Audible Original Review: ALIEN: River of Pain
is probably the world’s leading provider of streamed audiobook content: Netflix for the ears. And, like Netflix and Audible’s sister company Amazon Prime, it is now profitable enough to branch out into producing its own exclusive dramas. Prefiguring such other tie-in titles as the just-released The X-Files: Cold Cases, one of its first forays into this area was last year’s Rutger Hauer-headlining Alien: Out of the Shadows, a sequel to Ridley Scott’s monumental 1979 outer space horror flick Alien.
This year, to tie in with the release of Scott’s latest cinematic prequel, Alien: Covenant, Twentieth Century Fox allowed Audible to produce a follow-up which, tragically, seemed virtually ignored in the media storm surrounding the film. But as Covenant is now getting its home entertainment release, it seems an appropriate time to re-examine the audio production. Like Out of the Shadows, its source material was drawn from a trio of ‘canonical’ novels sanctioned by Fox in 2014; in this case specifically from Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Ghosts of Albion author Christopher Golden’s Alien: River of Pain.
Ellen Ripley finally returns to Earth, only to discover that LV-426 - where the crew of the Nostromo first came into contact with the deadly xenomorphs - has been renamed Acheron.
Protected by Colonial Marines, the colonists seek to terraform the storm-swept planet against all the odds. But in the face of brutal living conditions and the daily struggles of a new world, there is humanity and hope. Anne and Russell Jorden - two colonists who are seeking a fortune that eluded them on Earth - are expecting their firstborn child.
The birth of Rebecca Jorden, known to her family as Newt, is a cause for celebration. But as the colony grows and expands, so, too, do the political struggles between a small detachment of Colonial Marines and the Weyland-Yutani scientists posted on Acheron. Willing to overlook their orders in order to serve the Company's interests, these scientists have another far more sinister agenda - to covertly capture a living Alien.
The wildcatters discover a vast, decaying spaceship. The horseshoe-shaped vessel is of particular interest to Weyland-Yutani and may be the answer to their dreams. But what Anne and Russell find onboard proves to be the stuff not of dreams but of nightmares.
“Some hotshot in a cushy office on Earth says ‘Go look at a grid reference.’ We look. They don’t say why, and I don’t ask. I don’t ask because it takes two weeks to get an answer out here. And the answer is always ‘Don’t ask.’”
Administrator Wilson (Mac McDonald)
It’s ironic that this audio was released to tie in with the new filmic prequel to Alien, because it is itself a prequel: not to Scott’s film, though, but to James Cameron’s Aliens (1986), a follow-up roughly as beloved – if by a slightly different audience – as its progenitor. (Full disclosure: it’s this reviewer’s favourite film.) As the synopsis above indicates, Cameron’s film and Golden’s novel, which I must admit I haven’t read, both proceed from the same point: having survived her ordeal in Alien, Ellen Ripley is returned to Earth, but her dire warnings about the alien presence on planet LV-426 go unheeded until the human colony on that world goes quiet and Ripley is then sent in with a rescue team.
It’s a masterstroke in the theatrical version of the film that the colony is not even glimpsed until the rescuing marines arrive and find a ghost town, the characters only piecing together in retrospect what must have happened to the people there. River of Pain, though, intercuts between Ripley’s suffering at the hands of Company bureaucrats and the efforts of the embattled colonists to make a success of life on the newly-terraformed world; once the colonists receive a familiar directive from one Burke, Carter J, the narrative focus switches entirely to them. We, the listeners, get to experience in detail the nightmare that Ripley’s group only imagined, as an alien outbreak leads to the small colony being overrun.
I’m going to make it clear at the outset that, as a fan of Aliens, this production largely gets the thumbs up from me. Fans – not just of this series, but of science fiction and audio drama in general – are urged to seek it out. There’s a lot in it to talk about, to appreciate and to critique, and I’ll aim to do this, but I’m going to try to avoid plot spoilers, because I want you to listen to it. It’s a very impressive production, with the world of the Alien films translating almost effortlessly to audio. It may seem like HR Giger’s silent, eyeless movie bogeymen are not obvious protagonists for an audio drama. But it’s worth remembering that, iconic as Giger’s, Carlo Rambaldi’s and Stan Winston’s creature designs are, the xenomorphs are at their most effective when they’re barely seen, and when the focus is instead on the effect that the aliens have on the tightly-written and performed human characters; the less effective films in the series (by far) are the ones in which the creatures are the stars and the people are disposable.
