It remains one of the most beautifully disturbing creature designs in cinema history. But how smart is H.R. Giger's Alien nightmare?
There are many reasons why Alien and Aliens are such unforgettable films: the dark underlying themes, the quality of the acting, the sheer artistry evident in their design and composition.
But one of the reasons why these aging films remain so compelling is because they imply as much as they show: 1979’s Alien may be infamous for its graphic birth sequence, but it raises so many questions that, at present, remain unanswered. How long had the crashed alien ship sat undiscovered on LV-426, as the planet later became known? What were all those eggs doing in its belly? And foremost, just how intelligent is the creature we see emerge from John Hurt’s torso? Ridley Scott may be busy rootling around in the early years of the Alien universe with Prometheus and last year’s Alien: Covenant, but those deeper mysteries remain largely untouched.
In Alien Vault, the excellent account of the first film’s creation by Ian Nathan, the nature of the creature is briefly discussed by its creators. “It’s never been subject to its own culture,” said screenwriter Dan O’Bannon. “It’s never been subject to anything except a few hours in the hold of the ship. Quite literally, it doesn’t have an education. The alien is not only savage, it is also ignorant.”
Savage and ignorant the alien may be, it also shows cunning and resourcefulness throughout both Ridley Scott’s film and James Cameron’s sequel. In Alien, the creature uses the ship’s darkness and hiding spaces to its own advantage, turning a tatty old mining vessel into a hunting ground – abilities you’d expect from a natural, highly-evolved predator. But late on in the film, the alien begins to do things you wouldn’t expect of a mere animal.
Realizing that any attempt to fight the alien conventionally would be useless, Ripley destroys the Nostromo and escapes in the Narcissus. What Ripley doesn’t realize, of course, is that the alien has secreted itself aboard the lifeboat. The alien’s presence here begs the question raised in Alien Vault: how did it know the Nostromo was set to self-destruct? Did it hear the warning sirens, and deduce what was about to happen next, or did it merely follow Ripley’s scent, like a bloodhound, into the relative quiet of the Narcissus?
In Aliens, the xenomorphs appear to be more cunning than ever, raising more questions about how intelligent they may be. Before the colonial marines head into the alien nest for their first encounter, Ripley points out that the creatures’ lair is located right beneath a reactor, meaning any stray gunfire could destroy them as well as the aliens. As Yaphet Kotto’s character Parker put it in Alien, “It’s got a wonderful defense mechanism. You don’t dare kill it.” Did the aliens choose this spot for their nest as a tactical advantage, or was it merely the coziest spot in the base?
There are openly-described parallels between the aliens’ hierarchy and that of a colony of ants or bees: the soldiers protecting the egg-laying Queen is but one. Yet the aliens repeatedly demonstrate an intelligence and cunning that is far beyond that of an earthly insect. When their path to the marines’ refuge is blocked by sentry cannon (a scene lopped out of the theatrical cut), they find an alternate route via a crawlspace above a suspended ceiling. At around the same time, they find a way to plunge the base into darkness (“What do you mean they cut the power? They’re animals,” says a horrified Hudson).
Later, Ripley even threatens to torch the alien Queen’s eggs if the latter doesn’t restrain her soldiers – a moment of bargaining that probably wouldn’t work with mere animals. And echoing the events at the conclusion of Alien, Ripley later discovers that the Queen has snuck aboard the Sulaco, avoiding destruction on LV-426 in an almost identical fashion to her predecessor on the Nostromo decades earlier. To do this, the Queen had to work out how to operate a lift, and then, we’re guessing, hide itself away in the landing gear of the dropship piloted by Lance Henriksen’s Bishop.
Not long after Aliens‘ release in 1986, James Cameron took to the pages of Starlog magazine to respond to readers’ criticisms. Here, he describes the alien as a parasitic organism with a rigidly structured caste system (like ants and bees, but also like the Selenites in HG Wells’ 1901 novel, First Men in the Moon). But he also briefly discusses the alien’s intelligence, and its ability to strategize – that is, its ability to choose which humans to kill and which to snatch away to be used as hosts:
“One admittedly confusing aspect of this creature’s behavior (which was unclear as well in Alien) is the fact that sometimes the warrior will capture prey for a host, and other times, simply kill it. For example, Ferro the dropship pilot is killed outright while Newt, and previously most of the colony members, were only captured and cocooned within the walls to aid in the Aliens’ reproduction cycle. If we assume the Aliens have intelligence, at least in the central guiding authority of the Queen, then it is possible that these decisions may have a tactical basis. For example, Ferro was a greater threat, piloting the heavily armed dropship, than she was a desirable host for reproduction. Newt, and most of the colonists, were unarmed and relatively helpless, therefore easily captured for hosting.”
