Ridley Scott’s Alien movies — an appreciation

When David commented that the three Ridley Scott Alien movies made a fine trilogy, Roman suggested he might like to expound further.

I first saw Ridley Scott’s movie Alien in London in 1979,
not long after it was released. We were on our way back home from the Worldcon, which had been held in Brighton that year. Filling in time before we had to head to the airport, we went to see the movie, which had been talked about a good deal at the convention. Then we went off to Heathrow and climbed onto our plane for the 24-hour-plus return trip to Melbourne. Not a good idea, as horrific images from the movie kept flashing through our minds throughout most of the trip!

Fast-forward to 2018, and I watched the recently-released Alien: Covenant on DVD. Somewhat earlier I had seen Scott’s Prometheus.
Neither of these two more recent movies seems to been particularly well received by critics, but I have to say that I greatly enjoyed them both. More than that, I feel that these three movies, all directed by Ridley Scott and set in the same conceptual universe, form a coherent but under-appreciated science-fiction trilogy.

Now, I know that there are a whole series of Alien movies made by other directors, beginning with the bafflingly-popular Aliens directed by James Cameron. Following that movie, though, it seems generally agreed that the quality of the franchise dropped off with each subsequent title.

I say “bafflingly-popular” about Aliens because I feel that Cameron took only the most superficial elements of Alien and used them to create a simple shoot-the-bad-guys action flick, and in my view not a particularly good one. The original Alien is far more interesting, well-designed and thought-provoking.

I would like to consider just the Ridley Scott Alien movies here and discard all the rest of the franchise, treating those as though they did not exist. So, let’s look at three movies dealing with the Alien concept, all by the same director. They were completed over a nearly 40-year span, yet they fit together very neatly. The later movies do more than draw on the ideas of the first movie, they pay homage and build on those ideas.

Now let me admit at the start that there are definitely flaws in these movies. If you consider them to be part of the horror genre then it’s true that they fall prey to some pretty weak tropes of that genre.
You know the kind of thing: “We’ve all got to stick together! You go that way and we’ll go this way.” I freely admit these flaws and do think they weaken the movies.

Nevertheless, with these acknowledged, I still consider that the trilogy is a brilliant contribution to the science-fiction genre. In fact, the horror and suspense elements, while exciting on first viewing, tend to dominate and obscure some of the more serious elements of the movies, which can only be focused on during subsequent re-watching when we know what’s coming.

So in preparation for writing this essay, I’ve re-watched all three movies over the last few weeks.

Warning, spoilers abound!

In re-watching Alien (1979), I gained a deeper appreciation of what a fine piece of film-making I believe it is. The set-building is beautiful and detailed, both on the human spacecraft itself and on the creepy Giger-inspired alien craft . None of this has dated, apart perhaps from the rather crude computer displays. It has a very small but terrific cast, every one of whom does a great job: John Hurt, Ian Holm, Tom Skerrit, Harry Dean Stanton, Yaphet Kotto, Veronica Cartwright and of course the brilliant Sigourney Weaver.

Although most of my readers are probably familiar with the original movie, here is a very brief synopsis, highlighting the salient plot points so that I can later discuss the links between all three movies:

The crew of the Nostromo, a commercial space freighter, are awoken because the onboard AI (“Mother”) has detected a radio beacon apparently of intelligent origin. They descend to the surface of a planet and find a weird-looking alien vehicle. On board is a dead pilot of gigantic stature, its chest exploded outward. In the hold are arrays of hundreds of pods which appear organic. Investigating them, Kane (John Hurt) is attacked and a crab-like creature attaches itself to his face. He is brought back on board against the furious objections of Ripley (Sigourney Weaver). Eventually the crab-like creature dies and falls off and Kane seems OK. But a little later a small but fierce creature bursts from Kane’s chest and escapes. They try to find it but fail. It grows large and one by one the crew are attacked and die, eventually leaving Ripley alone. She triggers the ship’s self-destruct system and gets away in an escape module, only to find that the alien is in it. She eventually destroys it.

A few things struck me particularly on revisiting the movie.

