Aliens In Retrospect
In space, no one can hear you scream.
This was the tagline to Ridley Scott’s now immortal science-fiction horror classic Alien. Written by Dan O’Bannon (Return of the Living Dead, Lifeforce) and featuring creatures and sets designed by H.R. Giger, the movie was completely different from anything else in the genre at the time. Atmospheric scenes of desolate alien worlds and towering vessels cutting through the bleak emptiness of space cut against interior shots of the ancient ship built like a giant, hellish cathedral before returning to the claustrophobic bleakness of the Nostromo. The plays out like any of the classic slasher horrors of the late 70’s and 80’s. You see the gradual build of tension and terror while getting to know the cast of characters. You empathize with them, their hopes and goals only to feel devastated as, one-by-one, the killer takes them. Despite the iconic chest bursting at the dinner table, the film is not particularly gory with much of the gruesome devastation off camera and left to the imagination. story follows the Nostromo’s crew on the long, arduous journey home. It’s almost an hour into the movie before you ever see the alien.
I still remember the first time I watched the movie. The sense of dread and horror I felt as that black, vertebral tail descended from the ceiling. Like the introduction of any terrifying antagonist in a slasher pic it comes on slow, ominous, and overwhelming. You could feel the presence of this malevolent intelligence as it stalked its victims, as it chose to pick them off and toy with them for what felt like an eternity for no other reason but its own delight. Even now, the last few minutes of the movie make my heart race as Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) slowly crawls across the lifeboat and into the airlock. Watching the alien as it lies in wait in the wires under the console, as it seems to grin at its assumed superiority over the frightened final girl. I know she survives but every time I watch it my heart races.
Alien has all the hallmarks of a classic slasher horror from characterization and pace to the story itself. Put the crew of the Nostromo in a cabin in the woods. Make them a bunch of horny teens instead of grizzled space miners. Change the alien into an escaped mental patient. The utter isolation, the single minded entity of the group with its lone stand out, the crazed killer whose motivations are vague but whose intention is quite clear. What Alien does to set itself apart from this well worn trope, however, is to take the dream of exploration into the vast unknown and remove the human element from the antagonist entirely. With Freddy, Jason, or Michael there is that flickering hope that something of their humanity might still exist, that they can be reasoned with or that a bargain can be made. With the alien, however, there’s no hope of striking an accord or delaying with words and dialogue that inevitable kill. It’s being driven by instincts and desires outside of your understanding.
Despite a formula that has held up against the test of time for nearly 40 years, each successive sequel strays further and further from the horror roots of the original film. Aliens was a sci-fi action thriller more like a war movie or zombie movie than a horror film while Alien 3 was full of religious and political tones. Alien Resurrection was a DOOM style sci-fi horror reboot that fell flat with audiences and I’m going to skip both of the Alien vs Predator movies entirely. That brings us around to Prometheus. I have mixed feelings about this one. Originally advertised as a prequel to the 1979 franchise pilot, the movie was more or less an alternate take on the franchise that scaled back the size and scope of the creatures involved while trying to fit more narrative and history into the franchise than any film before it. Truth be told, as a science fiction film, it isn’t half bad. As a horror movie and installment in the Alien series, however, it is only mildly better than Resurrection. The lead characters are all two dimensional and the whole thing felt like the set-up for a sequel. Unfortunately it doesn’t seem like we’ll be getting any kind of resolution any time soon.
Alien: Covenant is the story of a colony ship en route to a new earth. The crew is planning to start a new life in the open frontier of space and has no idea as to the sort of hell it is going to land in. Now, as I won’t be seeing this movie until opening night and long after this article publishes, I am having to go on speculation from the available trailers and from everything I’ve been able to read to make the assumptions I am about to make. For starters, I am more than a little apprehensive about James Franco and Danny McBride starring in this movie. While I enjoy both of them on screen it’s hard to think of any dynamic between the two of them different from their roles in This is the End. That said, Franco has the air about him of a man who is going to die pretty early on in the movie while McBride, from the trailers, looks to be bringing a degree of seriousness as well as humor to his performance that makes his character seem very human and enjoyable. Next, we have the aliens themselves who are going to be a mix of our classic, H.R. Giger xenomorphs with the Prometheus styled neomorphs. It also looks like we’re going to see a lot more of them stalking our hapless crew members and there has even been the promise of another chest erupting in all kinds of alien carnage and gore.
My hope, hungrily stalking the latest news and clips of this upcoming Alien sequel, is that we will genuinely see a return to the franchise’s horror roots. Be sure to check out the other installments of the series or, at the very least, watch the original horror classic and the 2014 “not a prequel” sequel before seeing the new movie. Alien: Covenant premiers May 19th with some theaters offering early screenings the night before.
Dan Lee is a horror fiend and freelance writer with a special place in his heart for monster movies and demonic possession stories.