Alien: Covenant

Alien: Covenant posterOne of the things that makes the original Alien so effective is how lean and sleek it is, plot-wise — what you might call its structural perfection. You can’t help but admire its purity. It’s a survivor, unclouded by conscience, remorse, or delusions of morality…

The original film’s one allusion to a backstory or mythology, the Space Jockey scene, is so brief yet mind-blowing that all it does is hint at what a vast, scary, and utterly unknowable Lovecraftian universe there is behind the xenomorph’s existence. It’s as if, with the Space Jockey scene, the film is saying, “All this stuff with one killer alien is merely scratching the surface of the horrors that are out there.”

Aliens knew what it was doing when it left any question of mythology alone. Like a need-to-know-only military briefing, it stuck to the xenomorph, and the xenomorph only. Anything beyond that was unnecessary to its story. Prometheus changed all that, but Prometheus was trying to be a different sort of film altogether, only tangentially related to the Alien franchise. That wasn’t what audiences wanted, though, so now, instead of a Prometheus sequel, we have Alien: Covenant, a DNA-fused hybrid that promises a return to the Alien franchise proper, but that also wants to keep things going on the Prometheus front. We know the xenomorph is endlessly adaptable, but I can’t help thinking of that pathetic human/xenomorph thing at the end of Alien: Resurrection, that seemed, to me, more unintentionally comic than evolutionarily impressive.

(And why ‘Covenant’? Aside from it being the name of the ship carrying human colonists to the distant planet Origae-6, there doesn’t seem to be any actual covenant involved.)

Alien: Covenant posterI enjoyed Alien: Covenant, but only in a so-so way. I think the trouble with it is that, by this time, the series has picked up so many story elements it feels the need to give the nod to, none of them can get the attention they deserve. There’s the xenomorphs; there’s the Engineers; there’s the synthetics; there’s David (from Prometheus) in particular; there’s the Weyland-Yutani Corporation; there’s its ageing founder… And somewhere amongst all that, there’s the new characters who must be introduced in each film, if only to give them some sort of story before they’re infected, impregnated, punctured, dissolved, burned, torn apart, experimented on, or whatever other gruesome fate awaits them. In a need to be both a prequel to Alien and a sequel to Prometheus, Alien: Covenant spends all its narrative energy running around ticking boxes, doing its best to add its own particular twists (yet more variations on the xenomorph and its ever-mutating gestation cycle, yet more new ways for characters to die), trying to at least hint it’s going to connect with the original film in a meaningful way, while all the time trying to provide some justification for its existence as a film in its own right.

All the scenes that made Alien and Aliens so great get stuffed into Alien: Covenant and hastily run through, but with none of the necessary build-up in character and tension that made them work in the first place. Who is that getting torn apart by the latest variety of xenomorph (a pale, fleshy creature more than a little resembling Pan’s Labyrinth’s eyeless Pale Man)? I don’t know. Which means I don’t care.

Michael Fassbender as David in PrometheusWhere Alien: Covenant does get to create some sort of unique identity as a film, it actually starts to work. The one thing it’s got going for it is the fact that it has two superficially identical synthetics, David and Walter, both played by Michael Fassbender (who is, I suppose, the prequel series’s Ripley, though an anti-Ripley). This is a new situation for the Alien films, and Alien: Covenant manages to do something with it. The trouble is, it only gets round to doing it in the last few minutes, once the film has finished dealing with all the other Alien/Aliens/Prometheus stuff it feels so contracted to deal with. (Perhaps that’s the covenant in Alien: Covenant? A contract between Ridley Scott and his audience who, he seems to feel, need, not a sleek, tense, killer of a film, but a series of ticks against an ever-increasing list of must-have scenes, twists, and backstory updates, however shoehorned-in.)

Prometheus left me reeling at how nihilistic it was. Alien: Covenant never gets round to making any sort of equivalent statement. And I think this is the curse of backstory, or mythology, or whatever you call it, generally. Backstory works as backstory, not as the main plot of a movie. That’s why the Star Wars prequels could never be as good as the originals. It’s great to have, in the original Star Wars trilogy, references to what went on before — the Clone Wars, the Old Republic, and so on — because those throwaway references gave the story-world a bit more dimension, and uncovering hidden past events and family secrets added some counterpoint to the main action of the plot. When Darth Vader said he was Luke’s father, it was a great, though crude, shock moment. But it certainly wasn’t the justification for three new films. (The Harry Potter books/films did it better, in terms of interweaving discovery of past events with present-time plot advancement.)

