Alien (1979) IMDb

Categorization

Horror of a kind that plays upon a wide variety of intuitive aversions, set in an uncommonly realistic far future where interstellar travel is significantly faster than light, but significantly slower than conventional cinematic science fiction, at least here in the first film. Since I was born four years after its creation, what strikes me most about Alien is the purity of its social and economic extrapolation. It isn't scary.

Subject

The year is 2122, according to Scott Middlebrook's extensive but speculative timeline for the franchise's diegesis. Seven people constitute the entire crew of the Nostromo, an ugly freighter/refinery carrying 20 million tonnes of ore back to Earth from a corporate mining operation outside the solar system, approximately a two-and-a-half-year round trip. They awake from cryogenic sleep to find that they have automatically diverged from their original route to investigate a beacon of some sort in the Zeta Reticuli binary star system (actually 39 light years, here 10 months of travel, from Earth).

The beacon isn't obviously human in origin and may be a sign of intelligent extraterrestrial life. This would apparently be a first, making an investigation mandatory on pain of total forfeiture of shares. Amazingly, as they set down on a dusty rock called LV-426, the crew discovers that intelligent life has indeed crashed there, and died, long ago. The crew eventually finds reason to believe that their employer not only expected this, but planned it far in advance to retrieve a sample of a second alien life form kept in the vast belly of the weirdly organic derelict vessel. In every film of the franchise, there is a three-way struggle between corporate overlords, regular people (including E. Ripley) and a highly adaptable predatory species—once referred to by an apparently generic term as a “xenomorph”—wanted by the corporate overlords and their eventual successors for bioweapon research.

Commentary

The director, Ridley Scott, would go on to make Blade Runner (1982), hailed as the seminal cyberpunk film once William Gibson had consolidated the genre in Neuromancer (1984). One of the brilliant features of Neuromancer is the absence of space exploration within it: humankind has made it to a few Lagrange points and built some colonies for the very rich, but there is realistically no talk of going further because physics prevent FTL, and extraterrestrials are held over to the coda.

In Scott's two great SF films, humankind is going further, but with little change in mentality or social structure. This is the next best thing for a foreseeable-future scenario barring SF’s later infatuation with transhumanism. The biggest corporations operate on a greater physical scale, but technology has not been made intuitive, there is no political unification, and to whatever extent there is extraterrestrial life, regular humans go on living as if it didn't matter. Outer space is not the thought-provoking chain of wondrous adventures seen in Star Trek (1966) or Star Wars (1977). In Alien, outer space is a void, with the very occasional piece of engineering coasting by, silent and grimy.

The most annoying flaws are found among the special effects, including the rubbery fingers of the creature and the triple(!) explosions of the Nostromo's reactor, but there are weak parts to the script as well. Why does the company accelerate an entire refinery to some multiple of c instead of shipping the refined product? The ability of the creature to grow from the size of a foot, seemingly without eating, is unexamined. More profoundly, it is objectionable to suppose that the first “peer” humankind might find will be both absolutely hostile and humanoid in its basic nutritional compatibilities, shape, speed and size, including a small mouth that is obviously maladapted, on a head that is obviously impractically shaped. It's less alien than it is implausible. The baroquely greebled miniatures, while very impressive indeed, are not realistic either. The plot loses a little too much credibility, and therefore loses the possibility of real horror, to get its psychoanalytical tinge.

The flaws are unsurprising given how closely this film is based on Planet of the Vampires (1965). The “space jockey” corresponds to the skeletal giants of the earlier film. The facehuggers in Alien resemble the pair of hands of one such giant seen at the entrance to an alien ship. The U shape of the jockey ship echoes the prongs on the Argos and Galliott, etc. It is as if Alien were written in part on the basis of a thoroughly digested, faded memory of Italian kitsch. This does not make Scott's film any less impressive. He and O'Bannon replaced almost all of the bad ideas with good ones, but the main improvements are in execution, not imagination.

References here: Armored Trooper Votoms (1983), Gall Force: Eternal Story (1986), Blade Runner 2049 (2017).

