Sigourney Weaver was still a relatively unknown actress when in the late seventies the film Alien set a new standard for science fiction horror in the cinema. Over twenty years later a further three sequels have been made, and rumours abound of a fourth, while the comicbook, paperback and "graphic novel" media have seen an explosion in stories based around the disturbingly predatory creatures given life by the Swiss artist H R Giger. Like the Japanese Godzilla, the Alien species has become a franchise in its own right.
Rather than review the films on separate pages, I have decided to try to piece together some common threads from the films as well as offering a synopsis and appraisal of the four movies.
The first film in the series, Alien, was directed by Ridley Scott and starred Sigourney Weaver, Tom Skerritt, John Hurt, Yaphet Kotto, Ian Holm, Harry Dean Stanton and Veronica Cartwright as the crew of a spaceship carrying mining material somewhere in the galaxy. They are distracted from their journey by an apparent distress call from planet LV-142, a supposedly uninhabited world. On landing on the lifeless world they encounter a strange and large spaceship, apparently crashed and derelict. They enter it to find the skeleton of what is clearly an alien astronaut, dwarfing them in size but with a hole in its rib cage (or equivalent) that looks as if it was made from the inside. Baffled, the crew investigate further and Kane (John Hurt) finds himself in the bottom of the ship in what looks like a huge repository of upright-standing, fleshy eggs. When he approaches one and peers at the top, four lips peel back and a spidery creature springs out and onto his face, wrapping itself around his head.
The crew evacuate Kane to the ship. Lieutenant Ellen Ripley (Weaver) wants to leave him in quarantine, outside if necessary, but Science Officer Ash (Holm) overrides her for reasons of his own and brings Kane back in. Kane remains in a coma with the creature on his face while the crew decide to abandon the planet and return to civilisation. Attempts to remove the creature from his face are given up when it is discovered that it has acidic blood that will burn through several layers of metal. Some hours later, however, the creature dies and Kane awakes, apparently unaffected by his ordeal. The notoriety of the film was achieved during the mealtime scene when Kane then goes into sudden spasms. As his horrified crewmates hold him down, they see a small, ugly fanged head burst out through the dying man's chest. The creature flees off into the ship. After some consternation the crew decide to capture it. When Brett (Stanton) encounters it, however, it has become frighteningly large, and he becomes its next victim. (This was also the first shot of the now-familiar salivating jaws). Next, Captain Dallas (Skerritt) decides to pursue the creature into the airducts with the help of a flamethrower made by Parker (Kotto), but the creature's inherent ability to interfere with electronic tracking signals leads to his demise as well. At this point Ripley decides to question the onboard computer, "Mother", concerning the nature of the creature and their rerouting to pick up the distress call. To her horror she finds that their parent Company is aware of the creature's nature but will sacrifice them all to bring it into their clutches. She then finds Ash staring at her and the Science Officer attacks her brutally. Parker comes to her aid and hits Ash so hard with a weapon that his head comes off, revealing that he is in fact an android. Wiring his head up, they query Ash, only to have him gloat about their imminent demise and the creature's "perfection matched only by its hostility" before Parker finishes Ash off for good with a flamethrower. The survivors then decide to abandon the ship, but the creature ambushes Parker and as they gather supplies, killing him and carrying her off to its nest. (There was to have been a scene where Ripley finds Brett and Dallas cocooned and begging for death, but this was dropped from the film although not from the novelisation).
Ripley sets the ship to self-destruct and bundles herself and the ship's cat into the lifeboat, only to find after the ship has been blown to pieces that in fact the alien has taken refuge in the lifeboat with her. The climax of the film sees her succeed in blowing the creature out into space by depressuring the interior, and then destroying it with the blast from the ship's engines.
Viewed twenty years later and after many watchings, Alien is still a masterpiece. In a way it is very much the "Ten Little Indians" scenario set in outer space (hence the advertising for the film, "In space no-one can hear you scream"), as the humans are picked off by the monster. In his own book about the film, Giger revealed that Ray Harryhausen had been considered as the monster maker, but apparently the veteran animator wanted to make a monster that was too dinosaur-like. (Dinosaurs were to get their own pitch, of course, years later in Jurassic Park). Giger produced something that to an average human (with the traditional dislike of insects) looked obscene or frightening, partly because it also had some human-like features such as four limbs and fingers. See below for a discussion of the creature. Another key aspect of the film was the selection of the cast. All of the cast, with the possible exception of the two female members, were well-known to the cinema-going public and had taken serious parts as well as blockbuster roles (eg John Hurt had starred in British TV's "The Naked Civil Servant" as Quentin Crisp and in "I, Claudius" as the insane tyrant Caligula). Unlike much sci-fi on screen, where spaceships were either silver-painted models or portrayed as kept to military standards of tidiness and perfection, as in Star Trek, the Nostromo was shown to be an old hulk with dripping water and dark passages, giving the film a feel that was kept in one form or another for the rest of the series.
