Why ‘Alien’ Is One Of Cinema’s Great Existential Contemplations

James Hill /
May 16, 2017 / Film & TV

The Alien franchise has long been a mainstay of the Horror Genre.

The glistening carapace and terrifying form of the Xenomorph is a haunting element of our popular culture – indeed, it is the stuff of nightmares. Yet, with the release of Alien Covenant this week, this film has moved beyond a simple Monster in the dark scare-fest. While gore and horrific body invasion are of course, present throughout this film, the Alien franchise is so much more than a simple exercise in mundane monstrosity.

Alien Covenant – the second instalment in the Alien prequel series which began haltingly with 2012’s Prometheus, the sixth instalment in the Alien film series and the third directed by Ridley Scott – is another reminder of how this film series has moved beyond its B-Movie origins. Now, we have a psychological exploration of the nature of life and, by extension: humanity.

The first Alien in 1979 greeted us with the now iconic scene in which John Hurt’s character Kane had a chesty experience with the eponymous Xenomorph. At first, this conformed to the idea that the entire franchise was a high-octane terror ride, with the ‘slasher in the woods’ Alien dispatching unwitting humans with ease and multiple explosions of fake blood. However, what is clear from the Alien franchise is that it reflects the nature of human society. For instance, in the first 3 films in 1979, 1986 and 1992 respectively, the power of these Monsters became entwined with the need to control and subjugate them. In 1986’s Aliens, James Cameron’s most enjoyable film to date, the character Carter J. Burke, portrayed with slimy aplomb by Paul Reiser, is a mincing bureaucrat who sees the Xenomorph as the next step in biological warfare. A perfect being, capable of revolutionising warfare.

Yet, the parable is clear. To this end, the Xenomorph cannot be controlled by any human, regardless of the amount of money thrown in its pursuit and capture, is perhaps an allegory for the destructive power of the Atomic age. Ostensibly, the Xenomorph, as revealed in 2012’s Prometheus, is a product of an ancient forerunner race, who designed the beast as an implacable agent of genocide. This revealed new levels of nuance and subtlety in the creation of these creatures. The implication being that, Terrifying Monster it may be, but the Xenomorph is so much more than the sum of its kills. Take, for example, the gut-wrenching idea of invasion by a parasitic host and then, being dispatched in such a gruesome way is as psychologically disturbing as H.R. Giger’s original creations. The franchise builds upon this to feverish intensity in the first four films, culminating in 1996’s comic book inspired Alien: Resurrection.

Yet, arguably in Scott’s prequels, there is greater exposition on the nature of these creatures and humanity. Indeed, Prometheus has its detractors (it does tend to ask impossible questions without giving any clear answers), yet in this, there is greater scope for ambiguity. Why did the engineers create humanity? Why did they feel the need to build weapons of mass destruction to eliminate them? In the Greek Myth, Prometheus is an inherently ambiguous character, seemingly an ally of Zeus yet capable of stealing the fire of the gods. From the myth, Scott gets underneath the skin of what makes us fundamentally human.

For Naomi Rapace’s Elizabeth Shaw, it is her faith that sustains her fundamental humanity. For Sigourney Weaver’s iconic Ripley, it is her fundamental pragmatism, echoed in the simple yet effective cinematography of the first film. A belief that the Xenomorphs, those existential expressions of humanity’s inner evil, must be destroyed at any cost. However, what is clear from both characters it that the franchise does not revolve around the Monsters which exist in the universe. It is our fundamental reaction to such implacable force. The Xenomorph by now has a reputation for being unstoppable. Yet, what makes this franchise so much more than just another monster series is that with every instalment, some facet of human nature is revealed in all its variations.

If Alien and Aliens, worked as murky B movies (a horror flick, a war film) embedding all the (psycho-sexual) meaning in the imagery, the following films were more contemplative. The misogyny that inevitably faces strong women in the context of these films is expounded upon and investigated. Additionally, Alien Covenant is a stark reminder that the human psyche is explored, not by humans, but by two androids dreaming of sheep. David and Walter, both played with stylish grace by Michael Fassbender, address fundamental issues of creation and the value of life. Indeed, one of the two androids seem capable of affection and growth yet simultaneously, the other is seemingly impervious to the paradox that in the act of creating, infinite loss of life is the counterpoint. There is a subtle nod to the musings of Nietzsche in their exchanges. The idea that David’s superman countenance and seeming brilliance is underpinned by the perfection of the Xenomorphs as flawless machines of death is another reminder of the depth of these films. Ridley Scott wants you, the viewer, to ask questions of what makes humans, so human. In my view, a combination of fragility and strength in perfect symbiosis.

The Alien Franchise is so much more than an exploration of the monster slasher trope. It is an investigation into the core of the human soul. It is a step deep into the abyss, where monstrosities move in the dark.

Get Volume #18 now.

Words by James Hill

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