Tuesday 18 May 2010

Specieswatch: The Alien

Fictional Overview

The 'aliens' or 'xenomorphs' are a race of hostile creatures regarded as the most dangerous extraterrestrial lifeform encountered by the human race. The alien possesses a distinctive life-cycle in which a parasitic variant of the species, dubbed the 'facehugger', delivers an embryo into a host lifeform which gestates for several hours before emergence, a process which usually kills the host creature. After emergence the alien lifeform rapidly grows in size, strength and ferocity, increasing in size from several inches to more than seven feet in just a few hours. Aliens take on the characteristics of their hosts: human-gestated aliens tend to stand upright on two legs whilst those 'born' from dogs tend to be slightly smaller and run around on four legs.

Facehuggers originate from eggs laid by a 'queen', a considerably larger and more intelligent variant of the traditional alien form. Queens mature in hosts like standard aliens but take considerably longer to gestate, at least several days. It appears that facehuggers deliver queen embryos rather than standard ones in the clear absence of a queen in the surrounding area, although the precise mechanics of this are not understood. It has been theorised that normal aliens can become queens, or at least lay a queen-gestating egg, if they are removed from the vicinity of an extant queen.

The facehugger parasite inseminating a human host.

The aliens seem to only be interested in reproduction and survival, with no tolerance for other lifeforms. The sole exception is if aliens encounter lifeforms with another alien gestating within them (how they know this is unclear), which they will spare. Aliens have also been observed taking other lifeforms prisoner and holding them immobile for impregnation by facehuggers. Additional observations show that whilst normal aliens seem to work and operate on instinct, queens appear to be more intelligent and show awareness of enemies' abilities.

The extremely rapid gestation period of the aliens, their ability to impregnate other species regardless of how incompatible their DNA appears to be and their extreme hostility has led some to theorise that the aliens cannot be a naturally-evolving organism but a genetically-engineered weapon. Opponents of this theory have instead suggested that the aliens' as-yet unknown homeworld may be an incredibly hostile and harsh environment which has forced the aliens to evolve in this manner.

An alien queen.

Fictional History
The name and location of the aliens' homeworld is not known at this time.

The first recorded encounter between humanity and the alien took place in 2122 when the Weyland-Yutani Company, picking up a weak signal from the Zeta Reticuli system, diverted the ore-mining tug Nostromo to investigate. The crew discovered a large spacecraft of extraterrestrial origin crashed on the planet LV-426, apparently crewed by a race of large humanoids. The pilot was found to have been killed by having his chest exploded outwards. Thousands of eggs were also found on the ship. When executive officer Kane investigated, he was attacked by a facehugger which successfully attached itself to his face and impregnated him. The Nostromo left LV-426 with the impregnated Kane on board. The resulting alien creature ran amok and killed the entire crew apart from Warrant Officer Ellen Ripley, who was able to blast it into space. The Nostromo was destroyed during this encounter.

Nostromo crewmen exploring a crashed alien vessel on LV-426 in 2122.

Ripley's escape shuttlecraft was recovered in 2179 after passing through the core systems. The Weyland-Yutani Company proved disbelieving of Ripley's account of the alien, but nevertheless contacted their operatives on LV-426 (which had been colonised in the interim and was now being terraformed) to investigate the coordinates of the crashed ship. Subsequently aliens overran the entire colony. A Colonial Marine squad, shipped in on the warship Sulaco and advised by Ripley, successfully destroyed the alien infestation by destroying the atmosphere processors, resulting in a vast thermonuclear blast. However, most of the squad was wiped out in the process, leaving only a few survivors. The remaining survivors were reduced to one, Ripley herself, when the Sulaco experienced an onboard fire and jettisoned the cryosleeping crew in an escape craft which crashed on Fiorina 161, the site of a penal colony. A single facehugger had survived on the escape craft and impregnated a dog on the colony. The resulting alien again wiped out most of the inhabitants before the inmates managed to kill it. During this incident Ripley discovered she had been impregnated with an alien queen and chose to commit suicide rather than let it be 'born' or captured and experimented on by the Company.

Ellen Ripley and Corporal Hicks preparing for combat on LV-426 in 2179.

Rumours that the alien may have appeared on Earth itself in the early 21st Century, more than a century before the Nostromo incident, engaged in battle with another extraterrestrial species of hunters have not been substantiated and are almost certainly fanciful fabrications.

