morning, or who thinks that we really can conquer the world, even when we're not feeling really brave. That's the same essential story that was told in Titanic, only without the explosives, and I think that's the part that had teenage girls going to see the movie again and again. Yeah, Leo Whatshisface is cute (though I'll take Michael Biehn's Kyle Reese over him any day), but I think that idea of having someone see past all your fears and barriers and recognize something extraordinary in you so that you then become extraordinary is an incredibly compelling romantic fantasy.

There's an element to that in Aliens, as well. Ripley's already pretty extraordinary, thanks to the first movie, but she's had her confidence shaken. The bureaucrats undermine her by doubting her story, and her constant nightmares make her feel afraid. Then she runs into two people who believe in her. There's the little girl, Newt, who trusts Ripley more than she trusts the whole squad of marines, and there's Corporal Hicks, who from very early on seemed to take her seriously and regard her as someone who knew what she was doing, even when she was doubting herself. It's not so much about transformation as it is about reclaiming her awesome.

Then there's that sense of the characters' lives extending beyond the movie, so that you find yourself thinking about them and wondering what happened to them. For purposes of this discussion, I'm disregarding sequels that didn't involve Cameron (besides, there were no sequels to Aliens. They Do Not Exist). After the first Terminator, you know that Sarah's pregnant, and there's that "ooh!" moment of realizing that the John Connor Kyle Reese idolized was his own son, and you know because of what Kyle said that Sarah brought John up, training him to fight. But I, at least, was curious about what their lives would have been like, how things went once the war started, how John would deal with meeting Kyle, if Sarah really would tell her son about his father, if John really knew, how Kyle grew up, etc. There were dozens more stories to be told that went untold, and that left a lot of room for the imagination to play. Even after the second movie (which I didn't like as much), when it looks like they've averted Judgment Day, you're left wondering what their future really will be like. Without the war, what will become of John? Will Kyle exist? Does this create a time paradox, or is it merely multiple timelines?

Aliens is essentially about the formation of a family. Mostly, it deals with motherhood, with the primary conflict being between Ripley and the alien queen and Ripley's primary goal and promise that she absolutely must keep being to save the little girl and not leave her behind. In the extended edition, we get more of that, with the scene showing Ripley learning that her own daughter died while she was lost in hypersleep and her realizing that she broke her promise to be home for her daughter's eleventh birthday, fifty-seven years ago. But there's also some family imagery going on, with Hicks being the one to find Newt in the first place and seeing that it's a little girl, not a threat. He's the one to bring Ripley in to deal with her, and it's the two of them working to get her. Later, there's the scene where Ripley and Newt are trapped in the medlab with the facehuggers, and after the marines come to the rescue, there's a shot of Ripley and Newt clinging to each other while Hicks has his arms around both of them.

What's really fun about this movie is how romantic it manages to be on a subtext level with no overt romance at all. It hits all the beats of a romantic story, but with scenes that are appropriate to the context. We see them noticing each other near the beginning, he's protective of her and realizes she's afraid without putting her down for her fear while also recognizing that she is capable. They bond somewhat over the girl, then later they come together as a team in making decisions about what to do. In the spot that in a lot of movies would be the first kiss or first date scene, there's the scene where he gives her the tracking bracelet so he can always find her, with the quip about it not meaning they're engaged (though it totally does). In the spot where there would usually be the sex scene, there's the scene where she asks him to kill her before letting the aliens have her, and he promises that if it comes to that, he'll kill them both (he makes a commitment to her!), and then it gets "physical" when he teaches her to use the rifle, which involves him having his arms around her and her pressed against his body. And finally, in the extended edition, in the place where in most movies they'd be saying the ultimate I love yous, when she says goodbye before heading to rescue Newt, using his last name, he corrects her and gives his first name, and then uses her first name to tell her not to be long. The relationship has gone from professional to personal.

I think that this subtext relationship that's appropriate to the context is in a lot of ways more interesting and emotionally compelling than an overt romantic relationship would have been. For one thing, if they'd taken the time to have sex or make out instead of learning to use the weapon when they were surrounded by hostile aliens, the characters would have been too stupid to live. For another, it again gives the imagination something to play with, as we can think about what might happen after they get home (and they do get home because the sequel Did Not Happen). You can see where they've already formed a family that you expect will last because it was formed in fire. They may have to get to know each other as people, but they already know each other's essences because they've seen each other in the worst possible circumstances. The relationship between all three of them seems to have a life beyond the movie.

And now I need to figure out how to do this.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hi Shanna:

Just came across your blog; very interesting post about Cameron and his movies. I was just curious if you every did see Avatar and would you agree that it's just as good as Terminator and Aliens and being a story about transformation. Also, I left the movie wanting to know more, the before and after. I LOVED this movie, and you're right about Cameron in that, you forget about the spectacle and effects, you're drawn into the story and the character's lives.

Anyways, I was just curious about your take on Avatar.