The eight films that encompass the Alien series—including its succession of sequels, prequels, and spin-offs—make up a widely varying compendium of consistencies and contrasts. The latest entry, Alien: Covenant (2017), is no exception. As the critical reviews of this new installment are now sufficiently mingled with the predictably deviating audience reactions, one thing about the popular franchise remains clear: each title will forever be burdened and bolstered by the films that came before it. Of course, this isn’t all that surprising; sequels are usually judged by their precursors. But with the Alien anthology, it’s not just about the quality of one film as opposed to another, it’s about a deference to the fictional narrative construct (few movie cycles are as preoccupied with a generally coherent narrative thread) and the anticipation derived from an incorporation of familiar themes and visual motifs (there have likewise been few cycles so dependent on the implementation of archetypal iconography).
The graphic cohesion that permeates this entire corpus has been formed by a decades-spanning assembly of creative minds, with its multifaceted origins descending from assorted artistic influence. In the beginning, for example, the first Alien (1979) picked up from a post-Star Wars sci-fi vogue but carried forth its own points of distinct intention, coming from writer Dan O’Bannon’s eagerness to take his Dark Star (1974) experience and amp up the terror in place of the comedy, and director Ridley Scott’s comparable desire to make the “Texas Chainsaw Massacre of science fiction.” And to enhance this mash-up of genre conventions, further stimulus was sought and found in the surreal vision of Swiss painter H.R. Giger, whose impression on the Alien series is likely its most pronounced aesthetic. The resulting conception has undergone considerable variance with an equal degree of allegiance. As the pioneering costume designs and model simulations of the first and second Alien films have yielded to more recent accomplishments in CGI proficiency, this series has routinely breached a high-water mark in special effect imagery. From the insect-sexual design of the extraterrestrial creatures—the so-called xenomorphs—which have since experienced subsequent evolutions, to the curved “croissant” ship, part of the appeal of the Alien series is the welcome return of familiar features. Upon the release of Prometheus in 2012, as debate raged regarding how much of an Alien film this really was (it very much was), the most persuasive arguments concerning its placement in the grand scheme came in its representative tell-tale imagery, taking shape in etched murals and recurrent displays of customary bloodshed (a creature face-hugging a human is itself one of the series’ enduring visions).
This Alien universe is forged from the melding of mechanics and biological entities. The interiors of the various ships are a synthesis of high-tech architecture and organic processes, a composite often played for effective chills as the aliens blend with their industrial surroundings, merging with pipes and folding into concealed cervices; the “space jockey” figure first glimpsed in Alien is shown to have literally fused with his celestial station. Upon alien inhabitation, vessels fester further into squirming, steaming, liquefied habitats, alive in a Freudian mass of corporeal configurations. The seamless amalgam of automation and macrobiotic domination links a predominant narrative that likewise stresses the symbiosis of biological influence, as the routine incorporation of ecology and technology prove central to the nefarious Weyland Corporation’s “bio-weapons” division, so vital to sequels Aliens (1986) and Alien: Resurrection (1997).
If the qualities above define the Alien series in external terms, on a more personable level, its constancy also comes down to the characters, and more than that, the characterizations, the recurring types of people followed in these films, how well they fit certain tropes and how those tropes, in turn, correspond with prior incarnations. And there is no more integral figure than Ellen Louise Ripley. As the personified tie that binds the first four films of the series, the impact of Sigourney Weaver’s seminal character echoes even in her absence, from the take-charge Alexa Woods (Sanaa Lathan) of AVP: Alien vs. Predator (2004), to the reticent-but-emerging heroines Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) in Prometheus and Daniels Branson (Katherine Waterston) in Alien: Covenant. As one of two women in the original film, Ripley (curiously enough, not originally a female character) is first denied the eventual prowess she attains; her assertiveness is seen as a threat to prevailing masculine authority and force. But her final victory at the end of the first film (or so it would seem, anyway) seals her heroic fate, so that by Aliens, she has become the series’ permanent face of competence. Weaver had already turned in phenomenally dynamic performances in the first two films (Aliens garnered her an Oscar nomination, quite the rarity for the genre), but in Alien 3 (1992) and Alien: Resurrection, she adopts an increasingly vigorous physicality. She still faces inevitable resistance from her mainly male counterparts, but Ripley has developed into a strong, savvy, and valued individual. She became a screen heroine for the ages.