Interestingly, the creature in Alien 3 displays more flatly animal characteristics than the ones in Alien and Aliens. This may be because it emerged from a dog or an ox, depending on which cut of the third film you’ve seen (the film makes it plain that the alien takes on some of the characteristics of its host), or it may be simply due to muddled writing, but Alien 3’s monster is far less cunning than its predecessors. It’s led on a lengthy and perplexing chase back and forth along the corridors of the film’s prison colony, and is later lured into a trap involving a gigantic lead mould. We have a feeling the alien Queen wouldn’t fall for such a trick.
In Alien: Resurrection, meanwhile, it’s shown that the aliens can communicate and organize themselves extremely effectively, with one of their number sacrificing itself in order to allow the others to escape.
As I mentioned at the start of this article, it’s the hints of intelligence the alien displays that makes it such a compelling screen monster, particularly in the first two movies. Its ability to always place itself in Ripley’s escape vessel could be put down to simple shock-horror plot writing than any kind of internal logic on the part of the alien, but its omnipresence merely adds to its sense of mystery.
In Alan Dean Foster’s novelization of Alien, the treacherous android Ash gets a lengthier conversation with Ripley and Parker before he’s switched off – Foster was presumably working from an earlier draft of the script when he wrote the book, since it also contains scenes that were never shot due to budgetary constraints on the film itself. At any rate, Ash’s words shed some fascinating light on the nature of the alien’s intelligence.
“Thousands of years of effort have not enabled man to eradicate other parasites,” Ash says. “He has never before encountered one this advanced. Try to imagine several billion mosquitoes functioning in intelligent consort with one another. Would mankind stand a chance?”
As an irritated Ripley gets up to unplug Ash, he begs for a final word. “Maybe it truly is intelligent,” he says. “Maybe you should try to communicate with it.”
When Ripley asks whether Ash had attempted to do so himself, the android’s reply is brief and ominous: “Please let my grave hold some secrets.”
This conversation may have pointed to an ending originally considered by Ridley Scott and his crew, but ultimately never used. While Alien was still shooting, Scott managed to secure a bit more money from Fox to shoot some kind of coda – a shock finale which would take place after Ripley’s escaped from the exploding Nostromo. One of the potential conclusions would have seen the xenomorph emerge from its hiding place, biting Ripley’s head off, and then, with an eerily accurate approximation of Ripley’s voice, recording a log entry along the lines of, “This is Ripley, last survivor of the Nostromo, signing off.”
I think we can all agree we dodged a bullet when this idea was abandoned, but it does prove one thing: the makers of Alien were themselves thinking, at least to a degree, about their creature’s intelligence. This proposed final scene would have revealed that, as well as being a deadly predator, the xenomorph is capable of rational thought – or, more chillingly still, it’s somehow capable of imbibing the intellects of its victims, much like the title creature in John Carpenter’s later sci-fi horror masterpiece, The Thing.
The implication might be that the xenomorph is much like we humans in certain respects: it’s a creature of its environment as well as its breeding. Given the correct education, the alien might be capable of almost human-like intelligence; the beast may be grotesque, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t more going on inside that scarily eyeless skull.
Even in the lesser films of the franchise, the aliens are formidable, terrifying entities, and it’s their cunning, I’d argue, that makes them so disturbing. Even if they were merely eight-foot-tall insects, their absence of eyes, weird motivations and horrible origins make them scary enough. But all that, coupled with their uncanny ability to anticipate their prey’s movements, and even manipulate machinery, truly makes them the stuff of cinematic nightmares.
It seems fitting to end with a quote from Ash, who understood the alien’s threat long before the rest of the crew on the ill-fated Nostromo:
“I admire its purity. [It’s] a survivor, unclouded by conscience, remorse, or delusions of morality. I can’t lie to you about your chances, but… you have my sympathies.”