Amidst rapt excitement about the incredibly unique albeit troubling film Alien Covenant, I neglected all of the film’s predecessors – which was fine, for awhile. But now that I’ve rambled incessantly about why I think the recently released Alien Covenant is such an excellent movie, perhaps it’s time to return to the film’s roots and take a look at the original Alien, and the one after that, and the one after that, and so on, and so forth. Frankly, I’ve been meaning to write about the original Alien for a long time, but every time I’m faced with a highly-respected genre classic that’s stood (at least some) test of time, I get a wee bit intimidated, and this is especially true when we move into Science Fiction territory, which is far from my area of expertise. But a couple of days ago, Michael and I hunkered down to watch Alien and Aliens, and I was mesmerized all over again (since I’ve seen them both before). One wonderful thing about being me is that I have a horrible memory, especially for a lot of film. While this could be detrimental to my performance on the imminent PhD candidacy test I keep writing about (for which I have to read and recall over 100 books) it really comes in handy when I re-watch a film. More often than not, I’m surprised by certain plot twists and character actions all over again! It’s fantastic! With that in mind, I think it’s time to pay homage to Ridley Scott’s classic Alien and discuss why the film is so freakin’ fantastic.
Well, let’s start with the name of the ship. When I realized the ship’s name was Nostromo, I thought, hmmm, that has to be significant, reckoning I’d seen that name somewhere in the pantheon of (at least so-called) great literature. Fun fact: If you google Nostromo, the ins and outs of Alien fandom will appear in a succession of links well before the Wikipedia entry about Joseph Conrad’s famed novel, but a little scrolling helped me uncover that Nostromo is a Joseph Conrad novel, named after one of the story’s key characters. Now, while Nostromo means “shipmate” or “boatswain” in Italian, Conrad’s Nostromo was a “commanding figure” with the ability to “command power among the local population.” Thank you Wikipedia. Interestingly, whoever wrote this Wikipedia entry asserts: “He is, however, never admitted to become a part of upper-class society, but is instead viewed by the rich as their useful tool.” (Ahem, dramatic spoiler, in case you’ve not seen this 1979 classic): If this Wikipedia contributor’s assessment of the book is correct, I think his or her observation sheds plenty of light on why the ship in Alien is named Nostromo. After all (and more about this later), what are the crew of the Nostromo but a bunch of “useful tools” in the hands of a corrupt futuristic corporation that will willingly sacrifice lives and human well-being for scientific findings that yield (key word) profit!!!! More on that to come, but it’s worthy to note that this fantastic film starts out with a large, elaborate, futuristic space craft carefully named in a way that foreshadows a key element of the plot. And my mind is officially blown.
So if you’ve seen Alien, you know that a band of highly trained space travelers are on their way back to earth after a long expedition in outer space when their reconnaissance machine picks up activity, and the conniving crew member Ash (who we later find out is a scheming android involved in the company’s machinations) persuades the ship members that they’re contractually obligated to explore the situation. But this turns out to be a highly detrimental enterprise. Three crew members exit the Nostromo to explore an unknown planet, and one of them returns with a slimy, brownish-green, many-tentacled alien suctioned to his face. This shocking event is an inciting incident for a series of encounters the crew will have with this pernicious life form whose only aim seems to be to kill. And so, one of the most miraculously ugly and memorable space monsters in horror/sci-fi history is born, and all the viewers of this acclaimed film get to become increasingly paranoid and wary of what could be wafting around in the uncharted realms of the universe (and fun fact, Ridley Scott has before said that he believes if anything comes to us from another planet, he’s going to run, because it’s going to be hostile).
