This summer has been a film summer as much as it has been anything else. That is due in large part to kicking things off with a read through the unofficial screenplay bible Save the Cat. While I was casting about for a means to better digest its principles, I noticed that another Alien prequel had landed and so my Save the Cat homework for the next few months was set. In order to prepare for Alien Covenant, I would work through three other movies in the franchise and an assortment of related films. You can find my assessment of Prometheus here.
In anticipation of Alien Covenant, I chose to work through the films according to the mythos' chronology. That meant beginning with the most recent of the three, Prometheus. I then moved on to the core of the franchise with Ridley Scott's Alien and Jame Cameron's distinctly different sequel Aliens.
Each of the core films is very much the product of the decade that produced it. Alien is a horror pic that resonates with the pessimism and confusion of the 1970s. Aliens is a sci-fi action flick full of 80s can-do spirit. There's a key genre difference there that shapes each film and it is only by a very clever act of cinematic legerdemain that James Cameron has been able to convince us that they belong to the same universe.
At its core, Alien is a Lovecraftian work that exposes the fragility of human life in the face of an impersonal and often hostile world. The blue color Janes and Joes of the Nostromo find themselves facing Jungian nightmares of the corporate world: the alien and the android. Already bedeviled by racism and sexism, our space truckers must face the fact that they are completely dispensable to the soulless megacorp and indeed are already up for replacement by robots and aliens: the plight of 70s middle America. The megacorp prefers robots and aliens precisely because they are inhuman -or at least "unAmerican" in their utter willingness to execute their functions and relatively low cost of up keep. Ash the android just needs milk while the alien is capable of survival in almost any environment and can reproduce asexually (though it can still brain-rape/oral rape the men and sexually harass the women -workplace equality!), obviating any need for community or home life (a key difference from Cameron's conception of the Alien). In fact, Ash the robot tells us that he respects the "purity" of the alien. Against such forces, the Janes and Joes are helpless. They can fight and die, or they can escape, and hope that someone will pick them up. Ripley ends the film floating in space as a metaphor for her entire class.
A few years, George Lucas, Ronald Reagan, and a massive economic recovery made a big difference in the type of stories Hollywood wanted to tell. Aliens belongs to the new genre of 80s action films and can stand on its own without any knowledge of Alien. In Cameron's world, blue collar Jane and the Vietnam Vets can reclaim their dignity by fighting back against the corporate sellouts, chickenshit officers, and vague fears of foreign domination that plagued them during the last decade. We even find out that robotic automation is nothing to fear in the person of Bishop and that Hispanic immigrants just want to kick ass like the rest of us in the person of Private Vasquez. Rather than run from the impersonal forces that dominate her life, Ripley has to face her fears by becoming both super-mom (Newt replacing her lost daughter) and career woman (new and improved with rocket launcher!). This contrasts with the Alien Queen who is a first merely a baby factory but can evidently drop her ovaries and turn into a raging monster -but not both! Though there's plenty of blood-letting, the forces of the American middle class and the nuclear family prove strong enough to face any threats (especially those posed by giant space cockroach-lizards).
The goal of this piece is not to say that i prefer one to the other -quite the opposite! They two movies are actually so different that they can be enjoyed side by side. The problem comes, of course, when you want to make a third, or a fourth, or a fifth. What genre will your movie be? What story will you tell? One of the core principles of Save the Cat is that audiences want the same old thing -but different! Both Alien and Aliens found ingenious ways to solve that Gordian Knot. Audiences and critics have split on the rest of the films. We'll see what magic Scott has cooked up for us in Alien Covenant.