Alien Territory Part 5
Five parts is enough for any blog article, so let’s put this baby to bed.
With nowhere to go except Earth (something only audiences expressed a desire to see) the Alien franchise now did what it always did – it shifted gear into an unexpected direction. For the fifth film, out went Sigourney Weaver and her storyline, now as tangled and tortuous as that of the ‘Saw’ franchise, and back came director Ridley Scott, shooting in 3D and exploring the long-gestating ideas behind the first story. It had been recognised that the Alien films were no longer frightening – but perhaps instead they could still be good science fiction. What emerged was so different that it became a separate parallel sequence expanding the original concept.
Ridley Scott was becoming more philosophical in his approach to filmmaking. ‘Blade Runner 2049’ was pretty much an arthouse movie, with a storyline about self-awareness that might have belonged in a Bergman film. As to where the director was going next, the clue’s in the title. We’re in at the start, the origin of the species, as the DNA of new life is tossed into an immense waterfall (actually Gullfoss in Iceland – I stood at that spot when it was frozen solid, a humbling experience).
In the 21st century an expedition is funded by Peter Weyland (Guy Pierce), the ancient CEO of Weyland Corporation, to find the Engineers – the ‘Space Jockey’ of the first film – on their home planet. They’re the source, the starting point for everything that has gone before. They hold the secrets of life that Weyland, Elon Musk-like, wants for himself, there presumably being nothing else he conceivably needs except eternal life.
The god-like beings are sought by the first solid cast in an age, Michael Fassbender as the too-perfect new android David, the disappointingly blank Noomi Rapace as Shaw the archeologist, Charles Theron as the sinister Weyland employee who you know will do something awful, and Idris Elba. The invasion and destruction of the human crew is more complex, messy and insidious than usual as it becomes clear that the Engineers were creating a lethal viral bioweapon. Where once interaction with the local fauna was lethal, now invisible spores in the air bring death, and nowhere is safe.
Rapace has the film’s most wince-making moment when she performs auto-surgery to remove an alien being from her body. The scene feels unbelievable in a film striving to present a serious argument, and the balancing act of action and thoughtfulness is almost lost.
The crew learn that life givers are also life takers, as the Engineers sought to replace earlier races with their own and now threaten Earth but honestly, don’t beat me up in the Comments section if I’ve got this wrong. The scale of storytelling is more largely writ, a cinema of ideas at least attempted here, as the Titans defy their gods. Indeed, humanity’s relationship with their creators and the danger of defying them is the plot motor; Rapace will be punished for her religious beliefs, and all are made to suffer for their hubris. Ridley Scott is known to have been interested in creation myths about gods who create man in their own image by sacrificing a piece of themselves.
Knowing that the franchise had been dealt a series of lethal blows by over-exposing its central monster, the story now ran on a different path without the presence of the creature – nor is it missed. Scott tried to avoid the kind of digital effects that date films more badly than actors’ hairstyles, and produced the most iconic scenes in camera. The effort pays off, for there’s a grandeur that suggests we puny humans really are the mental and physical pygmies the crew of the Betty showed themselves to be in ‘Alien Resurrection’.
The film ends with its questions unresolved, but it was a critical and financial hit, so Scott’s ideas about gods and humans could be given full flow in the immediate sequel.
The philosophical ideas deferred from ‘Prometheus’ were explored more fully in the follow-up, which feels as if it has now bisected the Blade Runner universe – no bad thing in my book. Clearly the middle section of a new trilogy, ‘Alien Covenant’ starts with an oblique conversation between android David and his creator, Peter Weyland, ending on a disturbing note that suggests AI has already started to replace humanity. The first part follows an established pattern – landing on a new planet (unusually not a hellhole but ‘too perfect’ for colonisation) and unexpected infection brought back to the ship.
But from here it veers away from formula into new territory, and the jigsaw pieces start to fit. We’re on the planet that Elisabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) died on, and AI in the form of Weyland’s David androids is planning to displace unworthy humans with a perfect species. Interspersed with nicely unsettling action beats, the film’s philosophy matches that of ‘Frankenstein’ as this very modern Prometheus takes a more vengeful route to the cleansing of the world. Add in some frankly offbeat scenes -it takes some directorial clout to pull off a lengthy scene with the two Davids learning to play the recorder – and you have a satisfying viewing experience that becomes much sharper the second time you see it.
Clearly the film hadn’t all gone to plan – new footage of Rapace was scrapped and she does not appear, and 22 minutes of unused footage made it to the Blu-Ray edition. But the stage has been set for the oldest question of all – Why are we here? – to be answered. Weyland wants a further lease of life from the Engineers, David is rolling out his new vision for a perfect world and humans are the by-products getting in the way of reshaping the universe.
The film’s box office take was ‘disappointing’ according to Fox, who still came out in profit and green-lit the last part. One of their biggest headaches is not enticing women into theatres – the films are seen as highly male-skewed, although I have no idea why. Perhaps someone here will enlighten?
Big themes, big SF, the only spanner in the works being Sigourney Weaver’s mooted return to the other series, the timeline of which cannot be disturbed if it is to match up with the final part of the Prometheus trilogy, which must leave us at the outset of the very first film. Quite how this high-wire act will work is anyone’s guess, but if they pull it off we’ll be left with an admittedly flawed but satisfying cycle of movies about the origins of life in the universe. It’s a good story, which is why it’s here on a writer’s blog.