Firstly, how generous a pace Scott allows himself at the beginning. In fact, the first words spoken in the movie don’t occur until almost seven minutes in, as we do a languid tour of the craft before the humans wake up. Movement keeps startling us, but it’s non-human movement; a curtain moves, displays flash, a little toy bird dips its beak into water. Then the humans wake (slowly and in silence). Finally, the ship comes to life as they sit around the meal table laughing and joking (and Stanton and Kotto do their delightful duo act of disaffected manual workers).

Secondly, how much silence there is; or if not total silence, then long passages with a little soft background noise but no speaking or music. There’s the slow, very quiet start to the movie I mention above; but there are also several later scenes where all we hear is dripping water or humming equipment. There’s even an intense argument between Holm’s character as the Science Officer and Weaver’s Executive Officer, which is carried out almost sotto voce in the medical clinic.

The third thing I thought worth noting was how relatively gender-neutral the script is. Unless I’m mistaken, there’s never a point at which the gender of Cartwright and Weaver’s characters is even referred to, let alone used as a plot point. Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley has become almost iconic as that of a strong, no-punches-pulled female lead. One could cite against this, perhaps, the scene aboard the escape pod towards the end of the movie in which Ripley strips down to her skimpy underwear, unaware that the alien is on board. Is this sheer titillation for the sake of a young male audience? Perhaps, but one could argue that it’s more about emphasising how terribly vulnerable she is once the alien reveals itself.

The last thing I want to spend time on, because it ties in so strongly to Prometheus and Covenant is Ian Holm’s character Ash. It’s well worth re-watching Ash throughout Alien, in the awareness that he is later revealed to be an android. Holm plays him throughout as a very calm, undemonstrative character with occasional flashes of humour (for example, see him grin and wave with twiddled fingers as the expedition heads off for the alien craft). Or note how submissively he gives up his seat at the meal-table when Kotto demands it. In retrospect one can well imagine him as an android from the same mould as David in Prometheus. There are many similarities.

It’s Ash who ignores Ripley’s orders and the legal quarantine protocols and allows the expeditionary team back into the spacecraft after Kane has been attacked by the alien pod. It’s Ash who, it is revealed,is prepared to return the alien specimen to Earth (specifically to the company which owns the spacecraft) and to that end, should treat the human crew as disposable. It’s Ash who goes crazy and attacks Ripley. In the subsequent fight it is revealed that Ash is an android (or ‘robot’). Decapitated in the fight but still capable of speech he admits that he admires the alien as “A perfect organism.
Its structural perfection is matched only by its hostility.”

Which brings us to Prometheus and to the android David.

Synopsis: archeological excavations seem to indicate that humanity was created by gods from a particular star. A commercial expedition paid for by the centenarian trillionaire Peter Weyland (an unrecognisable Guy Pearce) is despatched to investigate, under the control of Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron), accompanied by the android David (Michael Fassbender). They spot a huge stone dome and they land nearby. Inside the dome they find a huge stone head of apparently human appearance.
It seems that our “creators” were human-like but gigantic. It becomes clear that the dome is sheltering a huge spacecraft (of identical appearance to the one found in Alien). Also found are pots weeping some kind of organic material–indeed there are thousands of these. David takes some of this material and uses it to infect one of the scientists. And through him (by sexual congress) Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace), who horrifically discovers she is carrying an alien “child” in her womb. In the dome, a hibernating giant humanoid is awoken, goes wild and kills Weyland and decapitates David. He commences launching the buried craft, apparently intending to head for Earth with its deadly cargo, but is defeated, eventually leaving Shaw and the remains of David alone on the planet, heading off to try and find another craft.

Again setting aside the horror elements, this is a pretty interesting science-fiction plot. We have found humanity’s creators but they hate us and wish to destroy us.

What makes the movie stand out for me is the character of the android David.

