They Mostly Come At Night, Mostly

This post contains spoilers for ‘Prometheus‘ and ‘Alien: Covenant’.

Many marvelous and beautiful things are mysterious.  We do not need to know something’s source to know its value.   This is particularly true of stories; we love stories in which forces unexplained and irresistible wreak havoc in human affairs: magic, witches, vampires, demons, zombies, these creatures appear again and again in the tales we tell each other.

And, in our most beloved stories, we don’t provide the origin of these supernatural things.  We allow them simply to be, and we spend the energy of our story trying to cope with them.

But, sometimes, the tellers of stories are seized by the urge to demystify their monsters, to write their backstories.  This is usually a mistake (anyone else remember the midichlorians?).  And they are doing this now to that most magnificent of all monsters, the Alien.

Necronom IV

The Alien, which first appeared in ‘Alien’ in 1979, was based on a 1976 print by the artist H.R. Giger, ‘Necronom IV’.  It is a predatory, eusocial creature with a parasitic stage in a complex life cycle, and, for my money, it is the finest contribution that film has made to science fiction.  It is terrifying, the perfect combination of familiar and bizarre, a scrabbling, insectoid nightmare which communicates menace with every move.

The Alien, according to the original conception, was an alien, which added to its horrifying effect.  Somewhere out in the endless black expanse of space, life had burst forth.  But the same process which made us, the same process o280px-Alien_movie.jpgf selection and evolution, had, in some twisted alien world, produced this thing, this ravening killing machine.  Imagining the world which would have produced the Alien was almost as frightening as the Alien itself.

But, lately, alas, Ridley Scott has turned his attention (and enormous funding) to the creation of an Alien prequel trilogy.  The first of these movies, ‘Prometheus’, was released in 2012 and the second, ‘Alien: Covenant’, released last week*.  These movies reveal (in a not super-coherent way) that the Alien was, in fact, the result of an infection of humans by a malignant extraterrestrial virus orchestrated by a pathologically grandiose droid.  Got that?

A facehugger

Obviously, this is a stupid plot, but what really bothers me is that it is completely unnecessary.  No one was clamoring to see the specific evolution of the Alien, and, if we wanted to know more about it, it was because we were interested in the ways in which it was unlike us.  We did not want to know that the alien was a human xenomorph all along – that completely ruins the point of it being an alien!

Why must we always do this?  Why are we possessed of this mania for origin stories? I understand why we have it for characters, why we are driven to go back and witness the births of Darth Vader and James Bond and Wolverine.  We know that people have psychologies, that they are informed by their past, that they are products of their upbringing, of their loves and their traumas, and that we can’t understand them without knowing whence they came.

7786379422_la-premiere-affiche-d-alien-covenantBut the Alien isn’t a character; it doesn’t have a psychology (I don’t care what ‘Alien Resurrection’ implies).  The Alien is a force, and forces must be grappled with in the present, whenever and however they find you.

Learning that the Alien comes, in part, from us adds nothing to its narrative power.  It only diminishes the effect your encounter with it will have on you: things which are like us or of us are almost always less frightening than things which are completely, ahem, alien, and things seen clearly are less scary than shapes which move in the darkness.  The Alien was at its best when it came, screaming at us, out of the black, unexpected and incomprehensible.  We were all better off before it was dragged into the light.

*Baffling side note: According to Rottentomatoes, ‘Prometheus’ actually got slightly better reviews (and was better liked by audiences) than ‘Alien: Covenant’, which is confounding, since ‘Prometheus’ a) was terrible and b) has none of the franchise’s most valuable asset, namely, the Alien.

Why Does It Matter If Aliens Are Scary?

Part 1: Biology

I wrote a few weeks ago about movie aliens, about which ones were scary and which ones weren’t.

Alien 2

Alien: scary.

Colonist - X-Files

A colonist from ‘X-Files’: not scary.

My thesis was that movie aliens don’t achieve scariness unless they first achieve un-humanity.  Humanoid aliens aren’t only uniformly unfrightening, they are also products of intellectual and creative laziness, and we should stop making movies about them.

Who cares?  Movies, famously, little resemble real life – that’s part of why we watch them.  Aliens, at least so far, don’t figure in real life at all, so why am I so upset about how they appear in movies?

For two reasons.  The first, let’s call ‘Biology’.  The second, about which more next week, we’ll call ‘Fear Learning’.


Put simply, the evolutionary thinking behind humanoid aliens is, well, nonexistent.