Star Wars Rogue One posterI really enjoyed Star Wars: Rogue One, and a good deal of that came from its being so free of the tangles of established backstory — certainly, of the ponderous, melodramatic, Gothic weight of the ‘Saga’ of the (let’s face it, majorly dysfunctional) Skywalker clan. Granted, Rogue One took as its kick-off point a detail from the original story — Rebel spies stealing the Death Star plans — but that, and its being set in the recognisable Star Wars universe, was all it took. And all it needed.

Alien: Covenant doesn’t actually add much to the Prometheus mythology, which makes it all the more annoying how weighed down it is by including so much of it. I don’t think it’s going to happen, but what I think the Alien series needs is to jettison this dead weight of trying to build a mythology, and get back to being the sleek, simple but mind-blowing killer beast it used to be, with only the occasional between-the-fingers glimpse of a wider, even more terrifying, cosmic reality behind it all.

The Thing

Who goes there? The Thing! Four of them, in fact.

Who Goes There by John W Campbell JrThe original novella that inspired the three film versions (1951, 1982 and 2011) was “Who Goes There?” by John W. Campbell Jr (published as by Don A. Stuart, in Astounding Science-Fiction, August 1938). It has one of the best origin stories of any piece of fiction. Campbell’s mother was one of a pair of identical twins, and apparently his aunt resented the fact that her sister had married first, and that she had a child. To make things worse, Campbell’s mother would deliberately goad her sister when she visited by doting on John Jr — and the aunt would be correspondingly cold. As Sam Moskowitz writes in Seekers of Tomorrow:

“This created a bizarre situation. The boy would come running into the house to impart something breathlessly to a woman he thought was his mother. He would be jarred by a curt rebuff from her twin. Each time his aunt visited the home, this situation posed itself until it became a continuing and insoluble nightmare. Was the woman standing in front of him friend or “foe”?”

Perhaps it all sounds a little too plausible — could young John Jr really not tell his aunt from his mother, if nothing else by their clothes or hair style? But other details about his home life perhaps add to an explanation for the atmosphere of claustrophobic mistrust found in “Who Goes There?” and its adaptations. John Jr’s father, apparently:

“…carried impersonality and theoretical objectivity in family matters to the brink of fetish. He almost never used the pronoun “I”. All statements were in the third person: “It is necessary,” “One must,” “It appears that,” “One should.” Not only was he an authoritarian in his own home but a self-righteous disciplinarian as well, who put obedience high on the list of filial duties. Affection was not in his make-up, and if he felt any for the boy he managed to repress it.”

And, even when the aunt wasn’t present:

“The mother’s changeability baffled and frustrated the youngster. Self-centred, flighty, moody, she was unpredictable from moment to moment. While she was not deliberately cruel, her gestures of warmth appeared to him so transitory and contrived as to be quickly discounted.”

The essence of “Who Goes There?” is an intellectual problem: caught in a remote Antarctic base with a hostile, shape-changing alien, how do you tell who’s an alien and who isn’t? But around this science-fictional core is a deeper question that comes more to the fore in the film versions: who can you trust?

Kinner shuddered violently. “Hey. Hey, Mac. Mac, would I know if I was a monster? Would I know if the monster had already got me? Oh, Lord, I may be a monster already.”

“You’d know,” McReady answered.

“But we wouldn’t.” Norris laughed shortly, half hysterically.

The Thing (1951) Dr Carrington

The first adaptation, The Thing From Another World, came out in 1951, and, despite being widely praised as a classic SF film of its era, is a world apart from the original novella. (Quite literally — it takes place at the North Pole rather than the South.) Here, the core of the story isn’t how-do-you-tell-who’s-an-alien, because this version’s creature isn’t a shape-changer. The Thing From Another World uses its alien to be what most 1950s Hollywood aliens were — something strange, something not-human, something plainly other, with not much need to go into why or to what degree. (1951 also saw the release of The Day The Earth Stood Still, so not all Hollywood aliens were evil.) This Thing is a Thing because it’s not an animal but a vegetable, a “super-carrot”, though one that scientist Dr Carrington claims will be so much more intelligent and (oddly) “wiser” than the humans. The real enemy in the film is Carrington himself, the obsessed scientist for whom “knowledge is more important than life.” This film’s answer to the question, “Who can you trust?” then, is: not the scientists, they invented the atom bomb. No, in Howard Hawks’ film the people you can trust are war-toughened men (and a woman who has proved she can drink harder than the toughest of the men). This was, after all, close enough to the end of WWII that the world was full of people who had proven themselves in the recent conflict, a world where even the reporter who comes to the North Pole base in search of a story can’t be entirely dismissed as a pencil-squeezing wuss, because he’s seen action, too (though he does faint at one point). The final message of the film is entirely outward-directed: “Watch the skies!” The enemy is out there, not in here. (Invasion of the Body Snatchers was a mere, but perhaps significant, five years away.) The film’s best moment — and its most cinematic — is when the party that’s gone out to examine a magnetic anomaly (which has only just appeared, rather than, as in the other versions, having been there for hundreds of thousands of years) spread out to determine the shape of what they find buried in the ice. Forming a circle, there’s no need to say anything other than: “We finally got one!” Flying saucers were enough part of the culture, they didn’t need to be named.