Aliens came out in 1986 and was directed by James Cameron. The story picks up from the end of the first film, with Ripley and Mr Jones (the cat) in hypersleep as the lifeboat drifts through the galaxy. She is rescued and taken to an orbiting Earth station, where she finds to her horror that 57 years have passed since she entered hypersleep: in the meantime, her only daughter, Amy, who was 11 when she left Earth, has grown old and died in her sixties. With Company representative Carter Burke (Paul Reiser) acting as her liaison, she is then dragged before a hearing, only to have her story dismissed for want of evidence and her flight license revoked. They also inform her that a colony has been on the planet (now named Acheron) for years without encountering any life. Haunted by nightmares, Ripley takes up residence on Earth, but a while later is visited by Burke and a Marine officer, Gorman, who inform her that contact has been lost with the colony. They ask her to come back to Acheron with her to help establish what has happened, promising her reinstatement if she does. After an initial refusal she yields to the request.
The Colonial Marines who travel with her to Acheron under the command of Lt Gorman are initially self-confident and sceptical about the claims made for Ripley's monster. Dropping to the surface, they find the colony apparently abandoned and empty of either human or alien remains but with evidence of a fierce battle having taken place. They do find in the labs some of the "facehuggers", the alien parasites that cling to the face of the victim and impregnate him or her with the alien embryo, and also the only survivor of the colony, a little girl called Newt (Carrie Henn) who is too shocked to tell them much. They then discover that signals from all the colonists' electronic tags are coming from under the heat exchanger in the atmospheric terraforming complex. Reconnoitring the position, the soldiers are horrified to find the remains of the colonist cocooned around the walls inside the area with their chests having been burst open. One woman who is still apparently alive then gives birth to one of the gruesome creatures. Killing this creature, the Marines unknowingly disturb the full-grown monsters around them, who wipe out half of the platoon within a few minutes. Ripley manages to rescue the survivors and they regroup outside and decide to return to the spaceship and call down superior firepower, but disaster strikes when more of the creatures cause the landing ship to be destroyed, leaving the humans stranded in the colony. The imminent meltdown of the fusion generator for the colony, not to mention an impending final assault by the creatures, focuses their minds on finding a way to summon another ship to take them off. In the ensuing battles, however, most of the survivors are killed, while human treachery again rears its ugly head. When Newt is lost after being seized by an alien, Ripley's protective instincts take over and she returns to find her, only to finally come across the process by which the alien eggs are laid, a huge alien queen rather like the queen of an ant or termite colony who is enormously bigger than the rest of her kind and who sits attached to a huge egg sac, guarded by warriors. Ripley rescues Newt and destroys the nursery with fire and is pursued by the enraged queen. They are saved by the friendly synthetic, Bishop (a pointed contrast with the role of Ash in the previous film) and escape from Acheron just as the fusion core finally explodes. Back on the spaceship, however, Bishop is suddenly torn in two by the queen, who managed to somehow secure herself in the dropship before the destruction, and Ripley has to single-handedly battle off the alien to protect Newt and blow the queen out of the airlock.
Whereas Alien was more of a "haunted house" type of film (lots of creepy atmosphere, speculation about whom the monster would get next), Aliens is more of a rollercoaster ride with plenty of action, guns and explosions. However, the genius of Cameron's direction is that he brings the pot slowly to the boil first. Thus in the first third or so of the film there are plenty of "false starts" (Ripley having nightmares, soldiers bumping into each other by accident, etc), almost lulling the audience into a false sense of security before the mayhem is suddenly unleashed, with about half the cast getting killed off in a matter of minutes. After this the white-knuckle ride barely pauses, as one setback after another is piled onto the survivors. In contrast to the first film, where the crew of the Nostromo could not kill their silent adversary, this time the aliens are shot up and burnt in droves, but come on in inexhaustible numbers and also displaying surprising cunning, for example in learning to shut off the power or to abandon an attack against robotic machine guns. As the film was made before the widespread use of CGI, it is a tribute to the makers that they managed to make the creatures seem fairly animated and realistic, rather than just puppets. One attribute that was retained from the first film was the dark feel of low lighting (even outside, Acheron is shown as a dimly lit world), claustrophobic corridors and general disorder, the colony having been wrecked in the first invasion of the aliens. The use of decent actors marked another positive continuity: Michael Biehn (Corporal Hicks) and Bill Paxton (Private Hudson) were to go on to make several action movies in the following years, while Lance Henriksen appeared in various quality sci-fi series such as Millennium. It is worth noting, however, that several of the actors and actresses playing the Marines did not get much of a chance to shine before being killed off. Paul Reiser was also good as the Machiavellian, smooth-talking Burke: such an odious character could have easily been portrayed as a pantomime, leering type of cowardly villain, but he made the role believable. Carrie Henn was particularly impressive as Newt, but in fact this was to be her only major film role.
