In the past month or so, I’ve been obsessing over the Alien series. When the Alien movies are good, they are very good, but that success never comes in the focus on the perfect killing machine, the titular alien. I, for one, have never been that enchanted by the alien itself. When the Alien movies are at their best, they draw out human conflicts. Yes, the alien sucks on the faces, bleeds acid, and possesses all kinds of extra appendages which can rip through a human, but the real standout scenes often do not even have the alien in them. They are interpersonal conflicts driven by an evil corporation, human weakness, and general robot-human conflicts.
The important duality in the Alien series, however, is not human-alien, weak-strong, or even human-robot, rather it is Alien-Aliens, the two marquee movies of the series, and until recently, the only two worth watching. 1979’s Alien was directed by Ridley Scott who followed up Alien with the thematically related Blade Runner in 1982. 1986’s Aliens was directed by James Cameron, fresh off of Terminator, years before he threw everything into the Avatar series (which is the opposite of Aliens in many ways, although that’s a matter for another day).
For two movies that share a protagonist and antagonist (as well as a fascination with artificial intelligence and ruthless capitalism), the movies are opposites. The space that Alien gives to Harry Dean Stanton as he wanders slowly into death, becomes an intense shoot-out in Aliens. The diabolical, closeted android in Alien is mirrored by a noble android in Aliens.
That’s not to say that Aliens is commercial tripe while Alien is auteur genius. Really my wistful picture of this series as being “really about people not aliens” ignores the most famous scene in Aliens: The final battle between Ripley and the big mama alien. What is the emotional engine for that scene? It is motherhood. Ripley, displaced from her time, is plagued by nightmares of incubating a horrid alien, but in Aliens, she develops a surrogate family: A soft, yet brave husband and a wide-eyed daughter. The alien and Ripley fight for survival and for their species, but as Ripley’s systematic destruction of the alien eggs makes clear, they are really fighting for their families as mothers. At many points, Aliens is typical 80’s action fare, but it is not mindless.
Even still, Aliens avoids some of the deeper complexities of Alien. Alien slowly unveils the real predicament of its crew over the entire movie, but these elements that slowly unfurl in Alien are immediately clear in Aliens, whose big twist was even predictable. Where Alien relies on stomach-tightening sense of mystery, Aliens focuses on bullets with an interesting undercurrent of motherhood.
Alien (along with the elements it directly provides to its sequels) is driven by a growing dread over modern society. The sleep chambers that freights these mercenaries throughout the galaxy are more than a plot device necessary for deep space travel, they are a wage slavery nightmare, where work completely obliterates the possibility of other life. What will happen as the corporations keep growing? What about when embodied directives masquerading as humans directly decide our fates? The nightmare in Alien comes before they find any creature.
Aliens dissembles some of these horrors. The corporation is represented by a hapless two-dimensional dweeb and the android is nice, because why can’t the android be nice this time? The mercenaries are juvenile, but they are happy. To the extent that Aliens can be seen as critical of any real world institutions, that critique rings hollow. One believes that the events of the movie are the result of bad choices, very bad choices even, whereas the corporation of Alien expands like a virus of living death whose decision-makers are unseen.
These elements all have a large relevance to the (underrated!) Alien prequel series coming out now: Prometheus 2012 and Alien: Covenant 2017 with at least one still to come. These movies are misunderstood. Ridley Scott is at the helm again, and he is expanding the Alien universe, but for the most part, the main creature of the feature is absent. What abides? The short hair of the heriones, but Scott more importantly expands the horrifying realism of Alien. And though Alien is certainly the ur-text of these prequels, they are still incorporating elements from Aliens. Beneficent artificial intelligence recur, and Alien: Covenant, like Aliens, incorporates terraforming and a strong emphasis on family, although unlike Aliens where a family emerges, the families of Covenant are constantly under attack.
In this way, the Alien prequels are more vital and more exciting than any reboot, but between Aliens and Prometheus the Alien series developed its biggest distraction, an overabundance of kills. The biggest obstacles for Scott’s new prequels is convincing/remind its audience that there is more to an Alien movie than one killer Alien.
The Alien movies are intensifying this critique in a time when technological is unavoidable, though at some points unwelcome as we fret about our Alexa devices listening in or laughing in the night. As large companies are increasingly larger and borderless, and things like the gig economy coupled with increased automation provide an unclear picture of what work will be in the future. Thankfully the new prequels have channeled the old vision of the franchise with a few embellishments from the sequel.