They are. They totally are. I mean, OK, one is a children’s animated film about the the lives video game characters have outside their games, and the other sci fi gun porn with homoerotic aliens with penis tails (don’t ask – I saw a TV show once where the presenter was trying to argue that the alien was basically a walking phallus and each death was a rape… yah, and here’s me thinking it was a movie about aliens). But other than that they’re the same film. A while ago I had Scriptshadow brought to my attention for its opinions on why Aliens is the perfect movie. Sounds a bit off, right? Given that little award is usually given to Citizen Kane (and who other than a film student has ever seen that?… well, me, but I used to live with a film student), but he argues it very well, down to the point where the Carson Reeves, the behind Scriptshadow, uses the film as an example of why some romantic comedies don’t work. His reasoning is tight and well put-forward and it stuck me with me. Enough so that when I watched Wreck it Ralph for the first time (and the subsequent 50 times because I have two small boys), I immediately realised the films follow and tell the same story, albeit with a different age rating. Here, let me put forward my case.
EXTREME WARNING!!! Spoilers follow. Ye have been warned.
NOT EVERY FILM NEEDS A LOVE STORY There are certain stories where no matter what you do, it won’t fit. …. I thought Cameron handled this issue perfectly in Aliens. He knew a love story in this setting wasn’t going to fly, so instead he created “love story light,” between Ripley and Hicks, where we see them flirting, where we can tell that in another situation, they might have worked. But it never goes any further than that because tonally, and story-wise, he knew we wouldn’t have accepted it.
And the same goes for Wreck it Ralph (WiR). The Disney(tm) Experience (tm) Whateverthey’recalled(tm) Features(tm), or films as the rest of the world call’s them, have carved out a niche for the kind of ‘weak female character feels the need for the strong I-will-save-you-from-yourself blue eyed gaze from a strong male lead’ love story which makes Twilight fans go weak at the knees. But not only is it as unrealistic as it is demeaning, it’s also forced and quite unsubtle about it. WiR sidesteps that by having the two main characters, Ralph and Penelope, have a different kind of relationship develop. It’s a brotherly/sisterly love which emerges between the two of them. So a love story, yes, but not in the usual sense.
ALWAYS MAKE THINGS WORSE FOR YOUR CHARACTERS AOne of the most potent tools a screenwriter possesses is the ability to make things worse for their characters. In action movies, that usually means escalating danger whenever possible. Aliens has one of the most memorable examples of this, when our characters are moving towards the central hub of the station, looking for the colonists, and Ripley realizes that, because they’re sitting on a nuclear reactor, they can’t fire their guns. The Captain informs his Lieutenant that he needs to collect all of the soldiers’ ammo (followed by one of the greatest movie lines ever “What are we supposed to use? Harsh language?”), and now, with our marines moving towards the nest of one of the most dangerous species in the universe, they must take them on WITHOUT FIREPOWER. Always make things worse for your characters!
And ditto with WiR. It starts off small with Ralph being depressed with having the role of bad guy foisted upon him at creation. It gets worse when, trying to improve his lot by getting a medal in another game, he finds he’s sorely underestimated how violent some games can be. And further on its not just his own safety he has to worry about, but the young girl he’s finding protective feelings rise up for.
USE YOUR MID-POINT TO CHANGE THE GAME Something needs to happen at your midpoint that shifts the dynamic of the story, preferably making things worse for your characters. If you don’t do this, you run the risk of your second half feeling a lot like your first half, and that’s going to lead to boredom for the reader. In Aliens, their objective, once they realize what they’re up against, is to get up to the main ship and nuke the base. The mid-point, then, is when their pick-up ship crashes, leaving them stranded on the planet. Note how this forces them to reevaluate their plan, creating a second half that’s structurally different from the first one (the first half is about going in and kicking ass, the second half is about getting out and staying alive).
Oddly enough the midpoint change in WiR also involves a crashing space ship. Although in this case it’s the herald of introducing the character of Penelope, and the shifting focus of Ralph from his attempts at helping himself to helping her.
