Ridley Scott’s Failed Duality of Horror.

As the camera panned through the calm, empty corridors of the Nostromo, so too did the people watching. Whether audiences in 1979 knew it or not, Ridley Scott was doing the careful, calculated work of setting the basis for what remains a classic horror. By establishing a point of stasis for what’s later occupied by a panicked Ellen Ripley and a violently cavorting alien, the audience gets a greater experience of what the protagonist is feeling. They, too, were once relaxed, visually inhabiting the halls of the spaceship as the crew jostle and joke over a shitty freeze-dried space meal, in the same way that they’re later sprinting through the ship’s claustrophobic passages, teeming with anxiety.

Harnessing the action potential of a presented environment is a skill. One that many filmmakers utilize to great effect. Doing that on a futuristic spaceship or a foreign planet, however, presents an obvious problem. When no frame of reference exists, there’s less of an ability to connect; to access that which suspense offers a bridge towards — fear. That’s part of why Alien is such a celebrated title. In spite of the obvious barriers that exist, Scott and his crew used a combination of efficient cinematography, practical effects, and cogent subtext to posit a vibrant experience despite being lightyears away.

Forty-one years later, however, and Alien clings on to any semblance of cultural relevance through the same manner it was introduced. Though subsections of the ever-present fandom have clung onto specific aspects of the extended universe, the lack of success from proceeding installments has left this treasured idea dead in the water. Even after its original creator took back the reigns in 2012 for a supposed trilogy, confused filmmaking, forced fanservice, and a divergence in tone left excited fans young and old largely unrequited. But why, when so many rehashed, repackaged, and largely reiterated concepts make up the current cinema landscape, does an initially beloved idea seem to falter continually? If people are still seeing anniversary editions of the first film in theatres of today, why isn’t that same excitement shared for its modern extensions?

To understand why this failure of a Hollywood idea has such a tough time capitalizing on nostalgia or repurposing itself for modern audiences, it’s important to understand where it was, where its been, and where it wanted to go.

With the original enjoying so much of its success as a film that engages its viewers at both a surface and subversive level, it’s a shame that its sequel was given to someone that only looked to do one of those things. Though James Cameron’s Aliens is perhaps the only film in the Alien universe that rivals the success of the original, to say it’s something of a tonal departure is an understatement. Among other things, what Scott, Giger, and the inceptors of the original looked to build was a revolutionary creature, one that attacked the audience in its very design. As Dan O’Bannon, Alien’s screenplay writer said:

“One thing that people are all disturbed about is sex… I said ‘That’s how I’m going to attack the audience; I’m going to attack them sexually. And I’m not going to go after the women in the audience, I’m going to attack the men. I am going to put in every image I can think of to make the men in the audience cross their legs. Homosexual oral rape, birth. The thing lays its eggs down your throat, the whole number.’”

The xenomorph, as it would later be named, was transformative because of the ideas it held inherent to its design. In creating an entertaining action film of his own, Cameron did little, if anything, with those ideas. He used the fearful conception audiences had of the creature and made a shoot’em up around what was already there.

While there may not be anything wrong with this approach on its own, it doesn’t exactly leave room for thematic development. Cameron’s Aliens leaves the narrative completed. There’s no wink or nod to a xenomorph left behind or lingering message from the Weyland-Yutani corporation looking to weaponize the creature as was hinted at in the original. As a natural endpoint for an action film, the protagonist wins. The alien queen is destroyed, the girl is saved, we go home.

It seems, then, that from Aliens on, the IP suffers from the differing tones of its first two hits. With Scott’s version a looming, cerebral horror with plenty to chew on, and Cameron’s being the seat-filling, crowd-pleaser the genre lent itself toward at the time, audiences and studios alike didn’t know what they were getting themselves into. The production issues of Alien 3 epitomizing the confusion that would go on to define the series as Vincent Ward, then David Fincher were brought in to shoot two versions of the film. A product Fincher would later disown.

Outside of yet another installment that did little to make an impact, the series technically went quiet for fifteen years. An asterisk must be applied to that technicality, however, as a series of ostensibly related non-canonical films were made to tie into the action-based Predator films. Once more, the xenomorph was used as a scary prop — ever devaluing the imagery that made it something to be feared in the first place. While these films are known to be separate from the Alien films, it’s not outlandish to imagine the cultural conception of the creature was in some way damaged by these thoughtless shooters. Whatever image the general public had of the alien had now been twisted in a million different directions, taking almost none of its original message with it.

Despite all its use and abuse, though, Alien superfans remained. Castigated to blogs and dimly lit corners of the internet, a fascination with the pregnant nostalgia present in the not-so-distant future of Alien’s original universe kindled the untapped potential of what Scott and O’Bannon set forth all those years ago. It’s with this undying interest in the source text that Ridley Scott returned for a series of prequel films. As a chance to explore a related but separate mythology, establishing a timeline that explored the referential, environmentally told bits of the original film seemed like a good place to resurrect the franchise. Given the future had been largely destroyed by a myriad of indiscretions, it seemed the only way forward for Alien was backward. Scott’s exploration of humanity’s relationship with technology, immortalized by Ian Holm’s brilliant performance as Ash — an undercover android ruthlessly condemning the crew to their death once the xenomorph’s potential value as a bio-weapon was realized — had forty years of new material to comment on. For the first time in a long time, Alien could be born anew.