So an Alien audio actually may have something of the advantage over the films, especially when, as with Alien: Out of the Shadows, Fox and Audible have turned to the estimable Dirk Maggs to write, direct, and produce the adaptation. Maggs is a real veteran of the audio realm whose aim has long been to use radio to create cinema of the imagination; in the 90s he was bringing Judge Dredd, Batman and Independence Day to UK airwaves; in 2004, covering his Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series, Radio Times calling him “radio’s most visual director”. Seemingly he has not lost an iota of passion for his craft, for his productions never fail to pop with energy and ambition, and he’s a perfect match for this project, which has a genuinely epic soundscape.
Close your eyes (especially if wearing headphones) and you’re taken back to the colony as seen in Cameron’s film: the howling, bitter winds that conjure a nightmarish frontier landscape; the metallic clangs and hydraulic doors that mark the claustrophobic interiors of the habitation modules and crawlers. Wrenching acting and superb sound effects mean that sequences in which human beings succumb to fatal ‘chestbursters’ are just as horrifying to hear as they were to watch, and James Hannigan’s alternately mournful and pulsating musical score is a good match for the Oscar-nominated work James Horner did on the 1986 film.
However, while River of Pain may sound like a blockbuster movie – and there are numerous action sequences – it isn’t one. It’s five hours long, allowing for the depth and character focus probably expected by the audiobook connoisseur. The first hour or so is particularly slow and talky, mainly focused on the (somewhat soapy and contrived) interpersonal dramas and political in-fighting among the colonists, their administration, the scientific faction, and the colony’s detachment of marines. However, despite the large cast of characters, the measured pace of the drama means the narrative remains coherent, although the scientists and the marines do cause one of the only gripes I have with the story – which I’ll come to later.
In Alien, the mysterious planet which played home to the crashed spaceship and its deadly cargo went unnamed. Cameron’s sequel catalogued the place unromantically as LV-426, but the novelisation by Alan Dean Foster gave it the poetic alternate moniker of Acheron, after the Hadean river, a detail which subsequently became canonical and gave Golden his title. (Foster also penned the novelisation for Alien: Covenant, which bequeathed several notations not present in the film itself, and it will be interesting to see if any of the are picked up by the movie universe.) Acheron is, appropriately enough, a hellish world. A prologue sequence sees Al Wilson (Mac McDonald) lead a team of terraformers to install the atmosphere processors which will gradually make the place suitable for human habitation.
Flash forward a couple of decades, there’s breathable air, children have been raised in the colony, and Wilson is the colonial administrator, but the colony complex – known as ‘Hadley’s Hope’ – is no easy place to live; cold, windswept and surrounded by barren land. Newt has a famous line in Aliens that the creatures “mostly come at night”, but on Acheron, there’s precious little difference between night and day. When designing the colony for the 1986 film, the filmmakers took inspiration from Wild West frontier towns, and the first part of the audio is essentially a land-claim western, in which the colonists attempt to scratch a living, pine for home, and struggle not to be driven insane by the harsh isolation, each hoping they might discover ore deposits on the planet that will make them rich.
Newt, according to this drama, is the colony’s first-born child and, according to Aliens, its only survivor too. Played by Marie Doherty with a sweet sort of bluntness and an ear-splitting yell that are an uncanny match for Carrie Henn (the then-nine-year-old who played her spectacularly in Aliens, never acted again, and is now a grade-school teacher in between Comic-Con appearances), Newt exemplifies the great successes of the River of Pain adaptation: a human focus, characters you care about, splendid performances, and authentic detail. Deleted from the theatrical version of Aliens, but later restored in the 1991 Special Edition, was an extended sequence showing normal life on the colony before the alien infestation.