The Thing (1951) UFO

The best version of Campbell’s story, for me, is John Carpenter’s, from 1982. Its main innovation is to have the story occur as a sequel to the action that drove the initial novella: other people, in a nearby Norwegian camp, discovered, dug up, and defrosted the alien; our heroes just get caught up in the aftermath. Here we have no over-obsessed scientist types, only ordinary Joes trying to get by in a harsh world. In many of his films, Carpenter presents us with both a nihilistic, hostile world and a hard-bitten loner hero who’s the perfect answer to that world. The people in this Antarctic base are the most human of all four versions of The Thing — before the alien action even starts, they’re getting on each other’s nerves. McReady (the Kurt Russell character) is, for some reason, living in his own hut disconnected from the main base, but despite being a cynical loner, he’s the one everyone turns to when things get in a fix. (Even the base’s captain, Garry, whom nobody trusts with a weapon, feels the need to justify himself to McReady, showing that he, too, defers to the loner-hero.) This, then, is John Carpenter’s answer to “Who can you trust?”: hard-bitten loner-types. They’re the only sort that can deal with a world in which, any moment, one of your fellows might suddenly turn into a thing, all mouth and tentacles, that wants to digest and replace you. They’re hardened against such a nihilistic world, because they don’t believe in anything anymore.

The Thing (1982) - McReady

The other key character — here, and in Campbell’s novella — is Blair. He’s the one who grasps the implications of the situation before anyone else. Realising an alien monster that can take human form will not only be impossible to find, but will, if it reaches human society, rapidly wipe out the human race, his response is twofold: one, he destroys the radios and means of escape, and two, he goes insane.

The Thing (1982) Blair

This, surprisingly, is straight from “Who Goes There?” One of the remarkable things about Campbell’s novella is just how modern it feels, especially compared to the sharply divided heroes and villains of the 1951 film. Campbell’s characters are — though glimpsed through very cut-back prose that focuses on speech and action, not feelings — edgy, nervous, and some of them go insane from the pressure. “Who Goes There?” contains the most shocking moment in all of four versions of The Thing, as far as I’m concerned: when Kenner, the cook, learns that the cows he milked only an hour ago were probably alien duplicates, he goes hysterical. Locked up in the kitchen, he bothers the others with his screaming and prayers so much that someone slips out and murders him. Not because they think he’s an alien, but because he’s getting on their nerves. That, as far as I’m concerned, is the most extreme picture of human beings under pressure in any of the four versions, but Campbell doesn’t dwell too much on the morality of this action — particularly as it turns out Kenner had been taken over anyway, so it wasn’t, technically, murder. (Campbell’s novella has a few jarring moments when the action is skipped over — to emphasise its suddenness — and we get nothing but the aftermath. It’s a hard-boiled style, one that leaves you to work out a lot of implications for yourself, and sometimes, either because of its style or the period it was written in, I found myself unsure of exactly what had happened and what was being implied.)

The Thing (2011)

The Thing from 2011 is presented as a prequel to the 1982 film, ending where Carpenter’s began, with two Norwegians in a helicopter chasing a dog through the snow. But in terms of the human situation, we take a bit of a step backwards to the 1951 film — before the alien lets loose, everyone on the base is being polite to each other, apart from one, the arrogant scientist. (And maybe one other — the lukewarm boyfriend-type who too quickly gives way to the arrogant scientist, his boss, rather than backing up the heroine.) Dr Halvorson says, “As scientists, we are obliged to study,” but he’s just impatient to get past everyone’s fine sensibilities about the fact that one of them has just been eaten by the Thing, so he can dissect it. When they open it up and find their colleague’s remains, he says, “It’s fascinating.” Then, defiantly: “It is fascinating.” It’s a good remake, but it lacks the deep-down, rough-edged tetchiness, claustrophobia and nihilism of Carpenter’s.

