What is the Alien?
I love science-fiction.
The fact that I love science-fiction is a defining aspect of my character. The genre has influenced all my creative works whether what I write is of the same genre or not. Novels such as George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four and movies such as Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey have played a large part in defining my views of fiction and film. Orwell's novel presented a terrifying look into an alternate history where a totalitarian government had taken control of every aspect of life. That was science-fiction as a platform for a message. Stanley Kubrick's film is art in motion, using science-fiction for an abstract study of man's intelligence, evolution, and what lay in the future. These proved that science-fiction could be more than the space operas of Star Wars and Star Trek which, while entertaining, didn't touch me on a psychological or emotional level. Only one film continues to entertain me both as both a work of art and as a solid piece of entertainment.
Alien, first released in 1979, is a film that encompasses all that is great in science-fiction. The film would launch the careers of director Ridley Scott and actress Sigourney Weaver and later spawn three sequels, two spin-offs (Alien versus Predator). At the heart of the series' success is the H.R. Giger designed Alien: a creature that has stood the test of time as one of the most iconic figures in science-fiction.
What exactly is the Alien of Scott's film? An iconic movie monster for sure, but I don't think many truly grasp the creature as it was intended. In short I can describe the titular alien in two words: Beautiful Nightmare. From the moment it is born the Alien is a killer. In maturity the alien is a monster that preys on the lives of men and women, yet has such a striking appearance, and grace to its movements that one cannot look away from. It lies in wait at every dark corner, blending seamlessly into its surrounding, observing your every movement until the time is right and it emerges from its veil. The Alien of Ridley Scott's film is a seductive creature, never taking action unless it is required, never allowing itself to be revealed to its prey until it is too late for the crewmember(s) of The Nostromo to resist, at which point the creature takes its time with its kill.
Giger's creature design is a fascinating blend of organic and inorganic. A skeletal body lacking any traces of fat or muscle, pipe-like extensions sprouting from its back, and various ports and wire-like patterns tracing its body as if it had been attached to a machine, an elongated phallic shaped head without eyes with chrome fangs, with a secondary, flaccid set of jaws within its primary jaws which could stiffen and deliver killing blows like the piston of a machine, the xenomorph was unlike any monster ever seen on film before. It is as much at home in the vents and pipes of man's machinery as it would be in any natural environment.
By nature the xenomorph is similar to the opening title card of Alien where line segment by line segment the title of the film slowly is revealed. The entire movie's presentation relies heavily on the build-up to the startling events making what could be an otherwise standard sci-fi/horror movie into a real piece of art. First and foremost that is what the xenomorph is as a monster: Art. A creature that is both startlingly real in presentation due to the special effects team, yet also surreal in how Giger's design creeps into the viewer's mind, creeping into a deep part of the subconscious which Freud would have a field day with.
It is also a curious creature that toys with its prey, and observes things in detail. When encountering Jonesy the crew's cat the Alien does not attack the feline, but instead chooses to closely observe it. When alone in the escape pod with Ripley at the film's climax the creature hardly moves, blending into the pipes and machinery of the small spacecraft, observing Ripley. The Alien's mostly motionless moments with Ripley can be attributed to many interpretations of the story, but I believe the Alien knew Ripley had nowhere to go and chose to observe rather than to kill. Ultimately the "perfect organism" is overcame by one woman's resilience and bravery (I believe it was only fitting that a female character puts an end to a monster that embodies inner fears regarding sexuality).
Alien gave audiences a creature that was more than a simple shrieking beast that leapt from the hadows. Here the monster preyed as much on the crewmembers of the The Nostromo as it did on audience member's sexual insecurities. Ridley Scott wanted to emphasize the sexual aspects of the script, creating a creature who orally rapes victims before causing them to die in a perversion of childbirth. It was different both in execution, and visual design, as the monster was as much a symbol as it was something that goes bump in the night.
