I remember being a kid, seeing a magazine ad: a black background, grey-green egg, a tagline that woke me from my Buck Rogers reverie and thrust the reality of space exploration at me. I was only eight.
When the first ads came on TV I can recall an emphatic “Hell no!” as the response to my innocent query, “Can we go see that?” Actually, it wasn’t “Hell” that was used, it was something worse. It wasn’t that my parents cared if I was exposed to sex, violence, and bad language. It’s that they didn’t want to put up with my potential nightmares.
I can’t say I was too bummed out, but I vowed then and there to have my way. You see, being eight, it never occurred to me that other kids had concocted this plan before, so I thought I was King Shit getting away with robbing Fort Knox when I slipped out of “The Muppet Movie” to waddle my pudgy ass into the cinema next door.
To this date, that was, without argument, the single best life decision I have ever made.
OK, hardly. But I do credit that incident with Alien (and a similar one involving Blade Runner) as being a sure sign of my nascent perfect aesthetic. And not a single nightmare. Ha!
Some thirty-six years later, the movie still holds up.
In the future, a corporate mining ship, the Nostromo, is diverted to investigate what appears to be a distress beacon coming from an unknown source. Unbeknownst to the crew of the Nostromo, their expedition’s parent company, the Weyland-Yutani Corporation, has already deciphered part of the message and determined that it’s actually a warning from an alien race.
To make sure the crew secures an alien life form, the ship’s science officer, a replicant named Ash, has been given secret orders that could result in the death of the crew.
In the end, Sigourney Weaver saves the cat (and precious little else) while defeating the alien. Of course, lots of people die. Of course, there’s hair-raising suspense as Tom Skerritt sits in darkness, flame thrower in hand, waiting for his doom. Of course, there are lots of existential questions: Is the Alien intelligent? Does it feel? Is Ash a person in some sense? Was Ripley right to refuse the landing party’s request to come back aboard the ship? Why won’t this woman quit crying? Can we have a black guy who doesn’t smoke cigars and worry about money in one of these, and can he live through it? (Seriously, can we please stop killing the cigar-smoking, penny-pinching black handyman? Seriously!)
You’d think that with so many questions, the sequels (barring Prometheus which is brilliant if you get it, mind-blowingly convoluted if you don’t, and which really doesn’t count because the word “Alien” appears nowhere in the title) would find intelligent, cogent answers and, in the process, frighten us more than the original. But they didn’t. Instead, they just kind of… sucked.
What made the sequels so God awful was their reliance on canned fear. The first movie, Alien, was an actual horror movie. The sequels were action/adventure movies with a sci-fi backdrop and a decent monster.
The sequels mostly sucked… mostly.
Relying on the frightening visage of the Xenomorph to bring the horror is like relying on a toaster to prepare breakfast. The Xenomorph is one part of the horror, like toast is just one part of this complete, balanced breakfast.
9 out of 10 Xenomorphs agree….
So let’s talk about the alien itself. It has a multi-stage life-cycle and that’s pretty neat: the egg, the face-hugger, the chestbuster (or nymph,) and then the full-grown Xenomorph. It’s a process depicted in this stele by H.R. Giger.
This depiction of the lifecycle of the Xenomorph by
H.R. Giger is in the form of an Egyptian stele and
reveals something of Giger’s interest in the work of
the occultist Aleister Crowley.
The complexity of the life-cycle tells us that this is a highly evolved life form, indicative of the alien’s intelligence. Later, in one of the mostly sucky sequels (mostly,) we learn that the aliens are capable of communicating with one another. So we’re not dealing with a dumb monster here; we’re dealing with a smart monster.
Unfortunately for the sequels, the intelligence of the alien is more of a convenience to shuffle the plot along than something that works to create compelling horror. And this is why they mostly sucked (mostly.) Because a smart monster offers a real challenge. When the first Alien appeared on movie screens in 1979, it was an unknown and that terrified us. By the mid-1980s, we’d grown accustomed to the Xenomorph and we needed more. The sequels failed to deliver, except when it came to mostly sucking… mostly.