Alien3 (1992) was dark metaphorically as well as literally. Again it picks up from the preceding film, this time more or less immediately, while Ripley, Newt, the wounded Hicks and damaged Bishop are in hypersleep. As their spaceship ploughs towards home, it turns out that facehuggers were also brought on board somehow after the escape from Acheron. As one breaks into a life support pod and latches onto an anonymous victim's face, it causes a fire on board the Sulaco that sets off the escape procedures. The four survivors are jettisoned in a space pod and crash land on the planet Fiorina 161, better known as "Fury 161", a penal colony. Poignantly, Newt and Hicks are killed in the crash and Bishop severely damaged, so that Ripley is alone again. She finds herself in a prison run by just three men: the governor Andrews (Brian Glover), his assistant Aaron (Ralph Brown) and the doctor Clemens (Charles Dance). The convicts themselves have opted to stay on, having become converted to a rough-and-ready form of the Christian faith under their leader, Dillon (Charles S Dutton). Aware that an alien was probably the cause of their crash, Ripley has to steel herself and persuade Dance to perform an autopsy on Newt to check for signs of impregnation. However, they find nothing. In the meantime, however, a dog in the prison has been impregnated, and while Newt and Hicks are being cremated in the furnace of the colony, a dog-legged alien bursts out of the unfortunate animal. A few convicts are picked off but Andrews refuses to listen, until in a decisive moment the creature drags the governor himself up into the ceiling in full view of everyone and kills him. After this Dillon, Ripley and have to work out how to kill the creature without any firearms and before the Company (who know all about the latest events) can get hold of it. Further horror is revealed, however, when Ripley finds that she herself is carrying an embryo of an alien queen. Dillon sacrifices himself in an attempt to lure the creature into the furnace so that it can be buried beneath a mountain of molten lead, but even then the creature refuses to die, and further efforts are successful only just as the men from the Company arrive, led by.... Bishop, this time the real human Bishop on whom the android was modelled. Bishop tries to persuade Ripley to come with them so that she can be healed and the monster destroyed, but after some initial vacillation she is too distrustful, and Bishop reveals his true motives when he realises she is about to destroy both herself and the creature inside her. As she falls backwards into the furnace the queen bursts out through her chest and she half-cradles it, half-strangles it as they both fall to their doom.
Alien3 received much more mixed reviews than the previous two films in the series, and "flawed masterpiece" is perhaps the best way to describe it. It is true that director David Fincher had made mainly pop videos up to that point, but he did go on to make acclaimed films such as Se7en, so the fault cannot be laid entirely at his door. There were a lot of script rewritings, much of which revolved around the idea of having monks in space which was discarded in favour of the prisoners being religious, albeit not immune from temptation. Most of the cast, Weaver included, had shaved heads in most of the film, and while this added a note of realism (and cost the studio over a million dollars for Weaver's crewcut), it ironically made it difficult to identify the individuals from one another, especially during the chase sequences when the dog-legged alien is killing off the convicts at a fair rate. Some scenes, such as Paul McGann's as a demented convict (prisoner Golic) who decides that the creature is Antichrist and that he must worship it, were cut from the film, though again made it into the novelisation. It was also unfortunate that the ending of the film looked rather similar to another blockbuster of the same year, Terminator II, where Arnie Schwarzenegger's philanthropic android also enters the fire to save mankind. Nevertheless, a fairly high standard of acting was maintained, although Hollywood's usual obsession with using Brits to play criminals or psychos meant that a lot of US audiences would not have recognised many of the actors. Look beneath the haircuts, though, and you can still see stalwarts Glover, Brown, Dance, McGann and Pete Postlethwaite (who kept the bald look for his Ahab-like role in Jurassic Park II). The film also marked the first use in the series of CGI, which was probably especially useful for the dog-legged alien as it ran up the side of walls and along ceilings. It was certainly effective, although this reviewer found that the pixellated edges did show in one or two places.