Behind the Scenes

In an age long before internet spoilers, when it was relatively easy to keep the secrets of a film's plot from leaking, a huge number of cinema-goers were absolutely scared out of their seats by a certain scene in the 1979 film Alien. During a meal scene following a curious but not immediately threatening incident in which the character of Kane (played by John Hurt) had been accosted by an unusual alien parasite, his chest burst open and a horrific alien creature emerged. Audiences were duly shocked, but, quite blatantly, so were the actors. Contrary to myth, they knew what was going to happen (the production requirements of the scene ensured this, if nothing else) but they hadn't been told about the significant amounts of blood and gore flying around the set. The result remains one of the most visceral and horrific - and thus most iconic - scenes in SF cinema to date.

Ian Holm, Sigourney Weaver, Tom Skerritt and John Hurt on the set of Alien.

Alien is a collaborative movie, the result of interactions between writers Dan O'Bannon and Ronald Shusett, director Ridley Scott and designer H.R. Giger. O'Bannon's goal was to make a 'serious' version of his earlier movie Dark Star, but with a higher budget and more realistic alien creatures. The Alien script found a home at 20th Century Fox, but lay in development hell for several years until the success of Star Wars took everyone by surprise. Eager for another hit SF franchise, Fox greenlit Alien and brought Scott on board to direct. O'Bannon proposed Giger as the designer of the alien creature, having worked with him on Alejandro Jodorowsky's aborted version of Dune, and Scott agreed, overcoming studio objections that his work was too strange for commercial purposes.

The resulting film was a huge success. Giger became much more well-known as a designer and artist whilst Scott became an in-demand director (and remains so) and Sigourney Weaver (Ripley) went on to have a successful movie career. A sequel was inevitable, but it wasn't until the mid-1980s when James Cameron, riding high on the success of The Terminator, was able to use his newly-found cachet to get the sequel made. Cameron wrote the script himself and did not employ any recurring personnel from the first movie aside from the actor of Sigourney Weaver and some of the same producers. Despite scepticism from fans and the studio (who only greenlit the project after The Terminator had made a significant profit), Aliens proved to be a much bigger success than the original film, mainly by going for a completely different approach and being marketed as a war film rather than a horror movie (Cameron feeling that Scott had already nailed this angle and deciding to emphasise 'terror' rather than the horror approach).

Sigourney Weaver and the principle cast of Aliens in a publicity shot.

Cameron, who was now pursuing The Abyss and Terminator 2, declined to return for a third film and the studio embarked on a very lengthy hunt for a writer and director for the third film. Several approaches were considered, including an even bigger-scaled war movie (cyberpunk author William Gibson delivered an extremely expensive script which had seven large battle sequences compared to Aliens' two) and an offbeat script set in a space monastery. Eventually the studio decided to return to Alien's small-scale, claustrophobic setting by having a single alien running amok in a prison. Director David Fincher found himself hamstrung by constant production notes and limitations, a low budget and a script that was being constantly rewritten during production. Alien 3 was heavily criticised for killing off the survivors from Aliens and its general tone, although as a stand-alone SF horror movie it is actually rather accomplished, suffering only in comparison to its forebears.

Despite its critical shortcomings, Fox decided to make a fourth film in the sequence and, after a similarly convoluted and painful period of development hell, Alien Resurrection emerged. Easily one of the worst SF movies of the 1990s, this film was a total disaster on the acting and design front (the 'newborn' alien idea, although not entirely without conceptual merit, was an awful piece of design and badly-executed), with the director rewriting Joss Whedon's script to the point of incoherence.

After the disaster of the latter two films, Fox wisely decided that they would only pursue additional, dedicated Aliens movies if Ridley Scott or James Cameron were involved. The two directors, who had become friends in the intervening years, pondered joining forces, with Cameron producing and Scott directing a fifth film depicting the oft-mooted idea of the aliens getting loose on Earth, arguably the last remaining obvious point to take the franchise. However, with Cameron in temporary retirement after Titanic and Scott's interest and ability to make original films receiving a shot in the arm after the success of Gladiator, the idea was shelved. Fox eventually decided to make the somewhat entertaining Aliens versus Predator in 2004 instead, but a further film, Requiem, was a total disaster which made Resurrection look like a word of rare and inspired genius.

