Those of you who've known me for any length of time are probably well aware of my ongoing obsession with Alien franchise, specifically the first film, and all things Giger related. Alien was more then just another monster movie, it transcended typical horror films and gave us something that stimulated the imagination as well as giving us the creeps. It achieved things few works of fiction have, and it's something that never really carried through into its sequels for the most part, including James Cameron's excellent "Aliens" title which followed. Ridley Scott's upcoming Alien: Covenant looks like it may also miss the original mark, and I want to talk about why, about what made Alien special, and what the other films have been missing.
A great deal of this has to do with the aesthetic and atmosphere of the original film. Depictions of the franchise's primary villain have changed over the years, and I would argue they've changed in ways that have made it less interesting and fundamentally more mundane. The original Alien of course was based on the works of H.R. Giger, famous for his paintings of biomechanical horrors inspired by the night terrors he suffered from. The original alien was not just a hostile creature, it was a fusion of the organic and synthetic, a blending of things that are normally apart...not the typical cyborgs of science fiction, but something else, something fundamentally different from our experience with what life is;
The smooth curve of its scull and the ribbing of its skin blended perfectly with the metal and pipes of the Nostromo, so much so that Ripley at the end of the first movie doesn't even realize she's standing right next it. It is camouflaged, but not to hide among rocks and plants, but among machines, steam vents, and industrial hellscapes. This is a creature at home in the lonely depths of space, it can survive vacuum, it can lie dormant for untold years without sustenance, the accents of its body have the appearance of tubes, hydraulics, hoses, and things that are artificial and yet blended seamlessly with the organic. It is similar enough to remind us of ourselves, and it is wholly other, it is something unnatural, it is very, very wrong.
That really was the essence of this creature. More then just jump-scares and killing, what is terrifying about it is how it suggests things in the universe that are beyond our ken. From those first moments when the crew of the Nostromo venture into the hull of derelict ship that looks grown as much as it was built, and see its pilot seemingly fused with the ship itself, you know have entered a realm dominated by things fundamentally inhuman.
When we come to the second film, Aliens, our creature has changed. It's an effective movie, and still quite scary, but the basic feel and design of the creature has changed. Its more bony, less artificial, it is more purely organic in its appearance. It is still frightening, but it's frightening in the way that Jaws is frightening, something big is going to eat you. It seems to have lost some of its other-worldliness though...what we are seeing now is more of a classic monster. Threatening, but not so different from a tiger or a bear...powerful, dangerous, but it doesn't threaten our understanding and perceptions of what exists beyond our own experience the way the original did.
To try and expand on the difference here, I'm going to talk about The Borg for a bit, contrasting their original depiction in The Next Generation, and how I feel that what started out as a truly horrific villain lost its edge in First Contact and Voyager in a way that I think is quite similar. The Borg, like the mysterious pilot of the first Alien film, represent something that is genuinely removed from our experience. It's more then just people in costume or fancy CG, they are something more, the design of their ships lays the groundwork in being divorced from what we expect a spaceraft to look like.
In both cases, the inhabitants of these respective ships do not give us anything we can interact with in a normal way. In the case of the derelict its a biomechanical parasite, but in the case of the Borg, while you can converse with them, the way in which they exist bears little common ground on even the most basic levels with us. This is made most clear when Picard is standing aboard their ship in "The Best of Both Worlds", facing the collective...the whole collective...he's not talking to a leader, a queen, a diplomat, he's talking THE BORG...ALL of them.
The Borg: Freedom is irrelevant. Self-determination is irrelevant. You must comply.
Capt. Picard: We would rather die.
The Borg: Death is irrelevant. Your archaic cultures are authority-driven...
The encapsulates what makes the Borg something truly alien to us. Death has no meaning because there are no individuals. They are a collective, all minds are one. Later the queen gets introduced, the Borg are reduced to yet another set of aliens in prosthetic you can sit down and have tea with. For this brief period though in the early part of the show, they, like the original Alien, suggested a universe that was vast an terrifying. They make us feel small, they make the unknown feel overwhelming and unknowable. They suggest things grander then we could hope to describe, and that stimulates the imagination in new ways. Its more then just being frightening, it expands our conception of what is and what can be.
The Xenomorph of Alien: Covenant, unfortunately (in my view) looks like its continuing that trend of emphasizing the organic over its biomechanical origins.
Inevitably, the closer such a villain is brought to our way of thinking, the more it is made into something we can understand the nature and motivations of, the less frightening it becomes. How much less imposing were the giants of Promethius in their mechanized exosuits then the strange, unknown creature of the first film, fused to its chair, a member of a race unknown the very nature of whose existence was disturbing. This was not something you wanted to go out and find...it was something you ran from, or hid and hoped it never noticed you.
So what will the new movie give us? Is it going to truly be a new Alien film, or will it be Jaws and zombies in space? Is it going to be jump scares, or the terrifying (but mind broadening) implications of Lovecraftian cosmicism? We'll have to wait and see...certainly I am hoping for the later.