GET YOUR HERO OUT THERE DOING SHIT – KEEP THEM ACTIVE Cameron had a tough task ahead of him when he wrote this script. Ripley, his hero, is on the bottom of the ranking totem pole. How, then, do you believably prop her up to become the de facto Captain of the mission? The answer lies inside one of the most important rules in screenwriting: You need to look for any opportunity to keep your hero active. Remember, THIS IS YOUR HERO. They need to be driving the story whenever possible. Cameron does this in subtle ways at first. While watching the marines secure the base, Ripley grabs a headset and makes them check out an acid hole. She then voices her frustration when she doesn’t believe the base to be secured. Then, of course, comes the key moment, when the Captain has a meltdown and she takes control of the tank-car and saves the soldiers herself. The important thing to remember is: Always look for ways to keep your hero active. If they’re in the backseat for too long, we’ll forget about them.
I could list all the things Ralph does here, but I won’t. Lists are boring (unless they’re those stupid lists, like the ones I used to write for the college magazine) but I will say that everything Ralph does through the film is his decision. He decides to do something about his problem rather than live with it, he decides to help Penelope when she asks for his help when he could just walkaway and try to find another medal, and he decides he could sacrifice himself for the good of everyone else. It was all him. What a guy.
MOVE YOUR STORY ALONG Beginning writers make this mistake constantly. They add numerous scenes between key plot points that don’t move the story forward. Bad move. You have to move from plot point to plot point quickly. Take a look at the first act here. We get the early boardroom scene where Ripley is informed that colonists have moved onto LV-426. In the very next scene, Burke and the Captain come to Ripley’s quarters to inform her that they’ve lost contact with LV-426. You don’t need 3 scenes of fluff between those two scenes. Just keep the story moving. Get your character(s) to where they need to be (in this case – to LV-426).
Again, not lists, but there is no fluff in WiR. Each scene has a purpose, right down the the one at the beginning with Ralph walking from Pacman to Fix it Felix Jr. In that, that one has three purposes. Firstly we learn that in spite of everyone there being a videogame character, if you die outside your own game you don’t regenerate (this will become important later on). Secondly it shows Ralph is compassionate when he gives food to gameless characters, so he’s not the archetypal bad guy after all! And thirdly it introduces Q-Bert, who will be the one to let Felix know later where Ralph has gone. Three jobs in about a 3 minute scene. Not bad.
THE MORE UNLIKELY THE ACTION, THE MORE CONVINCING THE MOTIVATION MUST BE You always have to have a reason – a motivation – for your character’s actions. If a character is super happy and loves life, it’s not going to make sense to an audience if they step in front of a bus and kill themselves. You need to motivate their actions. In addition to this, the more unlikely the action, the more convincing the motivation needs to be. So here, Burke wants Ripley to come with them to LV-426 as an advisor. Answer me this. Why the hell would Ripley put herself in jeopardy AGAIN after everything that just happened to her – what with the death of her entire crew, her almost biting it, and barely escaping a concentrated acid filled monster? The motivation here has to be pretty strong. Well, because the military holds Ripley responsible for their destroyed ship, she’s basically been relegated to peasant status for the rest of her life. Burke promises to get her job back as officer if she comes and helps them. That’s a motivation we can buy.
And once more Ralph comes up with the goods. He firsts risks his own life just to raise his own lot in his own game, and then he risks his life for someone else because he’s sick to death of being the bad guy for 30 years.
STRONG FATAL FLAW – RARE FOR A SUMMER MOVIE What I loved about Aliens was that Cameron gave Ripley a fatal flaw. Usually, you don’t see this in a big summer action movie. Producers see it as too much effort for not enough payoff. So what is Ripley’s flaw? Trust. Or lack of it. Ripley doesn’t trust Burke. She doesn’t trust this mission. She doesn’t trust the marines. And she especially doesn’t trust Bishop, which is where the key sequences in this character arc play out. In the end, Ripley overcomes her flaw by trusting Bishop to come back and get them. This is why the moment when she and Newt make it to the top of the base is so powerful. For a moment, she was right. Bishop left them there. She never should’ve trusted him. Of course the ship appears at the last second and her arc is complete. She was, indeed, right to leave her trust in someone.
Ralph’s flaw is his lack of self worth. Not entirely his fault, I couldn’t imagine being drawn as the bad guy for 30 years without consideration to who he was as a person could do much for an ego, but in the film this manifests as his fixation on proving his worth through finding a medal. And therein, dear reader, is where the shenanigans happen.
