I’ve always been a fan of the Alien franchise. The original Ridley Scott film came out in 1979 when I was 7 years old and though I didn’t see it for another few years, it nonetheless scared me silly, like it did so many others. In the words of one movie critic “The alien makes the shark in Jaws look like a goldfish.” I wholeheartedly endorse that sentiment. Even in a crowded field of horror contenders from the late ’70’s and early ’80’s, the alien receives my vote as the most horrifying of all, a creature “Unclouded by conscience, remorse or delusions of morality”.
The franchise was continued in worthy fashion by James Cameron sequel, “Aliens”. The movie boasted the return of Sigourney Weaver as Ellen Ripley and an outstanding cast full of perennial supporting actors, including everybody’s favorite Bill Paxton as Private Hudson. Cameron brilliantly managed the pacing and build-up of tension, aided by a rocking soundtrack from award-winning composer James Horner. The promised action was fast and furious when the Colonial Marines finally kicked the hornet’s nest under the Atmosphere Processing Plant and there were more memorable one-liners than any film not starring Arnold Schwarzenegger deserves. From a pure horror point of view, however, the film was a step back. The xenomorphs were no longer horrifying: they were still frightening, as a man with a blood-stained machete is frightening, but they had lost their aura of invincibility and part of their ‘alienness’. The more we knew about them, the less strange and more vulnerable they seemed. After all, if the Marines had only had a single platoon in reserve on the Sulaco, they would have mopped the floor with the queen and her whole brood.
“Alien3” was an attempt to bring the franchise back to its roots: poor Ellen Ripley is once again stranded in a remote location without hope of rescue, a small ‘crew’ and no pulse rifles to be found anywhere. Once again we have a single alien who kills everyone with impunity until being lured into the penal colony’s ore furnaces and destroyed. Ripley sacrifices herself as well, to prevent the corporate villains from Weyland-Yutani getting their hands on an alien queen; perhaps also to prevent her acting career from becoming exclusively one of playing Ellen Ripley. If so, both objectives prove ultimately fruitless: Weaver returns to the part in “Aliens: Resurrection”, the first of many Alien movies that should not have been made.
There were many spin-offs and interpretations of the franchise in different media, some very good, like the Dark Horse comics and the novelization by Alan Dean Foster; some terrible, like the entire Aliens versus Predators series. There were a long line of video games as well, most of which were banal first-person shooters: “Colonial Marines”. The most recently released game is a worthy successor to the original movie: in “Alien Isolation” the player portrays Amanda Ripley, Ellen’s daughter, who travels to the isolated Sevastopol Station to find clues about the disappearance of her mother 15 years earlier. Of course, she finds clues in the form of a ravaged station and rampaging xenomorph. Like its primogenitor, the creature is unkillable with the equipment available to the station personnel; you can only hide as it hunts you throughout the oppressively dark and Gigeresque corridors. The game is brilliantly done and the programmers at Creative Assembly perfectly captured the 1970’s analog futurism of the Nostromo.
Xenomorph: Apex Predator Or A Lot of Hot Air?
Throughout the movies, a common theme is the effort of the Weyland-Yutani Corporation to acquire a specimen of the alien for their Weapons Division. Representatives of “the Company” are routinely described as being worse than the titular villains: “I don’t know which species is worse,” says Ripley at one point, “You don’t see them fucking each other over for a profit.” The heartless capitalists remain undeterred by Ripley’s remonstrance: they want the creature which is described as the perfectly engineered bio-weapon: “its structural perfection matched only by its hostility.” The aliens were apparently created by the Engineers, a race of bipedal humanoids who were consummate genetic engineers though apparently no more civilized than 20th century humanity (why else design a life form whose only purpose is to exterminate other species?).
The xenomorph begins its life cycle as a humble, leathery meter-high egg containing an ovipositor, an eight-legged tailed creature known as a “facehugger”. The facehugger exists only to find a suitable host, whereupon it latches on to the victim’s face, pushes a tube down its throat and deposits a single egg or embryo in its trachea, near the lungs. The facehugger then falls off and dies. The alien embryo grows at a fantastic pace and in a matter of hours is large and strong enough to burst through the host’s ribcage – killing the host in the process – before scampering off to find shelter and food in a safe hiding place. The creature rapidly grows into a drone, a creature totally different from the crustacean-like ovipositor. It is over two meters tall and bipedal, though it can move even more quickly as a quadruped. It has taloned hands with an opposable digit; a powerful, barbed tail; and a second set of pharyngeal jaws that are powerful enough to punch through a human cranium. The creature also has a subcutaneous molecular acid under pressure that it can use defensively or offensively and which is strong enough to melt steel.
