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Devious Dialogues: A.M. Novak and Mike Thorn on the ‘Alien’ Franchise

With the release of Alien: Covenant this month, the horror cineaste community has been buzzing about Ridley Scott’s latest work and the entire Alien franchise. Scott’s original film was widely acclaimed in 1979, and it’s now considered one of the top horror films of all time. Alien spawned three direct sequels, a crossover film that we dare not speak into existence, a prequel and now a new 2017 entry. In anticipation of Alien: Covenant’s release, Vague Visages contributors A.M. Novak and Mike Thorn take a look at the legendary sci-fi series.

Anya: Before we even get into each individual film, I have to ask — which film is your favorite?

Mike: I’ve looked ahead at your other questions, and I expect that some of my opinions on this franchise will be deemed scandalous at best. I love all four of the original films, and also hold Paul W.S. Anderson’s AVP: Alien vs. Predator in extremely high esteem. If you had asked me a few years ago, I would’ve said Ridley Scott’s Alien was my favorite without any hesitation. With a few recent re-watches of the series, though, I’ve developed a deep fascination with the controversial Alien: Resurrection. Since you’re asking me today, this is the answer I’m going with. How about you? Are you able to pick one film that you prefer over all the rest?

Anya: Aliens, hands down. It’s everything I want in a horror film, everything I want in a sci-fi film and everything I want in an action film. It sustained astronomical levels of tension that remains, for me, unmatched in the series entire. Eighty percent of the crew is wiped out in a two-hour massacre that manages to up the ante but cap the humans’ weapons advantage, all while they’re desperately trying to beat the clock and get out before a nuclear detonation goes off in a few hours. Combined with James Horner’s heart-pounding score that took motifs from Jerry Goldsmith’s original score from Scott’s Alien, it’s a one-two punch that still gets my blood running, still draws a bead from its predecessor and still has me analyzing every frame decades after its release.

Alien is regarded as one of the greatest horror movies ever. At its core, it took what was a midnight monster b-movie and sculpted a terrifying sci-fi nightmare. Everything from the script to the set design to the stellar cast worked together to create the perfect cinematic storm. What do you love most about Alien?

Mike: This is a difficult question! Alien is very much a “complete” film, whose parts all work in tandem with one another. I’ve always admired its adept handling of interior space — when it comes to foregrounding personal and interpersonal tensions, Scott and his crew navigate this set to maximum effect. But lately, I’m struck more by the film’s implications about the space outside of the ship — this undercurrent of cosmic indifference underlying the more primal, visceral dread within the confined space. I think this balance of interior and exterior horror is testament to the film’s thoughtful dealings with genre: it pulls equally from both science-fiction and horror, and it lets those traditions play off each other in intriguing ways. Ripley is also one of the great lead characters in the history of either genre, don’t you think?

Anya: Agreed. Moving on, Aliens is notable for plenty of reasons, but one of my favorite things about the movie is how conceptually ballsy it is. Not only did James Cameron raise the stakes (as one should in any sequel worth its salt), but he took a solid sci-fi/horror movie and transformed it into an action blockbuster by way of simply adding more aliens, and firepower. But even then, it takes an hour to actually get to the aliens in a movie titled Aliens. What is it about this sequel that makes it work so well, despite departing heavily from the original?

Mike: Cameron is one of the great directors of huge scale, and within this material he finds the potential to emphasize that trait. While I admire him hugely as a filmmaker, and respect Aliens for its many virtues, it’s a film with which I’ve somehow always maintained a weird distance. I always feel like I’m admiring it from afar, without actually engaging closely with it. All this is not to say that I don’t like Aliens — I like it quite a bit! But compared to the intense love of so many Alien franchise fans, mine seems a bit flimsy.

Anya: The series gets incredibly dark in the third entry, Alien 3, stranding Ripley on Fiorina 161, an industrial penal colony full of religious zealots who don’t appreciate having a woman in their midst, much less her hostile stowaway. I absolutely love this movie and its tangential narrative, and the way it intensifies the “man is the worst monster of all” ethos. Weyland-Yutani is still the big baddie, Ripley is still a badass heroine and the crew she’s entrapped with are tested in their faith. Nevertheless, Alien 3 is a polarizing film. David Fincher’s 1992 installment of the franchise is one fans love or hate. Where do you stand?

Mike: I’m with you — I like this film a great deal. Fincher seems intent on adhering to the tone of Scott’s original, while also bringing a new set of visual and narrative ideas to the forefront. The Gothic undercurrents of Alien are front and center here, with the penal colony filling the role of a spiritually conflicted space, not totally unlike the monastery in Matthew Gregory Lewis’ The Monk. Fincher plays this Gothic tradition against the then-contemporary imagery and tone of industrial metal music. Although he cut his teeth on lighter, popular music videos, Fincher’s work here seems to anticipate his kinship with Trent Reznor. To me, it feels like an early Nine Inch Nails album visualized as sci-fi horror fare, and that’s just fine in my books. It’s actually quite difficult for me to see what people so despise about this film.