The Thing (1982)

The Thing, in its various incarnations, works as a story through the reaction the alien evokes in the humans faced with it — will they group together, or split apart? All four are most different in their endings. Campbell’s original novella has the scientists frustrated that, in ridding themselves of the alien, they’ve lost out on learning about its technology (it had just managed to build itself an anti-gravity flying device and a small, nuclear-powered generator), while thanking God it had crashed so far from human civilisation; the 1951 film ends with a reminder of who the real enemy is (“Watch the skies!”) with an implied, “And let’s keep tabs on those scientific-types, too”; the 1982 film is the most nihilistic, but also the most heroic, its two survivors, unsure if either of them is an alien, prepared to drink away their last living moments in a hostile, very much God-less world; the 2011 film, having added the least to the idea, has the least characteristic ending.

The Thing (1982) titles

Alien owes a lot to “Who Goes There?” (not least because Campbell’s story inspired A E Van Vogt to write SF, and his Voyage of the Space Beagle is sometimes cited as an influence on Alien), but also, more specifically, to The Thing From Another World: not only is Dr Carrington very much like the Company android Ash, in that he wants to save this creature that he admires far more than his human compatriots, but also in the way that a Geiger counter is used to detect the alien’s presence, just like the motion detectors in Alien and (far more) Aliens. Carpenter’s The Thing probably owes its existence to Alien’s success, though oddly it wasn’t a huge success itself. Still, to me, it’s the best of the “Who Goes There?” bunch, with John Campbell Jr’s novella a close second.

(And, as an alternative take on the story, there’s Escape Pod’s reading of Peter Watts’ “The Things” — the events of the 1982 film, from the alien’s point of view.)

William Gibson’s Alien3

…the biological equivalent of a machine gun, hideous in its perfection. Alien. [William Gibson’s description of a wasp’s nest, from Neuromancer.]

Alien3As a sort of followup to my previous look at Anthony Powell and Ursula Le Guin’s script for an Earthsea film, I thought I’d look at another un-produced film script by a favourite author: William Gibson’s go at Alien3. It’s odd to think, given the William Gibson we have now — author of three trilogies of literary techno-thrillers set in a series of progressively closer futures — that he might once have been considered the obvious candidate for an Alien script. The draft that’s out there on the internet (I got mine here) is apparently an early one, Gibson’s first ever go at a movie script, for which he only had the scripts for Alien and Aliens as a guide. (According to Gary Westfahl’s book on Gibson, this is actually a “shortened version” of what Gibson produced.) Gibson’s Alien3 is far more the sort of thing you’d expect as a followup to those first two films than what we actually got. It’s also far more a product of the 80s, when it was presumably written, than the overpoweringly dark 90s film David Fincher ultimately produced.

The Sulaco, from Aliens

It starts with the Sulaco — the spaceship carrying Ripley, Newt, Hicks and Bishop at the end of Aliens — straying briefly into the territory of the Union of Progressive Peoples, a clear USSR-analog, considering the fact that they exist in an uneasy nuclear standoff with the “capitalist cartels” that include the Weyland Yutani corporation, and the fact that their people have names like Suslov and Lenko. The UPP board the Sulaco, lose one man to a face-hugger (Gibson gets the alien action in quickly — a face-hugger and full-size creatures within the first few pages), then depart with android Bishop’s upper body, before letting the Sulaco drift on, to be picked up by the space station Anchorpoint (“the size of a small moon”). Anchorpoint supposedly has no military or Company loyalties — it’s populated by what the Company’s Milisci division dismiss as “idealists”, “liberals”, and people with “a certain antipathy to Military Sciences”, in other words ordinary citizens — but the Company have been wanting this bio-weapon since Alien, and they’re not going to let anything get in their way. The trouble is, as they soon realise, the UPP have probably got the alien, too, and it’s at this point the script seems most of its era: the UPP and the Company both suspect that the other is going to develop the alien for potential use as a weapon, therefore the only thing to do is develop it themselves just to keep up. A biological arms race begins. And, with the alien creature as technology rather than just a movie monster, this seems far more like William Gibson territory.

