By Vanessa Crispin.
A milestone for many and still going strong with the fans, Alien (1979), was not only the first film in a successful franchise, but also a first in many other ways. Just in time for the upcoming Alien: Covenant, let’s take a look at what made the original so different from other sci-fi movies at the time.
Up until the late 1970s, most of the sci-fi and action films were led by a male hero. The first Alien film broke this pattern. The lone survivor was not a male engineer, or a weapons expert – but a female warrant officer named Ellen Ripley. Even though her character was somewhat sexualized in the final 20 minutes, most of the film portrayed her as the calm center amidst chaos. Resourceful and clever, this was a new sort of action hero we hadn’t seen before in a female lead. Sure, there had been other female leads in similar movies – only one year prior we had Jamie Lee Curtis battle a violent intruder in Halloween. But Halloween belonged to the “minor” horror genre, had a budget roughly thirty times smaller, and wasn’t an instant hit upon release.
The character of Ripley was supposed to have been a man, but Ridley Scott changed it, perhaps figuring that a female heroine would be more attractive in this kind of film, based on recent experience in the horror genre.
No matter the reason for the decision, the result irrevocably proved that female leading roles could make for hugely sucessful action films. Alien became a major box office hit immediately upon its first release.
In space no one can hear you scream
That was the famous tagline for the original movie poster. It was a big promise to fulfill. Especially since the film came out at a time when most threatening aliens on screen were depicted as slow moving, bobble-headed creatures with no real defining characteristics other than that. Aliens on film simply put, were not particulary fear-inducing. Ridley Scott was firmly aware of this fact when he took on the role as director for Alien, making sure that it would not look like, or feel like a kick-back to earlier movies in the same genre.
He wanted the audience to be thrilled, frightened. But how do you manage that when the sci-fi genre, up until that point, only offered what could be considered as harmful as a Teletubby? You turn to H.R. Giger, the Swiss painter whose surrealist style was perfect in order to create truly terrifying creatures for the big screen. His designs for the alien, or as it has been later called, the Xenomorph, is a strange hybrid of insect/human/living skeleton and is about as creepy as it sounds. It is always dripping slime, covered with a carapace, and an extra set of teeth attached to its tounge. The scorpion-like tail has a tip that can pierce you like a shishkebab.
The second thing that Ridley Scott wanted for the alien, besides the look, was a different way of moving. And the result, as we all have seen, is the primal, graceful movements of a nocturnal hunter, so different from the non-threatening lumbering of earlier extraterrestials.
Who is in command?
For a science fiction film, the acting in Alien is also something to be considered. The android called Ash, played by the very talented Ian Holm, stage actor and part of the Royal Shakespeare Company, greatly aided the films eerie and realistic tone. Many of the other actors had similar backgrounds, like John Hurt and Sigourney Weaver. Maybe this is part of the reason why the film managed to scare us so badly. The acting feels real, and the situation that the characters face feels real. Stuck in a claustrophobic enviroment without any means to escape, with a dangerous intruder, whose sole intent is to cause harm, hidden among the shadows, waiting.
In films within the genre from the previous decade or two, the acting was never a great priority. The female actors served mostly as a draw-in for movie-goers, and the men bravely fought off any slimy creature that came in their path without a bead of sweat appearing on their brow. Contemporary movies like Beware! The Blob (1972), Starship Invasions (1977) and Laserblast (1978) were closer to explotation than actual suspense. The era of real fear of an alien invasion was behind us, and the tinfoil spaceships tied to visible strings were now just that.
Apart from a remake of The Body Snatchers that came out in 1978, the genre had been more geared towards adventure and fun, as in the the first installment of the Star Wars saga.
So maybe this is what lies behind the sucess of Alien? Instead of producing an adventure movie with some light comedy on the side, it made a complete 180-degree turn and headed into darker, and infinitely more grisly territory.
The original spawned three more films where Ripley again went head on with the Xenomorphs, and then a first prequel Prometheus (2012), now to be followed by a second, Alien: Covenant. Anyone who has been following the franchise knows that much – but the quality of these later films have been somewhat varied. While the second film, titled Aliens (1986), earned Sigourney Weaver an Academy Award nomination, it was a completely different beast compared to the first in the series. While the air of suspense was still present, director James Cameron turned it into a gun-blazing action/adventure film, rather than a slow and tension-filled horror movie. It introduced us to a large group of mercenaries equipped with enough weapons to put Rambo to shame. And often when we see the Xenomorphs, it is through the lens of one of the soldiers shaky cameras, distancing us from any direct contact with the monster.
Similar, abrupt changes in the treatment of the story has charaterized each new sequel. With each new film, depending on the director, we have been given a slightly different take on what genre the franchise should fit into.
Alien: Resurrection (1997) is a movie which many fans have a particularly complicated relationship with – on the one hand, it was written by the now famous Joss Whedon and directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet, the man who later made Amélie (Le fabuleux destin d’Amélie Poulain, 2001), but it also turned Ripley into an alien/human hybrid who kept rubbing up against both people and walls like a cat. To put it mildly, it was quite a jump from the third film in the series, Alien 3 – directed by David Fincher in 1992, at a time when he was known only for his music videos – where Ripley was instead angsty, withdrawn and suicidal.
While this inconssistency does not have to be a bad thing necessarily, it does divert from the viewers expectations. This is especially true with the latest films in the franchise. Prometheus and the upcoming Alien: Covenant, are both missing the character that made the series so successful, Ripley herself. Our steely and dependable survivor girl. Without her, we do not get quite the same intense sense of struggle for survival.
Prometheus did have a designated survivor in the character Elisabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace), but she was not a fighter like Ripley. When faced with new dangers, Shaw is panicky and despondent. This may be to reflect what the viewer would be feeling in a similar situation (like finding out that you’re suddenly pregnant with a giant squid!), but this kind of function has generally been attributed to one of the minor characters, with a more fearless character in the lead. There has also been some backlash against Prometheus as being something of an undecided movie – with no clear goal in mind. All the other earlier films presented a clear goal to the viewer – survival, motherhood, protecting your loved ones and your friends. But Prometheus does not have this quality, instead it offers the viewer a mismatched potpourri of goals without an anchor to hold them in place.
In many ways, when you think about it, the franchise has reflected other movie trends that were popular at the time. In the 1980s it was all about big action movies with plenty of firepower (The Terminator , Lethal Weapon , Die Hard ) and then, in the 1990s, it became more about grungy, sleek-looking action films like The Matrix (1999).
So what could this mean for Alien: Covenant? Right now, it is becoming increasingly popular to do remakes of 1990s films, and in general it has become popular to produce films with a strong element of nostalgia of times past. While another announced Bad Boys movie has been repeatedly delayed, the remake of Beauty and the Beast came out just in time for the Easter holiday. Other 1990s films lined up for remakes are The Crow, Pet Semetary, Starship Troopers to name a few. What this pattern does tell us is that the new film in the Alien franchise might give us more of what Prometheus so sorely lacked – an actual alien instead of a giant squid.
If the title is not enough of a clue, the three different trailers that have been released certainly has fans hopeful that this one might have more substance and be more akin to the source material. So if this movie does pay homage to the original, will it be able to do it justice and still satisfy a modern audience, or will it fall flat?
We’ll get our answer when it comes stalking its way to theaters, in mid-May.
Vanessa Crispin is a freelance writer based in Stockholm, Sweden.
Read Crispin’s verdict on the film here.