Anya: There’s not much to be said for Alien: Resurrection, as far as I’m concerned. I only have one question: what went wrong?

Mike: With all due respect, I must passionately disagree! As I mentioned above, this might well be my favorite entry in the series, and I actually think that its tensions are what make it so distinct and fascinating. With a writer like Joss Whedon on board, the film is building off familiar blockbuster material; broadly, in terms of plot development, dialogue style and characterization, this might be the most “mainstream” film of the franchise. Bizarrely enough, though, the script veers into truly novel territory in the third act, complicating the Ripley-Alien dynamic in ways that cause viewers to re-evaluate what has preceded. Jean-Pierre Jeunet makes a wise choice in giving cinematographer Darius Khondji a lot of creative space — in my eyes, this is by far the most visually dynamic entry in the franchise. For its visual depth and richness alone, I find this to be the Alien film that I’m most regularly compelled to revisit. Is there nothing you enjoy about this installment? Not even the work of the great Brad Dourif, who we both praised in our Exorcist talk?

Anya: While I agree that Khondji’s visuals are nothing short of stunning (to be expected from the same cinematographer who gave us the iconic imagery in Se7en), I found it to be a pretty depiction of a mediocre story. You and I know that Dourif can do no wrong performance-wise, but he alone could not carry this picture, even with the help of the always entertaining Ron Perlman. Whedon’s script just didn’t give them anything to work with, resulting in lackluster characters with little chemistry. That chemistry was essential to elevating audience engagement with the crew, and without it they were reduced to little more than teen counselors at Camp Crystal Lake, just waiting to be bumped off by the big baddie. You’re not wrong at all in your assertion that the script boldly veers into new territory. Unfortunately, it was a veer in the wrong direction for me — full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. I have plenty more to say about it, and I bet you do, too. Perhaps that can be the focus of its own head-to-head crosstalk?

Mike: Hey, that’s not such a bad idea…

Anya: Rolling on to the next installment of the franchise, most of the Alien films deal with themes of the monstrous feminine, and of life and birth as they relate to mother and child. In Ridley Scott’s Prometheus, that theme is expanded upon with the inclusion of ambition and disappointment as they relate to father and child. Weyland Sr.’s relationship with his daughter Vickers is a strained one full of letdown, which ran parallel to the Engineers’ giving up on the subpar Earthlings they created. Do you think this was the right step for the series? If not, what would you have liked to see happen in Prometheus?

Mike: Judging by your extremely thoughtful question, I can safely assume you’ve watched this film much more attentively and charitably than I have. Re-watching Prometheus was an unpleasant experience for me — I think the script is overstuffed on a narrative level, and aggravating on the levels of dialogue (almost all quipping and exposition) and characterization. I think there’s a lean, 90-minute movie hiding somewhere, but it doesn’t show through in the final result. I also think Scott’s direction is really anonymous here. By and large, it feels stagey and depressingly conventional. There are a few moments of spectacle and excitement, but overall it put me into a near-stupor. I’d like to cheat my way out of your question by turning it back toward you, because I’d be much more interested in hearing an interpretation of Prometheus from a fan than from a detractor. What do you think is going on in that pivot, as it relates to the series’ dealings with gender and parenthood?

Anya: First of all, I have to object to your beef with the dialogue. There’s no more quipping and exposition than you’d find in Aliens, and those quips often serve as characterization and rapport-building among the crew. That characterization is important in a film with such profound themes as faith versus science, Faustian sacrifices in pursuit of forbidden knowledge and toxic paternalism. The exploration of such intimate concepts requires a connection with the main players that can’t be achieved without the sort of narrative we see in Prometheus. I agree that there are few moments of spectacle, but that’s exactly where the film’s strength lies. It is confident enough to let its characters breathe, and the themes are better served because of it, resulting in one of the more cerebral entries in the series.

To answer your question, the dealings in regard to parenthood are simply a fresh approach descending from a long line of such thematic infusions in the Alien franchise. From the gruesome “birth” scene in the original Alien to the hybrid Newborn in Alien: Resurrection, we have a sound condemnation of man’s attempts to control the life-creating-process. Weyland-Yutani is not only a metaphorical finger-wagging at corporate imperialism, but the company is also a male patriarchy, and an oppressive one at that. This is slightly flipped in Prometheus with a female Shaw, the scientist that makes the Faustian pact with the Devil in order to gain forbidden knowledge. Then again, she is later joined by Weyland Sr. himself who is on a similar quest, and both are punished for their attempts to achieve a divine level of omniscience.