As I mentioned, it’s a masterstroke that film does not show the colony at all until the marines discover it, and I stand by that, but after you’ve seen the film once it’s fascinating to go back and watch it again with the extra glimpse at what life in Hadley’s Hope was like before the catastrophe. We see that it is Newt and her family, the Jordens – brother Timmy, mum Anne and dad Russ – who, in search of a claim, were the first colonists to discover the crashed ship which caused all the trouble in Alien.
In River of Pain that scene is reprised almost line-for-line, but before that we get to know them in the years leading up to the incident; in fact, among a large ensemble cast, Anne (a committed, fiery performance from Anna Friel) is the heart of the audio. Fans of the film will know that prospects are not good for Russ (delicately played by Marc Warren) but, despite some time-wasting guff about his suspicions that she’s having an affair, the actors really convey the couple’s love for each other, and Friel delivers spades of the inner strength Anne needs to defend her family against the horrors that follow their discovery. The sequence in which Russ and Anne explore the alien ship doesn’t come until around halfway through the running time, but it is almost heart-stoppingly tense, and it’s a tension which then rarely lets up until the end of the story.
There’s also some very amusing and warm interplay between Doherty, Friel and the excellent Colin Salmon (here given a better character and more to do than in 2004’s ludicrous AVP: Alien Vs Predator) as Anne’s old flame, Colonial Marines Captain Demien Brackett. Friel, Warren, Salmon, plus significant marines Philip Glenister, Michelle Ryan, Toby Longworth and Andy Secombe (Star Wars’ Watto) all disguise their English accents and contribute to the authentic recreation of the all-American, Wild West feel of the movie version of Hadley’s Hope.
As in that film, the cast for this British-made Hollywood production is filled out with as many UK-resident American actors as the casting director can locate, many of whom are members of Maggs’ unofficial rep company and who will be familiar to regular British radio listeners and audiobook consumers. A standout is the chocolate-voiced Lorelei King, who for decades has been reigning queen of the emotionless computer voice over (in fact, she plays the voice of the clunkily-named MU-THUR in Alien: Covenant) but who is able to bring an affecting, doomed compassion to the colony’s chief medic. This version of Hadley’s Hope is host to a vast number of characters, as befitting a colony of “sixty, maybe seventy families” (the 1986 film, in contrast, has only 12 or so characters to keep track of once the action starts). Maggs does an impressive job of keeping most of them identifiable and just rounded enough to care about.
A particular thrill for the Aliens devotee comes via the returning cast members from the 1986 film. Mac McDonald (Red Dwarf’s Captain Hollister) first played Colony Administrator Al Wilson in the deleted sequences mentioned above, and the sheer distinctiveness of his vocal performance here, every line delivered with a sort of audible slouch, had me grinning throughout. Stuart Milligan, Alibe Parsons and William Hope have cameos in the Ripley sequences as the leader of the salvage team who find the frozen Ripley, Gateway Station’s Med Tech and (a rather more gravelly-voiced) Lieutenant Gorman respectively. And where the original actors have not been retained, they have, generally, been very sensitively recast in a way which maintains the authenticity of the world. As soon as Anna Friel showed an interest, any notion that the original Anne Jorden, BlackAdder II actress Holly De Jong, would reprise her role must have been obliterated; but Friel earns her place by making the character so real. And while the producers probably didn’t have deep enough pockets even to cover Sigourney Weaver’s air fare, it feels as if she is present.
A performer who will likely be familiar to listeners of BBC Radio 4 Extra, Laurel Lefkow, delivers an extraordinary and utterly convincing rendition of Weaver’s Ripley; as well as the sheer vocal similarity, she perfectly captures Ripley’s commitment, resoluteness, and dry, bleak humour. The only slight false note in the casting comes via Tom Alexander’s turn as Carter Burke; he’s fine, but he lacks the sleazy charm with which Paul Reiser masked the character’s blatant self-interest.
