Revelations, epiphanies, and other assorted results of rummaging in the braincase do not, like most things in life, work the way we have come to expect. We absorb so much from all the storytelling we entertain ourselves with that we can’t help but take it entirely too literally most of the time. This is understandable, since most stories are going for maximum efficiency, aiming to tie up with a pretty bow what in most cases is a clumsy, crooked mess. It’s more appealing that way, in particular when we’re talking about heroes and legends.
The structure of the hero’s journey, which has been with us from the beginning but was popularized mostly by Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell, most commonly contains three acts and many various stages, but the one that I’m referring to here is apotheosis, where the greater understanding is achieved. This happens right before the ultimate boon at the climax of the tale, but as far as I’m concerned it is the boon. The knowledge or self-awareness required to go nab that big, shiny macguffin might not save the universe by itself, but it shouldn’t be treated like just another stepping stone. This perspective clearly makes me a nerdy seeker, but it also indicates that I’m not, nor have I really ever been, directly engaged with the heroes in our stories. With that in mind, let’s talk about the 1986 sci-fi action film Aliens.
We all know it. We all love it. I’m not here to provide a recap. Aliens, sequel to 1979’s horror classic Alien, set the bar for science fiction and action films so high that all further sequels have been and will continue to be measured against its massive shadow. What can be fairly succinctly described as “the Vietnam war in space” utilized the surrounding themes of post-traumatic stress, military dysfunction, corporate fuckery, and maternal devotion to craft something that holds up to multiple viewings and critical dissection, even after three decades. It did all this with the assistance of beyond-next-level practical effects and lighting, and nuanced performances that endeared pretty much every single Colonial Space Marine to us, despite the fact that most of them buy it early on in the reactor room ambush.
Ellen Ripley is obviously front and center in this story, but both you and I can name the Marines she’s advising on their mission to LV-426. We can infer and dive into big chunks of their back story, we still chuckle at their wise-ass comments, and we know their preferred weaponry, and not because the film spelled it all out in idiotic intro scenes, or clunky dialogue liberally sprinkled with Exposition Fairy dander. The screenplay by James Cameron and his masterful team of writers lets it all unfold naturally and economically, and it’s something that modern action films never seem to learn. I assure you, Hollywood: movie audiences are not as dumb as you might think.
Our first tier of larger roles includes Corporal Hicks, the grizzled veteran of the bunch (it seems Corporal is about as vet as you get in this line of work), Private Hudson, the whiner who gets by on his smartass remarks while he waits for his tour to end, and Private First Class Vasquez, the machine gunner hard case who has long since proven herself to a squad full of men. Right under that I’d put Sergeant Apone, who’s just doing his best to babysit this motley crew, Private Drake, who’s Vasquez’s partner (perhaps in more ways than one?), Private Frost, the rock solid soldier who has an exasperated comment for everything, and Corporal Ferro, the no-nonsense dropship pilot. Rounding things out are Dietrich, Crowe, Spunkmeyer, and Wierzbowski. And then there’s the big man in charge. We’ll get to him in just a second.
When I was a wee boy and saw this film, way before I probably should have, my clear favorite of all the characters was Vasquez, portrayed by the amazing Jenette Goldstein. Not only was it awesome to see a woman in a traditionally male role, absolutely owning every moment of it, but also to see what kind of damage she could do with that smart gun, a weapon so powerful and unwieldy that you needed to mount it on a gyroscopic harness. She was everything the inner machismo wanted in a soldier character. She made me want to wear bandanas, do lots of pull-ups, and learn to swear in Spanish. But just recently it occurred to me: I’m not, and never could be, as cool as Vasquez. There is a character that I relate to in a painfully realistic way, and it unfortunately is not her. It’s not Hicks. It’s not even Wierzbowski.
It’s fucking Gorman. Lieutenant Scott Gorman. I’m a Gorman.
I had never really thought much about this guy, to be perfectly honest with you. He’s the senior officer with the corncob up his ass. He makes bad call after bad call. He dies as heroically as he can muster. That’s all that anyone really cares to dwell on, if they dwell at all. Me, I went ahead and dwelled, alright. And it was one of those moments of apotheosis. But not the kind we’re told people have, and not under the dramatic circumstances that had been promised to me in all the ancient narratives. I had it while working a management shift in a grocery store. I didn’t come back from a deep trip on hallucinogenic substances. I didn’t have a near-death experience or a top notch session with a therapist. Nope, not me. My alter ego in a polo shirt had a particularly stressful day while earnestly attempting to keep my bills paid and my stomach full, and everything just sort of clicked.
Gorman and I share a fundamental flaw, and it’s this: we may have drive, and we may have book smarts, but it only provides a kind of bogus confidence that easily falls away, revealing that we are absolute shit under pressure. Now it may seem to be a huge stretch, comparing Gorman’s role as leader of a military unit in life-threatening situations to myself and the headaches of retail customer service, but just hear me out. After all, you might be a Gorman too. I suspect a lot of us are.