Ripley may defy the clichéd gender norm when it comes to female action idols, but she is still the primary vehicle for the conventional, yet fascinating and fundamentally appropriate, themes of femininity and an analogous exploration of maternity. Taking place aboard ships with central drive computers identified as “Mother” and featuring characters like Shaw, whose stated inability to bare children receives explicit attention, the Alien series has persistently dealt with notions of both womanhood and motherhood. Aliens gives Ripley her most poignant association as far as this is concerned, with the revelation that she had a daughter, since deceased, and part of the developing satisfaction of that film is its establishment of a traditional family unit involving Ripley, the young shell-shocked Newt (Carrie Henn), and the injured Corporal Hicks (Michael Biehn). There is in this a touching depiction of familial humanity amongst the otherworldly chaos. It’s certainly something that resonates with Ripley, and ultimately, it brings the entire film around in one maternal circle. Ripley’s nurturing instincts are additionally given parallels to the aliens themselves, as in this 1986 film when she is able to escape the queen by threatening its eggs, or in Alien 3, when her “pregnancy” essentially saves her life, or in Alien: Resurrection, when her motherly kinship with the alien is granted its most vivid fruition.
Aside from Ripley’s emblematic motherhood, the Alien series offers repeated variations on the nature of creation/birth, innocently evinced in the regular procedure of hypersleep wakening, deviously developed in hybrid formations, and later expanding to large-scale philosophical questions regarding the myths and realities of human origin. Meanwhile, narrative keynotes of terraforming and colonization form part of a repeated prospect for sustenance and survival, which has provided the impetuous for more than one mission, most recently that of the colony ship Covenant. These particular topics are subject to their most profound discourse in Prometheus and Alien: Covenant, which are both rampant with weighty concerns of where humanity began, how the “engineers” propagate planets, and variations on the persisting questions of who made who, why, and how. As these characters attempt to delineate and rectify creation, the lofty existential inquiries are localized in the form of Rapace’s Shaw, as her admission to barrenness—“I can’t create life”—establishes a thematic component that builds to the stun of her miraculous, not exactly “traditional,” pregnancy.
A modified correlation to the biological processes of life and life-giving so central to the Alien series can also be found in its population of artificial beings. Beginning with the shock-realization that Ash (Ian Holm) is an android in Alien, which prompts Ripley’s suspicion toward the good robot Bishop (Lance Henriksen) in Aliens, as the series evolves, so too do these perfunctory units. By the time of Alien: Resurrection, the appearance of Call (Winona Ryder) allows for a more ambiguous presentation of android existence, where the synthetic reacts to Ripley’s own artificial constitution and condemns the cloned heroine as something less than human herself, a variation on the fascination-repulsion that is, connecting thematic dots, rectified in a sort of outcast mother-daughter bond. Skepticism toward artificial intelligence returns in Prometheus, with Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) voicing his circumspect disdain for the robot David (Michael Fassbender), who does in fact have malicious motivations. In their hostile tête-à-tête, the two expose a refrain significant to the series as of late. Debating about why the engineers would make life, David asks Charlie why humans made androids. “Because we could,” comes the taciturn response. It’s a comment that spurs David’s already dubious infatuation with the enviable ability to create, something his kind cannot ostensibly do. Additionally, the Ripley/Call relationship has a complementary equivalent in Prometheus and Alien: Covenant, as David is held in parental regard by his own creator, Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce), and it is their theoretical musing which starts the most recent feature that initiates the suggestion of David’s vicious treatise, eventually enacted, on the fine line between fatal infection and prosperous gestation.
