Wednesday, October 31, 2012

It Came From Outer Space: Braving the ALIEN Quartet

gotta/enk cohort David Robson (blogger at the House of Sparrows) traces the strands of the horror film in a wildly parenthetical trek through all four stories in the Alien Quartet.

"In space, no one can hear you scream..."

It's a juicy tagline, and in 1979 it made us take notice. Alien wasn't the first film to mine the outer reaches of space for horror - indeed, some hip cultural commentators have noticed the elements it has in common with IT! The Terror from Beyond Space and Planet of the Vampires. (And H.P. Lovecraft made a career of mining the unexplored territories of space for wonder and horror earlier still.) But it was Alien that truly instilled sci-fi/horror in the popular consciousness, from its quietly spooky setting to its xenomorphic antagonist lurking in the shadows. And its connection to the then-nascent slasher model has been noted - though it predated the ur-slashery of Friday the 13th and its sequels, all of the slasher elements are there: isolated setting, diverse cast of characters who get offed one by one in colorful and startling ways, and, in the film's eventual protagonist Ellen Ripley, a Final Girl who overcomes her terror and finally faces down the killer. Sigourney Weaver made such an impression in this star-making role that it can be argued that her work was as crucial in establishing the Final Girl as a model in countless horror films to follow as that of Jamie Lee Curtis in Halloween (the more obvious precursor).

So powerful a character was Ripley that she was brought back for three sequels. Just as the title creatures prove adaptable and xenomorphic, so do the sequels themselves change character and genre: James Cameron's Aliens sees Ripley sign on for a military mission to combat the beasts in Cameron's future war/action story; David Fincher mines an AIDS allegory in the story of Ripley's battle against a single creature on an austere prison planet in Alien3; and finally Jean-Pierre Jeunet crafts Alien Resurrection as an arthouse fantasia similar to his earlier darkly whimsical creations. And yet the horror aspects of the first film do inform these mutant chapters.

Though decades pass between Alien and Aliens, the Aliens emerge as a threat the moment Ripley regains consciousness, as if they were laying dormant in wait for her. David Thomson, in his engaging if contestable book on the series, argues compellingly that this can't be a coincidence, that the Aliens return in response to Ripley's awakening, much in the way that Melanie Daniels' booty call to Bodega Bay seems to provoke the avian attacks of The Birds. And though the Weyland-Yutani corporation, in their ongoing efforts to use Ripley to exploit the aliens for profit, serves as a villain of the films, it is the weirdly Gothic relationship between Ripley and the aliens that truly drives them. In Aliens this is sealed by the duality between Ripley (whose growing fondness for young Newt becomes a kind of motherhood) and the Alien Queen (who, justly pissed by Ripley's destruction of her eggs, comes after her for revenge).

A cybersleep away from the wartime histrionics of Aliens we find Ripley landing on Fiorina "Fury" 161. Though Alien3 is Fincher's first feature, he demonstrates an affinity for horror, from the tastefully gruesome autopsy of a beloved character from the previous film (per good horror, ANYONE can die at ANY TIME) to the slow reveal of the creature's new canine form. The bond between Ripley and the aliens tightens as it is revealed that she's carrying the embryo of an alien queen inside her, and that old horror standby, the fiery climax, claims them both.

And yet the story continues two hundred years later in Alien Resurrection, as a cloned Ripley (Number 8) awakens to find herself an alien/human hybrid. The alien DNA within her gives us a truly awesome Ripley, and Weaver's playing of Number 8's strength, ferocity, and sensuality is a joy to watch (she should have the role of Countess Dracula all sewn up, even a decade later). Under Jeunet's direction (and with the glistening photography of Darius Khondji), the Aliens themselves look spectacularly malignant. An underwater chase scene takes on a nightmare quality and becomes one of the franchise's most memorable set pieces (despite the general disdain heaped upon this sequel, not least by screenwriter Joss Whedon).

Alien remains a milestone in the history of horror, and an influence on many of the films that followed it, be they sci-fi horror films like Event Horizon or more earthbound offerings. But the strands of cinematic horror can be found even in the more fanciful mutations of the later films in the Alien Quartet, shadowing Ripley as doggedly as her shiny, malevolent, rapacious nemeses.

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