Crew Expendable: Why the Alien Trilogy’s Worst Horrors are Often Human
Those words are the climactic nightmare reveal of the original Alien. Ellen Ripley, the space trucker who had come face to face with an organism capable of killing everything she knew, was reminded just how important she and her crew were to the Weyland-Yutani corporation that employed them.
Because the horror of the first three was not just being trapped in space with an unimaginably dangerous creature. It was that there were powerful interests involved, men who only cared about profit, who wanted to capture that creature and bring it back, back here, to commercialise. To use as a weapon. But they only work because they feel so real.
“You don’t see them fucking each other over for a percentage.”
Carter J. Burke in Aliens is the ultimate company man, a special projects director for Weyland-Yutani prepared to trap Ripley and a twelve year old child in a med bay with a facehugger if it means he can get his sample. But this act of outright villainy is a long way into the film: For most of the movie he’s Mr. Reasonable, counselling caution and rationality, posing as a friend and confidante to Ripley. Only after Ripley becomes suspicious and checks the logs does she realise the depth of Burke’s involvement. Burke is a brilliant antagonist because he is so believable. There are men like Carter Burke out there.
“When they first heard about this thing, it was 'Crew Expendable.' The next time they sent in marines. They were expendable too. What makes you think they’re going to care about a bunch of lifers who found God at the ass-end of space?"
In Alien 3, an unfairly maligned film if you ask me, the xenomorph looks a little different but the Weyland-Yutani corporation is the same. They still want their sample and collateral damage is still someone else’s problem. In fact the impending arrival of the company, hell-bent on bringing the xenomorphs to earth, becomes the ticking clock of the film’s final act. Ripley and the zealot inmates of Fury 161 must destroy both the creature loose in the prison and the one gestating in Ripley’s chest before they arrive.
In the end, true to the original’s blue collar tone, the creature is defeated in both the first two sequels using working class means and settings: The loader in Aliens, and the lead works in 3.
Alien Resurrection however, swapping corporate for military, introduces a sloppily characterised gallery of stereotypes, from the twitchy General Perez to the almost literally mustachio-twirling Dr. Wren, yammering excitedly about “urban pacification.” Having to watch these characters walk around announcing their villainous plans to people rings false. We never see them as the rational grown-ups who just want the best for you, like Burke.
Because in Joss Whedon’s shaky, at times downright shoddy script everyone has been turned into cartoon characters. Ripley is a mutant superhero, her relatable status as a tow operator in the wrong place at the wrong time evaporated. And the military goons are so transparent and dastardly they couldn’t exist.
It’s one of many reasons why the largely risible AVP films are unmemorable — despite taking place on earth, they’re pure fantasy, there are no human stakes. Even Prometheus and Alien Covenant, for all that I enjoy them as ambitious sci fi mythmaking, are too operatic in scope to be as deeply terrifying. The grounded beats, workaday main characters and realistically sinister human antagonists are what give the first three real substance, and real terror.