Alien - A Retrospective
Warning! Spoilers ahead.
On December 8th 2003, Fox release what will surely come to be seen as the definitive Alien Box Set. A nine disc behemoth that'll satisfy even the most anal fan. To celebrate the release, DVD Times thought it was time for a retrospective look at the films and the contribution they have made to the sci-fi genre.
It's difficult to assess the impact of the Alien films on the science fiction genre. At times, it seems they have permeated so deeply it could be argued that every science fiction film made since 1979 has, in some form or another, paid homage to Ridley Scott's original vision. Take the cyberpunk genre, for instance, William Gibson freely admits to being entranced by Alien's unrelenting ordinariness; the mechanics in space, bitching about bonuses and hampered by equipment that barely works, and that this gave him a platform upon which to base his peculiar brand of technology and realism. Recently, Iain Banks, in his novel Dead Air, complained that the films chief contribution to sci-fi was that of 'gratuitous steam'; meaning the steam that plays a major role in the film and has been seen in countless film since. Steam, of course, has no place on a space ship but it does hide holes in set design, which is a criticism that can hardly be leveled at Alien.
Alien Quadrilogy: Read Mike Sutton's Alien review
Alien is, at heart, a deceptively simple story. It's easy to dismiss the film as a haunted house in space 'jump' festival, but that would be a disservice. It's true that Alien owes a massive debt to early science fiction films, such as the seldom celebrated 'It! The Terror From Beyond Space', as well as the usual horror conventions, but Alien has a certain dynamism that operates beneath the surface and it is this that gives the film its edge.
Take the crew, for instance. Alien gives us a great example of the microcosm of contemporary society; the crew of the Nostromo is riddled with class differences and chains of command that often break down. Parker and Brett, the downtrodden bonus-less blue collar workers without whom the ship would not operate; Ripley, the second-in-command career woman, Ash the science community and so on. What the Alien does so well, is represent a threat to this ordered society, bringing to surface tensions and mistrust. Of course, the films' twist is that the science officer, on behalf of the omnipotent company, has actively sought to keep the threat alive and sees the crew as expendable. The villain of the piece, then, is not the multi-limbed horror of the title, but the company that sees it's crew of humans as mere tools to be used as it sees fit. Alien, then, seems to be making a political statement where the corporation is the real root of all evil, an idea that was to echo down the series and it is easy to see how this idea would resonate with the audience of the day. The idea of the company as, if not directly evil, but amoral, was explored in many movies of the 70's, for example, Paul Schrader's Blue Collar, but Alien's genius was to take this fear to it's logical extreme and then set the whole thing in outer space.
Alien also owes a great deal to the fiction of HP Lovecraft; whose fiction created a mythology based around the 'old ones' that once ruled the earth but were banished to the far reaches of the universe where, even now, they watch and wait for a chance to reestablish their supremacy. The ship that the crew of the Nostromo discovers is wonderfully enigmatic in design, as are the former crew, and it's easy to imagine the ship as some sort of ancient fossilized craft or even building that once housed the old ones. Indeed, the only suggestion we have from Alien that it is a ship is that's what the crew of the Nostromo thinks it is. If it is a ship, where does the mineshaft that leads to the endless cavern fit into the horseshoe shape design? It is little idiosyncrasies like this that ensures Alien lends itself to almost endless interpretation by the audience as to the origin and history of the creature. Lovecraft described Azathoth, one of the chief old ones, as a "many tentacled, slimy, mad, blind center of fury and violence" and it's easy to imagine the Alien as a signifier for this.
The Alien itself is a masterpiece of design. At once phallic and vaginal, slippery, eyeless and multi-toothed; it is, as Ash states, "the perfect organism" that kills to live and lives to kill. You don't dare kill it (on a ship, anyway) because of it's acid blood. Designed by HR Giger, it looks almost like a mirror of the subconscious, dark, primal and always lurking in the shadows to take us unawares. Giger has said of the experience that he has never had another project as satisfying. The Alien design is mirrored by the design of the ship, multi-layered and full of intricate detail in which it is perfectly camouflaged. Some of the original cast of the film spoke of their unease in the set once they had seen the creature that was stalking them.
Alien Quadrilogy: Read Daniel Stephens' Aliens review
James Cameron’s reinterpretation of the creature saw a more insect-like form emerge which did many things to the series. The major change, perhaps inevitable, was that the invincibility of the Alien was at once removed. Many feel this removed a major part of the Alien's persona, but Aliens is a very different film from the first and what the insect analogy added to the series is debatable. The whole idea of hives of Aliens and Queens and so forth presumes and imposes a form of a familiar insect society upon them. In some ways, this removes the mythology that was so carefully built up in the first film - in the novel, Alien, Ash asks the crew, before the kill him, if they have tried to communicate with the Alien, and perhaps it is truly intelligent. It could be argued that this idea is one that has been lacking from the other films in the series that might have been more interesting if followed. Aliens, however, became an almost instant classic.