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Sequel:

Aliens (1986) IMDb

Viewing

Review refers to the director's cut.

Categorization

A refinement rather than a reinforcement of the cyberpunk elements, with the addition of a lot of military action and general, if nuanced, technophilia, closer to the mainstream of cinematic science fiction. Directed by James Cameron, whose latest achievement at the time was co-writing Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985): not a good sign.

Subject

2179: Ripley, here named Ellen Ripley, has had the misfortune of drifting right past core system sensors in her antiquated escape pod, but is picked up by a salvage crew at the far end of inhabited space. Without reaching Earth and having no evidence of the attack, she is demoted for having destroyed the Nostromo. Her daughter died of natural causes as an old woman, in 2177. Fighting nightmares, Ripley takes a simple loading job at the docks of a major space station. Meanwhile, a goon of her old employer orders the terraforming outpost on LV-426 to inspect a certain grid reference.

Commentary

In relation to the first film, this one does about as much right as it does wrong.

  • To start with, the physical presence of corporate representatives humanizes them, which is ambiguous. In true cyberpunk, social problems are systemic rather than moral, but the appearance that Burke acts alone reduces that feeling of systemic problems just as the bureaucratic meeting strengthens it.

  • The presence of intercorporate and national organizations, including the evidently US-derived Colonial Marines as opposed to a corporate security cadre, appears to weaken the corporate system. This reaffirms traditional national sensibilities, which is not credible, and therefore bad.

  • The Marines are reasonably corrupt, which is good, but they talk about other more or less intelligent extraterrestrials (Arcturians) as if these are familiar, which is bad.

  • Androids have advanced and are portrayed with much less technophobia, which is good, albeit only as a rich contrast to Holm's superbly unpleasant Ash.

  • Also, an immaterial message travels the 39 or so LY in a week. The Sulaco seems to require about 3 months: FTL travel has become a lot faster, which is bad.

  • The idea that Ripley would have left a beloved preteen daughter to go on an approximately two-and-a-half-year trip on the Nostromo is bad, mainly because it should have been clear in Alien, but also because it makes her look like the negative stereotype of a working mother, while no father's responsibility is implied. She is simultaneously feminized by the addition of her first name and by the protection of Newt.

  • The special effects are much improved, though some back projections are obvious. One is put to great use as fake nature.

  • The hardware is justifiably the stuff of nerd legend, though speckled with technobabble and impractical details.

  • The concept of an alien queen detracts a great deal from the appealing idea that the aliens are exactly what Weyland-Yutani wants them for: weapons, designed to be deployed in the form of eggs, with no chance of reproduction independent of “space jockey” labs. The queen implies a life cycle that would require some extremely improbable conditions to have evolved naturally or to have appealed to intelligent designers, which is bad.

  • On the other hand, it does turn out that Ripley's attack on the eggs is purely destructive, and the queen's dread in that scene is a sign of empathy in her species, which would be good insofar as the species is natural, since it weakens the moral dichotomy. Ideally, it's still bad, because the aliens ought to be very unnatural in view of their other properties.

References here: Gunhed (1989), Resident Evil (2002).

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Sequel:

Alien³ (1992) IMDb

Viewing

Review refers to the theatrical cut.

Categorization

A return to basics, with weaponry inferior even to that in the first film and only one alien opponent. More artistically filmed, predominantly as near-monochrome (albeit orange) neo-noir (which is, once again, resonant with the cyberpunk subgenre), by first-time feature director David Fincher from a script credited to six different writers. The end result is an excellent, though asymmetric, marriage between high-concept SF and its grungy backwater.

Subject

Still 2179: On the way back from LV-426, an electrical fire triggered the automated evacuation of occupied hypersleep capsules. Ripley awakens, badly bruised and alone among strangers, on a terraformed planet inhabited entirely by the last remains of a Weyland-Yutani foundry and prison reserved for sufferers of XYY syndrome, meaning unusually large men who are—read “were at the time of the script”—suspected of inherent stupidity and violent tendencies. The facilities are falling apart, but a millenarian religious cult sustains a few hangers-on. One of Weyland-Yutani's most highly prized employees is leading a team tasked with retrieving Ripley, and that task is given overriding priority when certain medical results get back. Meanwhile, Ripley whispers, “You've been in my life so long, I can't remember anything else.”

