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Using the film ‘Alien’ answer the following question: How do film makers tell stories?

The film, ‘Alien’, was released in 1979, by British director Ridley Scott. ‘Alien’ soon gained a reputation for itself because it released into the cinema a series of shocking scenes and frightening alien images. Film makers, like Scott, are able to tell stories in a number of ways; this is done through a number of narrative and representation theories that the film maker has picked up during his working years. Many of the theories used are famous because of the people who first thought of them. It is often said that you can tell who has been part of making the film, or who has influenced the making of a film; just by the way the film is structured.

We need to realise that narrative is not just the way a story is told but it is also how the material is organised in order for the film to come together. Narrative is said to be the way we are taken through a story and led by the characters and their lives; the amount of information that is actually given throughout the story helps us to imagine we are actually there, within the story.

Vladimir Propp, a Russian critic from the 1920’s, has a narrative theory, which he believes can be seen in every film. Propp noticed that many of the films present their characters in similar situations. Examining more deeply into films he managed to create a theory that showed that there were eight different character types and thirty-one functions that move the story along. The eight characters that are used are: villain, hero, donor, helper, princess, her father, dispatcher and the false hero. Propp has said that these characters can be fulfilled by the same person if that is suitable for the films storyline.

If we look at the film ‘Alien’ we can see that Propp’s theory has, in some places, been uses by Scott in the making of ‘Alien’ as we can see some of the eight character types used within the film. Scott has used this to tell the story because it helps to create an atmosphere of suspense; finding out who are the real heroes and villains are. We can see that Ripley is the hero of the film, but at the start this was quite unclear as she was just seen as a strong woman. This, we will see later, is all part of the stereotyping that Scott has used within the film.

Todorov also looked at films and saw similar structures were present. He said that all films started with an “equilibrium,” which is said to mean a situation when all forces are balanced, and then a problem occurred, which caused “disequilibrium.” After more events a resolution was found and a “new equilibrium” was established. However, many film makers have stopped using this theory, saying that a film that’s balanced at the start can be quite boring. This theory, however, is very effective and we can see it being used within “Alien” because of how the film starts and ends.

The film starts off with the title being formed on screen, the word “ALIEN” is formed and the design is supposed to represent some form of alien language, which gives us an impression of what the rest of the film is going to be like. Well placed music and a slow tour of the ship lets us see the womb of the ship as it slowly comes alive. As the ship is “born” we are introduced to the characters, which gives us a background of relationships between them and the classing of the workers. It is obvious that some of the workers are higher paid, those in uniforms, and others that are lower paid because they are complaining of their status. There is already tension within the group, as they are wondering why they have been woken when they are miles away from home. This start is the “equilibrium” of the film because although there is tension there is also a lull of calmness about the whole crew as they fear nothing at all.

The “disequilibrium” comes from the finding of the alien. Part of the crew goes out to answer a distress call. Through events that are occur whilst on an alien ship Kane ends up with some sort of alien life form attached to his face. Much to the distress of Ripley, Captain Dallas forces her to let him on board. An event that follows end up with the crew trying to find the alien, which has now detached itself from Kane’s face and is roaming around the ship. We can now see that Scott is using this theory to tell the story by starting off with a secure environment, were the audience feel safe and then creating something so shocking that the audience no longer knows what could possibly happen next. Over the course of the film ever member of the crew dies, apart from Ripley, who we can now see as the clear hero of the film. The “new equilibrium” comes when Ripley escapes from the ship into the shuttle, ending with her going back to sleep in the womb-like room she woke from at the start of the film.

Representation is a huge part of telling a story and film makers have to be careful how they portray a character because if it isn’t right the audience can get totally the wrong idea. This, however, can be seen as a good thing because it generates the element of surprise when the audience find out what the character is really like. Many film makers like to use stereotyping within their films as it helps the audience to understand what each character stands for. Scott uses a number of stereotypes in ‘Alien’ because it helps the story to move along quicker, often in films a film maker only has a few short minutes to show what a character is like and by stereotyping we can see what they are like almost instantly.

We can see a clear contrast of stereotypes with the characters of Lambert and Ripley, Lambert is the typically weak woman who doesn’t stand up for what she believes and hides away in the background. In contrast to this we see Ripley who is a strong woman, ready to fight for what she believes and is quite capable of doing anything a man can. With a use of stereotyping and contrasting film makers help to tell the story with these elements because we can make assumptions about the characters and therefore realise more about them. Piecing together a characters past helps to tell the story because it helps us to realise what the person is actually like and by knowing this the story develops easier in our minds.

Film makers use a number of different elements, apart from just narrative and representation, to tell the story within a film. The story becomes easier to digest with well placed sound that adds atmosphere to the film, this, combined with dialogue, helps the audience to understand clearly what is going on within the film. Alien uses pieces of music in a number of key scenes within the film. As Ripley is leaving the ship, in the background, we can hear dramatic music being played that adds to the effects of the lights and the acting of Sigourney Weaver. Every part of a film helps the audience to understand the story within the film, each piece fits together to create a watertight film. Film makers understand that they have to use every element I have spoken about in order to tell the story within a film, otherwise the audience would not understand the film as well.