Earlier this year, Ridley Scott confirmed he is developing a two-film 3D project that will be set before Alien and fill in the backstory of the xenomorphs. It will be very interesting to see what he comes up with, although there is the feeling that perhaps with only two genuine hits out of six films made to date in the franchise, perhaps Fox should consider resting it where it is.

The alien is one of the most iconic creatures in the history of SF. This is partially down to the design, an absolute triumph of a nightmare made flesh by H.R. Giger, but also down to the creature's two-pronged threat. Firstly, it is a traditional monster capable of tearing humans apart and eating them, capable of silent movement at speed with tremendous skills of stealth and cunning, despite its lack of sentience. Secondly, and far more horrifically, is the creature's ability to expand its numbers by infesting humans and killing them from within. A monster stalking you in a dark corridor is disturbing enough, but there is always the hope of escape. A monster that is gestating within you and will kill you sooner or later is far more disturbing (and arguably the troubled Alien 3's greatest triumph is articulating this horror well).

Unfortunately, whilst the alien remains an impressive and threatening creature, over-exposure has lessened its impact somewhat, especially the later films' revelation of the ability to surgically remove implanted alien embryos before emergence to save the host. Whilst a logical development, it does impact on one of the creature's primary characteristics. There is also the far more obvious problem that of these six movies, two are all-time classics (Alien and Aliens), one is okay but severely hampered by production issues (Alien 3), one is a mindless popcorn flick which lacks depth despite some entertaining moments (AvP) and two are among the worst SF movies ever made (Resurrection and AvP2).

Still, if there is one person who has at least the potential to return the alien to its former glory, it is original director Ridley Scott. Unfortunately, news that the new films will be prequels, in 3D, likely involving large quantities of CGI and that there will be, somewhat unnecessarily, two of them is discouraging so far.

The Aliens film series
Alien (1979)
Aliens (1986)
Alien 3 (1992)
Alien Resurrection (1997)
Alien Prequel Movie project (pre-production)

Spin-off films
Alien versus Predator (2004)
Alien versus Predator 2: Requiem (2007)


Anonymous said...

Great Article Wert,

What is the next creature in this series?

Adam Whitehead said...

Probably another DOCTOR WHO one, maybe using the classic series enemies that are rumoured to be showing up in the new series very soon.

JD said...

Spot-on as usual. the first two were engaging films on their own terms, then the franchise was steadily milked from there. Can always go back to the originals though.

Jebus said...

AvP2 was so horrendously craptastically bad I actually fell asleep during it, and that is an extreme rarity for me.

These are some great articles dude, keep 'em comin' - even though I can't stand anything to do with Dr. Who :)

A Borg write up would be awesome!

Anonymous said...

I love the first two films, but the Directors Cut of Alien 3 is actually my favourite of the quartet (or tetralogy or whatever!)

Anonymous said...

Have to disagree with you: Resurrection was far better than the travesty that was AvP! OK, I say this as someone too scared by horror movies to have ever sat all the way through Alien, and yes, I accept that my opinion may have been distorted by the presence of Winona Ryder - but I'm not alone! Resurrection had more nominations and awards, and it's got a higher score on IMDB, and on both measures at Rotten Tomatoes (where AvP is only 21% fresh, to A:R's 55%).
I suppose it's a matter of what you like: to me, A:R was a bad film enlivened throughout by two good actresses, while AvP was a terrible film enlivened, very briefly, by some pretty CG fights between monsters. To me, A:R wins that!

Indeed, almost everywhere I've seen A:R higher-rated than Alien 3. They're equal on IMDB and A:R is massively ahead at Rotten Tomatoes. But I've never seen Alien 3 myself, so I can't comment.


Mixed views on the sequels: good that it's Scott (though after Robin Hood, can he ever be trusted again?), but I hate the idea of full sequels, let alone multiple sequels, in series where mystery and alienness are (as the name suggests) kind of vital. It's like the magician going 'oh, ok, if you REALLY want to know, come up here and look behind this mirror...' - yes, wanting to know is why we watch the act, but we don't want to ACTUALLY know. Or at least we don't want to be told, we want to find out. So if we need more backstory, let us piece it together through glimpses - a film with more about the 'space jockey' species, for instance, could let us deduce a lot, without simply TELLING us everything.