Commentary

The script has an interesting history even before the lineage of credited rewrites on the one that went into production. William Gibson wrote an earlier draft that was more along the lines of Aliens, but it’s not very good. In the production version, the transition from Aliens has serious problems with plausibility but the resulting deaths are suitably unsentimental. The way Ripley picks up a new guy, and her hair, add a great deal to the successful feminism of her character, which had been significantly undermined in Aliens. In general, the acting is better here than anywhere else in the franchise.

Unfortunately, the implantation of a new queen confirms that the aliens are perfectly capable of reproducing indefinitely with enough hosts, which is implausible regardless of whether or not the species was designed as a weapon. The Predator-/“evil force”-like subjective camera, while charmingly prefigurative of the genuinely scary Alien versus Predator game (Rebellion, 1999), again humanizes the alien unsuccessfully: it just makes it less mysterious, without cuing empathy.

The best part comes after the warrior: true cyberpunk, with vicious hermetic storm troopers and a human face (which is indeed human: the ultimate representative of Weyland-Yutani is neither extraterrestrial nor artificial, hence the greatest threat is suitably systemic and internal), meets the death of the protagonist and glorious parental closure, then everything is tied up in a rather neat package, reprising the Nostromo log audio. It is, in fact, a great ending. Which is to say it would have been.

References here: “Gall Force: Stardust War” (1988).

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Sequel:

Alien: Resurrection (1997) IMDb

Viewing

Review refers to the director's cut.

Categorization

To reboot the film franchise, Joss Whedon—a lighter man than Fincher, known for Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997), Firefly (2002) etc.—wrote a script, and “Jeunet et Caro” of Delicatessen (1991) and Amélie (2001) directed it. As usual, Marc Caro handled some design aspects rather than formal direction. In terms of genre, this is a slightly picaresque, darkly farcical return to Aliens, shaped almost as a role-playing adventure.

Subject

2381: After two centuries of economic and political change, Weyland-Yutani has collapsed, along with its era of free-ranging megacorporations. A unified military entity with greater genetic know-how, and similar plans for the tissue samples Ripley left behind, has taken their place. Ripley may yet return to Earth, but only as an alien to her world.

Commentary

The cyberpunk elements are almost totally gone, in favour of generic far-future SF. While it is quite impressive of Hollywood to so profoundly alter such a familiar protagonist as Ripley, the change is almost entirely towards greater power and sex appeal, which is depressive.

The biology of the aliens is worse than ever, even if we disregard the psychic hive-mind bullshit and the sudden ability to spit acid. It is implied that the aliens adapt genetically to their prey in such a way that nothing is guaranteed to be preserved, although the evidence is weak since the queen in Resurrection has not undergone a normal process of adaptation, and still has some features of the original. If true, this would further imply that the creators of the aliens wanted a servant that would eventually become a greater threat than what it was sent out to destroy (idiotic), hence shifting the interpretation back towards natural selection. It's unfortunately not natural selection of an apparently gene-centric sort.

The film might have been better if it had focused on the implications of the aberrant queen and her “sympathetic” offspring, instead of having Gediman (Piter de Vries!) blurting out the interesting possibility in a very poor cut.

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Spin-off:

AVP: Alien vs. Predator (2004) IMDb

Categorization

Chimerical cash cow, very poorly sewing together the franchise with that of the lesser Predator (1987). The same crossover, usually with the same basic plot, has been done in several comics, novels and games, inspired by the ending of Predator 2 (1990). The only time it's been done well, to my knowledge, was in the 1999 PC horror shooter.

Subject

Present day. A mortally ill industrialist named Charles Bishop Weyland heads to an Antarctic whaling station to get his name in the history books, because there's been a weird thermal bloom beneath the ice, with no source more likely than a buried trace of some lost civilization.

Commentary

A straight example of post-Jaws “Book, Look & Hook” thinking.

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