I think it’s worth noting that most attempts to re-appropriate this scenario in future films – except for the sequels, which still mix up the setting and plot a bit – are bound to be precarious undertakings. The more recently released film Life comes to mind. I know it didn’t last long in theaters, and Rotten Tomatoes gave it a so-so 68% rating (if you’re curious, My Life as a Zucchini also came up when I googled “Life Rotten Tomatoes,” and this stellar film, which I’ve never heard of, received a 100% rating across 84 reviews). I thought the film Life was perfectly fine, as far as outer-space alien movies go, but that’s just the thing: Life was so much like Alien, but without being genre breaking or genre-defining, and with a slightly different hostile specimen. I by no means intend to bash a film that I thought was interesting, but it lends credence to the claim that any sci-fi alien flick that takes place on a ship in outer space is doomed to subordination after the emergence of the Alien series. If nothing else, Alien forced every other extra-terrestrial film to adopt a new plot scenario, because what the series did with the crew on the Nostromo could not be truly replicated without seeming at least a little bit hackneyed.
A lot of familiar tropes, however, could be recycled over and over again successfully, and one of them is the infamous trope of (at least indirectly) mansplaining. That’s right, I said it. I finally get to use the word “mansplaining” on my horror blog. We saw it in Alien Covenant, which is probably because we saw it in the original Alien, and then in the sequel, Aliens: in each of these three movies, a willful, often self-serving, sometimes just stupid guy at least indirectly mansplains a more intelligent woman who warns him against the inherent danger of his idea. In the first film, that intelligent woman is third-in-command crew member Ripley, played by the remarkable Sigourney Weaver, who has since become the ultimate figurehead for the Alien film franchise. The sly but unfeeling Ash (Ian Holm) knowingly disobeys her order to close the ship and keep out Kane (John Hurt), the crew member attached to the alien, even though it’s not Ash’s call to make. Of course, we later learn that he does this because he’s working on behalf of the corporation to bring the life form back to earth at all costs, but his decision (to follow his own whims and ignore the insights of an intelligent woman) leads to the trauma and tragedy that the crew members face throughout the rest of the film. And this trend happens again in Alien 2, and again in Alien Covenant. Ripley (and later Daniels) are clearly the brains of the organization in both cases – Ripley, specifically, is probably one of the most intelligent, competent movie characters ever created – but their suggestions and mandates are always ignored by a guy (sometimes evil, sometimes just stupid) who thinks he knows better.
Along with a sharp critique of sexism (because all of the film’s are incredibly aware of what they’re doing), what is so refreshing about this film compared to much contemporary horror is that it doesn’t seem like it’s trying too hard. I have a broad, inclusive horror palate, so I don’t mind a lot of the jump-scare intensive, semi-formulaic films that have been released in the past ten years. But there’s just something refreshing about watching a film made toward the end of the 1970’s. It’s like talking to a laid-back friend after spending all day working for your high-strung boss. There is absolutely no strained attempt to capture the viewer’s attention at the beginning of Alien. We get slow camera shots meandering through the futuristic space craft (which, in the context of our present state of technology, does not seem so futuristic) and some bits of unceremonious character dialogue before the crew members decide to check out the unfamiliar planet and the intensity begins. I feel like Ridley Scott was saying to his audience, “If you’re not mature enough to pay attention to the story that builds up to the action and intensity, tough shit. Watch another movie.” This practice was probably relatively par for course in the 70’s and 80’s, but for a contemporary horror director, such a slow exposition would be considered a dicey move. As such, Ridley Scott’s style is a refreshing change.
And what about Ridley Scott’s brand of “scary?” When the action does start, it starts. The original Alien offered us some of the most jarring, unforgettable scenes in horror/sci-fi history. First, Kane gets (as was mentioned before) an Alien suctioned to his face, and as viewers, our attention is captivated by the unconscious man, spread out on a bed in a sort of sterile sickroom, lying still and flat with a big, slimy, unidentified, snot-colored alien who is, as we learn later, blocking Kane’s mouth but feeding him oxygen. One can’t help but at least begin to speculate what, exactly, it would feel like, to have your eyes, nose, and mouth covered by a massive, ugly, hostile life form who just sits there. The juxtaposition of Kane’s unmoving body with the still but relentless alien is incredibly unnerving, and the feelings of disturbance only amplify as, during an otherwise pleasant dinner scene, a hostile baby alien with remarkably sharp teeth tears through the flesh on Kane’s stomach, leaving his bloody, mutilated corpse in its wake as the alien flies across the room contemplating its next move. I love both the sequel to Alien, (Aliens), and the more recently released Alien Covenant, but neither has a scene that really measures up to the tragic, gruesome death of Kane in the first Alien film.
