“I admire its purity. A survivor … unclouded by conscience, remorse, or delusions of morality.” – Alien, 1979
I wasn’t actually going to post sci-fi horror related articles on this blog. Much as I love all things science-fiction, I thought ‘you really have to draw a line somewhere with the content – so stick to the supernatural stuff.’ But now, having seen the extended trailers for Prometheus, I’m prepared to cross that line. In fact, I’m prepared to take a running jump at it. With a pole-vault. And a pogo-stick. And pumped-up kicks. Forget the line. The line is gone.
If you don’t – at the very least – get a distinctly tingly feeling watching those trailers, then leave this blog immediately. Go on. Off you go. Your kind aren’t welcome here.
It seems a lot of fans of the original Alien find their emotions occupy a sliding scale somewhere between uneasy interest and aggressive hostility with regard to the new offering. And while I appreciate their sentiment, what I hope to show in the following post is why I feel optimistic about this latest installment. I also hope to explore the original film – and its successors – to examine what it is about this series that makes it so special. And at times – so bloody awful.
I wasn’t born when the Alien, 1979 film was released and I was little more than a baby when Aliens, 1986 came around. The following offerings had likewise been and gone from the cinema years before I was old enough to view them. It was during my mid-teens that I first fixed my beady little eyes on what was to become my favourite film franchise.
Alien, 1979 is on my top 5 list of greatest films ever made. It is a truly original piece of cinema in terms of both look and concept. Ridley Scott and H.R. Giger combined to create a creature of pure terror. Something that appeared to have come crawling out of the depths of someone else’s darkest nightmare. Something totally remorseless yet perfect, abhorrent yet mesmerising, familiar yet ultimately utterly and completely alien.
What is it about this creature? Amidst the monsters of modern cinema, the Alien is, to my mind, one of the very few that has aspired to the level of modern myth. And it has risen not as an individual spook like Freddy Krueger or Jason Voorhees, but as a new species to add to the annals of horror. I’m no great fan of slasher-movies, and it seems partly unfair and partly sacrilegious to mention these two caricature, cartoon killers in the same breath as something so pure, primeval and terrifying. But really – that’s the point. Alien occupies a class of its own. It’s up there with the horrors from myth and legend – the vampire, the zombie, the werewolf.
What is it that makes this creature so terrifying? Many people refer to the terror of this creature being encapsulated within the rape metaphor conveyed by the Face-Huggers and Chest-Bursters. And this must surely be a large part of what makes the alien mythos so disturbing. The clammy embrace of the Face-Hugger, with its proboscis inserted down the victims throat, is genuinely revolting. The Chest-Burster, growing silently within the body, preparing to explode outward through the chest cavity conveys the horror of the parasite and the inevitable destruction of the host. But more than the rape metaphor, and perhaps more disturbing – is that humans are reduced utterly to the level of mere organism – assigned to carry a remorseless beast until it inevitable destroy them. Multiple concepts of horror are captured here – rape, forced pregnancy, disease and the reduction of humanity to animalistic status, to be used and discarded by the parasite.
All of this is part of the Alien/Xenomorph mythos – but what of the adult creature itself? Visually, the Alien is undeniably chilling. People make reference to the inner mouth and the shape of the Alien’s head as being phallic – which is inevitable yet not particularly enlightening. How did Giger create something that looks so utterly terrifying and unfamiliar? The skin has a curious appearance – seeming both organic and inorganic at the same time. The creature has claws and teeth which both appear metallic – again blurring the distinction between what is organic and what has been designed. The creature itself – the perfect killing machine – is an enigma. Where did it come from? Is it an organic organism or was it designed? It bleeds acid for blood (the perfect defence mechanism, particularly on a space ship, where nothing but a think metal shell protects the occupants from the freezing vacuum of space) – is this a sign of design? What connection is there between the Aliens and the Space Jockeys?