With Ripley dead, there seemed to be no way to continue the franchise... at least until Alien: Resurrection, the latest offering in the series. This time the film leapt no less than 200 years into the future, to a spaceship on the edges of Earth's own solar system. A group of military scientists are shown developing a human clone in a glass tank that becomes Ellen Ripley. Having secured Ripley's DNA from blood and tissue samples taken from Fiorina-161, they are anxious to retrieve the alien queen using the route of cloning. Although Ripley herself is merely the carrier, Doctors Wren (J Wren) and Geddiman (Brad Dourif) are so impressed by her recovery from the dangerous operation and her subsequent rapid healing that they decide to keep her alive. At the sight of Ripley's blood burning into the floor, of course, the viewer realises that Ripley and her lethal parasite have shared DNA in more ways than one. Ripley herself is initially confused by her memories, but rapidly comes to an understanding of her position. She also knows what the scientists want and warns them that they will die. In the interim a secretive spaceship, the Betty, arrives at the ship, crewed by a motley looking bunch of toughs headed by Elgyn (Michael Wincott). The Betty has brought a secret cargo, for which the head of the project, General Perez, is willing to pay Elgyn and his associates with a large sum of cash and to allow them to stay for a short while to requisition spares, etc. In fact the cargo consists of humans who have been hijacked while in hypersleep and whose role is to act as hosts for the eggs laid by the now thriving alien queen. Thus the girl Cal (Winona Ryder), part of the Betty's crew, has arrived too late to prevent this happening as she had hoped by the assasination of Ridley - and to prove the futility of such a gesture, Ripley drive's Cal's knife through her own hand to show her it dissolving in acid. Wren catches Cal leaving and confronts the Betty's crew, accusing them of terrorism and wanting to have them executed, but the pirates outsmart the military and slay most of the soldiers, leaving just one (DiStephano) alive with Wren. At this point the aliens take advantage of the confusion reigning on the ship to break out of their cages, causing a mass but bloody evacuation of the spaceship that also costs General Perez his life. Elgyn too is killed by an alien shortly afterwards, and the leaderless and arguing survivors have to figure out how to get to the Betty and get off the spaceship.
In some ways this would be a rerun of the original Alien, were it not for the changed role of both Ripley and the aliens themselves. Ripley is shown in Alien: Resurrection as originally a fairly predatory, distant character, treated with extreme caution by her captors after she nearly kills Wren. Gradually her humanity returns despite her alien genes, but there is still a link between her and the alien queen that used her as a host. This is vividly portrayed when alien warriors seize her and she is dragged down into the egg nest, where Dr Gediman, cocooned on the wall, gives her a running if insane commentary. Having given birth to the aliens on the ship in the normal manner, the queen then enters a second cycle involving a mammalian womb - a gift from Ripley's own DNA. In this manner the mother of the hive gives birth to a grotesque half-human, half-alien hybrid which returns its mother's favour by tearing its head off before approaching Ripley, evidently regarding her with more devotion. While the hybrid is distracted by killing Dr Gediman in a particularly unpleasant scene, Ripley escapes, causing a sense of outrage in the monster which then pursues her. The creature survives the destruction of the Aurigan by escaping onto the Betty where it kills the soldier DiStephano and threatens Cal, and despite her awareness of their own link Ripley has to kill it in a particularly agonising manner, with tears in her eyes as she watches it slowly die.
In some ways Alien: Resurrection picked up on familiar themes in the series (human stupidity: the desire to control nature: tough females: motherhood), as well as familiar scenes (violent birth scenes, survivors being picked off one by one, dark or dimly lit corridors, androids). Where it broke new ground was with Ripley and her changed character. By now Ripley has lost virtually all vulnerability, at least at first, and even after she becomes more sympathetic to the human survivors she remains somewhat cold. Thus in one scene she describes to the frightened victim Purviss what is lurking inside his chest and what it will do to him without any apparent deep sympathy, although she is scathing about the actions of the pirates and Wren in doing this to him. She seems almost more moved by the death of the alien queen at the hands of the Newborn (as the book calls it) and then the death of the Newborn itself. One reviewer did claim that this made us less empathetic with Ripley, but I think this misses the point: we know Ripley will probably be okay but we wonder about the rest of the humans.
There were far fewer known actors in this part of the series, with the exceptions being obviously Weaver and Ryder, and to a lesser degree Wincott, Perez and Dourif, but most of the acting was of the high standard that has characterised the series (although a lot of reviewers slated Ryder, which I felt was a little unfair). Part of the attraction of this series is, of course, who among the humans makes it and who gets killed, deservedly or not. Probably a bigger quibble with many people was the Newborn, the hybrid that the queen gives birth to. Some people seemed to feel it was rather ridiculous, although having watched the film at least three times I don't see that it looks that silly on subsequent viewings. The aliens were portrayed using a variety of techniques, with an underwater chase being particularly effective. It is worth noting perhaps for the benefit of families that the gore factor has crept up in the past two films, with some fairly graphic moments in this fourth film. I did not think any of it was particularly gratuitous given the nature of the genre (you can see similar gorefests on wildlife documentaries), but sensitive viewers should be warned that there are scenes where people's heads are bitten into or one of the aliens explodes out of somebody's body.