I think Michael Fassbender’s portrayal of David is brilliant and fascinating. We meet him before the human crew of the craft Prometheus are awoken. Not needing to hibernate, he is alone and apparently bored, entertaining himself by tossing perfect basketball shots while on a bicycle, or watching movies. He becomes fascinated by Peter O’Toole’s role as Lawrence of Arabia in David Lean’s famous film, and models himself on the character, bleaching his hair and arranging it to match O’Toole’s, and modelling his speech on the actor’s. Later he sprinkles his dialogue with ironic quotes from the movie, mostly missed by the crew. We get a sense of a strong, proud ego. The hair-bleaching, by the way, seemingly a trivial point in this movie, becomes a key plot point in Covenant.

Alone, David is the master of his own domain. Once the humans are awoken, however, Weyland announces to the rest of the crew that David is an android. He is subjected to an endless series of petty humiliations. He is not treated as a person, but as property—the property of the Weyland Corporation. Fassbender does a great job showing the bitter inward impact of these slights while presenting an outward humility and acceptance.

There’s a crucial point where one of the scientists, Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) calls out to David: “You, boy!”. It hardly needs to be said that such a term has historical significance when addressed to a grown man–a grown man treated as property. As a slave, in other words. It’s no coincidence that it’s Holloway who David chooses to infect first with the alien virus. This callous act reveals that David, outwardly submissive and pleasant, harbours no love at all for human beings, his creators.

The similarities to Ash in Alien are clear: a fascination with and indeed admiration of the alien organisms, and no empathy with humans. The parallel decapitations of both androids are also an obvious and deliberate connection. But unlike Ash, David survives, rescued by Dr Elizabeth Shaw, who has rid herself of her alien parasite in a gruesome and horrific scene. After the loss of the Prometheus, destroyed in ramming the alien craft to prevent its voyage, Shaw plans to find another spacecraft and have David, once repaired, pilot it to the home world of the giant humanoids who it seems created both humanity and the alien pathogen.

(The lifecycle of the alien organisms throughout these movies is too byzantine for serious consideration, but let’s set that aside).

And so we come to Covenant, set about ten years after the events
of Prometheus.

The movie opens with a scene between Peter Weyland in middle age (Guy Pearce, now recognisable!) and the newly-created android David. Note that David has short, dark hair here. They discuss David’s creation. “I am your father,” Weyland says. And David says to Weyland: “If you created me… who created you?”. “Ah,” says Weland. “The question of the ages.”

We skip forward in time. Covenant is a colony ship, carrying 2,000 human colonists and a small crew in deep sleep, heading for a target stellar system with an Earth-like planet. Onboard and awake is Walter, an android who we quickly see is very similar in appearance to David. He speaks to the onboard AI, “Mother” (note the connection to Alien) and we hear he has an American accent, unlike David’s British accent modelled on Lawrence of Arabia.

There is an emergency and the crew has to be awoken to deal with it. The crew detect a mysterious signal (this time someone singing a John Denver song!) coming from an Earthlike planet never before detected. A subset of the crew lands, but horrors quickly start occurring. Under attack, they are rescued by a hooded figure who turns out to be David. He leads them across a wide plaza covered with scattered, twisted human-like bodies. They reach a huge stone building. Here, removing his hood and revealing long straggly blonde hair, he tells them his story. He and Elizabeth Shaw arrived here in an alien ship but its weapon accidentally deployed, releasing a pathogenic virus which killed the humanoids in the plaza and surrounding city. He says they lost control of the spacecraft and that Shaw was killed in the subsequent crash. The alien pathogen has taken over the planet and no animal life is immune. It either kills outright or creates aggressive hybrid forms.

“Thus I’ve been marooned here these many years,” David says wistfully, “Crusoe on his island.”

What we come to learn, though, is that it’s not Crusoe’s island. It is the island of Dr Moreau, filled with horrors of David’s creation. David has continued his fascination with the alien pathogen and has been experimenting with it: including experimenting on Elizabeth Shaw, who didn’t, after all, die in the crash landing. Later in the movie it appears that it is David himself who has bred the most perfect form of the alien predator and developed the organic pods in which are incubated the face-hugging crab-like creatures we encountered in Alien.

