Ridley Scott is a undoubtedly a master film maker. With such classics as Blade Runner, Gladiator and Thelma and Louise on his résumé, it’s impossible to argue otherwise. However whilst he is perhaps best known for re-inventing sci-fi with Alien (1979), I would argue he does not fully understand what makes that film great.
Coming just two years after Lucas’ ebullient Star Wars, Scott’s sophmore outing is a disquieting, subversive film. It centers on the crew of the deep space mining vessel Nostromo, who answer a distress call from desolate planet LV426 only to discover a derelict alien craft. When they investigate further crew member Kane is attacked by a crab-like facehugger which lays a xenomorph embryo in his chest and, needless to say, things go very badly indeed for everyone present.
Sequels were inevitable. In ’86 James Cameron – fresh off The Terminator – helmed Aliens, before David Fincher’s under-rated Alien 3 in ’92 and finally Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Alien: Resurrection in ’97 (the less said about this last one, the better). And then the Alien-verse went silent for 15 years (if we ignore the AvP films, which frankly we should).
Then in 2012 Scott released Prometheus. Billed as happening within the Alien-verse there was a lot of speculation as to whether this would in fact be an Alien movie or not (Spoiler: it is. Sort of). Taking place before the events of the original movie, the film frustrated fans with its ecliptic and largely unexplained plot points ( Lost-scribe Damon Lindelof: we are looking at you, sir).
But then – fear not! – in 2015 Scott announced he would in fact be doing a further 3 Prometheus films which would eventually link up with the first Alien movie. Scott explained:
“I was amazed that in the three [Alien sequels]… no one asked the question: “Why the Alien, who made it and why?” Very basic questions. So I came up with the notion of Prometheus 1, which starts to indicate who might have made it and where it came from”
So, here’s the thing. Perhaps it’s just me, but the questions “Why the Alien, who made it and why?” are not ones that need to be answered. In fact, they probably shouldn’t even be asked. And here’s why.
The first Alien movie is a masterclass in “otherness”. From the opening shots of the Nostromo drifting through space there is a strong theme of mankind existing in an indifferent universe. The characters are constantly dwarfed by the natural world around them – space itself, but also the inhospitable landscape of LV426 and the mountainous alien craft which pings out the distress signal. The fact that the eggs are then discovered in this context is important, so when the xenomorph later bursts through Kane’s chest to wreak bloody havoc it’s the logical conclusion of this thematic trajectory. The alien is not evil: it is just a dispassionate, amoral animal, completing its life-cycle by eating its way through the crew.
This idea of the indifferent universe perhaps finds its pinnacle in the scene where Kane’s body is “buried” by being fired out into space, the tableau of his shrouded corpse spinning into infinite nothingness evoking Nietzschean ideas about the “the abyss” looking back into us.
Connected to this backdrop is the question of who exactly is the eponymous alien? Is it the “Space Jockey” in the downed ship on LV426 (subsequently revealed to be an “Engineer” in Prometheus)? The xenomorph itself? Or the humans? My personal reading gravitates towards this last one: if the universe is truly indifferent then surely people are the aliens, our morality utterly incongruous to the amoral universe.
This is also what makes the ending of Alien so powerful. As Ripley (“last survivor of the Nostromo”) battles the creature before blowing it out of the airlock it symbolizes humanity’s defiance against this existential uncertainty. It’s not just a “final girl” moment, as was popular in horror movies of the period: it is humanity’s refusal, as Dylan Thomas would say, to go gently into that good night.
Returning then to Scott’s “very basic” questions regarding the origins of the alien: by attempting to answer these it can only diminish the power of the 1979 film. The true potency of the original is in the absence of answers, the lack of understanding and the unrelenting otherness of it all. The xeno just exists. It is an absolute: the anthropomorphic personification of the indifferent universe, with teeth. I don’t want it explained. I want Ripley blow it out of the “god damned airlock” and rage against the dying of the light.
That said, since Scott really is a master film-maker and I am an avid Alien-geek, I remain super-psyched about further films in this franchise. Here’s just hoping Scott can navigate his Prometheus cycle without dishonouring the thematic purity of what has gone before.
Alien: Covenant (aka Prometheus 2) is released in UK cinemas on 19th May 2017.