I rewatched the Alien franchise (the first four films). They speak about how humans incubate fears of the dark, the unknown, of disappearing, of birth, change, life and death. Probably, I’d insert a quote from Helene Cixous or Luce Irigaray here about language, myth, the body and sexuality, but you know… Anywho, these films are about how humans differ (or not), from the monsters that lurk in the shadows waiting to devour us. And about how our failures and foibles give these monsters life, each through the lens of different a film genre. The good thing is while watching I completely forgot the other related films.
During the course of Alien this film becomes a closed room, slasher/stalker horror flick. The purpose is to survive long enough in the dark, industrial environs of Nostromo and LV-426 to escape the monster. While aspects of the film are quaint (the tech, some of the forced bonhomie), and some are jarring (smoking in a space ship?) the film remains vivid in its immediacy, despite repeated viewing. The deceitful corporate angle is completely odious and also entirely realistic. Ian Holm as the synthetic person Ash is menacing as the company mouthpiece, while the computer system Mother is awful/cool for the 1979 version of the future. If this film never had a sequel it wouldn’t have mattered, it is (still) that memorable.
The next instalment, Aliens is a military/space western where the humans make stands to fight the enemy. Every military stereotype is deployed until it’s like viewing the Platonic Forms of US (of course) Military. It’s Apocalypse Now against aliens, from the language used by the cigar chomping sarge, the sweaty CO on his first combat mission, the overly emotional marine, the 2IC who steps up, to each of the wise cracking, self-sacrificing soldiers. Yet in the future while women are soldiers and pilots the taunts and weird looks continue.
Even as this ‘bug hunt’ does war by the book, the fight evolves into a battle between the lonely, mourning, (adoptive) Mother of Newt and the persistent, revengeful Mother of Aliens. Both wear exoskeletons and become iconic. Ripley develops as she experiences grief for her coworkers and for the life she lost by sleeping 57 years. Meanwhile, the company continues its quest to commodify the aliens, making Paul Reiser’s character so casually despicable I could never quite accept how Helen Hunt could be Mad About Him. Ripley gets over her phobia of synths with the help of Bishop.
Aliens3 is Escape from Alcatraz with the prisoners fighting to keep the alien breaking out. In this bleak prison / medical infection story the only option is to contain the threat, symbolically, literally and physically, just as the criminals are contained. The locals are the rag-tag bunch of ne’er do wells who must learn to follow the last survivor of the Nostromo if they are to achieve this mission in life or death. It was a pity to not have Hicks and Newt along, but this enabled Ripley to manipulate the characters when not fighting them to dominate the plot as the outcast amongst outcasts. Bishop bows out nobly, even as the human model for the synth is revealed, because the company continues to want what they should never have. Ripley’s dive 10/10.
Alien Resurrection is Frankenstein in space. This time the rag-tag bunch of ne’er do wells are selling humans to off grid military scientists. The only option aboard a ship controlled by Father is not to fight nor flee the enemy but become it. I don’t hate this film as much as even its writer (Joss Whedon) but it’s messy and overly dramatic (General Perez). Motherhood is made monstrous, but in making the monster more human, and Ripley more alien the point about people being frail and mortal and also monsters is lost. Then the same point’s obscured by the uncanny intimacy between the Alien/Mother and Baby Hybrid and Ripley 8 as well as the mother-daughter-lover-fellow non human-Ryder-synth Call. This Ripley is not Ripley, and yet not-not. Ripley 8 is the most Ripley when she torches the failed clones.
Mainly with Resurrection I see Joss Whedon taking these space jocks and inserting them into Firefly and Serenity. I think Whedon did to this film what the producers did to the Buffy film: the levity they demanded undermined the horror. These films were never for laughs. They are about the shock caused by confrontation with the Other. Then again, perhaps the horror isn’t the violent deaths so much as the distance from home and home is too close in Resurrection. In an era post the Saw franchise, alone and adrift for decades seems far scarier than instant death via acid-blood monsters.
As for Ellen Ripley? Despite or perhaps of her death/s Ripley is all of us: cocooned and asleep, drifting through time and space until shocked awake into arguing, running, loving, fighting, and working to survive, on repeat, forever.