Since 1979, the Alien franchise has been at the forefront of blending science fiction and horror. Ridley Scott’s original film was unique for more than just being a haunted house in space. It was scary, sure, because how could a starship be invaded by grotesque creatures who want to eat you without being frightening? But there was a greater depth to the massacre brought by the Xenomorph aliens.
Consider the look of the Xenomorphs. They’re not like most alien creatures considering their lack of eyes, the abundance of mouths, and skillful speed. They were designed by noted artist H. R. Giger, who brought a darkly erotic theme to the design. The creatures are ribbed and phallic in their design, appearing as a mixture of metallic and organic. The sexual nature also extends to how the Xenomorphs reproduce, implanting their eggs within human bodies that are essentially raped and forced to birth their children.
The design of the creature was thankfully kept concealed to the shadows and slathered in gooey liquid while remaining in the dark. It makes the few times we see the alien a true shock. Ridley Scott had great ideas with how to shoot these many scenes. Essentially, he didn’t want his alien movie to favor the familiar elements of horror he despised:
“I’ve never liked horror films before, because in the end it’s always been a man in a rubber suit. Well, there’s one way to deal with that. The most important thing in a film of this type is not what you see, but the effect of what you think you saw.”
The Xenomorph alien would end up becoming one of the most iconic movie monsters ever. More Xenomorphs could be found in the sequel film, “Aliens” (1986), directed by James Cameron. “Aliens” not only featured more scenes of the dangerous creatures but a larger design. In the film’s climax, Ripley takes on the alien queen, a towering beast that was amazingly constructed with practical effects.
The developments in “Aliens” gave more depth to the creatures while also leaning further into the sexual nature. We get to see the queen’s hive of eggs and witness the aliens more as a race of beings trying to survive through infestation. There’s a parallel when Ripley, piloting a mech suit, tries to protect the orphaned girl Newt. This staging made the aliens seem more complex and dangerous, becoming more calculative and driven in their survival.
The franchise would take some weird routes in trying to find out what to do next. 1992’s “Alien 3” would pose Ripley within a prison colony where only she can defeat the one alien terrorizing the all-male prisoners and guards. There’s a greater focus on the feminist angle with how Ripley experiences a similar sense of loneliness and desperation as the vicious alien creature. It was this film where we got to see the iconic shot of Ripley turning away from the alien’s extended jaw. It’s perhaps one of the most iconic shots of any Alien movie in the franchise, despite being the most polarizing.
By the end of the film, Ripley comes to embrace a certain darkness and kinship she has with the alien. She is impregnated with the alien and rather than undergo a surgery to remove the creature, Ripley accepts the creature as a part of her body and aims to kill herself, stopping the alien on her own terms. She dies with a certain contentment.
Then came 1997’s “Alien Resurrection” and things really flew off the rails here. This Alien film made the controversial call by trying to study the aliens and find something more intriguing about their organics. While this is certainly a new development, it also divorces from the greater themes of the alien representing female body autonomy. This seems especially true with how the series literally resurrects Ripley for this entry, trying to recapture the essentials of an Alien movie. That being said, this was a mostly campy movie that had far less to say and way more to show.
After this film, the Alien movies became mindless enough for a series of crossover movies with The Predator. 2004’s “Alien versus Predator” and 2007’s “Alien versus Predator – Requiem” were more about all the cool stuff the alien could do and less about the themes it may represent. The soulless nature became more president as computer graphics were heavily favored over practical effects for the many action sequences. Alien had lost its appeal and needed some major restructuring to be more than just the subject of versus movies.
Who better to revitalize Alien than Ridley Scott himself? 2012 saw the release of the prequel film “Prometheus”. There was no alien in the title because, well, there wasn’t really an alien until the end of the film. The movie mostly focused on the origins of the decayed architects from the first alien movie and how their vessel came to be known as the breeding ground for the Xenomorph.
As unappealing as that premise may sound, Scott’s movie got back to the greater goals of his first Alien movie, aiming to find some meaning to existence amid a horrific force of nature and a corrupt capitalist system that breeds it. You also got to see one of the crew members become impregnated by the alien creatures and receive a quick abortion via the ship’s machinery. So it’s safe to say that themes were back for the series.
“Alien Covenant” was the 2017 sequel to “Prometheus” and carried on with this refreshing new take on the Alien franchise. The Xenomorphs everybody knows and loves are back but not without a more compelling focus. The sequel is notable for expanding on the android character David and his obsession with trying to experiment with lifeforms.
His obsession creates a certain madness that makes the creation of the Xenomorphs more shocking than just being a dominant species that rose up of their own accord. It’s also just a thrilling sci-fi horror with plenty of graphic kills and brutality, complete with a shower kill for that extra dose of slasher vibes.
It should be noted that by “Alien Covenant”, the aliens are pretty much all computer-generated creations. That’s perhaps the most technical difference between the original four films and the current prequel series. The themes are perhaps blunter and more pronounced in the prequel series, having yet to fall off a cliff into mindless action the way the previous saga did. With the exception of “Alien Resurrection” and the Alien versus Predator movies, all of the films hold a similar focus on the observations of life and the autonomy of our bodies. It’s that focus that will carry the Alien franchise further than the Predator movies which at this point seems more like location changes than a focus on what made Predator resonate with audiences.
The future is a bit up in the air for the Alien films. There has been talk of a sequel to “Alien Covenant” to complete the prequel trilogy, but it’s been in development hell ever since Disney bought Fox. Supposedly, there’s an Alien TV series in the works which will explore the less developed aspects of the Weyland Yutani Corporatio, and a standalone movie by director Fede Alvarez is said to be in the works, under the supervision of Ridley Scott. Hopefully the Alien franchise will keep its central themes intact so that the series can proceed further into media that is more than just finding out who the Xenomorph could beat in a fight.