In a previous entry, we discussed how The Alien from Alien was perfectly symbolic of xenophobia, i.e. the fear of what is different or “other.” However, Alien isn’t a standalone movie – it has several sequels, and as I’ve discussed in other entries of this series, a monster will develop as a character as its story continues to grow. The more we see of a monster, the more we learn about it, and the more it has a chance to change as a character. The more sequels a story has, the more the monster is known and changes. If this is the case, then we have to ask a question: how can The Alien continue to represent fear of what is different, unknown, and other, if we start to know it better?
Many horror scholars have argued that it can’t, and they point to the first sequel movie, Aliens, as proof.
Aliens had a huge task before it. Its predecessor was not only a hugely successful movie, but one that was hailed as being a huge innovation in film and the horror genre (rightly so). While people would obviously shell out money for another one, actually meeting their expectations would be extremely difficult. Bad sequels are so common in the horror genre that they were considered the greatest problem in it until our recent remake craze (I think there are bigger problems than both of those in horror to be honest, but those are easy targets to pick on because they’re so shamelessly money driven). Who would want to make the bad sequel to the masterpiece and instant genre landmark that was Alien? Yet how on earth could you make a good one? You can’t just copy the original when part of what made the original work was the fact that it was so unexpected. You’d have to do something that had the same shock value and unexpected innovation while still feeling like it takes place in the same world as the first. It’s a tricky problem to solve!
Yet Aliens managed to pull it off for the most part. They took the same world, monster, and protagonist, and even the same plot structure – people are in space, people find alien threat, alien threat kills people, protagonist escapes alien threat, alien threat unexpectedly returns, alien threat is jettisoned into space, all is well and safe, roll credits – and then changed pretty much everything else. The first film’s cast was made of a dozen or so working class people (and one secret evil robot). The second film has a cast of a dozen space soldiers, one badass survivor from the first film, a skeezy corporate executive, a non-secret non-evil robot, and a scrappy little girl. The first film dealt with one alien wreaking havoc in a spaceship. The second deals with a whole army of them that have taken over an entire planet, with the humans invading what is now their home instead. In the first film the humans had to struggle to find a way to hurt the monster, since they had no weapons. In the second the humans are pretty well armed, but are up against so many of the damn monsters that they’re still outgunned. The changes were deep enough to make the story seem fresh, yet still retained enough elements of the original movie (including that basic story structure) to feel like it was part of the same tale. As far as sequels go, it was pretty satisfying. However, those changes actually modified a lot more than you might think. Aliens didn’t just shake up the scenario – it shook up the monster and, perhaps, even the genre of Horror being used.
Alien was loosely inspired by the movie It! The Terror from Beyond Space, a 1950’s monster movie about a single alien monster wreaking havoc on a spaceship. While It! The Terror from Beyond Space was pure Atomic Horror (fear of unchecked scientific advancement and the modern world leading to monsters and evil), Alien was Cosmic Horror (where fear of knowledge itself, be it from the past or about the future, is a source of horror because everything unknown is pure evil). The sequel Aliens went to a different 1950’s monster flick for inspiration – the giant monster movie Them!, wherein giant, radioactive ants begin eating small towns, cattle, and eventually set up a colony in the sewers beneath a city. The traumatized little girl serving as the only living witness to the horror, the military facing off against a horde of crawling monsters, and even the final battle with a large, even more dangerous “Queen” monster are all key story elements that Aliens “borrowed” from Them!. These elements helped keep the story fresh, but they also shifted the story from Cosmic Horror to Atomic Horror, and the reason why all comes down to how they change the monster.
The Aliens, now dubbed Xenomorphs (a fitting name – it means “Different Form”) are shown in their natural habitat in Aliens – or at least a close approximation of it. While Alien put this strange monster in a place made for humans and let it tear that place apart, Aliens forces the humans to invade the monster’s home instead. We see what the aliens do when they’ve been allowed time to settle down. They cover everything in a strange organic substance that resembles their own bodies, allowing them to blend into the territory better. They hang victims/hosts for their young from the walls while waiting for the young to finish gestating. They hunt for food and hosts occasionally (mostly at night… mostly), but otherwise seem content to stay in their “hive.” In short, they behave much like ants or bees, and while that’s a bit different from how humans behave, it’s knowledge that makes the creatures easier to understand. They are less different because of it – still inhuman, but inhuman in a recognizable way. Most people have encountered ants or bees. We know what they do.
This behavior also softens the Aliens’ image a bit, because they’re no longer solely devoted to death. The Aliens fight to defend their home. They take care of their young. They gather food. These are not forces of pure destruction. They’re just animals – dangerous, aggressive, possibly intelligent animals, but animals nonetheless.
With the malevolence of the monsters being downplayed this time around, the non-Alien antagonist of the film is given room to be more wicked. The first film had a non-Alien antagonist too, in the form of the secret evil robot who worked for The Company (DUN DUN DUN!). He was definitely a secondary villain, akin to the cultists of the Cthuluh mythos – while he unleashed the evil, the evil itself was so beyond him in motives and power that he couldn’t help but be overshadowed by it. Aliens introduced another representative of The Company (DUN DUN DUN!), a weasely little corporate go-getter named Burke who not only tricks everyone into exploring the Alien planet, but also actively tries to get them all killed so he can take back a specimen of the Alien species to use for… company… stuff. While Burke lacks the power of the Aliens, his villainy is a conscious choice, and that’s actually a lot more reprehensible. We could even argue he’s a greater threat than the Aliens themselves, since he and other members of The Company (DUN DUN DUN!) threw people into the Aliens’ path. Ripley, the protagonist of this series, sums it up: “You know, Burke, I don’t know which species is worse. You don’t see them fucking each other over for a goddamn percentage.”
