The scariest “Alien” scene ever committed to film is still the creature’s first appearance.
The lengthy moment finds Brett (Harry Dean Stanton) wandering through the bowels of the Nostromo, hunting what he and the other members of the crew believe is a small but vicious creature that’s loose on the ship. What he doesn’t know is that the alien — now seven feet tall, jet black, oozing and seething — is in the room with him. When it finally reveals itself, it doesn’t pounce, but carefully and silently lowers itself into range, and then snatches him away.
Brett disappears in a fit of claws, jaws, and screams. Most of what happens to him, and to everyone else in Ridley Scott’s 1979 horror masterpiece, occurs where the audience can’t see it, only hear it.
It’s an essential element of what makes the alien frightening. It doesn’t barrel through the Nostromo crew; it stalks them. It hides, waits, ambushes, and vanishes. It carries people off, alive and screaming, to do the unthinkable to them.
I’ve been having nightmares about this creation of Scott, artist H.R. Giger and screenwriters Dan O’Bannon and Ron Shussett for most of my life. Theirs is the scariest monster ever committed to film.
But the alien is frightening because of some very specific qualities, and the most essential of them are missing from “Alien: Covenant.”
The “Alien: Covenant” take on the monster feels wholly different from the 1979 iteration. It doesn’t stalk; it lumbers. The thing walks the halls of the Covenant spaceship with abandon, a creature that has nothing to fear and, seemingly, nothing to do but kill people as it happens across them. Throughout the movie, it pops up just to tear people apart in a bloody mess, seemingly for the fun of doing so.
To be fair, the alien has always been a “kill on sight” kind of creature, and it’s gone through iterations over the years. In “Alien 3,” the smaller, faster-moving monster tore through the hallways of a prison colony and then through the small band of prisoners found there, killing them (and maybe eating them?) because they were there and defenseless. Only for about half the movie is it a stalking, hidden menace, scary because it could be there, not because it definitely is. The rest of the time, it’s just chasing people down.
There are reasons most fans don’t care for “Alien 3,” most of them having to do with the off-screen deaths of characters Hicks (Michael Biehn) and Newt (Carrie Henn) from “Aliens.” But the movie also feels like a major step back on the creature itself, which went from being a hidden, insidious threat to being more like a lion or a panther — more predictable and more knowable, and therefore less, well, alien.
In “Alien: Covenant,” there’s no subtlety to the alien at all. It goes from room to room, killing everyone it comes across. The big action sequence of the movie finds it climbing on the outside of the spaceship, trying to smash its way in like a wrecking ball. Compare that to “Alien” and “Aliens,” when the creature secreted itself away, to menace the remaining humans just as they started to feel safe.
Instead of a hunter, this alien is something more akin to Jason Vorhees of “Friday the 13th,” or the Terminator — an unstoppable force whose only ambition is to kill.
There’s even a scene in “Alien Covenant” in which the creature finds two people in the shower. It uses those hydraulic inner jaws to punch through the shower door, and the head of one of the unfortunate people just beyond. There’s a similar scene in “Jason Goes to Hell,” where the slasher impales a woman through the fabric wall of a tent. Good for gore and for shock, sure, but that’s about it. In “Alien: Covenant” and “Jason Goes to Hell” both, the moment almost plays like a joke.
The other key element missing from the creature of “Alien: Covenant” is purpose. Any number of movie monsters can, and do, murder everyone they come across, and the alien has been known to do the same. But the thing that makes the monster so haunting is that you might live. It carries away its victims to do something with them. It has plans for you.
A lot has been written about “Alien” deriving its horror from innate fears of rape and pregnancy, and that’s something that makes the alien stand apart from other movie monsters. It doesn’t just want to kill you, or even eat you. It wants to use you to make more of itself, and you’re going to feel every moment of it.
The alien isn’t just a killer. It’s ultimate goal is to use you, screaming, to further its own life. What it’ll do to you is a natural part of how it lives — and that’s all the more chilling.
In “Alien: Covenant,” the none of the creatures bother with stealth or with motivations, and by the end of the film, the bar has been shifted. This isn’t a return of the classic “Alien” formula, as many have said. That would require an alien that hunts its prey, that plans for something more than just killing. This is the alien without its essential, horrific nature of being something so different from us and so brutal that we struggle to even understand it. This is an alien that’s just like every other monster.
That’s not the creature that’s haunted my dreams most of my life. It’s too flashy, too stupid, and in “Alien Covenant,” too easily explained away. Bring back the monster in the shadows, that could kill you, but won’t. You’re more useful alive.