There is an odd phenomenon with fandom where “our idea of what a thing should be like” frequently obscures our memories, and even currently-happening-viewing-of the media itself. A great example of this is James Kirk, a character remembered as a promiscuous renegade, a cross between Chris Pine’s rebel-without-a-cause, and Zapp Brannigan. This perception exists despite the fact that for three years on NBC, William Shatner played a massive nerd and consummate professional who (despite maybe two serious romances that actually broke his heart) would list his relationship status as “commanding a starship.”
The Alien franchise is another example of this quirk. Alien is a movie and multimedia franchise named after the titular “Alien.” We remember it as humanity’s first encounter with alien life, and that alien life wanting to either kill or lay its eggs in us—which will then kill us later.
The popular imagination of the Alien universe is a sparse one: It is occupied by the Alien, the dead Space Jockeys it was found with, and if you’re feeling generous to lesser installments, then potentially some Predators. It’s a view of the Alien universe that appeals to some fans who want the series to be “hard” sci-fi, with less of the bells and whistles of softer science fiction franchises. And while it is true that, in the films at least, the Aliens and their dead Space Jockey hosts are all we see (we’ll get to Prometheus and its angry bald pale dudes in a bit), the actual text of the movies doesn’t support the reading.
First Contact (With These Guys)
The first bit of evidence that the crew of the Nostromo live in a universe full of identified extraterrestrials comes from their initial reaction to encountering alien life in the original Ridley Scott movie. The crew’s response is not one of surprise. The alien ship and the Aliens themselves are creepy, but nobody seems that shocked that there are aliens at all. Whenever anyone is waxing lyrical about what a discovery the film’s Alien is, the phrasing is always very specific. Ash (Ian Holm) says, “Ripley, for God’s sake, this is the first time that we’ve encountered a species like this.” Meanwhile in the James Cameron sequel, Aliens, Paul Reiser’s Burke tells Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) that this “is clearly, clearly an important species we’re dealing with.”
If the Alien was our species’ first encounter with any alien life, you would think someone would bring that up in these arguments. Instead the discussion is always that this alien, in particular, is special. Look at the Nostromo’s first engagement with alien life—it picks up a signal from the Space Jockeys’ ship.
Now through this we learn several things. First, that the Nostromo crew’s contract includes a clause that “specifically states any systematized transmission indicating a possible intelligent origin must be investigated.” In fact, the computer is programmed to stop if it encounters any such transmission, and nobody takes it as a given the signal is human. But more than that, while the Nostromo crew are out on their away mission, finding weird eggs and sticking their faces in them, the ship’s computer is actually able to decipher the signal it received, establishing it is not a distress signal but a warning.
Now, even assuming the Nostromo’s computers are magnitudes more powerful than modern computers but with a conspicuously retro user interface, to receive an alien signal from a civilization you have never encountered before, with no common reference points or basis for comparison, and then interpret that to the point that you are able to divine a meaning even as simple as “stay away”—that is an absolute technical marvel, akin to Star Trek’s universal translators.
It is definitely not something you would be able to get right the first time, and so the very existence of that capability implies that humans have not only encountered alien life before, but intelligent alien life.
But then, of course, there is another throwaway line that gives us a big clue as to the bigger Weyland-Yutaniverse, in Alien’s sequel.
We’re Going on a Bug Hunt
The exchange in Aliens goes as follows:
Private Hudson: Is this gonna be a standup fight, sir, or another bug hunt?
Lieutenant Gorman: All we know is that there’s still no contact with the colony and that a xenomorph may be involved.
Private Frost: Excuse me, sir, a-a what?
Lieutenant Gorman: A xenomorph.
Corporal Hicks: It’s a bug hunt.
Now, this is a famous line, a line that has been horribly misread in a way that made the Alien extended-franchise go a little bit silly. Gorman says “a xenomorph may be involved,” and an entire generation of nerds sat up with their little notebooks and wrote down “The Aliens are actually called xenomorphs.”
They’re not. At this point in the story, as far as we know, nobody except Ripley, the dead crew of the Nostromo, and a few hundred more dead colonists, have encountered the Alien, and most of them didn’t have time to give it a name. Xeno means “foreign, “other,” or “stranger” in Latin; morph means, roughly, “form.” So put that together and you get… a fancy way of saying “alien.” The exchange has a private asking if they’re going on a “bug hunt,” and the stick-up-his-ass, grotesquely inexperienced CO has to put it in his own officious sounding language while essentially telling the private that he’s right.
This tells us that a) the Alien is called the Alien. It just is, and b) “Bug hunts” are something the marines are familiar with, and to be honest, pretty bored by.
What is a bug hunt? Well, there are two interpretations. One is that the marines are used on jobs that essentially amount to pest control—they have never faced anything like the Aliens, but they regularly have to pop out to colonies to mop up giant killer centipedes, space rats, and maybe the occasional dinosaur.