Gibson reworks the alien, stripping it back literally to its DNA. In one scene, we get to see how a strand of alien bio-matter wraps itself around human DNA and transforms it instantaneously. (In a nice touch, a microscope shot of alien bio-matter reveals how its micro-structure echoes the macro: its “lines and textures recalling the interior of the derelict ship in ALIEN.”) Suddenly, the alien is not just the creature we’ve encountered in the previous two films, it’s a virus that works at the genetic level. Gibson’s “New Beast”, as he calls it, doesn’t emerge as a chest-burster, but as a full-person burster, ripping off its human host like the Hulk rips off a shirt. And it’s not only humans who get the alien-DNA-bonding experience. Gibson gives us an alien lemur, primates strung up with Giger-goo awaiting “the change”, and even an alien-ised cabbage.

Yes, an alien-ised cabbage:

Two of the Styrofoam structures have been overgrown with a grayish parody of vegetation, glistening vine-like structures and bulbous sacs that echo the Alien biomech motif. Patches of thick black mould spread to the styrofoam and the white deck.

HICKS: It was… cabbages or something…

My favourite alien cabbage, the Rutan from Doctor Who and the Horror of Fang Rock

My favourite alien cabbage, the Rutan from the Doctor Who story, The Horror of Fang Rock

Back in the UPP, before the aliens escape, Gibson has one of his pseudo-Soviets speculate on the technological nature of the aliens:

SUSLOV: Perhaps it is the fruit of some ancient experiment… A living artefact, the product of genetic engineering… A weapon. Perhaps we are looking at the end result of yet another arms race…

(Which chimes in nicely with the direction Ridley Scott took the franchise in with Prometheus.)

For about half the script, Gibson’s Alien3 brushes against the sort of futuristic Cold War techno-thriller that’s more his kind of thing. Then the alien breaks free in both the UPP space station and Anchorpoint, and we’re where we expect an Alien film to be: a race to escape from the base before it self-destructs, but on a larger scale than the previous two films. Gibson sticks to the Alien and Aliens formula, but uses his new, viral version of the alien to provide some interesting riffs on what we’ve already seen (including a man turning into an alien while in a space-suit, and an alien chase in the vacuum outside the space station).

Ripley is all but absent, waking up only to see an alien and become instantly catatonic. Newt, too, is seemingly there for continuity’s sake alone. (She gets shipped off to Earth before the aliens escape. And Ripley is jettisoned in a lifeboat while still comatose, so she can return for a sequel.) The main stars of this version of Alien3 are Hicks (the surviving marine from Aliens) and Bishop.

Newt and Ripley

The script has a few signature moments of laconic description from Gibson the hard-boiled techno-writer and futuristic beatnik: “The cubicle, terminally sloppy, resembles the nest of a high-tech hamster.” “His office is furnished in the best futuro-Pentagon style…” “…his smile a heartless display of state-of-the-art enamel-bonding techniques”. A chest-burster is “suspended there like an eyeless fetal dolphin”. Best line of all, though, has to be: “The Aliens tear into the Marines like living chainsaws.”

At the end, Gibson opens the way to further sequels by having Bishop suggest it’s time to stop running from the aliens, track them down to their source, and wipe them out:

BISHOP: This goes far beyond mere interspecies competition. These creatures are to biological life what antimatter is to matter.

He even suggests this might be a way to end the Cold War:

You’re a species again, Hicks. United against a common enemy.

I quite like Gibson’s Alien3. Had it been made, it would have been more what people expected from the franchise, though its transformation of the aliens from large-scale creatures to a sort of genetic virus would have ramped up the pace of future films to near Apocalyptic proportions — suddenly, anything could at any moment turn into an alien version of itself. And with Newt (infected?) already shipped off to Earth, and Ripley drifting yet again in a lifeboat, you can see how an Alien 4 might map out.

According to David Giler (on the making-of documentary on the Alien3 Blu-Ray), they got Gibson to write the script because they were expecting a lot of good ideas that could then be formed into a proper film script, but what they got, in his opinion, was “a perfectly-executed script that wasn’t all that interesting.” I can see what he means, in that Gibson toes the line of the previous two films, rather than providing the sort of game-changing wild ideas you might have expected from this happening, hip new writer. But this expectation may have been down to misunderstanding just what it was that was happening and hip about Gibson. He wasn’t — and isn’t — a machine for transforming genres, although that may have been how he was perceived at the time; he’s a writer who’s best at doing his own thing, who just happened to transform a genre (SF, cyberpunk) on the way.