When bad things happen to good monsters

If you’re of a certain age like me and you saw ALIEN in movie theaters in 1979, chances are it rocked your cinematic world. With its eerie floating cracked egg oozing neon-green smoke against blackness and teaser tagline: “In space no one can hear you scream” it came out at a time when we’d been lulled by the fairy-tale heroism and asthmatic villainy of STAR WARS. None of us expected to see a movie that depicted a far darker space adventure; and in the hands of neophyte director, Ridley Scott, ALIEN became an international sensation. Rightly so. It remains one of the most unnerving films ever made: a true classic that doesn’t age.

ALIEN gave us a ragtag crew of deep-space miners, weary of years of travel in a gloomy ship called the Nostromo, where everything is tarnished and crowded, riddled with air ducts and serpentine tubing, lousy food, archaic machinery, hyper-sleep pods that produce a hangover worse than a six-margarita happy hour binge, and disgruntled companions with whom, for better or worse, you must co-exist —all overseen by a powerful corporation that owns your contract and expects its profits. It isn’t a happy place: it’s drudgery in deep space. When the crew is abruptly woken from hyper-sleep after the ship’s computer intercepts a beacon signal emitting from a barren primordial planet, they’re obliged by company mandate to investigate the possibility of extraterrestrial intelligence. What they find instead is a bizarre derelict alien craft, with a long-dead gigantic alien astronaut fossilized into his control chair; and in the immense cargo hold, thousands of leathery eggs containing unimaginable horror. Once it’s unleashed on the Nostromo, terror ensues.

What made ALIEN so magnificent is precisely its lack of glamour. Restricted by no CGI effects at the time and a tall, skinny dude in a monster suit, director Scott relied instead on haunted house motifs: rattling chains dripping moisture, labyrinthine tunnels that turn into traps, and a superb cast of six unsuspecting, unprepared crew members, plus a duplicitous android, who suddenly find themselves confronted by a predatory stowaway. Much like the crew itself, what we don’t see or know is what scares us the most: an alien life-form only partially glimpsed, which becomes a moving, lethal part of the ship, camouflaging itself in the pipes, picking off crew members one by one in dreadful ways with its phallic, saliva-drenched jaw insert. The crew pursues it, and when they find it, it’s extremely unpleasant. In the end, only one crew member manages to survive: third-in-command, Officer Ellen Ripley. A woman. Which, at the time, was a novelty.

Sigourney Weaver as Ellen Ripley in ALIENS

Ripley was played by Sigourney Weaver, a relatively unknown and statuesque theater actress, making her screen debut. ALIEN made her famous, again rightly so. She inhabited the role. Of everyone on the Nostromo, only Ripley sounds the alarm. First over the beacon signal, which turns out to be a warning; then over disregarded quarantine protocols when one of the crew members is brought back to the ship with a horrific parasite attached to his face, and finally, over her mistrust of the monotone science officer who offers no insight of how to eradicate the creature in their midst. Ripley is a feminist heroine without the rhetoric; she’s just a grunt on a long-haul gig, eager to return home, but as she comes to realize the peril they’re all in, she fights to save herself, her fellow crew members, their cat, and their ship — until everything fails her, and she takes to the shuttle with the cat for a chilling close encounter with a beast that eschews “delusions of morality or conscience.” Like any organism, the alien wants to survive. We intruded on its territory, we brought it on-board, and now, we’re doomed. Its hostility, we’re told, is matched only by its structural perfection — and as designed by that visionary artist of bio-mechanoid nightmares, H.R. Giger, with its surreal elongated head and humanoid limbs that have nothing human about them, it was unlike anything we’d seen before. The very worst thing we could imagine encountering in our quest to conquer the stars. ALIEN reflected a dark mirror on us, showing that all our technology and hubris are no match for nature, for the alien is nature at its most primal, willing to destroy everything in its path so it can thrive.