And there’s something else about the alien that doesn’t get mentioned so much. It is eyeless. It’s a well established psychological fact that human beings feel intimated by others when they can’t see their eyes. We see the eyes as ‘the window to the soul.’ Even with animals, what strikes us most? The piercing gaze of the wolf? The intimidating glance of the lion? We communicate with our eyes – and to create a monster that has none, is to further remove it from our comprehension. This creature is totally unreachable – without mercy, or remorse, or emotion.
And then again there is the tagline. “In space, no one can hear you scream.” And again – Alien is playing upon notions of mortality and the insignificance of human life. We are alone in the universe. We are animals screaming into the void – running from a hostile existence that attempts to destroy us at every turn.
Aliens introduces the idea that the Xenomorphs are hive creatures – and it is here that we first see a queen. This film isn’t as highbrow as the first and the distinction that I make between the two is this – I considered Alien to be one of the best films ever made, while Aliens is one of my favourite films. As action movies go, Aliens is certainly one of the best ever made and I certainly wouldn’t class it as ‘low brow’. It is also one of the best movie sequels ever made because it keeps the feel of the original without trying to recreate it, yet also manages to add to the mythos in a satisfying and appropriate way. Where the first film is powerful because it is enigmatic and grand, the sequel moves away from this pure horror aspect and introduces the element of action movie. It has to. It carves out a niche, focussing attention upon Ripley and her fight for survival – her terror of these creatures and determination to see them destroyed. Yet it adds to the mythos in a way that has been totally accepted as canon.
Alien 3 has a crack at doing the same thing but unfortunately it was over ambitious to the extreme. The initial proposal for a wooden space station occupied by monks, eventually morphed into prisoners marooned upon a hostile planet. After paddling around in the outer edges of development hell, the film only ever tacitly settled upon a direction. The idea of introducing a dog/alien highbrid is an interesting one, although watching the deleted scenes from this film shows you the alternative cut where the host was a cow and you realise just how directionless this film had been throughout its development. It reaches a peak with the arrival of Bishop/Weyland at the end and Ripley’s heroic sacrifice is visually spectacular and fitting.
But as every tale of vampiric horror must also have its sanitised and prurient wretches like Edward Cullen, so Alien must also be sold off to the highest bidder – fattened up, watered down and blasted to pieces by Hollywood Execs and gormless red-necks. Alien IV was bloody awful. I don’t even want to talk about it. It should never have happened.
AVP was a mess. And despite what brainless fan-boys (whose interest can’t progress beyond how badass the creatures look) might proclaim, AVP II was an even bigger steaming pile of shit than the first one. Both managed to take the alien and turn it into nothing more than a moronic killing machine, with all the menace of a plucked chicken and an aesthetic to match. Giger described the Alien/Human hybrid from Alien IV as a walking turd. I honestly can’t decide which is the bigger travesty.
So for all that – three real turkeys that should be ring-fenced away from the canon of Xenomorph mythos – why am I optimistic about this one?
Well, the fact that Ridley Scott is directing should be massively comforting. Should be…but isn’t. Ridley has created some absolute masterpieces in his time. He’s also produced a godawful amount of shit. So placing my faith in Ridley isn’t easy, but for the sake of Bladerunner, for the sake of this being his first sequel, for the fact that this man took more than 30 years to return to this film (no comparisons to Lucas, PLEASE) I will hold out hope.
Then there’s the trailer. It gives me chills. It looks awesome. The man is doing what he said he would do. He is going back to the beginning. We’re going to meet the Space Jockey. We’re going to get some answers.
And yet…that’s where so much of the mystery and power of the original film lies. We never got to know what these creatures were. We never found out what their relation to the Aliens might be. And the guessing was fun. The wonder was fun. But now it’s time to return to that wondering…and give it a good sharp poke with a big pointy stick.
It’s his damn film. If he messes it up, I’ll just pretend it never happened. It can’t ever take away from the mystery of the original, because if it sucks, I’ll ignore it. But I choose to hope that this prequel will be good. That the Alien mythos will be expanded again. That the most perfect and most alien of nightmares, will coil a little deeper into our darkest fears.