That is, to me, the moment where Aliens changed the series’ genre. The deadly space monsters aren’t the true evil at work here. They may be vicious and terrifying, sure, but they’re not wicked by choice. It’s humanity’s need for progress – uncontrolled, careless, cruel, thoughtless progress for the sake of progress – that unleashes the horror and creates evil. Space may be a scary place where no one can hear you scream, but it’s the assholes who force us to explore it before we’re ready that make it dangerous. That’s pure Atomic Horror.
Which leads us to my favorite character and scene of the movie, The Alien Queen. At the climax of the film, Ripley journeys deep into the Aliens’ hive to save the traumatized little girl before the planet is nuked from orbit (the only way to be sure). It’s tense because holy crap there are a lot of Aliens, but Ripley takes care of them with a flamethrower/ray gun weapon pretty easily. She gets Newt (the little girl) and tries to make her escape, only to run right into a room filled with Alien eggs. She looks up and sees a massive creature that is laying the eggs – a beast so large that it actually looked like it was part of the scenery until it started moving. This is the Alien Queen, a T.rex-sized version of the Alien and mother to the hive.
I love this scene for a lot of reasons. One of them is how effectively it ups the stakes. We’ve been dealing with a threat that seems insurmountable from the start of this movie. Anyone who saw the first movie knows that The Alien is a badass murder monster that you cannot underestimate, and yet that’s just what our marines do. Then they get slaughtered, and the few survivors realize that, yeah, this is going to be tough. Sure, they kill a good number of The Aliens, but it barely even dents their overall numbers – they just keep coming, man! The Aliens even show signs of being really intelligent. Eventually our survivors figure out a decent plan – nuke the damn planet and get out (not in that order). Even The Aliens can’t survive a nuke, and while Ripley’s impromptu rescue mission is harrowing, she’s proven herself more than capable of succeeding. As the audience, we can be pretty comfortable knowing she has a decent shot at winning – until the Queen shows up. Suddenly everything we knew about the threat is thrown out the window, because, even this far in the movie, there are still HUGE, TERRIFYING secrets yet to uncover. The Aliens are still unknowable, and that means they’re still horrifying. Xenophobia, baby.
Yet another thing that makes the Alien Queen so terrifying is that she’s kind of familiar. She immediately hisses at Ripley because Ripley is holding a flamethrower to her eggs. Other Aliens pop up to try and help their mother take care of the intruder, but the Queen signals for them to back off because she knows Ripley’s going to torch her babies if they do. We’ve spent an entire movie seeing how maternal instincts have turned Ripley from a shell-shocked survivor into a hardcore monster-slayer, and now we see that the Aliens can have that same drive. The Alien Queen isn’t scary just because she’s big – she’s scary because she’s a mother. She’s not attacking the heroes because she’s a predator – she’s attacking them because it’s personal. She has kids to feed dammit!
It doesn’t feel unnatural, though, because The Aliens were made to take familiar concepts and make them feel unfamiliar and awful. Just as they corrupt birth and the human form, they corrupt parenthood. One of humanity’s most noble aspirations becomes the motivation for an implacable monster that will stop at nothing to protect or, failing that, avenge its children.
This scene is also a great Sympathy for the Monster moment, which I think is something of a trademark for Atomic Horror stories. I mean, other horror stories will give you moments of sympathy for their monsters too (except perhaps Cosmic Horror), but I feel they happen way more often in Atomic Horror, often because the monsters are just as much victims of progress as the people they terrorize. The Alien Queen is exactly like Ripley. She got stuck on a planet and did what she needed to survive, and in the process gained a family. Now she’s drawn into a conflict with a hostile alien species that has killed numerous members of her own kind, and, like any good mother, she fights tooth and nail to protect what she has. She’s going to save her kids, and then she’s going to kill every last one of those hostile aliens to make sure they stay safe. It’s the only way to be sure. They may be more predatory and bestial, but make no mistake – The Aliens are more similar to us than we think, and that only makes them more dangerous.
Aliens and, by extension, the Queen herself are central to a debate amongst fans of Alien: namely, did Aliens and the other sequels ruin The Alien’s symbolism and horror potential? It’s a fair question, and the answer really depends on what you want The Alien to be. If you want it to be pure, terrifying xenophobia made flesh – an unsympathetic, utterly inhuman avatar of death and all that is strange and terrifyingly unknowable, well, yeah, Aliens and the Queen pretty much ruined that.
However, I don’t think there’s a way The Alien could have remained PURE UNKNOWN if the story was to continue. Even if it just kept being wantonly destructive and growing into new hideous forms that committed new acts of sexual imagery-laden violence, we would eventually “know” it. It would be understandable. The story, by nature of continuing, helps us know this monster better. Aliens chose to do so by revealing new facts about the creature that we wouldn’t expect. They may make the monster more relatable to known creatures, but they’re still scary facts. Knowing that they work together like ants is terrifying, because an army of creatures this deadly is practically unstoppable. Knowing that they’re lead by a dinosaur-sized monster queen is terrifying, because she’s even harder to kill. Knowing that they, or at least their queen, can be motivated by love to seek revenge is terrifying, because we know how strong that emotion can be. We understand the monster better, sure, but that understanding doesn’t decrease the terror.
In short, Alien had a monster who said “I am different, and that is terrifying.” Aliens had that monster say, “I may be familiar, but I am still different, and I will kill you no matter how well you know me, and that is terrifying”. If you’re cool with that, then Aliens didn’t ruin the story – it just fleshed it out, and did so well. If not, hey, you have a right to your opinion, and Alien works perfectly well as a standalone film.