The original Alien

Weaver went on to incarnate Ripley in three more films. For her Oscar-nominated turn in James Cameron’s ALIENS, Ripley joins a crew of macho marines sent to the very planet — now colonized — where her existence was turned upside down. She must rise again to the challenge when everyone but her and one little girl she rescues underestimates the aliens, throwing the marines into a desperate stand to save their skins. Ripley isn’t heroic by choice, but when the chips come tumbling down, she seizes a flame-throwing pulse rifle and goes to war against a hissing alien bitch-queen stalking her and her little girl. Weaver’s third outing in David Fincher’s bleak ALIEN 3 finds Ripley alone again, facing her worst nightmare, as a loping alien born of an infected Rottweiler plagues an imprisoned population on a neglected planet. Her fourth, and thus far final, turn in ALIEN RESURRECTION has her cloned and hybrid-fused with her nemesis; though this entry is the weakest, if only because by then the creature was overdone, Weaver imbues Ripley with alien pathology, whip-sharp sarcasm, a lean alien-like physique, and haunting desolation that commands our attention. Even if we don’t care about what happens to anyone else in the movie — and mostly, we don’t — we care about her. Ripley personifies us: humanity at its weakest and its strongest. Caught in a never-ending cycle of fear, without succor or hope, she refuses to submit, fighting for survival at any cost. It’s no coincidence that Weaver’s Ripley has become one of movie history’s most indelible characters. With her intense persona, stunning angularity, and strength of will, Weaver made Ripley a flawed, fallible, and ultimately self-sacrificing every-day person who understands she means nothing in the context of corporate profit and monsters who snap in the night. But should the alien prevail, everything that does mean something will be pulverized. Only she stands between it and us.

Following the execrable spate of ALIEN VS. PREDATOR popcorn exploitation, Ridley Scott was heralded for returning to the languishing franchise with his prequel PROMETHEUS, then unjustly lambasted for the film’s obscure mythology and lack of aliens as we know them, though there’s plenty of unnerving things in it. For his latest outing, ALIEN COVENANT, Scott heeded the outcry and delivered what fans hankered for: the monster. And there’s a lot to enjoy in his new movie. We can never have too much of Michael Fassbender and his bubble-butt in a Lycra space body-suit, and the new film offers some terrifying, if fleeting, moments. However, in the end, what’s most keenly felt is Ripley’s absence. COVENANT throws everything but the proverbial kitchen sink at us, so eager to remind us of the good ole days, it never allows suspense to build, which is what made ALIEN so compelling. We can’t help but long for Weaver’s courageous, space-fatigued heroine; in fact, at one point, we’re desperate to see her. Because it’s not just the alien that made the franchise work: it’s the battle between its amoral imperative to survive and Ripley’s determination to thwart it, even at the cost of her own life.

Instead, COVENANT shovels up plenty of gore and creatures bursting out of orifices they should never burst from, with a scene in a wheat field with leaping alien newborns being one of the scariest. Yet we never get enough sense of the human characters involved to care when they’re messily dispatched. Where ALIEN succeeded so admirably was in making us care deeply about the cantankerous crew systematically decimated by the monster on board; when Ripley emerged as the sole survivor, we became invested in her. COVENANT offers scarce investment in any character, unless you take the side of Fassbender’s malevolent android. Instead, Scott bombards us with too much in too little time, leaving us gasping and cringing as spines tear apart, deformed embryos gush out, people scream, and, of course, die, as if he’s determined to preempt any further backlash. In the process, the alien itself — what is this thing? why is it so vicious? — is deprived of its mystery by superfluous exposition on its origin. It was far more unsettling when it remained an unexplained parasitic life-form, so appalling in its obscene hostility, it defied reason. By contextualizing it, the film dilutes its terror.

