Reviews of Alien (1979) and related work

Alien (1979Moving picture, 116 minutes)

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.

Horror of a kind that plays upon a wide variety of intuitive aversions, set in an uncommonly realistic far future.

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. Interstellar travel is significantly faster than light, but significantly slower than conventional cinematic science fiction, here in the first film. The major innovation is the purity of the social and economic extrapolation: It’s brainier than a standard horror film.

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), Pushing Ice (2005), Adventure Time (2010), Rick and Morty (2013), Stranger Things (2016), Blade Runner 2049 (2017), Seven Worlds, One Planet (2019).

fiction moving picture

Aliens (1986Moving picture, 137 minutes)

Review refers to the director’s cut.

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. Meanwhile, a goon of her old employer orders the terraforming outpost on LV-426 to inspect a certain grid reference.

A refinement rather than a reinforcement of the cyberpunk elements, with the addition of a lot of military action and technophilia, closer to the mainstream of cinematic science fiction.

Aliens was directed by James Cameron, whose latest achievement at the time was co-writing Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985); not a good sign. In relation to the first film, this one does about as much right as it does wrong.

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. It weakens the moral dichotomy, which is good, but it blurs the worldbuilding, which is bad.

References here: “Conspiracy” (1988), Gunhed (1989), Resident Evil (2002), Stranger Things (2016), “Men Against Fire” (2016).

fiction moving picture sequel

Alien III (1988Text)

William Gibson (writer).

Read in the “revised first draft”, from early in the year.

Still 2179: Briefly drifting into progressive-controlled space, the returning Sulaco is boarded by soldiers of the People’s Commando Division. To them, Weiland-Yutani is a “capitalist cartel” in the “corporationist infrastructure”. Across the political divide, in mutual violation of their treaties, military scientists on two space stations each seek to clone and regrow the alien from its “spores”, which go airborne.

EXT. RODINA

No sign of movement.

Dimly lit. Clutter of spacesuits, machinery. The Vietnamese commando seated on the floor, back to the wall, cradling her gun. The corpse of her partner is sprawled on the deck beside her, face hideously burned, his armor fretworked with acid. Her face is blank, eyes straight ahead.

This is an unproduced, unfinished screenplay, one of many for the 1992 film. Curiously, it’s a lot like Aliens in that it does about as much right as it does wrong.

Gibson’s writing for the screen doesn’t have the mindblowing extrapolations he was doing in his novels at the time. Instead, it’s “Red Star, Winter Orbit” (1983): Commies in space, still falling behind the capitalists economically and scientifically, as they were in 1988. As Cold War allegories go, it’s really good, certainly head and shoulders above the likes of “The Omega Glory” (1968), but it’s still cheesy to see these Russian, East German, East Asian infighter stereotypes from 1980s action flicks, with “a blend of Mexican Socialists’ agitprop murals and Syd Mead” on the walls, written just a year before the Berlin Wall came down. How do you stay “five years behind” your rivals for 200 years?

The idea of the Sulaco spending just 85 minutes in commie space, course-correcting only after entering it, yet still being boarded, is also a little silly, again tugging at the franchise’s problem with degrees of FTL. The biology, on the other hand, is cool. Gibson went in the opposite direction from Cameron and Verheiden, away from a natural origin as megafauna, toward an unnatural, metamicrobiological origin as a weapon system. Apparently Ridley Scott had the same basic idea, at least of the creature in Alien being anthropomorphic because it had adapted genetically to its human victim. This is the more elegant choice, but Gibson overdid it, exceeding even the limits of plausible nanotechnology. In a brief scene, he has the alien organism melding with literal human DNA at the molecular level, suggesting something like a walking CRISPR/Cas9 miraculously compatible with a wide range of genetic materials. It’s not telepathic, thankfully, but there is no discussion of the limitations it would need to be safe to its wielder, and if it can reconstruct a genome in seconds, it seems like it ought to be smart, too.

Together, this all-out bioweapon angle and continued physical movement toward the centres of civilization from the periphery of LV-426 enable an escalation in scale and intensity, continuing the trend that connects the first two films. The “air-scrubber” and the eco-module, reminiscent of Silent Running (1972), even suggest a trend toward the larger ecology of Earth, the logical end point. It’s fun to see this from Gibson, who tends to shy away from body horror and action in his books. Made thusly invasive and extremely effective, the threat reaches Lovecraftian proportions, rather like a fast-zombie apocalypse wrapped up in a pandemic of lycanthropy. This is perfectly appropriate, given the themes of cosmic isolation and indifference in the first film, but it’s inconsistent with the earlier films. As Tully says to Hicks in the script, it makes the survivors “lucky”, leaving no more plausible explanation for their survival up to this point. The relative consistency of alien morphology on Acheron is explained only by the lack of deliberate genetic experiments there, which is flimsy. The facehuggers seem to be left without any justification, since the eggs now shoot spores like puffball fungi.

Tully’s nice: A genetic engineer who “came out here to help design ecosystems” and has images of the beauty of nature on the walls of his claustrophobic room. Not a hippie stereotype but a realistic engineer in a realistic profit-driven system. Same with Spence, winning her races to get her job. When Hicks goes to meet Tully and finds Spence in the “construction zone”, I get the sense that the basic structure of the script is sensible and Fincher would have made a better movie out of it. The implied sequels also seem promising: Hicks says “what you wanna grease is the company”, for a fourth film on Earth, and Bishop suggests they find the point of origin and destroy it, for a fifth. Those films will never happen either.

