The plot-obstacles to an Alien prequel

Martin wonders if there's any latitude to squeeze the human element into the new Alien project...

The space-jockey - shall we know his life and loves in Alien 0...?

Collider’s scoop last Friday managed to semi-calm the blast wave of fanboy wrath (some of it ours) at the notion that Ridley Scott’s original Alien was to be remade. Turns out the planned film is a prequel. Whether this kills the possibility of Alien 5 or realises it (the Alien multiverse was already spaghetti junction – could the new film be considered Alien 0?), a lot of Top 10 Contenders For New Ripley lists have been ripped up half-written, and that’s a good thing.

Alien fans who are familiar with the excellent documentaries on the Quadrilogy edition – and the various commentaries on the films – will have heard a lot of excited speculation and flights-of-fancy about a prequel, from the likes of concept artist Ron Cobb, Sigourney Weaver, Ridley Scott, prosthetic effects chief Tom Woodruff, producers David Giler and Walter Hill, and numerous other franchise luminaries.

Much of the talk has been about how a prequel could take us to the aliens’ home world – but there’s been confusion as to which culture was being referred to…


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In Alien two extra-terrestrial cultures are depicted: the insect-like xenomorphs and the technologically advanced race of whom the only remnant example is the ‘space jockey’.

Production art of the 'space jockey' for Alien (1979)

The space-jockey himself was derived from a production sketch that Ridley Scott took a shine to, but proved to be one of many set-requests initially nixed by the line producer and the roving team of paranoid and penny-pinching executives that plagued Pinewood during the movie’s production (the set was later offered to Scott as a fait accomplis for the great footage he was turning out).

The space-jockey sketch that inspired Ridley Scott

The space-jockey embodies H.R. Giger’s favourite themes: death, sex and disgust, with bones becoming melded to technology. He seems to be some sort of gunner or telescope operator – yet in the production sketch the projecting tube is pointing only at what appears to be light in a curved wall, with no means either of firing out or of viewing the stars. If it is a window, it has as narrow an aperture as any archer had to contend with in medieval times.

In addition, the fuselage of the ‘cannon’ is not only phallic but directing out from the space-jockey’s hip area; we seem to come across the huge creature in a Pompeii-like moment of lonely sexual activity, frozen by the advent of the xenomorph that has burst out of its chest. It’s a poetic image, and it might take a bit of a plot-hack to give it a practical slant.

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The bent-out bones of the space-jockey in Alien (1979)

The problem with sequels is that they have to make sense of stuff which was thrown into the originals that spawned them mostly by dint of being ‘cool’ or intriguing. Thus Neo’s powers of flight, which made such a cool end to the original The Matrix had to be embarrassingly persistent in the sequels; and Michael J. Fox’s girlfriend being immediately ‘knocked out’ by Doc Brown at the start of Back To The Future Part II; and even the walk-on parts in the original Tremors getting their own Tremors sequel.

You kind of have to project backwards and force it to make sense post facto. This might be problematic for an Alien prequel for many reasons…

Not least the space-jockey himself. He is patently part of a machine, and the machine is patently part of the (now derelict) spaceship. Was he bred for the purpose by his race? Or will the prequel show him ambulatory and getting into the ’empty’ telescope/cannon and a whole lot of CGI cyber-bones wrapping round him, like Tony Stark’s Iron Man suit?

That would solve a problem, but it’s hokey and the design of the original space-jockey doesn’t support it. The space-jockey is growing out of the chair. That’s an insane idea from Giger’s bizarre and brilliant imagination, but it might take a young David Lynch to make the concept workable in an Alien prequel. I can’t say I envy Carl Rinch the task.


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The protective layer over the eggs in Alien were from a laser borrowed from Holoco, the development arm of the rock group The Who

Likewise problematic the reason that all those eggs were in the cargo hold of the derelict in Alien. Were they laid there by a long-dead Aliens-style xenomorph queen after the ship got infested, like the Nostromo, by a single alien? Or are they genetically-engineered weapons created by the space-jockey race to drop on enemies in a ghastly act of biological warfare?

Ridley Scott and others have commented on the space-jockey that his race seems to have been pacific by nature, perhaps more so than mankind. Yet Dark Horse’s comics spin-offs and various other Alienverse novels and spins have been providing a wealth of alternative possibilities since the late 1980s.

Original Sin
Michael Jan Friedman’s Aliens: Original Sin names the space-jockey race as the Mala’kak, whilst Steve Perry’s 1992 novel Earth Hive calls them ‘the collectors’. Graphic novel writer Mark Verheiden instead depicts the space-jockeys as a war-like race in the vein of the Predators, but ones who are only holding off their enslavement of the human race until the galaxy is dis-infested of their common enemy – the xenomorphs. Another spun-off origin story for the space-jockey came from the creators of ALIEN – The official authorised movie magazine. You can find the piece here, but fundamentally it suggests that history was pretty much repeating itself when the colonists met their grim fate on LV-426 in James Cameron’s Aliens. In this set-up, the space-jockey race had been searching for lifeless worlds to colonise, and their sweeps for life-forms on the apparently barren planet had not registered the ‘dormant’ alien eggs, which woke up enough to wipe out three successive landing parties, each more heavily-armed than the last (the last being the space-jockey’s own doomed mission from Alien).

