Nearly every Alien movie begins the same way: in the vast loneliness of space, in a ship that’s running on its own. In the first film, Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979), the camera slowly glides through the dark, lifeless corridors of the commercial towing vehicle Nostromo before locating the sleeping bodies of its crew, cocooned in their cryogenic pods. In James Cameron’s Aliens (1986), we see a stray, frozen-over escape ship drifting aimlessly through space, before it’s discovered by a salvage vessel; inside is the sleeping body of Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), the first film’s sole survivor, dormant for 57 years.
Both Alien and Aliens (screening as part of Drafthouse’s “Alien Day” double bill this week) are humanist films about an inhuman, or maybe post-human, world. In the first, the Nostromo (controlled by its onboard, all-powerful computer, “Mother”) heads to the planet LV-426 without informing its crew, and then forces them to investigate the strange, wrecked alien ship they find there. The settings of the film — from the ruined ship itself, with its immense, fossilized skeletal remains, to the storm-swept and “almost primordial” environment of LV-426, to the operatically cavernous Nostromo — belong to a universe where humans are quickly becoming an afterthought.
That is the fundamental sadness at the heart of Scott’s film, and it’s also the root of the hysteria in Cameron’s sequel. (Meanwhile, in David Fincher’s deeply flawed Alien3, which isn’t showing as part of this tribute, we find what may be the most resonant expression of this series’ fondness for blasted hellscapes: Ripley crash-lands on an abandoned, lice-riddled prison planet whose sole human inhabitants are a small group of convicts belonging to an apocalyptic millenarian sect — “a bunch of lifers who found God at the ass-end of space.”)
The series' humans are being pushed out on a narrative level, too. In Alien, after the creature is brought onboard (using the doomed, fragile body of John Hurt’s Kane as a host) and starts to kill off the crew, we learn that the danger has been partly engineered by Ash (Ian Holm), the ship’s medical officer, who turns out to be an android. The massive, faceless corporation that owns the Nostromo, Weyland-Yutani, wants the alien for bioweapons research. (As their computerized transmission puts it: “All other priorities rescinded. Crew expendable.”)
Something similar happens in Aliens, which follows a group of Marines who return to LV-426 to rescue a group of missing colonists. In that film, we discover that Burke (Paul Reiser), the company representative, is trying to find a way to transport the alien species back to Earth. Like Ash, Burke is happy to dispense with everyone else in order to fulfill his mission. Unlike Ash, Burke is not a pre-programmed android — just a sniveling, ambitious yuppie — so movie morality demands that he get chewed up by an alien for his sins.
In the breathless Aliens, the grimy, somber elegance of Scott’s film is replaced with the macho bluster of muscle, steel and technology, a frequent obsession of Cameron’s. Ripped and gung-ho, his soldiers are one with their machinery, in love with their firepower — and the director allows us to revel in their machismo even as he makes sure to undercut it. In the extended cut, the mouthy Private Hudson (Bill Paxton) assures Ripley before they land that he and his “army of badasses will protect you.” So it’s the ultimate cosmic joke that once a small army of aliens lays waste to the soldiers, Hudson becomes a whining, hysterical coward. Stripped of the guns, the wisecracks and the military chain of command, he realizes that he and his army of badasses are helpless in the face of an unfeeling universe and its remorseless creatures.
Both Alien and Aliens embody the tension between a relentlessly hostile environment and the all-too-human characters struggling to survive it. For a film that’s so claustrophobic, so filled with dark, cold spaces, Alien is surprisingly intimate. Watch how Scott focuses on Lambert’s (Veronica Cartwright), nervous face, smoking a cigarette, while Ash and Captain Dallas (Tom Skerritt) discuss the inhospitable atmosphere in the background. Or the way he allows the movie to briefly wander into a discussion of labor policy as Brett (Harry Dean Stanton) and Parker (Yaphet Kotto) protest over their “bonus situation.” Or Kane talking about how he wants to get some real food when the mission is over — right before a baby alien bursts out of his chest.
There’s a ruthlessness to all that everyday life – the sadism of a film that fleshes out its characters only to kill them in the most gruesome ways imaginable. But the film’s mournful tone matches its subject. Watching Alien is like watching the last gasp of the human race.
Speedy and explosive, Aliens also works this contrast. The characters are not unlike the diverse cross-section of society you might find in an old combat movie, but they’re also defined by human traits — abject fear, pathological toughness, weary cynicism, even tenderness. It’s a movie boiling over with emotion and humor, set against a surreally desperate and hopeless situation. Perhaps its most touching moment is a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it bit involving two secondary characters, who’ve hated each other all along, deciding to die together by mutually grabbing hold of a grenade.
Finally, there’s the alien, or xenomorph, itself. As Ash puts it in the first film, this beast is “the perfect organism. Its structural perfection is matched only by its hostility. Unencumbered by conscience, remorse or delusions of morality.” It’s also, as designed by the Swiss artist H.R. Giger, a nightmarish collection of bodily urges and horrors: an oozing, shedding skeletal giant with two sets of teeth, a creature that is at once phallic and vaginal, reminiscent at times of a scorpion and sometimes an octopus. You could see the whole series as the story of a sleek corporate machine, with its self-guided ships and sentient androids and its merciless focus on the bottom line, trying to own this perfect, grotesque organism. A merger of technology and impulse, with no need for anything that has a soul. The humans in between — with their wisecracks and complaints, with their machismo and their fear — are an inconvenience at best.