When we first meet the Lieutenant at Ripley’s apartment, she shuts the door in his face. This sets the tone for the character rather well, I think. He has a definite air about him that immediately makes people think he’s stuck up, or feels superior. I guarantee you, this is not the case. How can I make such a bold claim? Because I personally go through this shit all the time. The world around us demands that we function with a certain amount of grit and poise in order to be effective. Normally, this comes from experience, and it’s a natural developmental process. But when you don’t possess more than a drop or two of that, you have to make up the difference somewhere if you want, say, a job that pays well. So you read a lot of books, and you take online courses, and you go out there and wing it. You fake it to make it. And those who paid their dues can smell it on you like it was a cloud of pheromones that committed mass suicide and turned into a fart.
Jump ahead to the deck of the USS Sulaco, and we discover that this is Gorman’s first mission out with this particular squad of marines. He doesn’t know them. He’s too intimidated to get to know them without still projecting that he is the one in charge. They completely run circles around him at the briefing, and if not for Apone and the doling out of copious amounts of busy work, he’d have to run back to his office and most likely puke in a trash can. Being a retail manager, especially at a new store or in a new department, is pretty much exactly like this. The good news is that as long as you don’t quit, it does get better. Poor Scott was not afforded that opportunity, and met his end by blowing himself up with a grenade. I know that feel, bro. I know it more than it is safe to mention.
Before he went boom, Gorman managed to massively screw up just about every single call he made at the colony on LV-426. First, he sent in his team without ever truly securing the area. Next, he ordered them, fully armed with armor-piercing weapons, into the base level of a thermonuclear reactor. Upon realizing the mistake, he simply took away their ammo instead of pulling them out. After they’re attacked by aliens, he gave the Sergeant unnecessarily wordy instructions during the resultant firefight, and got Apone captured. With most of his team dead or incapacitated, this poor bastard then freezes up, coming out of his shock only long enough to give Ripley a hard time when she springs into action in an attempt to save some lives. Not so great.
Do I have the stones to try to find parallels between that and my job? You bet I do. I’ll provide some examples, many of which are routine, though somehow also possessing the uncanny ability to completely unhinge your average introvert when applied in rapid succession. On any given day, after I’ve gone round and round with angry complaints from both customers and employees, I’ll invariably end up forgetting someone’s computer training, or directing someone to the wrong department, or letting do-nothing kids get away with screwing around because I can’t muster the strength to challenge them. I’ll freeze up as a customer goes into a seizure (yep, that really happened), scramble around trying to get someone to repair malfunctioning equipment that I don’t know the first thing about, and round up shoplifters that are plotting to fence razor blades and teeth whitening strips for drug money. I’ll think entirely too long about the correct course of action that the company wants me to take. I’ll think back to my training, realize that it in no way will save me now, and quietly shit my pants, stuttering delegation and apologies in equal measure.
Oh, believe me, I know what you’re thinking. So what? Most of these aren’t dire circumstances. You’re not working in a mine, or as a police officer. Right you are. And with the perspective provided by punching out and going home for the day, I get that. It all just leads me to one important conclusion: people like myself just aren’t cut out for high-pressure situations. Sensitive little navel-gazers are better off lost in academia, or perhaps following their dreams and writing and illustrating comic books. But sometimes we find ourselves outside anything close to a comfort zone, just like Gorman did.
I suspect he didn’t really want to be in the military. He was probably pressured by his family, or a need to provide for one. He went to the academy, he learned the rules, and he simulated the combat drops, knowing the whole time that the real thing would be much different. He was probably looking for a way to ride out a series of desk jobs until he could retire. Fate stepped in, the attrition rate for officers on deep space missions grew and grew, and when cornered by his superiors to do his duty (or just get his awkward ass out of the way), he found that he couldn’t say no.
A lot of people are out there just struggling to get by, putting in their forty plus hours a week in order to cultivate that little patch of purpose and happiness, and most of the time conditions just aren’t optimal, and all the good roads forward are inaccessible or just too damn steep. In the current climate we feel much like Scott must have after waking up from his concussion, leading to an internal dialogue something like this: “I wasn’t ready, I fucked up, people got hurt along the way because of it, and I just want the experts to take the wheel for a while. I’ll help as much as I can, but I definitely know my limits, and I think that can only be a good thing from here on out.”
It might not be the worst thing to be a Gorman. We do the best we can in a lot of shitty situations, and we learn hard lessons from it. Now if we can just survive long enough to make it to the next mission, maybe things will turn out just fine. And if not, at least we get to spend our final moments shoulder to shoulder with Vasquez, the person we aspired to be from the start, taking verbal abuse like a champ while offering up some newfound courage and a final “up yours” to all the dark, sinister forces that would deposit their embryos in our chest.