The other, given James Cameron’s later work, is that Avatar is a pretty accurate depiction of what these marines consider to be “a bug hunt.” Apparently Weyland-Yutani is no stranger to finding planets of sexy blue cat people who problematically appropriate Earth’s Indigenous cultures, Ewoks, or similarly peaceful, non-technologically advanced civilizations—and then mowing them down to make room for another mineral refinery.
Now, so far I have avoided referencing Ridley Scott’s prequel films. This is for two reasons. One: They are bad. Two: This interpretation of the Weyland-Yutaniverse is about opening up the world of the Alien movies, and one of the great things about the Alien films, especially the first, is that it feels like a genuinely vast universe where entire civilizations can exist around ours, and all we ever learn of them is a single crashed spaceship that we don’t even look at that hard because we want to get home from work.
Prometheus and Alien: Covenant shrinks that universe. The thoroughly alien Space Jockeys, whom we cannot tell from looking at what is technology and what is a body part, become the far less interesting Engineers, tall bald white dudes with some kind of God complex, responsible for both life on Earth and the Alien’s predecessor. Meanwhile, the Alien isn’t alien at all—it is the creation of an Earth android that was angry with its human creators.
But by accepting that the Alien universe is one that is far more teeming with life than it first appears, Prometheus suddenly makes more sense. The biggest plothole is “if we just discovered alien life for the first time, why are the only people sent to investigate it such dipshits? Why do they lack the basic common sense of a group of space truck drivers who don’t want to be looking for alien life anyway?”
The answer is nobody in the film actually says this is the first proof of life on other planets—only a potential clue to where humanity came from (and pretty shoddy evidence at that).
If humanity in the time of Prometheus has already discovered a bunch of Pandora-like planets and other, cooler alien stuff, it actually makes sense that this mission can only recruit the sort of person who would not only stick their face in front of an alien making threatening snake-like movements but would take their helmet off first.
An Expanded Universe
We are not the first to notice any of this, and the Alien universe has grown far beyond the three films that we count as part of the franchise and the five others we don’t. There are countless comics, books, and video games, and many of them include appearances by creatures such as the Corcoran Highland Goat and the Tanaka 5 Scorpion.
There is even a comics plotline about a species called Reapers, giant green dudes who hunt Facehugger Eggs for food. But a big problem with the Alien universe, if perhaps an unavoidable one, has always been that it insists on being about the Alien. There are constant hints at a huge and complex universe outside of the Alien stories, but it always ends up feeling as if the entire Star Trek franchise became exclusively about human/Horta interactions.
Probably the most interesting “expansion” of the Alien universe is the scattering of easter eggs across Alien and Blade Runner properties hinting that the two stories share a universe. The Alien films have featured onscreen references to the Tyrell Corporation, and Blade Runner 2049 features a glimpse of a spaceship that is not-dissimilar to Aliens’ Sulaco.
The dates for both franchises may not line up satisfactorily, and there are plenty of contradictions to build head canon out of, but Scott has all but confirmed the connection in one of the Blade Runner DVD director’s commentaries.
“There’s almost like a connective tissue between all the stuff I went through on Alien into the environment of the Nostromo, and people living within close proximity to people who still have Earth-bound connections and here we have people on Earth. So almost this world could easily be the city that supports the crew that go out in Alien. So in other words, when the crew of Alien come back in, they might go into this place and go into a bar off the street near where Deckard lives. That’s how I thought about it.”
Interestingly, Blade Runner’s co-writer David Peoples also went on to write Soldier, a film which he regards as an unofficial “sidequel” to Blade Runner, with references to both it and Alien scattered throughout the film—including a sadly cut opening space battle intended to be the famous “Tannhäuser Gate” of Roy Batty’s final speech.
Loose connections like this can make for a far more interesting “expanded universe” than heavily choreographed and branded projects like the MCU, with each story feeling a glimpse of something bigger, rather than some vast web of content you need to consume to understand any part of it (although frankly, we love that too).
With Alien in particular, the films give us so many questions about what exists outside that glimpse. What other aliens are there? And what is our relationship like with them? We are clearly not chummy enough with them to invite them to be crew on our spaceships, but also we don’t seem to have had any full-blown wars with them (otherwise one imagines the Colonial Marine Corps might be better prepared). Additionally, we have had enough conversations with them to be able to translate brand new alien languages on the fly.
What strange creatures have we been missing out on? Creatures like those from James Cameron’s own The Abyss? Or the movie, Arrival? Could Weyland-Yutani want to get in on that Pandora unobtanium money?
On second thought, however, there probably aren’t any Ewoks. The Colonial Marines wouldn’t last five minutes against them.