(This doesn’t necessarily establish LV-426 as the xenomorph home world – flies don’t really have a native country as a species, and a xenomorph culture is merely an ‘infestation’ in the terms of more civilised societies. Who knows how many millennia these acid-spewing nasties have been stowing away and spreading their unique brand of havoc throughout the galaxy?)

Scott et al have also suggested other theories regarding the space-jockey, including that the apparent rough similarity in physiognomy between the two alien races is because the xenomorphs are biological weapons, or super-soldiers derived from space-jockey DNA. Thus the protective ‘blue layer of light’ over the egg-weapons in the cargo hold.

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Kane (Joh Hurt) breaks the 'blue barrier' over the alien eggs

But what sense does that make? As soon as Kane breaks the beam of light, the little fellers start twitching. Why would any military party set a trap on board its own ship?

The fundamental problem here is how dated the Holoco laser-effects are in the sequence where John Hurt descends to investigate the egg. The camera is kept at a low angle in order to disguise the fact that the blue layer emanates from a single light source, but these days it doesn’t look like anything but a late 1970s disco laser. James Cameron didn’t keep the blue-light device in the finale of Aliens, so it must have been space-jockey tech, right?

But in my opinion Cameron also thought it was a protective xenomorph tripwire, a luminous gas to give the creepy creatures the heads up on a new victim approaching – but one that would have been too hard to make work in his own explosive confrontation between Ripley and the alien queen.


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Ian Holm as Ash in Alien (1979)

It’s going to take some work to get the human race involved in a prequel set-up for Alien. In the original movie, Weyland-Yutani’s diversion of the Nostromo to LV-426 seems an opportunistic – if rather heartless – approach to new business acquisitions. The crew of the Nostromo are heading back from a long and gruelling spell of work in the Solomons when they are told to investigate the space-jockey’s ‘distress’ signal or forfeit their shares. They’ll later find out that they are all entirely ‘expendable’, so long as the valuable bug makes its way back to the Weyland-Yutani research labs.

Clearly the company is way ahead of the crew’s efforts to decipher the signal, which obviously contains a pretty detailed description of the xenomorph and its potential capability as a military weapon.

The science-officer Ash turns out to be an android planted by the company to protect its interests, but at no point is it suggested that the Nostromo shipped out of Earth with Ash on board specifically to protect the alien. If the distress-signal is public-domain and has reached Earth, and (as at least one of the Aliens comics suggested) other military powers might be just as interested in it…why send the Nostromo off to accomplish its mining remit for years before diverting it to LV-426 on the return journey? Any other interested power aware of the information could just send a ship straight to the planet and comfortably beat Weyland-Yutani to the prize.

No, the suggestion is that Ash is on board as a ‘mole’ because of a general company policy of spying on its workers, and that the entirely surprising advent of the space-jockey’s signal is exactly the kind of thing the company needs an ‘inside man’ for.

Paul Anderson’s risible 2004 prequel Aliens Vs. Predator didn’t even make a significant dent in this back-story, since it presented Lance Henrikson as the ‘template’ of Aliens‘ Bishop and co-founder of Weyland Yutani – and then killed him off. Anderson admitted as much in a 2005 edition of Movie Magic, declaring “…there’s nothing in [Alien Vs. Predator] that contradicts anything that already exists”.

All the company needed to do to ‘look good for the records’ and not be beaten to the punch was to divert the Nostromo on the way out. If, that is, they knew about LV-426 in advance of the mission. But let’s face it, the way Alien is set up, they didn’t.

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The Nostromo approaches LV426

The Nostromo was obviously the nearest ship available anywhere – if other powers on Earth had decoded the message and were sending ships to LV-426 to retrieve a xenomorph, they weren’t going to beat the Nostromo, which was in the wrong place at the wrong time…at least according to the O’Bannon/Shusett script.

In my opinion, some nasty acts of canon-hacking will be needed to suggest that there were adequate human machinations to generate an entire film prior to the Nostromo’s involvement.

But what choice is there, if this is the road the producers have chosen? The chances of Alien 0 dealing entirely with an expensive CGI/prosthetics space-jockey civilisation are pretty remote, not least because such an outlandish project doesn’t tick all the demographic boxes for the target audience (who are almost inevitably going to be young teenagers, I fear). The producers will be needing pretty faces to shroud in face-huggers – and probably younger ones than featured in the original movie.


In light of these and other problems, may I strongly recommend that they return to the long-awaited Alien 5 instead? We know Sigourney Weaver costs money (and that this has always been an issue with the Alien movies after the first), but she’s always been worth it. And unless the intention is to spin off the Alien canon into a new side-alley as J.J. Abrams did with Star Trek, we just don’t seem to fit into the picture until the original Alien movie rumbles into view.

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“I’d like to see [the Alien sequels] stop. A horror movie’s a fragile thing, and once you’ve gotten past the original, it isn’t scary anymore.”Dan O’Bannon, creator of Alien.