© 2019, by M. Keith Booker
Alien had already been in development for some time before the huge commercial success of Star Wars in 1977, but that success encouraged Twentieth Century Fox to push for the production of Alien with a stepped-up budget and timetable. The result was another of the signature science fiction films of the American cinema, though it was a film that could not have been more different from Star Wars. Ridley Scott combined horror with science fiction to produce a film with a dark theme and a dark look, while also introducing one of the most compelling characters in SF film, Sigourney Weaver’s vulnerable but tough-as-nails Ellen Ripley. Though not as popular as Star Wars, Alien was still a big commercial success, demonstrating that science fiction films could make money, even when aimed at adult audiences. Meanwhile, the distinctive dark, industrial look of Alien influenced any number of subsequent films, including one of the most successful sequences of sequels in SF film history.
Alien begins with a quick tour of a spacecraft, which on-screen text identifies as the Nostromo, a “commercial towing vehicle” with a crew of 7 and a cargo of a refinery that is processing 20,000,000 tons of mineral ore that is being returned to earth. The ship has a highly industrial, somewhat used and run-down look, very much in contrast to the shiny, immaculate spacecraft of predecessors such as 2001:A Space Odyssey (1968) and Star Wars (1977). Eerie shots of the seemingly empty ship are followed by a shot of the crew awakening from hibernation, their pods springing open on the order of “Mother,” the ship’s main computer. After they awake, the crew gathers for breakfast, giving us a chance to meet them. Appropriate to their ship, they are a far cry from the dashing heroes of much science fiction. Envisioned by the filmmakers as a group of “truckdrivers in space,” they are not in space to seek adventure or knowledge; they’re simply there to collect a paycheck. Moreover, introducing the theme of economic motivation that will be crucial to the entire film, we learn early on that some of the crew are being paid more than others, much to the displeasure of those who are being paid less. Thus, Brett (Harry Dean Stanton) and Parker (Yaphet Koto), bring up their contention that the “bonus situation” is not equitable because they are only receiving half shares. Captain Dallas (Tom Skerritt) simply replies that they are getting what they contracted for, without commenting on the fairness of the contracts. This scene also introduces the second officer Kane (John Hurt), the third officer Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), the science officer Ash (Ian Holm), and the navigator Lambert (Veronica Cartwright).
Soon the crew members discover that they have not been awakened because they are approaching earth, as they had expected. Instead, they are in a strange solar system, where Mother has picked up what may be a distress beacon. When the crew complains about the diversion (and Parker suggests that he should be paid extra for it), Ash explains that they are contractually obligated to investigate any signs of intelligent life, on penalty of total forfeiture of shares. They hone in on the signal and find that it is coming from a small planetoid, so they undock from the refinery they are towing and land the Nostromo on the planetoid, near the source of the signal.
The ship is damaged in the rough landing, necessitating repairs by Parker and Brett, the working-class members of the crew—who greatly resent the fact that Ripley joins them on the lower decks as they work, though the resentment seems to be more because she is an officer than because she is a woman. They seem to feel that she is invading their territory, thereby challenging their competence to do their jobs. Meanwhile, Lambert, Kane, and Dallas suit up and go outside to seek the source of the signal. They struggle through a weird, stormy, low-visibility landscape and trace the signal to the wreck of a strange, almost surreal, alien spacecraft. Inside, they find what seem to be the fossilized remains of an alien pilot, looking as if it had exploded from the inside. Kane then discovers a hot, damp chamber that seems to be full of some sort of eggs. When he examines one of them, it stirs with life, then opens up, revealing a pulsating mass, which suddenly leaps from the egg onto the faceplate of Kane’s helmet. Dallas and Lambert rush him back to the landing craft. Ripley is reluctant to allow them inside with the alien life form attached to Kane, due to quarantine regulations. Ash, however, opens the hatch (ostensibly out of humanitarian motives, though we later realize that he simply wants to retrieve the alien), even though Ripley is his senior officer.
Inside, Ash and Dallas crack open the faceplate of Kane’s helmet and find a weird, tentacled creature attached to his face inside. They work inside the ship’s medical facility to get the thing off, while the others look on from outside. Unable to remove the creature, they scan Kane’s body, finding that the creature has an appendage down Kane’s throat, apparently feeding him oxygen. Dallas orders the creature removed from Kane; when Ash tries to cut through a tentacle, a yellowish fluid, apparently the creature’s blood, spills out of it and eats through the floor, drops to the next deck, and begins to eat through there as well. Dallas concludes that the fluid must be some sort of “molecular acid.”
