“The perfect organism. Its structural perfection is matched only by its hostility. (…)
I admire its purity. A survivor…unclouded by conscience, remorse, or delusions of morality.”
I am definitely a fan of Alien. A huge fan, some would say. I have seen the original 1979 film countless times though never, to my eternal shame, at the cinema. Ash’s description of the monster is among my favourite film quotes.
Yet, Alien: Covenant has come and gone and I didn’t see it. Unlike Prometheus it did stir my curiosity , I had read some positive reviews, I could have found the time, so why not see the latest instalment in the xenomorph’s saga? (sorry, I don’t use the “f” word. To me a franchise is a chain of shops).
It’s not that I don’t approve of serialisation: there are great cinematic and literary series, from “Back to the Future” to “The brilliant friend” or the “Earthsea” cycle, but a series of stories or films, or the sequence of seasons in a tv series should have a reason beside making money; there should be a reason for the reader or viewer to follow the progressive expansion of a certain fictional world; we should discover more about the characters’ inner lives and their social interaction. It was like that in the original Star wars films, and it is remarkably so in the Harry Potter novels, just to give two widely-known examples. Every new film or book should answer questions that arise from the previous ( Why does Severus Snape react to Harry Potter’s appearance at Hogwarts the way he does? Will Jon Snow allow the warg in him to develop?) but also take the viewer or reader onto new narrative paths . The plot has to move on, but there will be loops that take us backwards, or secondary paths that point to places and people we still have to meet, to the confirmation of hypotheses we were forming as we read or watched a story unroll or to sudden, and more or less shocking revelations. I think it is legitimate to see series (in any media or form of expression) as an attempt to bring back the gigantic Ninteenth Century novel, which is probably the most satisfying experience for an explorer of fictional worlds.
There is a simpler, and intrinsically more repetitive kind of serialisation, the one found in successive narratives or films based on one character – be that Jack Aubrey or Commissario Montalbano – in which the same environment and basic situations provide the setting of the episodes, but even there you cannot simply repeat the same pattern every. Even there, new characters will appear, new relationships will be estabilished and maybe old secrets will come to light. Most importantly, we will understand the characters better. In that respect, the three Cormoran Strike novels Mrs Rowling has published as John Galbraith are striking, but the very best are Manoel Vasquez Montalban’s novels on Pepe Carvalho, the Barcelona-based detective.
Having said that, back to the xenomorph. Why did Covenant fail to attract a keen admirer of the original Alien such as I am? (And by the way, when did the perfect monster get such a stupid name? “Something that has a different shape” could be anything, from a kangaroo to a cat with a knotted tail). I think in the end the reason was that I could see no need for another Alien film, another story of a doomed crew, trapped with the ultimate deep-space nightmare and a rather disturbing scientific officer. If you want a film like that, you just have to watch the original: it is such a perfect piece of work that any sequel will be redundand even when it is actually good (something I would only say of James Cameron’s second instalment, Aliens.) .I got to the fourth film, and none got even close to 1979 film in terms of actors’ performance and of brilliant writing. Think of the script’s brilliant intertextuality, which emerges as you watch the film time an again: first you recognise the spaceship’s name, Nostromo; then you acknowledge the nod to myth, with the explorers inconsiderately going underground (or so it seems), and finally you realize that Ripley, who has a very wicked disembodied Mother, goes to sleep in a transparent pod like Snow White. With Jones, the cat, whose rescue is a stroke of genius in the building of Ripley’s character. In spite of the archaic technology, it is still, and I am sure it will remain, a perfect film that needs no addition to its dark, claustrophobic world.
To put it in Paul McCartney’s words of wisdom, “you can’t reheat a souffle”.
(I do not own the rights to the pictures and quotes in this post)