No one can hear you scream

It’s kind of fitting that I should open my 2015 DVD viewing campaign with a double bill of Alien/Aliens as they were the very first DVDs I acquired after buying a player way back when. As I recall they were available in a 2 for 1 offer at HMV that set me back £21, which I considered a real bargain at the time. And, by way of context, last year I picked up 3 and Resurrection in Poundland.

Alien (1979)

I caught this at the cinema when it first came out and must have seen it at least a half dozen times since, if not more. Never mind all the science fiction trappings – it’s a horror story, a combination of the haunted house and slasher chic, with Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley as final girl. With all its dark corners and poorly lit passages the Nostromo comes across as a working vessel, the outer space equivalent of some tramp steamer in uncharted waters. It is the ideal haunted house. And then there is the alien itself, whose method of reproduction involves desecration of the human body, using us simply as a host for its young, and whose blood is acid that will eat through metal, adding yet another dimension of danger for the ship’s crew. From the very first moment it appears, bursting out of John Hurt’s chest and slithering away at a rate of knots, to the final appearance, full grown and oozing with menace, in Ripley’s escape pod, it dominates the screen, and everything that occurs revolves round its presence or absence. The characters are perfectly drawn, each give their own little quirks, such as Parker’s lust for money and Dallas’ insistence that his orders are obeyed even when against regulations and common sense, while the treachery of the company these people work for adds yet another frisson. And, in Ellen Ripley, we have a heroine worth admiring, someone who isn’t condescended to or in need of protection from the menfolk, a strong and confident woman who can take care of herself and those who need her help. It’s all good, a near perfect package of thrills and spills, with a subtext about the abuses of power.

Aliens (1986)

Hollywood logic – if one monster is good, then many monsters are better, and for once the theory doesn’t fall flat. Even more than its predecessor, this film comes with all the trappings of science fiction and an aside to the thriller genre. And yet for all that I still maintain that it’s a horror film, only this time around the genre template isn’t that of the serial killer but the zombie. The alien is no longer the seemingly unstoppable monster of the first film, – its acid blood doesn’t carry quite so much threat when confronted on terra firma, and the heavily armed space marines are more than capable of dealing with an individual creature. What makes the alien so dangerous is the sheer number of them, and that they will just keep on coming. And so it’s the cocky marines going into battle, and getting their arses kicked, until finally they start to pay attention to Ripley and her warnings, something they should have done from the very start. Aliens is a pulse pounding thrill machine that simply doesn’t set a foot wrong, with a beautiful set up for the final confrontation between Ripley, mother by proxy of the child Newt, and the alien queen, mother of a whole race. I loved it when it first came out and I love it now. It never gets old.

Alien 3 (1992)

We’re back to square one, with Ripley in cryogenic suspension, only this time she lands on a former prison colony, where the inmates have adopted an extreme form of Christian fundamentalism, and most of them haven’t seen a live woman since the last time they raped and killed one. The authorities are concerned that her presence will cause problems, and want Ripley to stay in seclusion until a relief ship arrives, courtesy of the company, who are almost certainly up to their old tricks again. Before long they have bigger problems on their hands, as Ripley has brought an alien with her. This is pretty much a repeat of the first film, the plot relocated to a prison facility, and with the single alien stalking and killing its prey, who are conveniently without any advanced weaponry to fight back, and so it is up to Ripley to come up with a plan. She has problems of her own, such as not getting raped, dealing with the idiots in charge, and the discovery of an alien queen gestating inside her own body. I didn’t think much of this when I caught it at the cinema, but it played much better second time around. You pretty much know where the story is going, but there’s a certain satisfaction in being proved right, and of course nothing can truly be taken for granted, as with the fate of the Charles Dance character. There’s a great ensemble cast also, with fine performances from Brian Glover and Pete Postlethwaite, among others. It doesn’t really add anything to the canon, but it’s an entertaining enough outing.

Alien: Resurrection (1997)

Two hundred years on and Ripley has been cloned by scientists who want to get at the alien she was carrying, but who have decided to keep her as a side experiment (the cross contamination with alien DNA has left her ‘super powered’). The rogue company has been replaced by a rogue general, who thinks that pet aliens would be really nifty for urban pacification. But of course the aliens are nobody’s science project come super soldier, and before you can say mission creep they have routed the military and taken over the space station, which is en route to Earth. It’s up to Ripley, aided and abetted by a crew of space pirates and an android Winona Ryder, to pull everyone’s fat out of the fire. Okay, this time around I’m going to say that the film is primarily science fiction, with horror grace notes, such as Ripley’s visit to a laboratory where failed clones are preserved in the equivalent of a hideous freak show. Joss Whedon’s hand in the script is obvious, with echoes of Serenity in the crew of engagingly off kilter misfits who come to Ripley’s aid, and there are questions about the nature of life/existence courtesy of both Ripley (an alien/human hybrid) and Ryder’s Call (an android who should have been ‘recalled’), and of course all the usual subtexts about the things that are done for power or profit, this time around dressed up in a gossamer shroud of social responsibility. And, of course, there’s an exciting fight for survival, with the aliens their usual nasty selves, albeit at times you can’t help feeling that their victims really were asking for it, as with the creepy scientist who gets a kick out of training them with his version of tough love. It’s not as good as the first two movies, but superior to 3 in my opinion.

Now I’m wondering if I’m in a suitable state of mind to check out Prometheus again, or could that be an alien too far?

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4 Responses to No one can hear you scream

  1. One of the many wonderful aspects of Alien to me Pete is how the creature kept changing appearance. First an egg, then a face-hugger, then a chest-burster, and finally its full-blown horror. That concept of a monster repeatedly transforming itself was, as far as I can remember, a unique idea at the time. And it does make the creature unknowable because its appearance is not constant, therefore presenting it as truly alien. Ungraspable. We saw that same idea of transformation used later in Carpenter’s The Thing, and in a different way in Predator, where the creature’s true appearance was only gradually revealed to us in layers (invisibility, armored, mask removed). That extra effort to astound now seems to have gotten less popular, unfortunately. But it is a powerful idea.

    • petertennant says:

      Cheers Rob. I agree that the protean quality of the creature was a big part of its effectiveness, because as you say we didn’t know what form it would take next, though it wasn’t something I thought made it truly alien so much as the equivalent of terrestrial creatures with a similar life cycle such as the butterfly or, probably more appropriate given the queen and hive nature of the creatures, an ant. As far as I know though, you’re right that it was the first time on film for an intelligent creature doing that (but examples in fiction that predate the film, such as the Bugs in Heinlein’s “Starship Trooper”). The real horror for me was that the aliens were indifferent to human beings aside from our use as raw material to house their larva/pupa. We become a cocoon, and nothing more than that.

  2. Rolnikov says:

    I’ve found that Prometheus is much better if you watch it in a language you don’t understand. Lets you enjoy the pictures and the tension without worrying about the logic.

    • petertennant says:

      Last time we did that it was with “I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry”, with the soundtrack in Hungarian. I’m not sure we enjoyed it more exactly, but it was an interesting experience.

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