Parker and Brett continue to work to repair the Nostromo, while Ash continues to examine the strange creature, which he finds has the ability to shed its cells and replace them with polarized silicon, which gives it a “prolonged resistance to adverse environmental conditions.” Soon afterward, though, it spontaneously drops off of Kane’s face and dies. Ash begins to dissect it as Dallas and Ripley look on. Ripley wants it off the ship, but Ash regards it as a valuable scientific specimen. Dallas sides with Ash, telling Ripley that Ash has authority in scientific matters.
Dallas insists that they take off immediately, though the repairs are not fully complete. They make it back to the orbiting refinery, where Lambert calculates that they are still ten months from earth. Kane, meanwhile, regains consciousness and seems to be recovering well. They decide to have a meal before going back into hibernation and heading for earth. As they eat, Kane seems to be choking. They lay him on the table and restrain him. Suddenly, blood spatters from his chest as he thrashes wildly about. A weird, bloody alien creature emerges from his chest as the others look on in horror, then takes off, skittering across the room.
The remaining members of the crew place Kane’s body in a coffin and eject it from the ship, while the creature remains loose on board. They mobilize to search for it; in the process, Brett is snatched by the alien, now grown much larger, and taken into an air duct. The others, realizing that the alien is using the air ducts to move about the ship, decide to hunt it there. Dallas goes into the duct system with a flamethrower, making his way forward as they close hatches behind him, presumably cornering the alien. The others monitor his progress, but lose his signal as he comes upon the creature. When they investigate, they find only his flamethrower. Ripley, now the senior officer on the ship, wants to continue Dallas’s plan of driving it through the airshafts to an airlock. However, she first goes into the console room—a chamber of flashing lights that might have looked at home in 2001: A Space Odyssey—to consult Mother. And the appearance of this room is entirely appropriate, because Mother herself is a sort of descendant of the earlier film’s infamous HAL. Ripley discovers that Mother, in league with Ash, has ordered the return of the “organism” for study at all costs, the crew having been declared expendable. Furious, Ripley confronts Ash with this information. They struggle. He weirdly attempts to kill her by shoving a rolled-up girlie magazine down her throat in a symbolic rape that also recalls the attack of the original alien on Kane. The others arrive to join the fray. Parker slugs Ash, who begins to go wild and to spew white fluid from his mouth. Parker knocks his head off, finally stopping him. Ash is a robot. The robot, head dangling, attacks Parker, but they finally deactivate it.
Ripley theorizes that the company wants the alien for its weapons division and that Ash has been protecting it all along for that reason. They manage to reactivate Ash in order to interrogate him about his orders from the company. He explains that he was ordered to bring back the creature, “all other priorities rescinded.” Parker angrily sums up the film’s verdict on the company: “The damn Company. What about our lives?”
Ash further warns them that the creature cannot be killed: “It’s a perfect organism. Its structural perfection is matched only by its hostility.” He admits that he admires its “purity,” because it is “a survivor, unclouded by conscience, remorse, or delusions of morality”—much like the Company itself. In response, Ripley decides that they should blow up the ship and try to get back to earth in the shuttle. She sends Lambert and Parker off to gather coolant for the shuttle’s air support system, then prepares to set the Nostromo to self destruct, which will leave them ten minutes to escape. First, though, she goes off in search of Jones, the ship’s cat—which has appeared in the film mostly as a sort of snarling beast, sometimes mistaken for the alien, accompanied by hints that it might have been impregnated like Kane or otherwise somehow possessed by the alien. In the meantime, the alien attacks (and apparently kills) both Lambert and Parker. Ripley keys in the emergency destruct sequence, then prepares to leave the Nostromo. On the way out (in a gruesome scene added for the 2004 Director’s Cut), she discovers Dallas and Brett, formerly presumed dead, encased in some sort of cocoon-like mass, where they will apparently be used as hosts for the gestation of more creatures. This fate is clearly more horrifying than simple death, and Dallas begs Ripley to kill him. His pleading “Kill me,” clearly echoes the pitiful “Help me” cry of the human-fly hybrid caught in a spider web at the end of the 1958 horror classic, The Fly.Ripley blasts him and Brett with a flamethrower.