One of the major problems that perhaps not even Ridley Scott —surely, one of our most gifted directors — can overcome is his own statement: “The beast is cooked.” We’ve seen the alien too many times for it to truly terrify us as it did in the original, though with some careful forethought, there are still ways to remind us of that please-god-get-me-outta-here sensation. Instead, Scott goes overboard in COVENANT, tossing in gruesome new beings, which, granted, are quite disturbing in their bleached ferocity, but once they’ve scampered about wrecking mayhem, the big boy’s appearance becomes anti-climactic. The wholesale ransacking of every serviceable cue from ALIEN, as we’ve seen happen with the recent STAR WARS re-boot, does a disservice to COVENANT, too. As the movie progresses, there’s this disconcerting sense that either Scott was unclear or steered away from the direction he wanted to pursue, the script was re-written too many times by risk-adverse acolytes, and/or the studio demanded more run-and-perish-or-hunt-it-down sequences. The final scenes, in particular, are a hasty pastiche of Ripley’s desperate evasion of the alien as the Nostromo is about to blow, only her alien was a cunning deceiver, while the Covenant entity is a growling, slithering dupe that’s too easily snared.

Scott was also clearly hampered by his own original mythology and follow-up complexity in PROMETHEUS, which he then had to shoe-horn into his new film. He makes a valiant effort to tie it all together — and it’s all interesting — but it lacks a unique premise to anchor it. For all its flaws, PROMETHEUS was unique. COVENANT merely strives to re-create ALIEN with a new cast of ready-made prey in a somewhat different setting, which actually isn’t all that different, in lieu of establishing a novel way to re-introduce the elegant horror of the alien itself. His timely meditation on the evils of A.I. is the most intriguing aspect of his film, but he forgets that yes, we do want the alien, even if we’ve seen it before, so it must upend our expectations, or at least remain as enigmatic in its cruelty as it once was. Scott seems almost confrontational about it, as if to say, “You asked for the monster, so here it is, in all its creepy-crawly CGI-enhanced splendor.” With additional purloined hits from Cameron’s playbook, he also seems unaware that the reason ALIENS proved so successful was because Cameron generated breathtaking action along with suspense, compelling Ripley into her kick-ass groove against the unanticipated threat of the alien queen. Again, without someone of Weaver’s stature to lead the film, we need another character to root for. And less is more with the creature. It still has the capacity to scare us, but really, it’s better when it simply does what it does, without becoming a window-smashing-beast-on-a-blood-spree.

COVENANT had enormous potential, if it had just slowed down enough to give us more of the stranded crew’s conflict and horror-struck awe of the decimated civilization around them, their grasping sense of we’re-in-deep-shit-here, as they come into contact with the android David’s unhinged plan and his ultimate creation. Had it done so, we may have forgiven the gaping plot holes that needed explaining but were shoved aside, such as the odd transmission featuring a John Denver song. Why it couldn’t have simply said: “Don’t come anywhere near here,” but the Covenant crew decides to investigate anyway, rather than disguise we can only assume is a warning in a country tune, is a glaring example of resurrecting a cryptic clue from ALIEN just for the convenience of it. And none of the unsettling discoveries made by the Covenant crew on the gorgeous yet seemingly lifeless planet they decide to explore seem to set off significant alarm bells; indeed, for all their experience in guiding 2,000 hyper-sleeping colonists to a new paradise on a fancy wizard of a ship, the crew seems rather obtuse to the very cliche that if something seems too good to be true, it probably is. One crew member, the recently bereaved Daniels, a softer Ripley prototype, does express reservations, but she goes along for the ride, and unlike Ripley, spends most of her screen time in limbo as chaos erupts all around her. By the time those alarm bells finally start to ring, the movie has pitched into a frantic bring-on-the-monsters race that doesn’t allow us to become fully submerged in Scott’s horrible, visually awesome new world. Photography and design-wise, COVENANT stands as one of his best. It might not exude the dark claustrophobia of ALIEN or rain-swept pharaonic ambiance of his other sci-fi classic BLADE RUNNER, but like PROMETHEUS, COVENANT never scrimps on the scenery. Alas, the same cannot be said for its script.

Overall, COVENANT appeals for its nostalgia value — which is a telling statement on Hollywood’s unwillingness to take chances these days. It has the first ALIEN vibe to recommend it, worth the price of admission for that reason alone. It’s not ALIEN, however. I guess, nothing can be. Without anyone to care for, Ripley’s humanity, which made the prior ALIEN films so memorable, is missing. And frankly, we miss her.