The aliens, also called xenomorphs in the film, are not only remarkably ugly, frightening predators, but they raise a lot of questions about how we categorize life forms on earth and what happens when a species seems situated in between our pre-ordained classification system. Perhaps because our brain operates by placing things in categories, I tend to turn over, in my mind, to what extent these aliens are more like humans, and to what extent they’re more like animals. It’s easy to compare them to animals, after all. They don’t seem to have a language; they just make nasty noises and show off their sharp teeth before tearing into their victims. And they lay a lot of eggs. But they don’t seem like predators in nature who kill based off their instinct so that they can feed. Like humans, I would surmise the xenomorphs are conscious of their own existence, although the extent of anything like philosophical speculation that they possess is questionable. Their killing, on the one hand, seems unnecessary and thus rooted not only in predatorial behavior but in something akin to evil. On the other hand, Michael pointed out that while the xenomorphs lay eggs, they may need to incubate in a human body in order for the baby to grow into a full-fledged life form. Whether or not xenomorphs need human beings to procreate is an important question: if they do, then perhaps they aren’t as evil as we might otherwise consider them. Perhaps they are simply doing what they need to do to procreate. Still, aliens in the Alien films do not always kill for procreation’s sake; the xenomorphs in the film series often slash human beings up for the hell of it. The xenomorphs, then, look and act like (rather ugly) animals, but have a degree of malice and evil specific to human beings that allows them to kill without reason or mercy.
The existence of such a life form is so difficult for we humans to conceive (even though we can be rather violent and evil ourselves) that when Ripley tells her story to the corporation she works for at the beginning of the sequel, Aliens, nobody believes her until too much irrevocable damage is already done. (More on that in a future post, however). And the presence of this corporation underlines probably what stands out to me most about this film; it’s a story about unchecked human greed. In many futuristic, often dystopian novels, we witness a corrupt government profiting off the poverty and pain of its people. Significantly, in Alien, we know very little about the socio-political futuristic world that our main characters are living in. We know, by the end of the first film, only that the crew flew into deep space on behalf of a corporation and that the corporation secretly sent an AI life form with the crew, with the instructions to bring a lethal but profitable new species back to earth at the expense of the lives of the others on the ship. (And when we meet some of the corporate heads in the sequel, we get to see, firsthand, what assholes they are).
Alien, then, is not a story about human hubris, about what happens when we venture beyond our borders and push ourselves further than we should go without caution. Quite the contrary, Ash, the robot working for the corporation – who convinces the crew they must explore uncharted territory, who lets Kane into the ship knowing the damage he’ll cause, and who gives the ship’s computer system, mother, the orders to preserve the xenomorph specimen at the expense of the crew members’ lives – is the sole being who, at the behest of the corporation, causes all the trouble, and is an early example of a movie-AI that is unfeeling and dangerously malicious. There is a sort of grand excitement in the first Alien connected to exploring deep space, but what could be a smooth, reasonably safe mission (without the jarring death toll) gets corrupted by corporate greed – a level of greed that deems human lives completely dispensable in the name of science, progress, and profit, making that ship members of the Nostromo tools for the futuristic corporate upper class the way Conrad’s character, Nostromo, situated in the 19th century, was a tool for the upper class of days gone by. The fact Alien writer Dan O’Bannon could conceive of such a corporation and that the example resonates so much with us as viewers is, perhaps, a sign of the times and a warning of where we’re headed. The problem is not, then, with capitalism alone, but with a society that lets profit-making organizations operate without any accountability or oversight so they can make more money. The problem is one that we face today, and one that we have to be wary about as we look into the future.