Ripley finds her path to the shuttle blocked by the alien. She runs through the dark ship, as the option to override the automotic detonation procedure expires. Mother announces that the ship will detonate in five minutes. “You bitch!” screams Ripley, smashing a panel. Then she again heads for the shuttle. On the way, she manages to retrieve Jones, with the suggestion that she might thereby be taking the alien aboard the shuttle. They lift off in the shuttle as the countdown on the Nostromo reaches twenty seconds. They get clear in time to watch the explosion of the ship. “I got you, you son of a bitch,” Ripley mumbles, apparently regarding the alien as male.
She and Jones appear to be heading safely for home. She puts the cat in a hibernation chamber, then undresses and sets various shuttle controls as she prepares to hibernate as well. Suddenly, an alien claw pops out of a console. The creature is on board, after all, though not via Jones. Terrified, Ripley slowly slips into a spacesuit. Trying to hold it together, she haltingly sings “You are my lucky star” as she straps herself in and evacuates the ship, propelling the alien out into space. It grabs the hatchway as it leaves, so she shoots it with a grappling hook, knocking it into space, but leaving it tethered to the ship by the line attached to the grapple. It tries to climb back in through a rocket exhaust. Ripley lights the rocket and blasts the creature away into space once and for all. Peaceful music announces her victory.
Ripley records her final report before going into hibernation, noting the destruction of the Nostromo and the rest of the crew. She also indicates that she plans to reach the “frontier” in about six weeks, hoping the “network” will pick her up. She goes into hibernation, as the end credits roll over a starry spacescape.
The exact source of Alien is the subject of some controversy. The film was ostensibly based on an original story idea by Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett, scripted for the screen by O’Bannon. O’Bannon and Shusett freely admit that were greatly influenced by previous science fiction films, among which It! The Terror from Beyond Space (1958) probably deserves the most prominent mention, though the SF comedy Dark Star (1074, scripted by O’Bannon and directed by then-newcomer John Carpenter) is also an especially important predecessor. In addition, science fiction pioneer A. E. Van Vogt filed suit after the release of the film, claiming that it was inspired by his short stories “Black Destroyer” and “Discord in Scarlet” (both 1939), which were folded into the 1950 novel Voyage of the Space Beagle. He may have had a point. “Black Destroyer” features a deadly alien creature that stows away aboard a human ship, while another stowaway killer alien in “Discord in Scarlet” lays eggs inside human hosts. In any case, Van Vogt settled out of court (for a considerable monetary settlement), and his stories are now widely considered to be a source for Alien and its sequels. On the other hand, the elements that make Alien truly special as a film (the design of the alien itself, the female protagonist, the evil Company, the industrial-looking spaceship) are entirely missing from the Van Vogt stories.
Alien was a highly successful film that won an Oscar for best special effects and was nominated for another for best art direction and set decoration. In general, however, it made far less of a splash than had Star Wars, its direct predecessor at Fox. Over the years, however, Alien has joined Blade Runner (1982) as the two SF films to have received the most serious attention from academic film critics. In addition to its innovative visual style, Alien has attracted significant critical attention for a number of reasons, including its mixture of genres and other postmodern elements, its thematic treatment of gender and sexuality, and the implications of its representation of the predatory Company.
Certainly, one of the most important elements in the success of Alien involves the decision to make the Nostromo look like a working piece of industrial hardware. Ron Cobb’s design of the ship’s interior adds a great deal to the believability of the film, while also helping to reinforce the film’s vision of a rather dystopian future and to enhance the film’s sense of terror. Thus, the dark, dank, claustrophobic passages and chambers through which the crew of the Nostromo pursue (or are pursued by) the alien surely work better for the purposes of this film than would the gleaming, spacious corridors of the large ships in Star Wars or Star Trek. Meanwhile, all the visible (and slightly worn and dirty) machinery that we see aboard the Nostromo helps to remind us that this is a working vessel and that the humans in the crew are simply trying to get home to collect a paycheck.
