Cameron’s alien mentors

(Note: the following article heavily references Joseph Campbell’s ‘hero’s journey’, which will undoubtedly serve as a warning to some. For the record, I see the hero’s journey as a device to be explored and subverted, rather than something which inevitably imposes a traditionalist masculine structure on stories. For those who are unfamiliar with Campbell’s writing on story, Wikipedia is, as always, a decent place to start.)
I was only recently introduced to Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey. Like many writers, I initially railed against what I saw as a cookie cutter template: insert hero here, insert call to adventure there and voila, a finished story tumbles into your lap.

Fortunately, I had a mentor for my own journey through Campbell’s interpretation of the monomyth – the stern but patient Melbourne academic Mike Slusher, who, it must be said, would not look out of place at the Council of Elrond (although I’d probably decline telling him that in person). Slusher guided us through the twelve stages, first presenting them as a template, and then displaying how that template had been adapted with endless variety over thousands of years.

Eventually, I saw the template as no more of an imposition to writing than a sheet of paper. Sure, the words have to go down somewhere on the sheet, but you can write them longways, sideways or in concentric circles if it pleases you.

Still, I thought little about the hero’s journey until I saw James Cameron’s Avatar (2009) early last year. I walked out of the cinema dizzy from the fully realised ride through an alien world, but frustrated by the simplicity and predictability of the story. Despite this, there was something dragging me back to Cameron’s moon, and I saw the movie twice more, even though I’ve only ever watched Pulp Fiction and No Country For Old Men more than once on the big screen. I could not shake the feeling of something more significant peering through the thin veil of Avatar’s story.

Then I stumbled across Karel Seger’s (The Story Department) walkthrough of Avatar via Campbell. Suddenly, everything clicked into place and I could see Cameron’s conscious guidance of Jake Sully’s dual adventure through the stages, and to conclusion.

As writers, we are always looking to, in Pound’s words, “make it new”. The mentor archetype as aged, experienced man has been, I think, thoroughly explored. I liked Cameron’s dual mentors in Avatar: the abrasive but warmhearted Grace Augustine and the resentful but equally passionate Neytiri. I decided to work backwards through Cameron’s previous films to see how he had employed mentors prior to this, and whether they displayed the same variety.

In Cameron’s extended cut of Aliens (1986), I believe we are presented with two major mentors for Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley: corporate aspirant Carter Burke (Paul Reiser) and unassuming marine Dwayne Hicks (Michael Biehn). Everyone I mention this to hates the idea of Burke’s turncoat as mentor to Ripley’s hero, but I find it interesting that, as Burke’s influence over her rapidly wanes through the second act of Aliens, Hicks’ influence rises, giving her near-constant guidance through the movie. Hear me out before you make your own conclusion, but before you do, it is important to view Burke’s character from scratch.

Remember that it is only late in the second act that Ripley reveals the extent of his murderous treachery. Before this, he is just a fresh faced wannabe whose only real flaw seems to be a desire to toe the company line a little too enthusiastically.

Burke is present from the outset of Ripley’s recovery from decades of suspended animation, providing information for her to make sense of her new world: “You were out there for 57 years.” He reluctantly tells her of her daughter’s death from old age, severing her last true connection with her ordinary world, and comforts her, in his own, self-serving manner, after her disastrous meeting with the government and corporate executives.

Christopher Vogler notes the many roles that a mentor can assume within the hero’s journey, including acting as the herald who delivers the call to adventure, and also presenting as a ‘false’ mentor who may morph into another archetype along the way.

Burke fulfils both of these roles: “C’mon, kiddo,” he wheedles to Ripley in suggesting she return to the colony world, and alien source, LV426: “It’s a second chance.” When she refuses the call, it is Burke who convinces her to return to face her flaw (her terror of the alien monsters), and contribute to their destruction. Ripley: “You’re going out to destroy them, right …” Burke: “You have my word on it”.

Burke, of course, then sells out LV426’s colonists, the remnants of the marine team and ultimately himself in the pursuit of greed and company glory, dropping the mask of mentor to become the film’s secondary antagonist.

When Ripley awakes from her second hypersleep, on board the marine ship Sulaco, she becomes a stranger in a close-knit group of soldiers, dismissed as window dressing to what appears as a routine mission. “Who’s Snow White?” Private Vasquez (Jenette Goldstein) sneers as Ripley’s presence is finally noticed by the soldiers.

Although Ripley is a somewhat aloof and capable hero, the aliens represent a significant threat and she still needs the guidance and support of those around her to defeat them, both physically and the fear they represent internally, through recurring nightmares. In short, she needs one of the marines to both guide her into their squad, and school her in the art of warfare.

Hicks becomes that mentor from the moment he regards her with a sudden gravity as the marine’s dropship plunges into LV426′s atmosphere (the first boundary).

It is not a coincidence that, as Ripley hesitates before the blast door of the colony’s perimeter (the second boundary), it is Hicks who leads her inside.

With the absence of effective leadership from the dead and disabled military officers after the first encounter with the aliens, and the growing duplicity of Burke’s intentions, the survivors need a heroic figure to follow. Hicks facilitates Ripley’s unlikely leadership – a civilian suddenly commanding a military team in great and immediate peril – by twice asking for her advice and acceding to her plans (first, to destroy the colony from orbit and second, in fortifying the operations centre from alien attack). He teaches her to use weapons effectively, an action that both saves her and Newt’s (Rebecca Jordan) life on more than one occasion.

When Newt is captured by a solitary alien as the horde closes in, it is Hicks who gives the advice which saves them both from death and ultimately enables Newt’s rescue: “She’s alive. I believe you. But we’ve gotta go. Now!” Even when he is injured, forcing Ripley to face the next stage of the ordeal in the alien queen’s lair alone, as the colony computers count down to imminent nuclear destruction, he gives her laconic advice: “Don’t be gone long, Ellen.”

James Cameron’s characters of Burke, who draws Ripley through unfamiliar settings in the first half of Aliens, and Hicks, who performs the same role in the second, show us some of the directions that the archetype of mentor may be taken. These mentors should give writers who have recently encountered Campbell’s interpretation of the monomyth some comfort that they are not being locked into a pattern of old men with long beards imparting the wisdom of ancient prophecies. Rather, mentors can be a slimy turncoat, or a laconic everyperson – or even both simultaneously.

The role of mentor should be seen as a chain of unfolding possibilities which allow writers a vast amount of creative input.

To paraphrase Vogler, don’t view the mentor archetype as rigid, but as a role that one or several characters may slip into over the course of a narrative and which plays an audience’s expectations and assumptions in new and exciting ways.
‘Cameron’s alien mentors’ was first published on The Story Department.