Many have read the film as a Vietnam war film, with the Alien playing the role of the Vietcong; guerilla warriors who know the terrain, not as technically advanced as their foes but never, ever give up, and it's easy to see the appeal of this, more especially so when one considers Cameron's involvement with Rambo: First Blood part 2, another sequel that had little bearing on it's original film. However, Aliens does have more going on than most Vietnam films and it also freely borrows from the conventions of the Western, with the settlers disturbing the indigenous population, the Aliens, and needing rescue from the Cavalry, the marines. This time, however, the marines have arrived too late, and must rescue themselves. Now, add to this reading the fact that the trouble has been partially manufactured and aided by the Company that sent the settlers there in the first place and the marines in to rescue them, and you can quite easily build a case to suggest that Cameron is making a rather serious Foreign Policy point with Aliens.
Aliens, as well as being a political film, is also notable for its exploration of feminist ideologies. It has been argued that the queen Alien represents Ripley's motherhood instinct and the text becomes an ideological battleground culminating in Ripley directly confronting her worst fear; sex and childbirth. We are told Ripley's child is dead and Newt becomes a surrogate daughter figure, but before the nuclear family can be rebuilt (Ripley, Newt and Hicks) she must battle and conquer the queen Alien; who seems to spend her entire life cycle giving birth. Once this matriarchal figure is defeated, the family can once more function but with the female playing the dominant role. Ripley is seen very much in control as she takes charge of Newt and Hick's hyper sleep facilities. Like in the fairytale idea before it, where everyone lives happily ever after, however, we are never shown what happens next and, in the universe depicted by the Alien film, what happened next is seldom pretty.
Alien Quadrilogy: Read Mike Sutton's Alien 3 review
Alien³ is often seen as the weak point of the series, at least until the fourth film arrived, and in many ways the criticism is justified. However, there are good points to the film. Here is not the place to go into the ludicrously troubled production the film had, and the interested reader is instead sent to look for a copy of The Greatest Sci-Fi Stories Never Told by David Hughes (Link here) which sums up the extent of the folly in great depth and is eminently readable. One criticism often leveled against the film is that Newt and Hicks are instantly killed off, and the film begins on a down note that completely negates the feel good factor that Cameron left the audience with at the end of Aliens. It is equally valid, however, that this was a masterstroke that at once pulled the rug from under the audiences feet and confused expectations of what to expect from the film.
Religion is something rarely touched upon in modern science fiction, a surprising fact considering some of the works that are regarded as canonical that have strong theological elements such as, say, THX 1138, 2001 or even The Omega Man. Religious ideology has been largely reduced to such comic book representations as The Force of the Star Wars films or the messiah-like qualities of Neo in The Matrix. These films have the same thing in common, namely that the religions they are portraying are never deeply questioned; it is merely taken as fact that they exist. Alien³ is quite remarkable in that it presents a monastic order that has evolved out of a necessity to survive and as such it represents the development of religion in a far more realistic way and this allows certain criticisms to be slipped into the narrative, such as its rigid and hostile nature. Ripley, as a woman, is seen as just as great a threat to the order as the chaotic violence of the Alien intruder and the end, in which Ripley and the Alien are killed together seems to suggest some sort of link between Ripley and the Alien, which was taken to it's extreme in the next film in the series.
Alien Quadrilogy: Read Mike Sutton's Alien Resurrection review
Alien Resurrection is widely regarded as the low point of the series. Even the presence of a respected director, Jean-Pierre Jeunet, could not stem the flood of negative reviews that appeared in it's wake. In many ways, the critics were right, but, like the other films in the series, Alien Resurrection has some interesting ideas within the narrative. The idea of bringing Ripley back as a clone, and the moral implications of this, seem drawn from the headlines of the day, with it's mutant sheep and the like. Though how the DNA of Ripley manages to contain the DNA of the parasite within her is left unexplored. It's by no means as bad as often claimed, and there are some very effective set pieces but it lacks the majesty and the subtlety of even Alien³.
One idea that is ripe for exploring that has thus far been merely hinted at, is the idea of the Alien as a form of biological warfare. From Alien onwards, the driving force behind the series has been that the evil corporation seeks the Alien for it's military wing and there is much more mileage to be had from this idea. Even looking at the films that have been made, using this as a theoretical framework, it is possible to force the Alien figure into a variety of interpretations. It is fact that many governments, not least America, have often sought the use of otherwise undesirable characters to further its political ends in foreign countries. That these characters often turn out to be far more dangerous than originally thought, and turn on those that once employed them, seems to fit the notion of the Alien quite well. A blind force of fury that is best left undisturbed. This is just idle speculation, but there awaits a truly great Alien film to be made that explores their use, as a weapon to it's fullest. Judging by the problems the later sequels have had, and the truly appalling notion of the much-mooted Alien V Predator, this film will be a long time coming.
The Alien films have been central to the science fiction genre since 1979. While Lucas' Star Wars films painted a multicultural universe of wonder and delight, the Alien films have been a flip-side of this, and have remained grim, dark and rooted in a kind of dark, cruel realism. The universe is a cruel and dangerous place they seem to say, but it'll be a lot more dangerous and cruel when humans, that most evil of species, eventually colonize it.