Ever notice that every blockbuster movie has the same fundamental pieces? A hero, a journey, some conflicts to muck it all up, a reward, and the hero returning home and everybody applauding his or her swag? Yeah, scholar Joseph Campbell noticed first—in 1949. He wrote The Hero with a Thousand Faces, in which he outlined the 17 stages of a mythological hero's journey.
About half a century later, Christopher Vogler condensed those stages down to 12 in an attempt to show Hollywood how every story ever written should—and, uh, does—follow Campbell's pattern. We're working with those 12 stages, so take a look. (P.S. Want more? We have an entire Online Course devoted to the hero's journey.)
In this stage, we see the world of the hero as it ordinarily is—hence the name—and get a glimpse into his day to day before things go south.
In Alien, this stage happens during the opening crawl through the Nostromo. We see little clues about life aboard the ship, including the work areas and little baubles the crew has collected. We also get a sense of normality when the crew is eating breakfast, from the jokes to the bonus situation. Order is established; now we wait for it to be broken.
Call To Adventure
The call to adventure sets the characters on their course by disturbing the ordinary. When Dallas talks with Mother and the crew realizes they aren't home yet, the call has officially been placed. The characters' life courses have been shifted to an unknown planetoid, so they can investigate a mysterious signal. Lacking a set of ruby slippers, the only way home is to do what the company ordered and investigate.
Refusal Of The Call
Typically, at this stage, the hero refuses the call to adventure and starts to have doubts. Maybe he isn't up to the task? Maybe staying home is a better idea. Isn't the new season of House of Cards on Netflix? Why am I not watching?
When the ship is damaged on the planet, the crew might not have second thoughts, but the task put before them certainly seems more daunting. Now, on top of exploring an unknown planet, they have to repair their ship if they have any hope of going home.
The crew, we should mention, is pretty divided here. Kane is rather gung-ho to explore the signal while Lambert, eh, not so much. Since the "hero" of Alien has yet to be revealed, we can't say whether he or she is refusing the call.
Meeting the Mentor
We don't really meet the mentor in Alien, as he's been with the crew from the start. But at this stage, we begin to understand that Ash has assumed the role of the mentor. He provides Dallas and the crew information about the planet and how to find the signal. He also provides support for the away team while they're off exploring. Unfortunately, we're also going to learn soon enough that this mentor doesn't have the crew's best interests at heart.
Crossing The Threshold
Traditionally, this is the point where the hero commits to the journey, leaving the world of the familiar and entering the unknown. When the away team enters the derelict alien ship, they're stepping outside of their known world, both metaphorically and literally.
Tests, Allies, Enemies
Now it's time for the tests, allies, and enemies—or, as we like to call it, plot.At this point, the traditional hero will encounter obstacles and starts to learn who his allies and enemies are.
In Alien, the obstacles take shape when Kane gets a horrific smooch from the facehugger, ultimately bringing the dangers of the planetoid into the ship. First, the crew has to figure out how to get the alien off without killing him. Next—after the chest-bursting birth scene—they shift priorities to killing the new alien.
In this stage, we also deepen our understanding of the characters and their alliances. Ash and Ripley clearly don't trust each other. Ripley and Dallas might work well together, but Dallas doesn't respect her opinions. And then there's Lambert—poor, whiny, needing-to-be rescued Lambert.
During this time, the crew of the Nostromo starts dwindling. Kane dies from the chestburster, and then Brett and Dallas are picked off by the fully grown alien.
Approach To The Inmost Cave
The "inmost cave" represents a danger much fiercer than all those faced previously by the hero. As the hero approaches the cave, he must prepare himself before knocking on that door.
Here, the cave is the alien, and commanding officer Ripley knows she'll have to deal with it. Unfortunately, she can't seem to rally the remaining crew members to her cause. To prepare for that battle, she goes to Mother only to discover Ash's secret mission to keep the alien safe.
Also, we should point out, that it is during this stage that Alien begins to reveal its protagonist. Shocker: the classic hero is a heroine.
The ordeal is the greatest test the hero has faced so far. Generally, it results in a type of rebirth, which can be metaphorical or in some cases very literal.
Ripley's ordeal comes when she has to face down Ash, who's trying to kill her after she discovers his mission. In the process of fighting him off, they learn he is a robot. Like the hero drawing all of his skill to overcome, the splintered crew has come together to defeat the enemy in their midst.
When Ash says the alien is the "perfect organism" and that the Company wants to study it (Alien), Parker finishes off Ash with the flamethrower. Now that she's faced the ordeal and knows the Company's true intentions, Ripley is ready to act.
Reward (Seizing The Sword)
After facing the ordeal, the hero transforms, becoming stronger and/or wiser. He or she is also provided with an object of great importance like a sword or magical whatsitmawho. Whatever the object, it will ultimately help him in the final portions of his task.
After defeating Ash, Ripley is reborn as the leader of the survivors. Parker, who was always arguing with Ripley before, accepts her as the commander and follows her lead. She even gets Lambert to act. All this makes us think that Ripley's object isn't really an object so much as it is the role of leadership: something of great value that's going to allow her to triumph.
The Road Back
Now that she has her reward, the hero begins her return journey from the adventure to the ordinary world of home. In this case, the journey requires sacrifice. Ripley and company decide to self-destruct the Nostromo and take their chances on the shuttle. Unfortunately, both Parker and Lambert are killed during this stage, leaving Ripley alone to carry out the plan. She manages to destroy the ship and escapes on the shuttle with Jonesy, but….
The hero must face his most dangerous challenge yet. Everything is on the line. The number of holds barred? None.
Ripley faces off with the alien, who snuck aboard the shuttle. (Seriously though, how'd it know to do that?) Alone and unarmed, Ripley's in a tight spot—but she uses her courage and smarts to devise a plan that launches the alien into space. When it tries to crawl back into the engine, she hits the gas, erm, rocket fuel and finally destroys the creature.
Return With The Elixir
In this stage, the hero returns to the ordinary world having grown stronger and wiser from his journey. For Ripley, the world of normality is still what we'd consider pretty stinkin' weird—but hypersleep mirrors the position of safety she held at the beginning of the film. It'll do.