SEQUENCE DOMINATED MOVIE
One way to keep your movie moving is to break it down into sequences. Each sequence should act as a mini-movie. That means there should be a goal for each specific sequence. In the end, the characters either achieve their goal or fail at it, and we then move on to the next sequence. Let’s look at how Aliens does this. Once they’re on LV-426, the goal is to go in and figure out what the fuck is going on (new sequence). Once they find the colony empty, their goal shifts to finding out where the colonists are (new sequence). After that ends with them getting attacked by aliens, their goal becomes get off this rock and nuke the colony (new sequence). Once that fails, their goal becomes secure all passageways so the aliens can’t get to them (new sequence). Once that’s taken care of, the goal is to find a way back up to the ship (new sequence). Because there’s always a goal in place, the story is always moving. Our characters are always DOING SOMETHING (staying ACTIVE). The sequence approach is by no means a requirement, but I’ve found it to be pretty invaluable for action movies.
Or, in other words, give the character goals and keep moving them. So what are Ralph’s Well, he wants the respect of the Happy Landers, and finds out he needs a medal like the game’s hero, Felix, has. So, he needs a medal! Well, turns out the new shoot ‘em up in the arcade hands out medals at the game’s end. Sounds simple, yeah? Simple, yeah… easy? Nah. Not when he has to fight his way through a swarm of psy-bugs. Bu he does it, and get a medal! End of sequence.
But then he loses the medal to Penelope, and she uses it to join a race that, should she finish, would make her a selectable character in her racing game. If she does that, she gets her own medal – new goal! And so on. WiR shifts goals several times and makes the new goal identifiable as soon as possible.
ACTIONS SPEAK LOUDER THAN WORDS (SHOW DON’T TELL!)
Aliens has one of the best climax fights in the history of cinema (“Get away from her you BITCH.”) And the reason it works so well? Because it was set up earlier, when Ripley shows the marines she’s capable of operating a loader (“Where do you want it?” she asks). Ahh, but I have a little surprise for you. Go pop Aliens in and fast-forward it to the early scene where Burke first comes to recruit Ripley. THIS is actually the first moment where the final fight is set up. “I heard you’re working the cargo docks,” Burke offers, smugly. “Running forklifts and loaders and that sort of thing?” It’s a quick line and I bring it up for an important reason. I bet none of you caught that line. Even if you’ve watched the film five or six times. That line probably slipped right by you. And the significance of it slipping by you is the point of this tip. You should always SHOW instead of TELL. When we SEE Ripley on that loader, it resonates. When we hear it in a line, it “slips right by us.” Had we never physically seen Riply on that loader, and Cameron had depended instead on Burke’s quick line of dialogue? There’s no way that final battle plays as well as it does. Always show. Never tell.
And does WIR do this? You bet it does. There are three which spring to mind, but there are more. First up is the one I mentioned above; ‘if you die outside your own game, you don’t regenerate’. It’s spoken once as a PSA by Sonic the Hedgehog as Ralph walks by. This means when, at the end when Ralph decides to sacrifice himself for Penelope, we realise just what he’s doing. He will die, which is something videogame characters don’t usually do.
Next is the story told from Felix about the term ‘go Turbo’. It’s used a few times early on in the film, “Don’t go Turbo!”, without any explanation. When Felix explains it, it’s a legend about the first racing arcade game with the main character, Turbo, who turns jealous when a new racing game comes along, and to try and make the kids join his game again invades the game. Of course, that doesn’t work and the arcade believes both games are faulty and they’re removed, destroying both games.
Why is this important? Well Turbo tuns out to the bad guy. We don’t find this out until nearly the very end, but it gives something for the characters to fight against at the end.
And lastly is the chant the Bad Guys Anonymous group chant between each other at the film’s start: “I’m Bad, and that’s good, I will never be good and that’s not bad, there’s no one Id rather be…than me.” It’s not until he realises that he, the bad guy, can save someone that he fully appreciates what the words really mean.
And there you have it. I told you, they’re the same film. With one very big difference. Only one has ever given me nightmares. I’ll let you decides which.