Unlike Aliens however, Burke is very much a background villain here, albeit one who sets the main events in motion. The drama’s principle representative of the wretched Weyland-Yutani Corporation (company slogan: “Building Better Worlds”; executive mantra: “Crew Expendable”) is Alexander Siddig’s Dr Reece, a character in keeping with one of the oldest of Hollywood conventions: English accent = evil. Siddig bubbles with dark charisma, but the subplot about Reece’s (entirely European-sounding) scientific team, newly embedded into the colony by Weyland-Yutani with secret orders to capture a xenomorph should the opportunity arise, is my least favourite part River of Pain, illustrating that the Audible adaptation’s greatest weaknesses come not from the production but from Golden’s story.
I’ve mentioned the marines as being a problem too. It isn’t simply that in Aliens there is no mention that there was already a military unit on Acheron before the communication blackout (surely Gorman’s marines would have taken the mission a little more seriously if their assignment was to rescue fellow soldiers rather than “dumb-ass colonists”, and it’s unbelievable that they would have been unaware of this fact, even if Gorman seems personally oblivious to it in his appearances here). It’s more that too much time is spent on the jurisdictional wrangling and counter-plotting between the scientific team, the marines and the colony administrators, at the expense of the ordinary colonists who I feel should be the real focus of the piece. And unless I’ve missed something, there’s never a reason given why the marines should be stationed at Hadley’s Hope in the first place. The jurisdictional arguments make it clear that it isn’t to protect the colonists or assist the scientists – so why are they there?
Having said all this, being a faithful and logical prequel can only get you so far. Golden’s story is really a remake: like Matthijs von Heijningen Jnr’s The Thing (2011), it’s an attempt at a close retelling of a popular movie in its original setting, such plagiarism licensed by virtue of the ‘this has all happened before’ plot element. Therefore we get a wisecracking military team and tense, gun-blazing xenomorph encounters in the atmosphere processors (with a spot-on recreation of the pulse rifles’ iconic stutter that reminds you of how great Aliens’ sound design was). Despite a few unwise callbacks such as a couple of Hicks’ cooler lines from the movie (“Stay frosty” and “Eat this!”) being retconned as marine catchphrases and several characters describing the hitherto-unknown alien creatures as ‘facehuggers’ as if they’re familiar with Alien fandom, River of Pain gets away with such pre-borrowings because most of the characters are distinct enough to care about, and the action scenes are suspenseful and exciting.
Unlike the 2011's The Thing or even Scott’s Prometheus (2012), here we have a pre-make that doesn’t sabotage the text it’s meant to be prefacing by tipping any surprises too early. Without giving away too much, there’s even an ending that evokes Cameron’s and sets up the kind of Aliens follow-up he might have intended – a sequel that could be envisioned, unlike the apparently-now-cancelled Alien 5 pitch from Neill Blomkamp, without the need to overwrite 1992’s non-Cameron-approved Alien3. In fact this drama and Out of the Shadows make an excellent combined case that there are still fresh, engaging, and different-yet-familiar stories to tell within the Alien universe, even when sticking close to the continuity and characters of the first couple of films. A much better case, in fact, than that made by the film series of late, which (if you include the AVP pair) has by now wasted four films on inept monster-mashes and increasingly redundant prequels.
As you might imagine, given the detail I’ve gone into, I’ve found this production very interesting and, more importantly, rewarding. Although I prefer to imagine the last stand of Hadley’s Hope as the nightmarish no-win situation hinted at by the movie (with hapless colonists throwing ‘seismic survey charges’ at aliens because they haven’t any heavy weaponry) rather than the explosive fight to the death presented here, Alien: River of Pain is a very enjoyable cover version of my favourite movie - not to mention much the best production released this year with Alien in the title - and as such I would urge listeners to give it a try.
If you’re a member of Audible you will already be able to access it, and if you’re not, the service is currently offering a 30-day free trial to new listeners. So you may not have to spend any money at all to experience River of Pain, although based its quality alone, I was moved to part with my money in order to belatedly catch Alien: Out of the Shadows and explore Maggs’ and Lefkow’s first take on Ripley and the xenomorphs. I’ll save my thoughts on that one for another day, but this particular production comes highly recommended.
Even though they really should’ve called it Aliens: River of Pain…
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