It is worth discussing the phenomenon of the alien creatures themselves, as science fiction is often maligned on the grounds of being ridiculous and either being too extravagant in its creatures or else using humans with odd makeup or even green iguanas (as happened in some B-movies).
The life cycle of the creatures as shown in the films seems to be as follows. An alien queen lays a batch of eggs, which give birth to the "facehuggers", those creatures which look rather like a cross between a spider and a horseshoe crab. These parasites latch onto a host, impregnate it with an alien embryo, then die, their job done. The embryo grows inside the host who is usually unaware of its presence until it reaches full development and bursts its way out of the body. Having left the body, it then grows rapidly as either a warrior (in which case it runs amok and looks for fresh victims to bring to the nursery or to eat) or as a queen (in which case it lays eggs).
While some people may find this idea horrifying, parasitism is in fact a large part of nature, as any zoology textbook will show. Malaria itself is caused by single-celled organisms which use mosquitos as hosts to gain access to the blood stream of victims, while there are a huge number of parasitic worms (eg tapeworms, roundworms) that find a host either directly or as part of a secondary cycle and take up residence in its body, living off the sustenance provided. The proglottids (body segments) of the tapeworm can even move separately once separated as when a number of them are passed through the host's anus and out into the world. Perhaps the closest analogy, though, is though wasps that paralyse their victim (usually another invertebrate) and drag it into their nest, where wasp eggs are laid on it. The wasp larvae are thus born with an accessible food source, and the victim is slowly eaten alive.
Many known invertebrates also have interesting and life cycles. Jellyfish, for example, alternate between a polyps stage, which fixes itself to the seabed, and the subsequent medusa stage which it gives birth to. Many parasitic creatures lay eggs on vegetation, which then are eaten by the first host, where the eggs hatch out. It is when the host is eaten, however, that the young parasites find their home in the predator, making it the second and final host.
The intelligence of the creatures in the film is often debated, both on- and off-screen. In the second film when the power is cut to the colony buildings, Hudson asks "How can they cut the power, man? They're just dumb animals!". In the book, Ripley points out that several known species have a sort of collective intelligence, including ant colonies and of course termites, which build massive mounds as a sort of "city". The idea of the termite seems to have been taken up in the second film with the transformation of large areas of the terraforming complex into an alien nest by the resin secreted by the creatures. Ants too may be a useful reference point, since in various ways these move in an ordered society under a single queen. In particular the more predatory types, such as soldier ants which can overwhelm many creatures including some vertebrates much bigger than themselves, may serve as a useful comparison. All these species seem to lack individuality yet move and work formidably as a group.
Related to this is the question of communication. In Alien and Alien3 there was only one alien at a time to deal with, none of which of course were particularly concerned with communicating with anyone else. In Aliens the creatures seem to move as a group. While some of their actions would probably need no prompting, especially attacking visible prey, other actions, such as cutting the power to the station or evolving a plan of attack by clinging to the ceiling, would suggest some form of communication among themselves. Since we never hear any form of vocal expression other than screams, shrieks or hisses, some other non-oral method seems implied. Again, in the real world there are plenty of methods of non-vocal communication. The colour changes of chameleons are primarily to do with communication rather than camouflage, the different colours signifying a change of mood and a message to a nearby creature, such as "Stay away, I'm angry" or "I am receptive to mating". Some squid are also quite evolved in this area, their different colour flashes to members of their group also relaying basic information. However, since the creatures in the film do not appear to change colour, this does not seem to be their way of communicating. Some creatures pass signals by emitting pheremones, a sort of chemical smell that carries a powerful message, particularly in the area of mating.
In the fourth film the area of communication seems to be brought into focus. When the aliens are planning to escape, we see a cage of three, two of which decide to attack and kill the third to use its acidic blood to weaken the cell. The third seems frightened but acquiescent as the three hiss and snarl among themselves. In the novel it is suggested that the queen herself is communicating telepathically with the third warrior, thanking him for his sacrifice. (In the same film, the capacity of individual aliens to learn is demonstrated by Dr Gediman's use of the freezing nitrogen gas, a weapon one of them subsequently turns on a human). Later, as they are fleeing for the Betty, Ripley suddenly feels that the nest is near, and that they are calling her. The novelisation suggests a telepathic link between Ripley and the queen at close distance, and when the Newborn kills the queen Ripley feels the abrupt pain of the severed link. The same is repeated between Ripley and the Newborn in the book, where at the end the dying creature is pleading with Ripley, its "mother", to kill it.