Though the robotic units in the Alien series are treated with a sense of foreignness, they are basically knowable (if unpredictable), as they did, after all, derive from human intelligence. The same cannot be said for the aliens, the xenomorphs and their variants. Their startling manifestation is necessary to the initial horror of Alien, whereas in Aliens, one expects their presence—just not their quantity—and through Ripley’s words of wisdom, even the crew is made aware and cautious of the aliens’ hostile nature (though they still downplay the danger). In Alien 3, only Ripley is in the know, while in Alien: Resurrection, the alien lifeform is part of a sweeping techno-science endeavor, something always insinuated in the prior films with an advance knowledge kept secret from those immediately involved. By comparison, Prometheus and Alien: Covenant, as well as the AVP films, reintroduce a sense of the unknown, at least as far as the characters are concerned, while simultaneously playing off the viewer’s expectations, expectations that have been routinely renewed. To keep the alien interesting, the monsters have undergone continual revision in terms of their conception and their capabilities. There is an evolving sense that these are sentient beings, adaptive, with their own objectives and an endless potential for invention: incubating inside of a dog, killing one of their own and using its acid-blood to escape, gestating to form a “Pred-Alien” crossbreed in Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem (2007). As is seen in Requiem and its offshoot forerunner, the alien stands in marked contrast to its extraterrestrial foe, for they have no extraneous weaponry (though they do share an affinity for camouflage) and they abide by no admirable code of conduct; they are carnal, impulsive creatures, and their capacity for carnage is innate and indeed necessary to their proliferation. As David so terrifyingly discovers, the aliens are a byproduct of a parasitic organism that must continually engage in a cyclical process of life, death, and rebirth, all hinging on the aforementioned biological emphasis and given brutal realization in a form of visceral body horror, most famously in the first film’s chestburster revelation and appearing in a variety of reworkings thereafter.
Just as the aliens are the obvious external threats, part of what distinguishes the Alien series are its subplots and its internal hazards. Save for Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem, each film introduces at least one recognized order, with a clearly demarcated chain of command and a confirmed mission. From that comes camaraderie, teamwork, and solidity, but there can also be bitterness, rivalries, and ulterior or opposing motives. Tense differences in pragmatism and ethics can often lead to an antagonistic crew and peripheral conflicts that have little if anything to do with the alien drama. Certainly, the primary catalyst for this is the ominous “company,” the Weyland-Yutani Corporation that is in some way behind most everything that results these films.
As far as collaborative achievement goes in the real world, perhaps more than any other multi-director franchise, the Alien series is largely identified by its respective filmmakers. Bookended thus far by Ridley Scott, but encompassing six others in between, these directors generate their end products through individual triumph and concerted efforts of studio collaboration. They are also operating in accordance to paths previously laid forth by their predecessors in this series, subsequently integrating their own distinctive styles with an adherence to the established material. This takes the shape of fluctuating tones, visual disparities, and even generic concentrations. See the controlled severity of Scott’s Alien versus Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s wildly eccentric Alien: Resurrection, or the bleak nihilism of David Fincher’s Alien 3 versus James Cameron’s guns-a-blazing combat film Aliens. While Alien unfolds at a stately pace, building on the workaday “truck drivers in space” scenario, Aliens surges with balls-to-the-wall intensity; AVP consists of a select group of experts, while Requiem takes place in Anytown U.S.A. The sets can be cold and sterile, sleek and refined, or crude and grimy. Yet the films are also linked by a formal interplay of light and shadow, stasis and movement, languid pacing and rapid montage, and a sly execution of focus and misdirection, nearly all of which work toward enhancing the horror and the suspense that have come to define the franchise.
This anticipated characterization is what partially led viewers to either embrace or deny Paul W.S. Anderson’s AVP: Alien vs. Predator and The Brothers Strause’s (Greg and Colin) Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem. For better or worse—I, for one, say better—these films bank on the inherent fan appeal of their two respective foundations, offering up no pretense but succeeding with just enough novelty and a healthy allotment of reference cues, from opening title fonts and iconic weaponry, to thematic consistencies like the implantation of pregnant women and a willful soldier-mom. They touch on the series’ appealing devotion to everyday people in extraordinary situations, and they teasingly introduce the Weyland-Yutani marriage of scientific and political influence. High-minded critical responses notwithstanding, Anderson and the Strauses ultimately get to what matters most with an Alien film. Yes, there has to be a degree of technical, artistic, and narrative competency, but the main thing, looking beyond knee-jerk platitudes, is that these movies just have to be entertaining. And as far as that goes, the franchise is as strong as ever, with a lot of life left in it.