3-Act Structure + 1
Alien's narrative technique is the basic 3-act plot structure, which is the cinematic equivalent of ordering vanilla at Baskin Robbins: boring, classic, and really tasty if done right. The three-act structure goes a little something like this:
- Setup: All the major story elements are introduced including the characters, the conflict, and the world they live in.
- Rising Action: The characters attempt to solve the conflicts that arise in the first act while additional conflicts arise and new subplots are introduced.
- Resolution: The conflict is resolved, the fate of the characters revealed
The plot of Alien maps really nicely onto this structure. Act 1 follows the crew of the Nostromo as they explore the mysterious planet and accidently bring an alien aboard their ship. In Act 2, the characters try to kill the alien before it kills them and the subplot about Ash's special assignment is revealed. In Act 3, Ripley, the last surviving member, goes toe-to-toe with the alien and ultimately kills it. Done and done.
But why did the filmmakers choose such a vanilla plot when they had 30 other cinematic flavors to choose from?
We think it mostly has to do with the atmosphere of horror and dread they were creating. When you want people emotionally involved in your story, you don't really want a complex plot structure like, say, Pulp Fiction. You don't want your audience wondering where this scene is in relation to everything else that has happened so far and trying to put the pieces together in their tired little brains. You want them totally invested in the moment, and a familiar, basic plot like the 3-act structure can help a story-maker sustain that.
With a Cherry on Top
Of course, the filmmakers spruced the vanilla plot structure up a bit, throwing on the storytelling equivalent of some sprinkles and hot fudge. (Does anybody else feel like dessert? Just us?) Most notably, the first act takes up the first 40-50 minutes of a 2-hour movie, and the second act doesn't really kick in until Kane gives the most unpleasant birth ever recorded on film.
Let's compare that to other horror films. In these first acts, a group of teenagers drive into the backwoods, a radio news bulletin mentions strange killings before fading to static, and a toothless yokel at a gas station warns them kiddos to stay away from Old Man McScary's place. We're now 15 minutes in; let the massacre begin.
But Alien takes its time with its setup, building an atmosphere of apprehension and mystery until the audience doesn't know what to expect. Then bam! Alien chestburster baby.
The second divergence from the typical three-act structure is the fake-out resolution. You think Ripley defeats the monster when she blows up the Nostromo. It's the perfect place to end the movie and at the perfect length, but then we get a whole other scene where Ripley, alone and cornered, must outwit the alien to survive.
Granted, this type of fake-out ending is much more common today especially in the monster and slasher horror genres. But back in the day, it was pretty surprising, and that kind of ending only became so popular because of how well films like Alien pulled it off.