Physiologically the creatures seem to be based on the idea of an insectoid humanoid, although the humanoid features are limited to having two arms, two legs and fingers. Certainly the body structure appears rather insect-like, and the word "exoskeleton" (the tough outer layer of insects and other arthropods in nature) appears often in the books. Of interest are the four dorsal horns protruding from the back, which might be analogous with the breathing spiracles of insects. One of the tantalising areas of the films, of course, is that the audience is given so little information as to how the alien body works. Likewise the head is a completely unique structure, but we see no eyes, ears or nose, only the two sets of salivating jaws. The acidic blood may sound preposterous (it certainly did to the Company hearing at the beginning of the second film) but is not as illogical as it sounds: after all, most highly dangerous and corrosive substances can be stored in containers of at least one substance that is resistant to their actions. On the island of Tenerife there is a cactus which contains a rather powerful material which is unpleasant to the touch and can burn material over a period of time: a lady at the Bananeria in the south of the island told me that people breaking off bits of the cactus and putting it into their pockets were rather disconcerted to find holes in their pockets later. Plants in particular seem to use this defensive measure of containing some substance that makes it dangerous or unpalatable to eat them.
A recurring theme which began with Aliens was that of motherhood, birth and the giving of life. It starts with Ripley mourning the loss of her daughter, who grew old and died never knowing why her mother had not returned to celebrate her eleventh birthday with her. (We also learn in the novelisation that Ripley and her husband had divorced quite early on). Bereft also of her peers and contemporaries, all of whom have also presumably aged and died while she was in her deep space, Ellen Ripley is thus stranded with no familiar companionship left. However, she slips into the role of ersatz mother to Newt when they find the girl on Acheron, both of Newt's parents having been killed by the aliens. This might sound cloyingly sentimental, but the film portrays it sensitively without being too obvious. Both child and woman are, after all, survivors of the worst that the creatures can throw at them. When Newt is seized by an alien and abducted, Ripley stops only to get the wounded Hicks back to the ship before setting off to look for the child despite the imminent danger of nuclear immolation. As she finds her, however, she comes across motherhood in another form, that of the alien queen who is laying the eggs in the nest. The queen in turn is incensed at Ripley's destruction of the nest and her own egg sac, and sets off after the fleeing humans, pursuing them literally to the death (her own).
The theme was continued in Alien3, but in a darker way. Firstly, Ripley is bereaved again with the loss of Newt, her substitute daughter, and also of Hicks to whom she was becoming close in a sort of Mulder-and-Scully way by the end of Aliens (see the novel and the 'Director's Cut' for scenes which were cut from the final release). Secondly, she finds that she herself is to give birth again, but this time to an alien queen which if allowed to live will presumably wreak death and destruction. The dog-legged alien twice refrains from killing or even harming her in any way precisely because it is aware that she is host to the future queen. At the end of the film, the human Bishop tries to lure her back to the embrace of the Company by promising her that among other things she will be able to have children. Ripley refuses, but as she falls into the furnace she appears to be cradling the young alien queen as it bursts from her chest.
In Alien: Resurrection, Ripley is once again the mother of the queen, although it may be stretching things to call an unwitting host a mother. At least, she describes herself to the horrified Purvis as "the monster's mother". The link between the alien queen and Ripley is clearer in the novel than in the film, but in both Ripley ends up present in the nursery at the birth of the Newborn. The alien queen embraces the Newborn, only to have its maternity rejected as the Newborn kills the creature that gave it birth and instead treats Ripley as its mother. Having betrayed its natural mother, the monster is then in turn betrayed by Ripley, who decides at the end of the day to throw her lot in with the human race and destroy the Newborn, albeit at emotional distress as she watches its demise.
It may be interesting to note that one of the oldest epics in the English language, the Anglo-Saxon Beowulf, deals also with the story of a monster (Grendel) and his even more ferocious mother.
It may be considered by some to be pretentious to discuss questions of good and evil, or belief, in what is after all mainly an action genre. However, science fiction has often asked important questions about life and the nature of the universe, even if they have been dressed in the cloak of monsters and men with ray guns.