Meanwhile, the design of the alien itself (in its various transformations), as well as the design of the alien ship on which it is first found, are among the most memorable designs in all of SF film. Swiss surrealist artist H. R. Giger was contracted to do these designs, after O’Bannon had discovered visions of bizarre, nightmarish (but oddly sexual and strangely beautiful) alien creatures in Giger’s book Necronomicon. The results have become almost legendary, and Giger’s design of the alien craft is not only effectively weird but also makes a nice contrast to the down-to-earth, engineering-oriented design of the Nostromo, clearly establishing that this ship was constructed by a culture very different from our own.Meanwhile, Giger’s alien (the adult version of which was actually constructed by creature master Carlo Rambaldi) is among the most effective in all of SF film, especially given that it is actually a rather low-tech creation (though it would be gradually supplemented by computer-generated imagery in the sequels). The main adult alien, in fact, was literally a man (7’ 2” Bolaji Badejo) in a rubber suit, much like the famed monsters of low-budget films such as those made by Roger Corman—which was, incidentally, precisely the kind of film originally envisioned by O’Bannon and Shusett, who nearly signed with Corman before taking the project to Fox. Aided by Giger’s design and Rambaldi’s technical skills, this monster went far beyond its predecessors, however, achieving a combination of strangeness, scariness, beauty, and sexuality never before seen in a movie monster. Meanwhile, Scott greatly enhanced the effectiveness of the alien by keeping it somewhat mysterious and never really giving us a very good look at it, somewhat in the vein of the fleeting shots of the aliens in It Came from Outer Space (1953).
Of course, the aliens of It Came from Outer Space were benevolent, hated and misunderstood by xenophobic humans largely because they looked different. The title figure of Alien is a genuine monster, seemingly driven only by the dual urge to kill and to propagate. In addition, it is a dark and lurking monster of the kind found in horror films rather than a classic movie monster in the mold of King Kong or Godzilla. Indeed, Scott has suggested that his major inspiration for the horror elements of the film came from Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), and it is certainly the case that Alien has more in common with slasher films than with classic monster movies or alien-invasion films. It might be noted, in fact, that John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978) started a frenzy in American popular culture that made slasher films all the rage for several years and that Alien clearly participates in this phenomenon.
In addition, if the gleaming spaceships of most SF films open up outer space and allow the inhabitants free range of the galaxy, the dark, spooky Nostromo has a great deal in common with the isolated and claustrophobic country houses of numerous slasher films, which enclose a small group of victims in a small space as a deadly killer slowly picks them off one after another. Interestingly, one of the most common distinctions made by critics between the horror film and the science fiction film is that the former usually involves violence and terror visited upon a few individuals in a small enclosed space, while the latter often involves cataclysms that threaten to destroy a large city or even an entire society or planet. In this sense, Alien would seem more horror film than science fiction. On the other hand, the makers of Alien and its sequels seem to go out of their way to suggest that their central monster represents a threat that goes far beyond the Nostromo or other ships and that, if it ever manages to escape the confined spaces of the films, it might sweep across the galaxy like some sort of contagion, destroying everything in its path and threatening to eliminate life altogether.
This aspect of the Alien sequence is not necessarily convincing: it requires the assumption that the alien eggs found in the first Alien film are the only ones of their kind anywhere in the galaxy and that the creatures that spring from them are the only members of their species. Yet there is no real reason to believe this to be the case, other than the fact that the alien craft on which the eggs are discovered apparently crashed so long ago that its dead pilot is now fossilized and that no other aliens have been encountered in the intervening time. This problem aside, the suggestion that the aliens threaten the entire galaxy joins with all the film’s outer-space setting and extensive SF hardware to make Alien quite clearly a science fiction film first and foremost, with horror elements that are only secondary.
