With all the hubbub over Star Wars, I’m glad 20th Century-Fox hasn’t overlooked the 20th anniversary of its other enduring sci-fi franchise. The Alien Legacy, a gorgeous new DVD package of all four films, has just been released, giving us longtime Alien followers a chance to revisit the series, and introducing its complex pleasures to a whole new audience. In deference to that new audience, I must register the following SPOILER ALERT. Below, in discussing various motifs and themes in the Alien quartet, I’m not shy about disclosing plot points. This piece is meant as a thematic overview of the saga, to shed new light on the films for those who’ll be revisiting them. If you haven’t seen them yet, buy ‘em, pop ‘em into your home-video player of choice and enjoy; then meet us back here for the deep-dish discussion.
I admit I’m probably as much of a fanboy about the Alien films as Lucasheads are about Star Wars. People said Alien³ sucked and Alien Resurrection was weak, but I loved them anyway. For my money, the Alien quartet is the most fascinating ongoing movie series ever to emerge from Hollywood. Alien began as a moody rewrite of It! The Terror from Beyond Space and evolved into something much richer and deeper, using the twin bastard genres of sci-fi and horror to get at issues of biological, sexual, and political terror.
It is also the only ongoing American movie franchise supported by a female character — Warrant Officer Ellen Ripley, a role Sigourney Weaver originally accepted so flippantly that the studio didn’t want her. Weaver has been fine in other movies, but the Alien movies have made special demands on her, and one of the happier pleasures of the new boxed set is monitoring how much she grew as an actress between 1979 and 1997. Ripley’s reaction to the news of her daughter’s death in the director’s cut of Aliens; her face twitching ever so slightly when she and Newt are trapped in a room with a facehugger, and she sees her weapon in the next room; her long, anguished flame-out in Alien³ and her living-dead-girl blend of cynicism and innocence in Alien Resurrection — Weaver plays a symphony of notes in these films, and those who look down on the Alien series are missing, cumulatively, one of the most stunning performances in American film.
On a related note, those who went through Buffy withdrawal two weeks ago have the Alien movies to thank, in large part, for the Slayer. Forget Joyce Summers — Ripley is Buffy’s real pop-culture mom, a strong woman jousting with otherworldly demons and inner demons. Perhaps, in light of this, it’s not so surprising that Buffy creator Joss Whedon also wrote Alien Resurrection (and may direct the next installment, which for a while was rumored to be titled Alien Revelation). You see, everything is connected.
Herewith, some things to look for when you sit down to reacquaint yourself with Ripley and her pal the alien….
That line from Blade Runner (directed by Alien inaugurator Ridley Scott) could just as easily describe the Alien movies. All of them open with Ripley in some state of sleep or unconsciousness; all but the last film end with her going back to peaceful sleep, in one form or another. (In Alien³ it’s the big sleep — from which she’s rudely awakened in the next movie.) The motif suggests, to paraphrase a line Pauline Kael used in her review of The Shining, waking up into a nightmare instead of falling asleep into one. The real nightmare is the waking nightmare, though even sleep is deceptively restful — at the beginning of each film, Ripley discovers ugly things that happened while she was sleeping. Good morning — the ship has changed course and you’re not going home for another ten months! Good morning — it’s 57 years later and your daughter is dead! Good morning — you’re on a godforsaken prison planet and Newt and Hicks are dead! Good morning — we cloned you along with the alien that was inside you! Want some coffee?
In these movies, you can’t even die to get away from the horror: someone is always wrenching you back to unwanted life. In Alien Resurrection, of course, it’s Ripley. But you find this thread running through the earlier movies, too. The devious android Ash in Alien is relieved of his head, which would seem to put an exclamation point on his existence, but he’s reactivated in order to deliver some exposition. Same thing happens to the bashed-up Bishop in Alien³. In Aliens, our intrepid team of Marines discover a cocooned woman who begs, “Kill me…” — echoing the pleas of Dallas in the famous deleted scene in Alien. The cocooning scenes illustrate that the aliens would rather not just kill you. They want you semi-alive as a vessel for their young to hatch. The alien life cycle is fairly complex. The Queen Alien lays the egg. From the egg comes the facehugger, which attaches to the human and lays the egg for the chestburster, who grows into the Xenomorph as we know and love it. In Alien Resurrection, significantly, the grown Queen Alien has developed reproductive organs similar to that of a human female — a byproduct of its DNA combined with Ripley’s — and its first offspring violently rejects the Queen in favor of Ripley. Hey, I can relate.