But if the source text from which both Prometheus and Covenant stem is what allows them to exist, unfortunately, it’s also the very thing that limits their potential. Across both films, Scott establishes something of a quad of intersecting tensions. Human, Xenomorph, Engineer, and Artificial intelligence are pitted against one another in a confusing two part-er rife with biblical and paternal themes that go both underdeveloped and drone on for far too long. The entire film is a modern take on the Greek myth of the same name, and one that intends to plot some of the same messages with different characters. Scott’s answer to the question, who made me and why are answered with the horrifying concepts displayed in Prometheus. Not only does a creator exist, but they’re angry we’re alive and they very much want to rectify their mistake.

The existential horror of an angry, malevolent God may, on paper, strike fear into anyone as they stare into the empty space on their ceiling on any given night, consumed by the horrifying possibility of the worst of all possible universes, but it’s one that’s far too personal to be actualized by an eight-foot, semi-translucent Mr. Clean. Prometheus, in all it’s anti-Nietzchean horror — God is alive and, in fact, very upset — falters in the stakes it proposes. The confusing mix of paternal egos and religious themes, LV-223 if you didn’t get by now is a reference to Leviticus 2:23 which states:

“Say to them: ‘For the generations to come, if any of your descendants is ceremonially unclean and yet comes near the sacred offerings that the Israelites consecrate to the LORD, that person must be cut off from my presence. I am the LORD.’”

The humans being the unclean descendants intent on accessing the offerings afforded by their creators, is just one of many only partially discernible through lines in a film chock-full of reference. At some point, we’re supposed to guffaw at the fact that the mission’s leader, played by Charlize Theron, is Weyland’s daughter. The tertiarily referenced rivalry between her and David taking up all but five minutes in the release cut. The crew members who sacrifice themselves to save the rest of humanity, played by Idris Elba, Benedict Wong, and Emun Elliot, have almost no screen time. Their deaths like a pin drop.

Alas, if nothing else — and that very may well be the case — the narrative Prometheus sets up is the only interesting, untarnished vein left. As the arrogant humans pranced around the engineer military base on LV223, the thing catalyzing their demise was the series’ true original villain: AI. Like any living thing, the xenomorph is but a slave to its natural urges. It’s a hyper-efficient killing machine. The sentient form allowing it to roam from movie to movie, however, is, more often than not, some kind of AI. As David watched his own creators foolishly succumb to a variety of misgivings in Prometheus, he’s struck by the ‘perfection’ of the creature. This is a narrative arch partially continued in the original Alien, but one that’s characterized more personally to David as the series moves into Covenant. After all, while the wide range of talents cast in both films do their best with the material, the performance that shines through is Fassbender’s creepy android. Reminiscent of Holm’s ash, Fassbender’s witty, nefarious characterization of the synthetic anthropomorphizes everything we seem to fear about sentient AI.

With an opening that shines a spotlight on David’s paternal motivation, Covenant re-hashes old series tropes. Both the supposedly relatable friends-and-family-style crew and a near-identical start are reminiscent of the original in the way it looks to gather our attention and send us down an eerily similar journey. Heck, with a newer, more pronounced kind of motivation for that which looks to exploit the alien, it seems like an idea that might even work. But like everything in these films, it just doesn’t land. The story is far too muddled with various bits of literary and biblical reference to take itself seriously. Any attachment we’re meant to have to the characters and their motivations is undercut by strange editorial decisions. Covenant, much like Prometheus, is missing arguably crucial bits in the released edit, and from Idris Elba’s strange southern accent to James Franco ostensibly cast as a major figure to only then be cut from the entire movie, means that it’s not as if there’s some ideal master edit out there a la Zack Synder. Revelatory clips that piece together crucial themes throughout can be found on youtube, ripped from the clutter of special edition DVD releases, but there are so many other issues at hand. The entire execution is awash with a variety of tensions influencing both the most minor and major decisions.

It’s as if the idea Scott intended to push forth is clear — our creation is seduced by a ruthless process of evolutionary synthesis and looks to offer us up in service of that lofty idea — but doesn’t exact itself with the penetrating fear he would’ve hoped for. For Scott, it’s simply far too personal a fear to try and reach with damaged gear. It’d be a foolish limitation of the form to suggest that some director couldn’t or hasn’t already projected that kind of horror onto film, but for Scott to do so with imagery and ideas that are stuck somewhere between what they were, what people perceived them to be, and what they never really could be, is a tough ask.

Ultimately, in a time of recycled ideas and monolithic franchise, the most that can be said about Alien’s newest ventures is that they try. What’s difficult to accept is how they fail. In an ambitious attempt to parallel the very manner with which the series once enjoyed its defining success, Scott’s inability to move from immediate material horror to an existential one isn’t entirely his fault. It’s difficult to conceive how else one might go about making the IP interesting again, but it’s an arch that doesn’t work for a myriad of reasons. Whether it’s the abuse the hallmarks of franchise took in its interim or the difference in how its most critical symbols are used and understood, Alien seems to have become the tainted chalice of Hollywood IP: unable to explore new ideas without being handheld by the hulking black carapace that made Scott’s Alien an idea worth remembering in the first place.

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