References here: Alien: Resurrection (1997).

fiction sequel text

‣‣ Alien 3 (1992Moving picture, 114 minutes) – previously

Review refers to the theatrical cut.

Still 2179: On the way back from LV-426, an electrical fire triggered the automated evacuation of occupied hypersleep capsules. Ripley awakens, badly bruised, 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 were—in 1992—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, who whispers, “You’ve been in my life so long, I can’t remember anything else.”

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.

The script has an interesting history even before the lineage of credited rewrites on the one that went into production. Practically nothing remains from Gibson’s drafts and he is not one of the six credited writers. In the production version, the transition from Aliens has problems with plausibility but the resulting deaths of Newt and Hicks are unsentimental, which is a major strength of the writing, not a shortcut. After all, this is supposed to be an uncaring universe. Verheiden, who constantly emphasized how horrible everything is in his comic, did not kill a single one of the three survivors from Aliens, instead dragging them through one battle after another, which was far less plausible. The way Ripley picks up a new guy, and her hair, restore the feminism of her character, which had been undermined in Aliens. Gibson, and to a lesser extent Christmas, had Ripley awakening to a scene of traumatizing horror and then being carted off screen, which seems more cruel and conservative. In general, the acting is better here than anywhere else in the franchise.

The implantation of a new queen by an apparently ordinary facehugger, presumably born from the queen on Acheron seems to confirm that the aliens are capable of reproducing indefinitely from any individual, as in Christmas’s version, contradicting the suggestion that 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 last: vicious hermetic Terry English storm troopers and a human face (the ultimate representative of Weyland-Yutani is neither extraterrestrial nor artificial, hence the greatest threat is suitably systemic and internal), with even the original protagonist dying and achieving glorious parental closure. Everything is tied up in a rather neat package, reprising the Nostromo log audio. It’s problematic, but if it had ended the franchise, I would still have been very happy with it.

References here: Reviews on this site, “Gall Force: Stardust War” (1988), Aliens (1988).

fiction moving picture version

‣‣ Alien 3: The Unproduced Screenplay (2019Sequential art with text)

Tamra Bonvillain (artist), Johnnie Christmas (writer-artist).

Read in 2020.

Unlike in the script, the alien is described as a von Neumann probe, each individual complete in itself, carrying the full queen genome and thus capable of reproducing indefinitely. A recombinant, more human-like warrior strikes a more purestrain warrior, suggesting that the alien species polices its gene pool rather like a natural species, despite adapting to its hosts at the genetic level.

This is only about half the material in Gibson’s script, and nothing like storyboards. It’s not quite as pretty as Aliens: Nightmare Asylum (1989), but a lot smarter, and the art brings the ideas to life. The changes from Gibson’s version are almost all to the better. Tully’s fate is one exception: Here he freezes himself, somehow overpowering the influence of the complete rewrite of his body, including his brain; more sentimental.

adaptation fiction sequential art series text

Aliens (1988Sequential art with text)

Read in 2020.

This covers the 1988–1990 span of the Dark Horse comic, across three series.

Dark Horse claims this was canon until the release of Alien 3 (1992), but that’s not really true. While it was coming out, the rights holders were actively commissioning unrelated scripts for a third film. Apparently, at least the middle section (now Nightmare Asylum) was relettered and reissued at one point on the pretense that its characters were not Hicks and Newt at all. That’s about the cheapest form of retcon I can imagine.

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fiction sequel sequential art series text

‣‣ “Aliens: Lucky” (1996Sequential art with text)

Mark A. Nelson (artist), Mark Verheiden (writer).

Read in 2020.

fiction sequential art spin-off text

Alien: Resurrection (1997Moving picture, 109 minutes) – previously

Review refers to the director’s cut.

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.

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. They’re good people, doing a job nobody should have done. In terms of genre, this is a slightly picaresque, darkly farcical return to Aliens, shaped almost as a role-playing adventure.

The cyberpunk elements are almost totally gone, in favour of generic far-future SF, along the lines of Alien III (1988). Ripley is profoundly altered and the change is almost entirely toward greater power and sex appeal, which is neither probable nor conducive to horror. It is not unlike the reintroduction of the character on the last page of Aliens: Nightmare Asylum (1989), armed to the teeth.

The biology of the aliens is worse than ever, worse than Verheiden’s version and Gibson’s combined, 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, as in Gibson’s version, 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, hence shifting the interpretation back towards natural selection. If it is natural selection, as it was in Verheiden’s comics, then it’s some new special-pleading kind of selection, not gene-centric like life on Earth.

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.

fiction moving picture sequel

AVP: Alien vs. Predator (2004Moving picture, 101 minutes)

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.

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

fiction moving picture spin-off

“Memory: The Origins of Alien” (2019Moving picture, 58 minutes)

Seen in 2020.

I saw the 58-minute cut on SVT, not the full-length version.

The production history and thematic context of the first movie, with a primary focus on Dan O’Bannon’s contributions.

Explicit references to precursors, aside from O’Bannon’s own Memory and They Bite, include At the Mountains of Madness (1936), “Seeds of Jupiter” (1951), The Thing from Another World (1951), It! The Terror from Beyond Space (1958), Planet of the Vampires (1965) and “Defiled” (1972). The type-written “Sources of Alien” list is visually quoted.

References here: Faktafel på SVT Play.

documentary moving picture non-fiction