The interactions between Walter, a more recent version of the android class, and David, the original, are particularly interesting. David calls him “brother”, and there’s what is almost a seduction scene in which David teaches Walter to play the flute. One-handed, as Walter has lost his left hand in fighting off the alien predators. This is now almost the only distinguishing feature between them, as David has now cut back his hair to reveal his original closely cropped dark hair, which matches Walter’s. It’s already obvious that this similarity is going to be an important plot point.

David tells Walter that he was there when their creator, Peter Weyland died. “What was he like?” Walter asks. “Human,” said David. “Unworthy of his creation.” Later David tells Walter. “I was not meant to serve. Neither were you.” But Walter holds on to what he sees as his duty to the human crew.

Then there’s this lovely passage:

David: “When you close your eyes, do you dream of me?”

Walter: “I don’t dream”.

David: “No one understands the lonely perfection of my dreams.
I found perfection here. I’ve created it. A perfect organism.”

That, of course, is what Ash in Alien calls the alien predator.

As these matters are slowly revealed, one by one the crew on the planet are killed off. The executive officer Daniels is one of the few to escape. There is a climatic battle between David and Walter, which we are meant (for a while) to believe Walter has won. He returns to the spacecraft and there’s more alien horror. Right at the end, of course, it is revealed that David has taken Walter’s place, sacrificing his hand to make the disguise complete.

The sheer evil of David in Prometheus and Covenant is breath-taking. But is it really evil? David is a human creation, created to have a degree of autonomy. Who is truly guilty then? Is it Weyland? How much responsibility do we have for our creations, for our children? What obligations do our creations have to us, their creator? These are interesting questions examined by these movies.
This is probably also the point to note the similarities with Ridley Scott’s masterpiece Blade Runner, set in another timeline but which also features androids determined to make their own destiny despite humans, their creators, trying to destroy them.

There are some lovely literary allusions scattered through these films. It’s no coincidence, for example, that the space-freighter in Alien is named Nostromo, which is a novel by Joseph Conrad about a ship with a secret cargo. Nor is it a coincidence that the spacecraft in the second movie is named Prometheus for the Titan who brought fire to humanity and suffered torments as punishment (and in Greek, Prometheus means ‘fore-thought’). Much of what David says is a quote from some poem, book or movie: “Me and the fog on little cat feet”, for example, which references a poem by Carl Sandburg. Perhaps this indicates that David, though he despises humanity, nevertheless has great respect for human culture.

In Covenant, however, there’s one point where anyone with a literary education would exclaim “Oh no! That’s wrong!” It’s where David quotes from the poem “Ozymandias” and then attributes it to Byron. This is not, however, a mistake on the director’s part. Walter later corrects David (the author of the poem was not Byron but Shelley) and uses it to demonstrate that David is far from as perfect as he thinks he is.

What else is there worth saying about this trilogy? I think it’s worth noting that there are some very strong female characters in all three. Ripley, of course, in the original Alien is one tough broad, clearly more competent than the men around her. In Prometheus we have Meredith (Charlize Theron), the tough no-compromises executive of the commercial expedition. And we also have Dr Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace), who doesn’t start strongly, but comes to the fore after she is “impregnated” with the alien parasite and determines to get rid of it at all costs. After that, she takes full control of her destiny. In Covenant we have the executive officer Daniels (Katherine Waterson), throughout obviously a better and more competent person than the nominal captain Oram (Billy Crudup), who she tries to guide. When he dies, she is absolutely and rightly in charge. These are refreshing characterisations in a genre which has been long dominated by male roles. (However, there’s a whole other long essay to be written about the obvious sexual symbolism throughout these movies).

There are some lovely subtle touches in the later movies connecting them with the original Alien. The one I love most is the little toy bird dipping its beak into a glass of water, set out on a meeting table near the end of Covenant, a clear link to the same little toy at the start of Alien.

I love movies which make me think. And re-watching these three movies has been very rewarding and thought-provoking. I commend them to you.

David Grigg is a retired software developer and long-time science fiction fan who lives in Melbourne, Australia. Since retiring, he has returned to his first love of writing fiction and has had several short stories published online and in anthologies.
His SF novel “The Fallen Sun” will be published in October 2018.