In addition to the pleas for mercy killings by the cocooned victims, other characters voice sentiments such as you might find in Final Exit. In Aliens, Ripley tells Hicks to kill her if things look hopeless; he replies, “If it comes to that, I’ll do us both.” In the same movie, the disabled Vasquez and the previously clueless Gorman (redeeming himself in a final moment of bravery) trigger a grenade clasped tightly in their hands, in order to shitcan the encroaching beasts. In Alien³, Ripley spends half the movie fixin’ to die, and Bishop asks Ripley to shut him off because he’d rather be gone than function at a lesser capacity. Ripley does so, and he expires with an exhalation of relief — an odd detail considering that, as an android, he shouldn’t be breathing even if he weren’t gone from the chest down. In Alien Resurrection, one of the most disturbing moments in all of the series comes when Ripley finds a lab full of botched clone attempts; she finds a grotesquely malformed early Ripley clone, who also begs for death. If Ridley Scott had kept the Dallas cocooning scene, and if James Cameron had restored the scene in Aliens when Ripley hands the cocooned Burke a grenade to snuff himself with, we would’ve seen Ripley-as-Kevorkian in all four films.
For a series of films largely conceived by men, the Alien quartet has been remarkably attentive to female nightmares. Alien set the tone with its ghastly rape subtext; think of the bizarre moment when Ash tries to suffocate Ripley by jamming a rolled-up magazine into her mouth, or when Lambert is impaled by the monster’s tail, we’re given to understand, through her vagina. The alien’s violation of the human body leads to horrific, fatal births throughout the films. Aliens takes the horror into maternity: Ripley’s daughter Amanda has died while Ripley was in hypersleep, and she adopts Newt and spends half the movie protecting her.
Alien³ was a grim pro-choice movie: Ripley has a Queen alien inside her, and she wants to die so that it will die too, but the Company won’t let her — they want to extract the alien for the usual bioweapon research. (Even the inmates on Fiorina 361 won’t let her die — the alien won’t kill her because she’s carrying a Queen, so the inmates figure she’s useful as a way to ward off the beast. This is the one movie where Ripley wants to die, and even the alien won’t oblige her.) Alien Resurrection throws genetic horror into the stew, inspiring us to ponder the ways in which science has betrayed women — how much money goes into weapons research as opposed to breast-cancer research? — and once again illustrating that the patriarchy doesn’t give a damn about a woman’s right to anything: “You thought it was all over, bitch? We’re not even gonna let you stay dead.”
One way or another, Ripley has been through everything a woman can go through; that’s why she’s such an ironic, nail-tough, and poignant heroine in Alien Resurrection. What can you do to her? She’s already died once.
Without being particularly ripped-from-the-headlines, the Alien movies have always intriguingly suggested the mood of the day. Alien was released in 1979, during the last gasp of the Carter administration — not exactly America’s most optimistic era. You see it reflected in the characters’ weary cynicism, the sense that they’re all up there in this rusty piece of shit the Nostromo, doing boring jobs, arguing over the shares they’ll get when they return to Earth.
Aliens, coming smack in the middle of the Reagan years, is a kick-ass rock-and-roll assault on any threat to the nuclear family. Gone is the claustrophobic tension of Alien, replaced by a trigger-finger xenophobia. “All I need to know is one thing,” says Pvt. Vasquez, miming a gun, “where they are.” Shoot! Kill! Lock and load! In other words, it’s textbook James Cameron — and the result is a massively entertaining war movie.
Alien³ came near the end of the Bush administration; its pessimism speaks volumes about the sick soul of America post-Rodney King and post-Gulf War. The movie says that things aren’t going to get worse before they get better; they’re just going to get worse.