It’s a safe assumption that whatever planet aliens evolve on will be, in some way or another, different than Earth.  It may be bigger or smaller, and therefore exert greater or lesser gravitational force.  The chemical composition of the atmosphere may different.  It may be further away from or closer to a big star, which would change the amount of heat or light the surface of the planet gets.  Whatever the difference, the environmental conditions on this alien planet aren’t going to be identical to the environmental conditions here on Earth.  Therefore, the chances that an alien species would evolve to exactly resemble human are slim indeed.

Even if we hew religiously to the anthropic principle, that the universe is necessarily conducive to the evolution of life like ours (as evidenced by our life), the odds are overwhelming that extraterrestrials won’t look like us.  Even if we accept the common hand-wave, that aliens have come to to disrupt our planet because it is so like their own, it is still unlikely that they will look like us.

Look around.  All life on Earth evolved under Earth-like conditions (obviously), and very few of our fellow-earthlings look like us.  In fact, there really aren’t any animals that look as much like humans as the aliens from ‘Signs’ do.  Honestly, which do you more closely resemble, the little green men from the X-Files, or a gorilla?  Tell the truth – it’s a close call.  And if other humanoids haven’t evolved here on Earth, what are the odds that they evolved somewhere else?

The idea that interstellar aliens, even if they evolved under similar conditions, would be cephalated, binocular, bipedal, and hairless, is preposterous.  To portray them thusly is so lazy, requires so little mental effort, as to be offensive.  We probably aren’t going to guess accurately how the aliens we meet, if we ever do, will look, but we should at least try.


The Alien Problem

Aliens are tough.

If you want scary aliens in your movie, you have only two real options: human-scary aliens, and non-human-scary aliens.

Human-scary almost never works.  Human-scary aliens look basically like humans.  They walk like humans.  They have two legs, two arms, two eyes in their one head.

Human-scary aliens are rarely scary.  Or, rather, if they are scary, they are only scary the way that humans can be scary.  Take the aliens in M. Night Shyamalan’s Signs.

Signs Alien

From ‘Signs’.  Just a big-headed guy: not scary.

They weren’t scary, unless they were creeping through cornfields, or leaping out from a dark corner, or grabbing at you suddenly from under a door.  But a housecat can startle you if it sneaks up on you – that doesn’t make it scary.  These aliens aren’t frightening, or even particularly interesting, to look at.  That’s why they are almost never shown straight on, and, when they are, they are in shadow, or blurry.  Even Predator, with his far-out face, basically looks and walks like a muscular guy.


Predator.  Gnarly, but not scary.

The only way to make human-scary aliens actually scary is to bend their human forms in some way, like the broken-human, many-legged Thing (from the the 2011 remake), which scrabbles around like a crab.

The Thing

The 2011 Thing.  This would get your attention.

Contrast the ‘Signs’ aliens with the Alien aliens.  The ‘Alien’ aliens are the best non-human-scary aliens in all cinema.  The Alien is bizarre and creepy, fascinating to look at when it stands still, let alone when it moves (although it does move bipedally and have arms, it isn’t humanoid).



The Alien was designed by H.R. Giger, which gives one a sense of how much work and genius it takes to design a really scary alien.

In the opinion of this author, the Alien has never been matched.  However, CGI has created some interesting runners up.  However, most of them are, like Alien, insectoid.  For example, take a look the skittering parasites from Cloverfield (which owe their form in part to the bugs from Starship Troopers, which, though the movie is funny, are a convincing menace).

Cloverfield Parasite

Cloverfield parasite.

Starship Troopers Bug

‘Starship Trooper’ Bug.

Which is why it made for a nice change to encounter the wing-dinging alien Mimics in the ‘Edge of Tomorrow’.  These fast-moving and tentacled aliens owe more to octopi than to insects, although even they owe something to Giger, with their semi-mechanical steampunkish tentacles.  And while their faces were, of course, disappointingly human, they are the best aliens seen in a long while.


A Mimic.

A still doesn’t really do the Mimic justice; their most affecting quality is their movement.  They are very fast, and move non-linearly, which makes them difficult for a human eye to follow.

And that is exactly the point of aliens: they aren’t like us.  They shouldn’t look like us, think like us, or move like us, and the more unlike us they are, the better they are able to do the job of scaring us.

Anyone who enjoyed the ‘Alien’ movies even a little should take a look at H.R. Giger’s printed work.  The Necromonicon is a good place to start.

‘The Edge of Tomorrow’ is based on the novel All You Need Is Kill, by Hiroshi Sakurazaka.

‘Starship Troopers’ is also based on a novel, Starship Troopers, by Robert Heinlein.