A sequel to Alien wouldn't come until 1986 with Aliens, a movie written and directed by James Cameron, who had just finished The Terminator and was also writing the script for Rambo First Blood Part 2. Aliens was met with universal praise and today is considered one of the definitive science-fiction movie, but how well does it fair as a sequel to Alien?
Aliens picks up decades after the events of Alien with the Nostromo's escape pod finally being found. Sigourney Weaver was back as Ellen Ripley (Weaver's Oscar nominated performance) and the plot concerned a return to the planet where the Nostromo first encountered the alien organism. A human colony has gone dark on that same planet and Ripley goes along with a crew of space marines to deal with it only to find that the colony has been overrun by xenomorphs. Ripley becomes a surrogate mother to a young girl who is the last survivor of the colony and ultimately becomes solely responsible for dealing with the xenomorph threat.
I consider Aliens to be one of the greatest action movies of all time, but for me it just isn't a true sequel to Alien. Symbolism, atmosphere, build-up, and mystery are exchanged for machine gunfire and explosions. Aliens has a lot of gunplay, and a lot of "aliens" but very little Alien in its DNA.
The alien (the species became known as xenomorphs at this point in time due to an offhand piece of dialogue by one of the characters) who once was a figure shrouded by shadow and mystery became insects, grounding them in Earth logic, and biological reasoning. Now the xenomorphs were ruled over by a Queen, with the standard alien becoming a simple drone that would run mindlessly into hails of bullets, attacking with swarm tactics, and dying by the hundreds just trying to get to eight humans. All semblances of the first film's sexual overtones is removed in Cameron's sequel. The shimmering monster now was ridged in design, removing much of the sexuality of the design.
In 1992 a third entry in the Alien franchise, Alien³, was released to a less than stellar reception.
Alien³ failed with audiences for many reasons, most notably from a technical standpoint being the fact that they tried to fuse two separate script concepts into a single plot: one where Ripley lands on a religious commune colony and must fight off the alien threat without any advanced technology, and another where the alien was let loose in a prison complex. The production also became notorious for its frantic, disorganized production (at one point they were shooting scenes the same day they were written). To this day then newcomer music video director David Fincher refuses to acknowledge the film as a part of his career.
Despite these flaws I can always praise Alien³ for its attempt at bringing back the atmosphere of Ridley Scott's original. The xenomorph was intelligent (not on the level of the original, but certainly not the mindless drones of Aliens) and kept to the dark most of the time. Giger was back as an art designer and the creature once again regained many sexually provocative features removed by Cameron, and even added some new ones (such as the new alien having plump, sultry human lips).
The monster had been changed almost completely, but Aliens turned the title into a franchise. Audiences embraced James Cameron's xenomorphs because their insect hierarchy was something any audience member could understand. The masses wanted more space marines, more of Sigourney Weaver dispatching aliens single handedly; Not a study of fear featuring a creature which was intelligent and not fully comprehendible by human minds (in short: a true alien).
These masses who call themselves fans believe the ultimate Alien movie would be an Earth infestation or a visit to the alien home world. Why? Because both of those scenarios entail an abundance of alien killing time.
Ridley Scott's Prometheus (set to be released this summer) has been officially confirmed to be an Alien prequel by its trailer which features numerous shots of Giger's derelict alien spacecraft in motion; although Scott continues to claim that the xenomorphs will not be directly playing a part in his new film. This disappointed many supposed Alien fans, who feel there is no purpose to a movie/story set in the same universe if it doesn't feature the infamous creature, but for me this news only added to my excitement for the prequel.
With any hope this is a chance to return to the mystery and intrigue of Scott's original film. With Giger as an art design consultant, Scott at the helm and a new strong female lead at the front in Noomi Rapace (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, original) Prometheus appears to be a return to Scott the mystery, and art of Alien.
Who knows whether Ridley Scott's third venture in the science-fiction genre will join ranks with Alien and Blade Runner, but if any sci-fi film of the last decade has had all the components, and potential to be something extraordinary it is Prometheus.