Of course, by this distinction, science fiction will almost always dominate horror as a genre: a combined threat to both individuals and an entire society is no different from a threat to an entire society. In the case of Alien, the dominance of SF over horror is furthered by the fact that the monster is entirely natural and that the film contains no elements of the supernatural or of evil in the metaphysical sense. (The alien is not evil; it is simply unable by its nature to coexist with humans.)The same might be said for a film like Roger Donaldson’s Species (1995) or Christian Nyby’s prototype for such combinations, The Thing from Another World (1951). Nevertheless, it might be interesting to consider the proposition that this phenomenon is a quite general one and that science fiction, when combined with horror—even Gothic and supernatural horror, as in Hooper’s vampires-from-space flick Lifeforce (1985, co-scripted by O’Bannon) or Paul W. S. Anderson’s Event Horizon (1997) and Resident Evil (2002)—virtually always comes out as the dominant genre. One could even say, in fact, that science fiction tends to dominate when combined with any other genre, as in Scott’s own hybrid of SF and the film noir detective story in Blade Runner (1982), in Peter Hyams’s combination of SF with the Western in Outland (1981), or Joss Whedon’s combination of these dame two genres in Serenity (2005).
Alien, of course, presents us with a number of hybrid forms, a tendency that combines with its multigeneric nature to make it the subject of much critical discussion of postmodernism in film. For one thing, the film’s seemingly simple opposition between human and alien is gradually dismantled in the course of the film, producing a typically postmodern challenge to dualistic thinking. After all, the crew of the Nostromo encounters not one, but two different alien species if one counts the fossilized alien pilot, reminding us that humans are not the only bearers of advanced technological civilization ever to have graced the galaxy. In addition, the living alien of the film is so mutable and goes through so many transformations in the film that it seems like several different species in itself. And, finally, this alien life form is not the only sentient Other to which humanity is opposed in the film, Mother and Ash providing still another image of a distinctive mode of intelligent existence that seems alien to our own.
Of the thematic hybridizations and boundary-crossings that are so central to the film’s effects, the most extensively critical attention has been devoted to the film’s transgression of traditional gender boundaries. The strong, tough Ridley, who contrasts so dramatically with the typical film heroine, is the most obvious of these stereotype-shattering transgressions, and it is certainly the case that her character paved the way for her increasingly strong characterization in the later Alien films, as well as such later SF film heroines as the much-threatened but highly resilient Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) of James Cameron’s The Terminator (1984), who emerges in Terminator 2 (1991) as a muscular, gun-toting guerrilla fighter. Ridley also paved the way for non-SF heronies, such as Nikita (Anne Parillaud), the deadly, ass-kicking title character of Luc Besson’s La Femme Nikita (1990).
The transgressive representation of Ripley in Alien reaches its peak in the final confrontation with the alien on the shuttle. As Ripley strips to her underwear, leaving her vulnerable and exposed (to both the audience and the alien, both of whom become voyeurs at this point), she seems to become the classic female victim of the horror/slasher film, only to turn the tables when she still proves capable of defending herself and of blasting her alien rapist/attacker out into space. Here Ripley not only violates the conventions of the film heroine (in almost any genre), but Alien almost playfully mocks the conventions of the horror film genre (as it also does when it continually teases us with the unfulfilled expectation that Jones the cat will surely become host to one of the aliens). Indeed, Alien’s relative lack of respect for the conventions of the horror film is another of the ways in which it signals its greater allegiance to the SF genre.
The gender transgressions of Alien go far beyond the characterization of Ripley. The attack on Kane by the alien in its “face-hugger” incarnation clearly functions as a sort of rape, leading to the explosive appearance of the “chest-burster” alien in an obscene parody of childbirth. This whole motif thus involves a sort of sexual encounter between an alien and a human, a boldly transgressive move made all the more so by the fact that Kane, a human male, plays the female role in this relationship. Further, the adult alien tends to take its victims by impaling them on its thrusting claw, a gesture of penetration that has sexual implications made all the more obvious by the sinuous, sensuous, and phallic nature of the alien itself.
From a psychoanalytical point of view, the alien is clearly something like a beast from a Freudian nightmare. However, the beast is a sort of capitalist nightmare as well. The film openly invites readings within the context of capitalism with its portrayal of the greedy, grasping Company, willing to risk not only the crew of the Nostromo but all of humanity in its quest for increased corporate profits. This aspect of the film suggests a dystopian future in which the socioeconomic woes of the twentieth century have been far from solved. But it also, like all of the best science fiction, provides a commentary on the contemporary context in which the film itself was produced.
