We all have our favorite moments in movies, books, and games, moments that stay with us long after the story is over. This column is my attempt to examine my favorite moments and see why they stick with me.
Why it’s great
If I had to pick Hollywood’s most famous weapon, I’d choose the lightsaber. Ever since it’s introduction in 1977’s ‘A New Hope,’ it has become a part of pop culture, imitated, parodied, and sold in toy stores for decades. There’s a long-running joke online that adding lightsabers to anything immediately makes it more awesome, and I can’t think of a better example than seeing a skyscraper-sized monkey wielding a lightsaber against an equally-large reptile.
Back in 2015, it was revealed that Neill Blomkamp was working on ‘Alien 5’, a new installment in Fox’s ‘Alien’ franchise that would be a direct sequel to ‘Aliens,’ ignoring both ‘Alien 3’ and ‘Alien: Resurrection.’ As time passed, news came that both Sigourney Weaver and Michael Biehn would come back as both Ripley and Hicks, along with a now-grown up Newt and, presumably, Lance Henriksen as Bishop.
As a fan of the series, this was one of the most exciting movie news I had seen in years; the thought of seeing Ellen Ripley on the big screen again for the first time since 1997 was a dream come true, and I eagerly followed every scrap of news, every piece of concept art, and even makeup tests. My dream sequel was finally coming together!
And then the movie was canceled.
While there’s still the faintest hope that the movie could be resurrected (if James Cameron’s words are any indication), it seems that, for now, Ellen Ripley’s story still ends with her sacrifice on Fiorina 161.
But what if it doesn’t?
Back in 2011, writer Rod Hilton proposed watching the Star Wars saga (which, at the time, was still only six movies) in what he called, ‘machete order.’ While his post explains it best, the basic gist is that you watch episodes 4 and 5, then 2 and 3, and then 6, which starts with the best film, includes (two) prequels, while also preserving the twist that Darth Vader is Luke’s dad. While musing if ‘Alien 5’ will ever be made, it recently dawned on me that the Alien franchise could be viewed in a similar manner; one of the biggest draws of ‘Alien 5’ was the idea that Ellen could get a happier ending than she did in the canon timeline, but thanks to this new viewing order, which takes the stories that work and – in keeping with current Hollywood trends – pretending that the ones that don’t never happened, she does.
So, what is this new viewing experience? It has two of the films and one of the videogames, experienced in this order:
For those who don’t know, ‘Alien: Isolation’ is a 2014 video game that follows Ellen’s daughter, Amanda, as she goes in search of the Nostromo’s flight recorder to find out what happened to her mother, only to be trapped aboard a space station that’s been decimated by a single Xenomorph, turning her quest into a fight for survival. It’s a tense, frightening experience, and after playing through it over a dozen times, I’ve come to regard it as a sequel to ‘Alien,’ hence its inclusion in this list. Thus, the saga begins with the first film, continues with the video game (which can be further enhanced by reading the novelization, which adds more history to Amanda and Ellen’s history together) and ends with the second film, pretending that ‘Alien 3’ and ‘Alien: Resurrection’ never happened.
While this fan-version of the saga is shorter, and ends with Ellen still alive, there’s a more subtle change that I didn’t realize until I had gone through these three tales again one after another: The ‘Alien’ saga has been about Ellen and her adventures with phallic aliens from beyond the furthest stars, but it’s also a parable about the dangers of greed, corrupt corporations, and those corporations doing anything and everything to increase their profits, no matter the cost in human suffering. The original four film saga was about Weyland-Yutani (and the military) trying and failing to get the Alien for their own purposes, and Ellen foiling them time and time again. In this new trilogy, the story arc is about Weyland-Yutani tearing a family apart in a blind pursuit of profit, and then that family successfully denying said corporation what it so desperately wants while healing and moving on with their lives: Amanda learns what happened to her mother and gets closure, while Ellen, having lost Amanda to cancer before waking up from stasis, manages to stop Weyland-Yutani for good, and saves a little girl from having to grow up without a mother, as Amanda did.
Of course, this isn’t official in any way; it’s just one fan’s version of the Alien saga that has a more hopeful, upbeat ending that lets us imagine all the good times ahead for Ellen. If Alien 5 is never made, this is a way for fans to still have a happy ending, free to decide for themselves what happens next. In my headcanon, Ellen officially adopts Newt, marries Hicks, Bishop is repaired and becomes the family’s robot-butler, Jones continues to be a little s*** head, and they all live happily ever after! Of course, there’s still Weyland-Yutani to deal with, but they’re soon bought out by Disney. And, in my opinion, that’s a far happier ending than seeing one of sci-fi’s greatest heroes being burnt to a crisp.
Today, we’re taking a look at Star Wars, but not at one of the official movies, books, or games; we’re into the world of Star Wars fan films, and one that focuses on everyone’s favorite movie mooks: the stormtroopers. Unlike most fan films, though, this one is quite unique: There’s no laser blasts, no lightsabers, no force powers, or any of the other famous features of the galaxy far, far, away. Instead, it’s a psychological story that takes a look at three stormtroopers before entering the biggest battle of their lives. Let’s take a deeper look at what this short can teach us.
Consider having your story follow doomed characters just before their end
‘Jakku’ sets its tone instantly by telling us that everyone we’re about to see are going to die. That knowledge hangs heavy throughout the runtime as we watch the final minutes of the stormtrooper’s lives, knowing that they’re not going to make it through the battle to come.