Then we have the varied relationships between the main characters: Weyland and David, then Weyland and Vickers; Shaw and her father, then Shaw and her psycho tentacle baby; the Engineers and the humans, then David’s artificial intelligence and the god-like Engineers. Interwoven throughout these relationships is conflict, a disillusionment that leads to either patricide, infanticide or the passive permissiveness to allow one or the other to die. Is Shaw’s frantic abortion any different from the Engineers’ mission to destroy that which they hath wrought? The prevalence of patricide and infanticide here underscores a running narrative about the tense relationship we hold with our creators — both physical and spiritual. It’s a lot to handle in a feature-length film, but Scott handles it beautifully. Any rebuttal?

Mike: I find your reading much more intriguing than the film itself. For me, the Alien franchise is at its best when it’s foregrounding set/creature designs and the visual instincts of its various auteurs. I get so much joy out of comparing Cameron’s formal decisions to Fincher’s, or Paul W.S. Anderson’s to Ridley Scott’s. With Prometheus, I think there’s a lot to be gained from a close reading of the textual foundation, but Scott doesn’t grant that narrative/thematic depth the aesthetic justice it deserves; I wanted more distinct, kinetic treatment. It feels too small, too locked into ideas and not attentive enough to its qualities as a piece of visually-driven genre cinema. In terms of the scripting, I can see where you’re coming from with your comparison to Aliens, but the performances in Prometheus just don’t register for me with nearly the same kind of life and energy as those in Cameron’s entry. The only actors I find remotely compelling here are Noomi Rapace and Idris Elba, and neither of them get enough screen time. Bottom line: I’d much rather read an A.M. Novak-penned Prometheus essay than watch this film again.

Anya: Ah, I’m picking up a pattern here between your disdain of Prometheus for its lack of spectacular visuals and your love for Alien: Resurrection’s grand aesthetics. We’re definitely at an impasse, but it’s due to a fundamental difference in what we appreciate most in a film. As I recall, we held the same conflict over The Exorcist II: The Heretic for the exact same reasons.

In my re-visit of the Alien films, it occurred to me that the Xenomorph is something of a neutral evil. In all of its evolutions throughout the franchise, the Xenomorph is a primal creature, acting on pure instinct. When an alien kills, it’s out of an imperative to survive, whereas the various human representatives of the Weyland Corporation, or other such patriarchal interests, make a conscious decision to endanger others out of sheer greed. In the grand scheme of things, who do you think is the most ruthless villain in the series?

Mike: What a fascinating reading! I agree — if anything, the Xenomorphs represent that which is indifferent to human interest. By bringing the idea of a visibly “monstrous,” non-humancentric form of intelligence into outer space, I think this franchise veers into the realm of cosmic horror. You’re totally right about that which is morally reprehensible in these films: patriarchy, the grotesque alignments of capitalism and military violence. These are all terrifying systems, and the series also devalues the human by playing viewers against these utterly indifferent, self-constituting life-forms elsewhere in our universe. The infamous tag-line — “In space, no one can hear you scream” — speaks more to the insignificance of the human when taken away from his or her claimed space than it does to the scariness of the alien. What do you find most frightening about the Alien films?

Anya: You touched on the perfect term for the franchise — “cosmic horror.” One of the most prolific writers of cosmic horror was H.P. Lovecraft, who created unfathomably timeless monsters that largely held the same imperatives as the Xenomorphs. Creatures like The Ancient Ones and Cthulhu are not so much driven by evil as they are guided by an instinct that leaves them apathetic toward humanity. In a similar vein, the alien’s very existence is a threat to the crew, because their demise provides the means for its survival, and that’s that. There’s no conscious choice to kill, and so there’s nothing to appeal to. From the Prometheus to the Covenant to the Nostromo and beyond, these humans are helpless fish in a barrel, floating in a tin can at the mercy of an otherworldly killing machine that wants to survive just as much as they do. Despite how far the human race has come, that ultimate insignificance is the most terrifying thing of all.

A.M. Novak (@BookishPlinko) is a horror enthusiast and contributor to Daily Grindhouse, 100 Films/100 Scenes, Horror Writers and 52 Weeks of Horror. When she’s not staunchly defending Halloween 6, she’s scribbling nightmares for the masses in the form of short stories. 

Mike Thorn’s film criticism has appeared in numerous journals and publications, including MUBI Notebook, The Film Stage, Bright Lights Film Journal and The Seventh Row. His fiction has been published recently in DarkFuse #5, Turn to Ash Vol. 0 and Straylight Literary Arts Magazine. Darkest Hours, his debut short fiction collection, is slated for a November release with Unnerving. For more information, visit his website mikethornwrites.com and follow him on Twitter @mikethornwrites.

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