On the other hand, while the portrayal of the brutal Company in Alien is particularly striking and effective, the motif suffers a bit from being all too familiar. Greedy, unprincipled corporations are a stock image of American film, SF or otherwise, a phenomenon that allows audiences to congratulate themselves on understanding the ruthless power of corporate capitalism, while producing the illusion that, armed with this knowledge, we are equipped to resist this power. Alien, however, supplements its portrayal of the Company itself with other motifs that significantly enhance the film’s critique of capitalism. For one thing, the suggested spread of capitalism into deep space seems to verify the insight of Marx and Engels in The Communist Manifesto about the inherently expansionist tendencies of capitalism, which for them by its nature must continually mutate and grow like a contagion in order to survive, gobbling up everything in its path. For another thing, the portrayal of social relations on the Nostromo, in which gender and racial differences seem to matter very little, but in which class differences are still quite important, can be taken as a verification of the Marxist point that class differences are the most fundamental social distinctions under capitalism and as a rejection of the tendency of contemporary American society to obscure the reality of class difference by concentrating instead on the categories of race and gender.
Ultimately, however, the film’s most interesting commentary on capitalism may reside in the alien itself. Gleaming and beautiful, but deadly and unstoppable, the alien in many ways functions as a clear allegorical embodiment of the workings of the capitalist system. Indeed, the portrayal of the alien as predatory, unstoppable, constantly changing, and endlessly adaptable, threatening to sweep across the galaxy devouring everything in its path, resembles nothing more than the characterization of capitalism in The Communist Manifesto. Similarly, the ruthless single-mindedness of the alien, which is driven only by the desire to propagate, resembles the relentless expansionism of capitalism. Even the horrifying use of humans as disposable hosts for the production of alien offspring invites allegorical comparison with capitalism, which similarly uses human beings as tools in the never-ending quest to produce more capital.
In this sense, Alien may be a far more radical film than it first appears to be—or than its makers themselves intended for it to be. On the other hand, by including an overt critique of capitalism in their portrayal of the predatory Company, Alien seems to invite comparisons between the alien and the Company and, by extension, capitalism as a whole. In any case, whether one sees the alien itself as an emblem of capitalism, the success of the Alien series of films suggests that it taps into the fears and anxieties of its audience at a profound level and that the predicament of the crew of the Nostromo—regarded as disposable tools by their own employer while trapped and terrorized by irresistible inhuman forces they can neither understand nor control—reflects the experience of numerous individuals in our contemporary world.
Note on Alternative Versions
Several slightly different versions of Alien have been released in different video formats and in different countries over the years. The two principal versions, both available in the 9-disc “Alien Quadrilogy” DVD Box Set, are the original theatrical version and the 2003 Director’s Cut. The 2003 version may be slightly superior, though Scott himself has oddly expressed a preference for the original version over the thusly misnamed “Director’s Cut.” Some added footage (most importantly that involving the cocooned Dallas and Brett) actually changes the implications of some parts of the film, while the slight trimming of other scenes makes them a bit tauter. Overall, the Director’s Cut is actually one minute shorter than the theatrical version. In addition to the theatrical versions of all three sequels, the DVD set includes Special Editions of those films as well, most of which are changed simply to add footage (the Special Edition of the third sequel, Alien: Resurrection, is thirty minutes longer than the original version).
Alien was a truly groundbreaking film that changed the face of science fiction film forever. Visually, it helped Scott to refine the noir look that he perfected in Blade Runner three years later and that appears in any number of science fiction films of the last quarter of a century, perhaps most effectively in Alex Proyas’s Dark City (1998). Meanwhile, the industrial look of Alien was quickly adopted by films such as Outland and also appears in later films such as Event Horizon, though the eponymous ship of that film—which has literally been to hell and back, bearing with it the spirit of evil—also contains a number of Gothic touches that reinforce its theme of supernatural horror.
The films most obviously and directly linked to Alien are its three direct sequels. Aliens (1986) is a direct sequel to Alien, based on the same premises as the first film and directly continuing its action. However, under the direction of James Cameron, Aliens is a very different film, something of a combination of the original Alien with Terminator (which Cameron had directed in 1984) and Rambo: First Blood Part II (which Cameron had written in 1985). Cameron, meanwhile, was a logical choice to direct the first sequel: Terminator, with its seemingly unstoppable villain and its resilient female protagonist, was clearly influenced by the original Alien film. Compared to that firstfilm, Aliens is even scarier, much more violent, and more overt in its criticism of the willingness of the “Company” (now identified as the Weyland-Yutani Corporation) to endanger human beings in the interest of extending its own profit. Here, Ripley and Jones have been recovered after drifting in space for 57 years while in hypersleep. Company officials do not appear to believe Ripley’s story of the destruction of the Nostromo (a valuable piece of hardware), but they nevertheless virtually coerce her into going along as a consultant when they send a military expedition of “colonial marines” back to the planet where the alien was originally discovered to investigate the sudden cessation of communications from a human colony that has been placed there to terraform the dismal world.