Alien Resurrection, only 19 months old as I write this, may take a while to disclose its full resonance in retrospect; at the moment it seems to rattle and hum with suspicions about where technology is taking us, and what we will become as a result. That’s a question that deserves to be on the table as we near the millennium — much more so than worrying about whether Johnny is watching too much violence on TV. [2001 update: With the whole cloning and stem-cell research brouhaha, this fourth chapter has now become relevant as hell.]
Throughout the series, people take their orders from Weyland-Yutani, aka the Company. Oh, dear, the Company. Always doing things that make no sense, like wanting to capture the alien for research, or even trying to train it. Those who love to nitpick movies have had a field day with the Company’s suicidally stupid agenda. What organization could possibly be so reckless? Oh, I don’t know — perhaps a government that develops a bomb capable of snuffing out all life on Earth for a million years? Or a government that allows citizens to stockpile assault rifles? The Company’s plans for the aliens are ingenious in comparison. Besides that, we’ve all worked for the Company one way or another; we’ve all had to abide by policies that make no sense. Why then do we expect fictional policies in films to make any sense? In Alien, the Nostromo is diverted to check out the unknown signal even though it’s an oil refinery ship, not a rescue ship. Why? It makes no fucking sense! Of course it doesn’t. That’s the Company for you. (In Alien Resurrection, the long-defunct Company is replaced by United Systems. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.)
The Xenomorphs, after all, are only trying to survive and reproduce, regardless of what other species it destroys — much like, say, a virus or the human race. As Ripley says in the aliens’ defense, “At least they don’t fuck each other over for a percentage.” The aliens emerge as a threat that brings out the best and worst — notably the worst — in their human foes. They’re certainly a hell of a lot more efficient and organized than we are; they are, according to Ash, “a perfect organism…unclouded by remorse, conscience, or morality.” (Sounds like an Ayn Rand character.)
But the true alien in this series is Ripley, who manages to find one or two smart, capable allies in each film but is otherwise surrounded by idiots, who are often more dangerous than the creatures. In the three sequels in particular, Ripley is the odd woman out — a flight officer among Marines, a woman among celibate male inmates, a clone among humans — and she has to struggle with them at least as much as she does with the aliens.
The sensibility of the series continues to be very post-Vietnam, betraying the franchise’s genesis in the mid-’70s. As Ripley tells the inmates in Alien³, “The first time they heard about this thing, it was ‘Crew Expendable.’ The second time, they sent some Marines; they were expendable, too. What makes you think they’re going to care about a bunch of lifers who found God at the ass end of space?” So the Company is willing to risk human lives — even to the extent, in Aliens, of terraforming a known alien hang-out — to no efficient purpose; having committed to their alien policy, they can’t pull out. In opposition to this, the protagonists in the Alien movies — whether an oil refinery crew, a platoon of grunts, a society of imprisoned monks, or a cadre of space pirates — are scruffy, working-class, jaded. They’ve seen it all and they expect to get screwed, because to the Company, the little guy is expendable. I prefer the bitter, realistic politics of the Alien series to those of, say, Star Wars, which tends to be about good royalty threatened by evil royalty. In the Alien text, there is no good royalty; absolute power corrupts absolutely.
Very few film actresses get to take a character up to death and beyond in the space of about eight hours, and Ripley has been exceptionally kind to Sigourney Weaver over the years. In Alien, Ripley is merely one of seven crew members aboard the Nostromo; with a combination of brains and luck, she manages to survive after the others take the pipe. Aliens finds her haunted by her experience yet driven to exterminate the aliens once and for all. Alien³ nudges her into suicidal despair that resolves itself into self-sacrificing heroism. Alien Resurrection clones her — she both is and isn’t the Ripley we know; she’s torn between her old obsession with killing the beasts and a new maternal instinct toward them (since her DNA is mingled with that of the Queen alien the original Ripley had been carrying).
To me, the Alien³ saga is about Ripley; the aliens are merely her dark half, the Moriarty to her Sherlock. There had been early talk of an Alien³ sans Ripley, but you could no more have an Alien movie without Sigourney Weaver than you could have an Indiana Jones film without Harrison Ford. Ripley and Weaver are the heart and soul of the Alien series. The producers lucked into a character who could be expanded upon and deepened, and they lucked into an unknown 29-year-old theater actress who could bring Ripley to life, and death, and beyond.