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Thursday
May182017

"Get Away from Her, You Bitch!": Revisiting the Alien Saga 

By Spencer Coile 

The tagline for the first Alien film, short and deeply frightening, reads "In space no one can hear you scream." Written in tiny font, it is placed on the poster for Ridley Scott's first venture into the Alien-universe beneath what we soon learn is the egg from which the menacing title creature is born. The image is simple but punchy, rather like the power and artistry emerging from Alien, in very much the same way the monsters pop out of humans' chests. On paper, the series is simple. But only on paper. Revisiting the world of Ellen Ripley and co. as a lead-up to the release of Alien: Covenant this weekend, one thought kept running through my mind: these films are disurbing, because they get at the root of what it means to be a human, to be a monster, and to make sacrifices that benefit oursevles, but also the greater good. What may have started out as a cut-and-paste psychological horror from 1979 soon became a story that is deeply compelling and worthy of examination.

So let's put on our space helmets, grab our flame-throwers, and start exploring the storytelling of the Alien saga...  

Because the first film is such a staple in the canon of sci-fi and horror (and has been for years), we don't need a detailed synopsis for the first venture on the Nostromo. But why is the film such a classic? Without being too obvious here, Ridley Scott is a master of space. And yes, I mean this in the sense that Alien is a taut and carefully calibrated story that takes place in outer space, but also because he so masterfully plays with the space, the characters' surroundings. Once the killer life form has burst from a man's chest, all bets are off, and each of the six survivors scramble for some sense of solace. How does one escape a deadly life form on the loose when one's surroundings are closing in? Scott explores the tight dimensions in such a way that there's no escape for us -- we're on the Nostromo with Ripley and her crew. 

Because the film is essentially a monster movie transplanted to space, it would be easy to ignore central themes regarding humanity, survival, and sexuality. But its timelessness merits discussion. The final scene in Alien features Sigourney Weaver as Ripley, having just escaped the Nostromo with Jonesy the cat, and thinking she is out of harm's way, slowly taking off her space gear until she is wearing nothing but a t-shirt and underwear. The costuming choice is famous and often dismissed as a prurient gaze. Yet in very much the way human lives are discarded just a few scenes ago, eroticization is cast aside in favor of exploring Ripley's will to live and how she will stop at nothing to destroy the xenomorph. 

Aliens (1986) is equally as compelling as Alien, although they are fundamentally different films. Whereas the first is concerned with the the claustrophobic nature of escape, the second plays out more like a straight action film. But it works, and James Cameron (taking over for Scott) deserves the credit. Asked to return back to the planet that wreaked havoc on her life so long ago, Ripley is now back with the Marines and a plot that involves bringing the alien back for monetary value. Naturally, it does not go well for anyone involved. What is especially compelling here is pushing Ripley front and center to the narrative straightaway (the first film being more of a traditional ensemble). Learning that she had a daughter who had grown up and died, and later being thrown into a situation that requires her to save Newt, the only survivor on this abandoned planet, Aliens is at its best when Ripley is her most maternal. The film earned Signourney Weaver her (much deserved) Oscar nomination for playing Ellen Ripley, and there is a rich bounty of scenes that crystallize her performance as one of the greatest of all time in the sci-fi and action genres. She is daring, bad-ass, but equally as loving and protective, Weaver is everything we could possibly want from a heroine. She carries the weight of the world on her shoulders, and through even the tiniest glance, expresses a lifetime of loss. Aliens functions primarily as an action film in space, but Cameron and Weaver's mastery of the material deepens the film considerably. 

Next up are Alien 3 and Alien: Resurrection. And honestly, the less we say about those films, the better. The former (directed by David Fincher) takes place almost directly after Aliens, and rather than functioning as a solid continuation of Ripley's story seems to scrap everything that made its predecessor great in favor of telling a new story altogether. It offers some compelling storytelling with Ripley's eventual pregnancy as host mother for the alien life form. Sadly, it cannot hold up to the two films before it and takes itself a bit too seriously. Resurrection, on the other hand, plays out like a two hour long SNL digital short. Assembling a solid cast (including Winona Ryder and Ron Perlman), the fourth film provides very little to warrant a more thoughtful discussion of the universe. 

Ridley Scott returned to the series that made his career in 2012 with Prometheus, the prequel to Alien (Alien: Covenant is thus a sequel to Prometheus). With Ellen Ripley not born yet Scott brings in Michael Fassbender, Noomi Rapace, and Charlize Theron to tell a new story, of the alien's beginning. Toying with ideas about religion and the origin of life, Prometheus is a worthier addition to the Alien series than Alien 3 and Resurrection, but there is still something missing. Alien and Aliens were razor sharp and smart genre pieces that didn't strain to express their ideas and deeper-than-expected themes. Upon Ridley Scott's return though, there's a strange insistence, "Hey, my movies are smart. Notice how deep they are!" The first films in the saga were such fascinating and complex looks at what it means to be a human, that Prometheus feels, in its worst moments, like a slap across the face as if we haven't yet acknowledge its ideas. And that is where the narrative (featuring holograms and old-man latex makeup) becomes too convoluted for its own good. 

Responses to Alien: Covenant are so far mixed. It'll be up to each us as to whether there's still anything left to say when no one can here you scream.

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Reader Comments (10)

The daughter revelation from Aliens is contained in the special edition version. Important you note that for those new to the series.

Alien 3 is a superior movie to every Alien that came after it.

May 18, 2017 | Unregistered Commenter/3rtful

Alien is possibly my favorite movie ever.


And yes, Ripley is THE best female action heroine ever. Indisputable.

May 18, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterAnonny

Aliens remains my favorite film of the series. Not just for its action but also for the ensemble.

May 18, 2017 | Unregistered Commenterthevoid99

My rank of the Alien films...

1. Aliens
2.Alien
3.Alien 3
4.Alien Resurrection
5.Alien vs.Predator: Requiem (Friday the 13th mixed with Aliens and Predators!)
6.Prometheus
7. Alien vs.Predator

May 19, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterJesus Alonso

When you see Alien Covenant although enjoyable it just proves why the first 2 films are classics in any genre but esp Sci Fi/Horror but the other 2 sequels are misunderstood also.

Weaver has something that Waterson does not gravitas and we should all bow down to Weaver for the 4 performances as they are all very distinctive in each film.

Veronica Cartwright still hold the title "Best Terrified Performance".

May 19, 2017 | Unregistered Commentermarkgordonuk

The films are also filled with some really great supporting performances the entire 79 cast esp Cartwright and Kotto,most of the principals in the 86 cast,not so much in 92 but 97's has some interesting work going on the type that may Academy recognised if in any other genre.

May 19, 2017 | Unregistered Commentermarkgordonuk

@markgordonuk

Charles S. Dutton and Charles Dance are absolutely great in Alien 3, and I also dig Ron Perlman in Alien: Resurrection. Of course, in Prometheus, some solid performances and a great one by Michael Fassbender.

May 19, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterJesus Alonso

Someone once described Alien as a haunted house story, it's just that the "house" happens to be in space, which makes a lot of sense to me.

Love Weaver's Oscar nomination. How did that even happen and I wonder how it was viewed at the time?

May 19, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterDJDeeJay

The first movie is a masterpiece of sci-fi horror and the ultimate monster in space movie.

May 20, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterJaragon

"Here" should be "hear" in that last line.

May 22, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterChecker

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