The resultant gory battle (featuring numerous spattering alien bodies, blown apart by the considerable firepower toted by the marines) between the humans and multiple aliens makes the film as much a war movie as it is science fiction or horror, perhaps in tune with the tastes of the Reagan era in which the film was made. This film also significantly extends our knowledge of the biology of the alien species, especially through the introduction of an alien queen, who has laid thousands of eggs on the planet, somewhat in the mold of a queen bee or ant. Also along on the mission is the company stooge Carter Burke (Paul Reiser), who endangers all of the humans in his quest to garner a live alien specimen for study by the company’s weapon’s division. Another twist is that the android along on this mission, Bishop (Lance Henriksen), is one of the good guys. Though he is torn in half by the alien queen, he manages to use his barely functioning upper half to rescue young “Newt” (Carrie Henn) as the queen is once again blown out into space by Ripley, who in this film gets a first name (Ellen) and becomes much more of an action hero (as well as a mother figure for Newt). As the film ends, Ripley, Newt, and Hicks, one of the marines (Michael Biehn), the only survivors of the expedition, head for home in hypersleep, secure in the notion that they have nuked the planet, which should presumably wipe out the aliens once and for all.
Alien3 (1992) is a dark, brooding film that turns away from the frantic action of Aliens, depending more on atmosphere for its effects. Here, it turns out that an alien (now described as a “xenomorph”) has once again stowed away aboard the vessel that is presumably taking Ripley to earth and safety. This time, the creature plants the embryo of a new queen inside Ripley herself, meanwhile causing Ripley, Hicks, and Newt to crash land in an emergency evacuation vehicle on what turns out to be a prison planet (run, of course, by the Weyland-Yutani Corporation, though essentially abandoned). In the crash, Hicks and Newt are killed, but Ripley survives and is taken back to the prison infirmary, where she is nursed back to health by Clemens (Charles Dance), the prison doctor, himself a former inmate of the hellish prison.
The alien that caused the crash (a somewhat different variant of the aliens in the earlier films) escapes into the prison, where it slowly begins eradicating the prison population, which consists of a handful of ragged leftovers who actually asked to be left behind when the Company ceased full operations on the planet. Most of them have adopted an apocalyptic Christian faith (though few seem very committed to it), and the entire decaying prison has an apocalyptic look to it, like something from the Mad Max movies. Most of the prisoners are “Double-Y chromosome” rapists and murderers, which makes them the ultimate nightmare for a stranded woman like Ripley—though she may be their nightmare as well. When their leader, Dillon (Charles S. Dutton) explains that he is a “murderer and rapist of women,” she calmly replies, “Well, I guess I must make you nervous.”
If this line indicates the way in which Ripley’s tough character might make some men a bit uncomfortable, then numerous other aspects of this film make it perhaps the most interesting of the entire sequence in terms of its treatment of gender, especially as Ripley adopts a unisex look by shaving her head and dressing like the prisoners, presumably to cause less of a disturbance among them. However, this film’s xenomorph is less scary than in the other films (looking a bit like a large, mechanical rat), while its treatment of the greedy and potentially murderous Company adds nothing of substance to what we have seen before. The film does have a shocking ending, however. After Ripley and the few surviving inmates have managed to kill the xenomorph that has been stalking them, she throws herself into a furnace full of molten led, thus killing herself and the gestating queen—and apparently ending the sequence once and for all.
