“In space, no-one can hear you scream”
So goes the famous tagline to Ridley Scott’s 1979 sci-fi horror classic Alien. The combination of H.R. Giger’s grotesquely beautiful creature design and Scott’s brilliantly claustrophobic direction made for a uniquely terrifying experience, one which took the tropes of 20th century science fiction and twisted them into a waking nightmare. 37 years and a huge multimedia franchise later, Scott is returning to the beastie that helped make him famous with Alien: Covenant, which looks to return the franchise to its horror roots. But after almost 40 years of sequels, crossovers and lunchboxes have turned the Xenomorph into a pop culture icon, is this such a good idea?
Great horror is built more often than not on what you don’t see rather than what you do, and this was a maxim that the original Alien took to heart. Although it was blessed with a fantastic creature design, Scott understood that not truly knowing what was hunting the Nostromo’s crew was far scarier than plastering the Alien all over the screen. Although we saw the iconic body horror of the creature’s birth in graphic detail to shock and unsettle the audience, it’s adult form is shrouded in mystery for most of the film as we are given only hints of its physiology, forcing us into a state of confused anxiety and wild imagination.
As thrilling as this action may be, I find it hard to believe that Alien: Covenant will be able to scare us in the same way Alien did.
What was so important to creating the atmosphere of Alien was the, well, alien nature of the Xenomorph. It was something completely outside of human understanding, an unknowable killing machine that preyed upon our darkest fears. What we did see of Giger’s design utilised his trademarks of biomechanical violence and uncomfortable sexual imagery to horrific effect. The isolation of space formed the perfect backdrop, emphasising the Lovecraftian cosmic horror of humanity’s insignificance in the face of an infinitely terrifying universe. The Xenomorph acted without reason and predictability, a waking nightmare of slaughter that defied explanation and seemed destined to become a horror icon in its perfection.
But that’s almost the problem – it’s become too iconic. Since 1979, Giger’s alien has starred in five films as well as dozens of comics and video games. It’s almost as recognisable as E.T. or Yoda in the ranks of movie aliens, and the very word ‘alien’ within genre filmmaking is unavoidably connected to this creature, to the point where the title Alien vs Predator needs no explanation. Whilst the title Alien in 1979 emphasised the unknown and the truly alien, the marketing for Alien: Covenant trades upon our familiarity with the Xenomorph. Posters have it front and centre, and the most recent trailer showed us Giger’s beast rendered beautifully through CGI in all its glory, fully illuminated on a spaceship trying to force its way in. But to me, this is a problem if Covenant is trying to sell itself as a horror film.
As thrilling as this action may be, I find it hard to believe that Alien: Covenant will be able to scare us in the same way Alien did. As a massive coward, I’m sure Ridley Scott will be able to jolt some shocks out of me and build tension as the crew get whittled down, but something is lost in knowing what’s coming for them. The brilliance of Giger’s design means that it retains its potential to shock and repulse us, but 4 decades of pop cultural exposure means that it can’t generate the same level of pure terror as once it could.
James Cameron seemed to realise this in 1986’s Aliens, which eschewed the horror stylings of the original in favour of a war movie cementing Sigourney Weaver as the biggest badass in the galaxy. Cameron wisely discern that simply rehashing Alien with a new cast of fleshy victims would run the risk of simply turning the franchise into a generic slasher series in space. Cameron instead played to his own filmmaking strengths, transplanting the aliens into a pastiche of the horrors of Vietnam, demonstrating the versatility of Giger’s design whilst avoiding the pitfalls of a traditional sequel. What I worry about Covenant is that it will simply try to rehash what made Alien great, without realising as Cameron did that this isn’t as easy as trapping a new bunch of people with a Xenomorph.
I still hold out hope that Alien: Covenant can surprise me. Despite some inconsistencies, Ridley Scott can still make great films, and perhaps he and the creative team can find some spin on the Xenomorph to bring it back to the forefront of terror. But I still can’t get over my overwhelming doubts about the project, and attempting to try and tie the sheer terror of Alien to the complex web of lore of Prometheus can only muddy the waters further in my eyes. In 1979, no-one could hear you scream. In 2017, the problem might be that we’ve heard the screams one too many times.