In our own stories, focusing on the end of a character’s life – whether they know it or not – is an excellent way to get the audience’s attention. We’re used to our heroes charging into combat and making it out alive, sometimes without a scratch… but what about those who don’t have a chance? How do the underdogs, the faceless, nameless people who don’t have plot armor or aren’t main characters, face their end? I find that more fascinating than following someone who will survive because of their importance to the plot.
As I’ve written before, staring death in the face reveals who someone really is: Just how would you react to knowing that your end is about to occur in the next few minutes? Do you run? Hide? Face it head on? Incorporating such questions gives you the chance to see a character’s deepest self.
Consider making your story take place in one location
It may sound counter-intuitive – and even boring – to set your story in a single location. Who can make compelling stories about love and war, loss and betrayal in just one room? (or a cockpit, or a boat, or a car, etc.) Yet, such a thing is possible; ‘Jakku’ takes place entirely inside the hold of an AT-AT, and is captivating thanks the power of its story and the situation, instead of big, flashy visuals.
The advantage of doing a story set in a single location is that it forces you, the writer, to be creative with how you tell your story, as well as almost mandating that it becomes a character piece, as you won’t have access to big-budget special effects. Can you tell a sci-fi story in a single room? A post-apocalyptic drama? A historical period piece? No matter what tale you tell, it will be more intimate than the most sprawling, epic tale that goes to numerous exotic places. (and as a bonus, if you’re doing a movie, you’ll save a lot of money from only having to build one set)
Consider having your big, tough guy join the armed forces for a silly reason
The lone moment of humor in ‘Jakku’ is an effective one: The stoic, fearless trooper seems to fit the mold we’ve seen many times elsewhere: the tough guy who loves to fight and believes whole-heartily in his country. The patriot, so to speak, who joined the armed forces for the noblest of causes. But that’s not the case: he joined the Empire just because he wanted to wear stormtrooper armor.
Silly? Yes, but it’s amusing because we, the audience, expect the big, buff, military types to love their countries and wanting to serve it above everything else. Learning that they joined the armed forces for the silliest of reasons makes them more memorable by defying our expectations.
Consider focusing on why your characters fight
In my opinion, the one thing ‘Jakku’ does best is showing that these stromtroopers aren’t fanatical troopers who mindlessly follow orders and charge into battle without a second thought. They’re human, with different levels of fear and courage. One wants to avenge his younger brother, who died on the Death Star. The other wants to fight for the Empire’s ideals, and the last is there to prove to himself that he really can fight. This humanization helps us see the Empire not as an endless wave of white-coated redshirts who can’t shoot the broad side of a barn, but as people with different reasons for joining the Empire: Some selfish, some noble, and others who are just looking to try something new.
In your own works, exploring why characters fight and risk their lives makes the more human. It’s one thing to read about soldiers charging into battle, but knowing why they’re doing it (beyond being ordered to by their superiors) makes for more compelling storytelling. Knowing that someone is fighting to avenge a fallen family member or friend, or fighting dirty just to end a war so they can go home, or that they’re trying to prove to themselves that they’re brave makes the more compelling than gung-ho marines.
Doing a small scale story helps you focus on characters instead of distracting your audience with flashy visuals, and exploring why a small group of doomed people do what they do (such as fighting in a war) makes for compelling drama, even if their reasons for doing so are on the silly side.
One of the greatest pleasures of our digital age is how easy it’s become for fans to create crossovers of their favorite franchises and play around with all manner of ‘what if?’ scenarios. Most of these revolve around characters and factions from different franchises fighting each other, but every so often, we get a crossover that tries something a little different.
This mashup of ‘The Return of the King’ and ‘Rogue One’ sounds like it would focus on, say, the Fellowship of the Ring infiltrating Scarif to steal the Death Star plans (Oh, how I would love to see Legolas taking out stormtroopers with his arrows), but ‘Ring One’ tries something we don’t see very often in these mashups: Tragedy.
While it’s fun to imagine the Empire and the free people of Middle Earth fighting one another, and our heroes saving Middle-Earth, this mashup shows how it would really go: Everyone would die. Frodo, Gandalf, Aragorn, Sauron, and everyone else are obliterated by the Death Star. Yet, while such a situation can be depressing, ‘Ring One’ makes it a great example of the ‘Face Death with Dignity‘ trope. We’re so used to seeing characters be brave and courageous when facing impossible odds in everyday life, but what happens when they face their inevitable deaths? Are they still brave and courageous? Do they try to flee, even when it’s hopeless? Do they pray? Do they try to comfort others?
For writers, having our characters know they’re going to die is a fantastic way to see their deepest qualities, to find out who they really are when they face the end. Here, Frodo still tries to get to the Crack of Doom, Sam spends his final moments of life trying to comfort him, and Gimil and Legolas finally reconcile from their trilogy-long distrust of each other.
Is it sad to see the Fellowship all die? Yes. But it’s beautiful in a bittersweet way: some of fiction’s most memorable moments occur only at the end of a character’s life, moments that can stay with us like nothing else can. We remember those who give their lives to save others, who spend their final minute trying to comfort someone else, or refuse to give in to fear. When you bring your character’s stories to a close, you have a chance to give them one final, shining moment of glory. Take advantage of that, and you’ll give your audience a moment that will stay with them forever.