Neither Ripley nor the xenomorph is all that easy to kill off, however. Both return in Alien: Resurrection (1997), though in modified form. In this film, set 200 years after Alien3, Weaver returns as a rebuilt Ripley, constructed from a hybrid combination of the DNA of the original Ripley and the aliens—and only then after a series of ghoulish failed experiments have produced a series of monstrosities. This new Ripley is a dark and brooding character, her personality (and superhuman physical prowess) heavily influenced by her alien genes, though much of her new bitterness and hostility could be attributable to her resentment at having been created in the first place. Meanwhile, the government scientists who have created her (in a special lab on a craft in deep space, for added security) are also working to produce more xenomorphs, again for use as weapons, though this time they apparently plan to use them for “urban pacification” back on earth.
Importantly, these are government scientists. In fact, Weyland-Yutani no longer exists, though we find out only in the Special Edition that the predatory corporation has itself fallen prey to a takeover by a more powerful and ruthless competitor: Wal-Mart. And this twist indicates the extent to which this film (especially in the Special Edition, with its comic opening credits replacing the horror-oriented credits of the theatrical version), while in some ways the darkest of the entire series, differs from its predecessors in its tendency toward quirky humor and one-liners. Meanwhile, the film is largely a postmodern pastiche of references to earlier films, from Frankenstein, to Blade Runner,to the other Alien films themselves. It is also a gorgeous looking film, clearly showing the touch of director Jean-Pierre Jeunet, who had established his elaborate, offbeat visual style in such earlier works as Delicatessen (1991) and The City of Lost Children (1995). On the other hand, the over-the-top visual style combines with the strange mixture of darkness and almost campy silliness to make this by far the weirdest of all the Alien films. Meanwhile, as the film ends, Ripley and her new robot sidekick, Call (Winona Ryder), have just landed on what seems to be a postapocalyptic earth (with a ruined Eiffel Tower in the background, recalling the half-buried Statue of Liberty at the end of Planet of the Apes), very much leaving open the possibility of still another sequel.
For several years, the only films to appear that were directly related to Alien were However, the only subsequent Alien film to appear as of this writing is AVP: Alien vs. Predator (2004) and Alien vs. Predator: Requiem, which dispense with Ripley and Call and pit the xenomorphs against the warrior aliens of the Predator films, with largely uninteresting results. Scott then returned to the director’s chair in Prometheus (2012), the first major new entry in the franchise since Alien: Insurrection. This film is a prequel suggesting that the alien race that created the alien creatures of the earlier films might also have genetically engineered the human race. Aware of this possibility, billionaire Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce) CEO of the Weyland-Yutani Corporation, funds an expedition to what is hypothesized to be the home planet of the “Engineers” to try to discover the truth. This film includes many elements that made the original Alien films so successful, including a strong female protagonist in archaeologist Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace), the suspicious-seeming android David 8 (played by Michael Fassbender), and some seriously dangerous alien creatures that push the film into the realm of horror. Indeed, the whole planet turns out to be dangerous—not the home planet of the Engineers, but a planet used to engineer weaponized creatures so dangerous that they must be made on an isolated planet for safety reasons. Then things take a really nasty turn as the last surviving Engineer on the planet decides to set out for earth to exterminate the human species (for unstated reasons). The film is a bit muddled, though, and never really lives up to the promise of its high-concept premise, despite the presence of a strong cast that also includes Charlize Theron and Idris Elba. Some critics found the film a bit pretentious, and it was a disappointment at the U.S. box office. However, a strong showing internationally helped the film ultimately to bring in more than $400 million in overall gross receipts.
Alien: Covenant (2017), also directed by Scott, is a direct sequel that takes place ten years later. It focuses on a colonization ship (the Covenant) that is headed for earthlike planet Origae-6, when it receives a signal from a much closer earthlike planet that turns out to be the homeworld of the Engineers. The Engineers, however, have all been wiped out by the alien contagion they created and that David 8 (still played by Fassbender) and Shaw played briefly by Rapace) brought back to the planet. Shaw has been killed as well; David is now there alone, tinkering with the aliens in all-out mad scientist mode. In a film that is even more muddled than its predecessor, dire results quickly and predictably ensue. After numerous violent battle scenes, most of the crew members are killed, and David ends up in charge of the Covenant. All humans remaining on board (including over 2000 colonists and 1000 frozen embryos) are in stasis, while David has brought with him some alien embryos, which does not bode well for Origae-6 as the film ends. The film received mixed reviews from critics but was a disappointment at the box office, with only $240 million in worldwide gross receipts, putting plans for future Alien sequels on hold for the time being.