A motif running through all four films is the comparison and contrast between the behaviour of the aliens and that of the humans. While the aliens could be referred to as "evil" in the sense of their predatory behaviour and gruesome use of victims as living hosts for their young, there is no suggestion that the creatures have any moral choice to exercise: they simply follow their instincts, which are overwhelmingly to survive and prosper. Their only loyalty is to the hive, or nursery, or alien queen. To that end, for example, the alien in the cage in Alien: Resurrection allows itself to be killed by its two cellmates in order to allow the escape of the rest of its conspecifics. In contrast, human behaviour is ambivalent. Not only do individuals with a clear moral choice choose what would be traditionally called the wrong, or evil, path, but they do so in such a way that the survival of their own species is threatened. The prime example of this is Carter Burke in Aliens, who continually tries to find a way to bring the creatures, or their embryos, back to Earth despite the clear evidence of the enormous danger of the species. Not only do his actions threaten the survival of his own species, but he also chooses increasingly evil means to achieve them, culminating in an attempt to get two facehuggers impregnate Ripley and Newt. Finally he chooses to flee the shrinking group of survivors in the confusion of the alien attack. The novel makes it clear that he hopes to reach the dropship before the rest and persuade Bishop to take off without them, but in any event an alien gets him first. (There is a scene in the book where Ripley finds Burke cocooned, alive but about to have the chestburster break out, and gives him a grenade to kill himself, feeling pity rather than hatred for him. This was however dropped when it was pointed out that the time between Burke being taken and the creature hatching would only have been minutes.)
Burke himself is a representative of human greed and stupidity which is more generally embodied in the first three films by the "Company" (named as "Weyland-Yutani" in Alien3). The Company seems to be an all-pervasive corporate body controlling much of life on Earth and indeed the other systems: the colonists on Acheron in Aliens, for example, work firstly and foremostly for the Company. In Alien, the Company are aware of the lethal potentialities of the creature they send the Nostromo to collect, but decide that the entire crew are expendable. To that end, they also place Ash, their malevolent android, on board at the last moment as a replacement Science Officer. After the loss of the Nostromo, but years before Ripley and Mr Jones are recovered, they then recklessly place an entire colony on LV-142 (thereafter named Acheron). The Company then apparently dismiss Ripley's story, but Burke himself secretly dispatches an unknowing group of colonists (in the book, the family of Newt) to check out the alien wreck at the coordinates given by the Nostromo's crew, thus ensuring lethal contact between the colony and the alien species. His defence when confronted by Ripley is that the lead might have been meaningless, and that if the Company had made overt moves then, in his words [ ]. He ends up with the dismissive justification that "it was just a bad call". When he realises that Ripley is going to reveal his part in the disaster, he decides that she must be impregnated. In fact the whole mission to Acheron is somewhat ambiguous: despite the mission to ostensibly rescue the colonists, are the humans really going there just for that, or to bring one or more of the creatures back? Despite his promises to Ripley, Burke clearly thinks the latter. In Ripley's classic words, "I don't know which species is worst.... you don't see them f**king one another over for a percentage."
That this is corporate policy becomes clear in the third film. Burke may be dead, but the Company still want an alien, and the fact that Ripley is impregnated means that they want her alive. By now, however, Ripley has learnt to distrust the Company, and tells the surviving convicts that the Company might kill them for just having seen the alien. At the end, the human Bishop confirms all of Ripley's fears by first dissembling and cajoling, and then screaming as she falls into the furnace, "No! Ripley! It's a magnificent specimen! You must let me have it!"
Human sinfulness is not confined to large corporations, however. In Alien: Resurrection, Weyland-Yutani has been long gone, but the alien project is now being undertaken by General Perez and his scientists. The former clearly wants military benefits, while the latter try to convince Ripley that there could be long-term scientific benefits in such areas as vaccines from the study and control of the aliens. Perez is at least straightforward and comprehensible in his thinking, although his methods (such as secretly paying space pirates to abduct innocent third parties to be used as living hosts) are clearly evil. The chief scientist, Wren, comes across as a man so obsessed by the desire to do something simply because it can be done that he ignores the moral consequences of his actions, even when they are clearly wrong. His increasing desperation throughout the film leads him to increasing evil, such as shooting Cal. Ironically he is destroyed by a creature bursting from its host. Likewise Dr Gediman appears to be a man so obsessed by the project that he is blind to all else. In the book, when he becomes aware that the aliens have started to burst out of the cages, his first thought is not about the awful danger but that all his hopes of further advance in the world of science have been dashed. Even when he is glued to the wall of the nest and clearly losing his sanity, he cannot help but be fascinated by the birth of the Newborn, although in the last moments of his life he realises that the creature spells his demise. The space pirates under Elgyn are motivated only by their own personal self-interest: their alliance with Perez is one of financial convenience, and their loyalty is solely to themselves. Only Cal, the would-be assassin of Ripley, has other motives, although she believes initially that to save the human race she has to kill.
