In celebration of the looming release of Alien: Covenant, theaters across the globe are hosting screenings of the original film as well as its sequel, but many wonder if the 1986 follow up really changed things for the better. While generally loved by #Alien fans, one criticism of Cameron's 1986 sequel is that it turned the menacing beast from the 1979 original into an easily killable "space bug." This is certainly an issue found in various comic books and video games since the film came out, but is #Aliens guilty of this or were its intentions merely misinterpreted by fans?
The Original Creature
The creature in Ridley Scott's 1979 original was an unclassifiable bio-mechanical nightmare, made all the more imposing by the subliminal sexual imagery instilled by designer H.R. Giger. This wasn't merely a creature that killed you, for the alien was representative of fears like sexual violation. It was difficult for audiences to put their finger on precisely what the monster was, and that more than made it live up to its title. The sequel took this creature out of the dark and brought it a little into the light. When it came to the light, just what did we see?
This Time There's More
While the original Alien is more of a slasher film, Aliens is a siege movie. Such a formula proved successful in horror/thriller films of the past, such as Assault On Precinct 13 and Night Of The Living Dead. The former bears a particularly close resemblance to Aliens in that it tries to make the hoard itself into a single character. The first film showed us an individual, while the second attempted to show a civilization.
Since the focus is less on individual creatures, it can be harder to forge the same connection that made the original creature so frightening. It's much harder to project onto a group than it on an individual, but a hoard is still made up of individuals. Aliens does try to build them up.
Given that there was more than one of these creatures, the characters require weapons to survive. Many forget just how powerful the marine pulse rifle really is. As Gorman explains, it's an armor-piercing weapon with rounds meant to penetrate the target and explode. It is the explosion that does the real damage. Even for an acid-bleeding horror beyond the stars, a weapon like that will punch hard.
Smaller-arms fire is not so effective. Hicks and Vasquez are only able to do damage because they're at extremely close range with their shotgun and pistol, respectively. When Gorman attempts to do the same at long range, the bullets merely ricochet off the alien's hardened skin.
Of course, the alien in the original is hardly invulnerable. At one point, Ripley shoots it in the abdomen with a harpoon gun and clearly does damage. Perhaps this was a weak spot, or perhaps since the creature was younger, its exoskeleton had not fully developed. The creatures in Aliens are no less mortal than the first, and no less mysterious.
'These Things Ain't Ants'
Being unclassifiable was part of the appeal of the original alien, but it did take inspiration from a variety of real-life examples, including insects. Insects were, by Giger's own admission, one of the influences of the creature. Seven years before the release of Aliens, Giger stated this about the original film in an issue of Cinefex.
“We decided to make a very elegant creature: quick, and like an insect.”
The alien's most famous trait, its life cycle, was conceived by original screenwriter Dan O'Bannon, as similar to the paralyzing wasp. The paralyzing wasp attacks and immobilizes spiders before laying its eggs inside it, which eventually burst out. O'Bannon took that unsettling idea and applied it to a human host.
Insects, however, were only one of the creature's many influences, with traits found in reptiles and mammals also especially prevalent. Insects, for example, are invertebrates, yet the alien possesses a spine like a mammal or a reptile. Even Aliens itself states the creatures aren't insects. When Hudson compares the creatures to ants, Vasquez retorts that he's a fool. They're still very much what their name suggests.
Perhaps the most concept-altering addition in the sequel was the introduction of the alien Queen, the creature responsible for laying the eggs. To create a creature that stood apart from the rest was something of a necessity. Cameron wanted the final foe the characters faced to be distinguishable from the rest, but how much did this alter the original concept?
The original idea was that the creature didn't lay eggs, but created them out of its pray in a process fans have dubbed "egg morphing." While this scene was included in the 2003 director's cut, there is some debate as to whether or not the scene is cannon. Gale Anne Hurd has said one of the ideas was to make the alien civilization similar to a termite mound. However, queens and other such colonies are not only found in the insect kingdom. Mammals such as naked mole rats have colonies with a single fertile female.
Cameron's design for the Queen is also praiseworthy, even in the eyes of the original creator. Though not designed by Giger, the swiss artist spoke highly of the Queen.
The alien Queen is also nice. She's a bit smaller in the face than my alien but my basic design was very well studied. She was frighteningly well animated.
By far one of the biggest complaints against the film was its transformation of the creature into cannon fodder with seemingly no brain power. However the aliens' actions are never mindless. They don't want to kill the human characters, but capture them to be hosts for the young. It's a perfectly natural thing for them — as one of the comics puts it — like giving a bottle to a baby. Beyond even that, however, there's clearly something more going on in the head of the alien.
After Ripley and Newt survive a close scrape with a pair of facehuggers, the characters debate on what to do next. Suddenly, the lights to the colony flicker out. Ripley knows immediately what happened.
"They cut the power."
The implications of this one moment are staggering. The aliens somehow learned they needed to cut the electricity to reach the survivors, so they successfully committed an act of sabotage. How they figured this out is unknown, but it's a clear indication that this is a learning creature. They even show improved strategy in their final attack. The creatures find a way into the complex that even the humans missed, and execute a multi-wave assault from all directions. They learned from their previous mistakes, and adopt a new strategy.
The aliens also operate simple technology. The doors to the colony and dropship are not motion sensitive, but panel operated. This is significant because on two occasions the door opens for the alien, yet there's no human to open it. Burke doesn't on account that he's panicked, and Spunkmeyer doesn't on account that he's dead. This leaves us with just one conclusion: The aliens know how to use the door. This is later confirmed when the alien Queen uses an elevator. Though a hoard is harder to relate too, Aliens does try to show these creatures have capabilities beyond what we know.
Aliens attempted to further develop themes in line with the original creators of the famous beast. It gave audiences a creature with tenacity, resourcefulness and an intelligence the scope of which we don't yet know. Though these intentions were sadly misunderstood by fans and creators of the expanded universe, Aliens did not want to undo the menace and mystery of the original classic.
It just tried to throw more of it at you.
How do you think the alien was portrayed in Aliens? How about the other sequels? Let us know in the comments below?