Few of the humans in the series are cast in the classic heroic or saintly moulds. Indeed, part of the appeal of Alien was that the crew of the Nostromo were shown as ordinary nine-to-five types rather than square-jawed astronauts or cosmic heroes in the style of Star Wars (with the possible exception of the early Han Solo). Brett and Parker, for example, were shown to be argumentative over bonuses, while Brett and Cartwright are both too paralysed by terror of the monster to stop it taking them. Parker and Dallas are brave in the face of their imminent deaths, but the main emotion on board the ship is one of fear once the monster is loose. Ash, of course, is malevolent, but as he is an android the element of moral choice is somewhat uncertain. In Aliens, the Marines proceed to Acheron initially full of self-confidence to the point of rashness. As Vasquez says during the briefing, "I just need to know where they are", as she makes a motion of pointing a gun, to cheers from the rest. Hudson during the drop to the planet's surface is also full of bravado. Yet the deserted colony leaves them uneasy, and the debacle in the terraforming complex strips away their defences: Hudson is reduced to a whimpering shadow of his former self, while Vasquez is filled with rage at Gorman's military inefficiency and wants to kill him, perhaps making him the scapegoat for their losses. At this point Hicks emerges as one of the few male heroes of the series, quiet but authoritative, taking charge of his demoralised comrades and listening to advice from Ripley while pointedly ignoring Burke's attempts to take charge of the expedition. Gorman, who goes to pieces during the first battle, later redeems his reputation and honour by going back for Vasquez when she is injured, and then sitting with her when escape is impossible and helping her to blow themselves and several Aliens up. The quiet and subservient android Bishop also steps forward, volunteering to make the dangerous journey to the radio antennae to call down the dropship, and finally rescuing Ripley and Newt from the collapsing structure of the station. Again, as an android it is unclear how much choice he has, but it is clear that he is programmed to have some choice, even though he is supposedly programmed to be unable to hurt a human in any way.
Alien3 presents what seems to be a fairly unpromising batch of human material, namely the fundamentalist-style convicts of Fiorina-161. Even the colony doctor, Dance, turns out to have been punished for medical negligence due to being "under the influence". The convicts clearly have a lot of moral struggles despite their conversion: Morse stands up in one session and pointedly announces, "I took a vow of celibacy, and that includes women", while Dillon, the nearest thing they have to a minister, snaps at Ripley "You do not want to know me, lady. I am a rapist and murderer of women". Apart from their run-of-the-mill cursing and swearing (though they are careful not to blaspheme), three of them also give way to temptation and attempt to rape Ripley (earning themselves a beating from their leader, Dillon). When the monster is loose, Morse suggests they kill Ripley, since she brought it to the planet, and initially the group apart from Dillon are unwilling to risk their lives to tackle the alien. However, Dillon harangues them and finally persuades them to help Ripley destroy the beast. Most of the convicts are in fact bloodily slain by the creature, and Dillon himself sacrifices his own life in an attempt to keep the monster in the furnace. In comparison the three authority figures (Andrews, Aaron and Clemens) do not get much of a chance to make any impact. Clemens is aware that Ripley is keeping some sort of secret, but the monster kills him early on. Andrews is too stubborn to listen to Ripley until he likewise is killed, and Aaron, mockingly referred to as "86" (apparently his official IQ level) by the prisoners, is not recognised as a leader by them. With only a few weeks of a tour to finish and a place waiting for him on Earth, he refuses to carry out Ripley's request to broadcast a transmission that would keep the Company ship away. Yet we see him in a moment of self-reflection, staring at himself in a mirror, and during the final moments of the film, he makes a quixotic attack on the human Bishop that causes him to be shot down by the Company's personnel.
In Alien: Resurrection we are also given a rather unlovely group of people, in this case the scientists and soldiers of General Perez's project (the book states that all are volunteers in the hope of further advancement), and more particularly Elgyn's space pirates, who in their own way are as parasitic as the aliens, making money from crime and in particular the heinous kidnapping of people to be living hosts. The soldiers and scientists (with the exception of Perez, DiStephano, Wren and Gediman) are fairly faceless in the film, and are either killed or evacuated during the attack (in the book, military casualties are in fact quite high, and most of the scientists end up cocooned by the aliens). The pirates are more individualistic and as characters we gradually warm to them in a way despite their previous evil actions. Even Johner, the brutal, scar-faced warrior whose main job, in his own words, is to "hurt people", is shown to have a humourous side, although he has to take some punishment from Ripley first.
The theological angle
Book of Job.
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