A single drone is no picnic, but given a chance, the creatures will establish a hive centered around a “queen”. The “queen” may be a special embryo laid by a “royal facehugger” or it may be a drone that mutates into a queen if it survives long enough in the absence of one: the film franchise seems to indicate the former, while terrestrial examples would seem to point towards the latter method. The queen’s sole purpose is to lay facehugger eggs in a central chamber of the nest. The drones build the nest from a resin they secret naturally, guard the queen and the eggs, and seek out new hosts for the facehuggers that they immobilize in side chambers. That is apparently the height of ambition for these creatures, though the films suggest that a nest could achieve planetary scale given the implacable hostility of the creatures.
While the aliens are certainly superior when compared to human beings on an individual basis, they seem far less threatening when looked at as a species. In fact, it seems very probable that the xenomorphs would lament the day they ever came into contact with humans, since in all probability, we would exterminate their species completely.
Of course, the creators of the Alien couldn’t imagine in 1979 what technology would bring us just thirty years later. Humans would be able to deal with an alien infestation quite easily even with our current technology, much less what would be available in 2122 when the Nostromo lands on LV-426. If humanity can build a “synthetic person” that is indistinguishable from a real one until it starts spitting out milky goo and attempting to murder everyone around it, then we would certainly be capable of building the ultimate xenomorph counter-weapon. Say hello to my little friend: synth-rat.
If you are a station commander with a vicious beastie hiding out in your air ducts, killing your crew and secreting resin all over the place, don’t go in there yourself, with a cobbled-together flamethrower and a prayer. For Pete’s sake, use your head! Turn on your factory and churn out 20,000 synthetic rats. These bad boys would come in two variants: hunters and cleaners. Hunters come standard with all of a real rat’s finely tuned senses: high visual and audio acuity as well as a keen sense of smell to sniff out the nasty mucus the xenomorphs are constantly exuding. Once they’ve detected the bugger – and there is no place a 2 meter extraterrestrial can hide that a rat can’t follow – the hunter rat swarms the target in a pack and then detonates the half pound of plastic explosive it carries in its belly (being synthetic, it doesn’t actually require a stomach or intestines).
That’s when the cleaners come into their own. Since you don’t want your expensive station to melt around you and vent you into space, you need to do something about the alien acid. The cleaner rats simply follow the hunter rats, and when these have blasted an drone into smithereens, the cleaners target all of the acid spots with a highly caustic soda they carry in their bellies in lieu of explosives. It regurgitates this base liquid all over the acid, neutralizing it before it can melt through a deck or hull. The cleaner rats also make great pets for the station’s kiddies, who no longer have to fear being cocooned and impregnated by giant extraterrestrial phalluses.
Did you come at the situation a bit late and now there is already a nest somewhere nearby? Well, don’t send in the Marines: drop the synth-rats. The queen and the eggs aren’t exactly mobile; so one hunter rat per egg and a hundred or so to deal with queenie and Bob’s your uncle. A few hundred more ought to be enough to deal with the drones wandering about. The only job for the Marines will be to clean up all that vile resin these creatures leave everywhere.
Homo sapiens: Nature’s Most Terrifying Monster
In fact, the future is now. Scientists are already producing cybernetic mammals and insects, which are real creatures that have a micro-computer attached to their spine which overrides their central nervous systems and controls their gross motor functions via electrical impulses. The technology is still in its infancy and the degree of control still both limited and intermittent. It will continue to improve as the implications for espionage, surveillance, assassination and sabotage are vast.
In robotics as well, the rapid advances in engineering and artificial intelligence have made the question of a self-aware machine a question of “when” rather than “if”. It is not a question of whether we will have a “Bladerunner” future of replicants or a “Big Hero 6” future of marshmallowy nurse robots; we are likely to have both and everything in between. It seems unlikely that humanity will abandon technology. The real question is how we will survive in this future, or even if humanity will still be humanity by then. Perhaps we will become the “synthetic people” and giving birth to a live baby will seem as primordial to future generations as laying an egg does to us.
There can be no doubt: humanity wins the prize as the most terrifying monster of all. In the dead of night, out primordial instincts still play on our fears of the creature, the other, that is waiting out there to destroy us. But in the light of day, we no longer fear the alien, it is just another ‘bug hunt’; what we fear the most is ourselves. Perhaps that is why the zombie genre has become so popular and mainstream in the past decade. We have come to the subconscious realization that the zombie apocalypse is upon us: we are the zombies, steadily and mindlessly chewing our way through the planet, all 9 billion of us.
More on zombies another day.
Sources and Notes
 Ash to Ripley, in “Alien”, Ridley Scott, 20th Century Fox, 1979
 From the Greek “xenos” – strange, alien; and “morphē” – shape.
 Ripley to Burke in “Aliens”, James Cameron, 20th Century Fox, 1986
 Ash to Ripley, Lambert and Parker, in “Alien”, Ridley Scott, 20th Century Fox, 1979
 “Prometheus”, Ridley Scott, 20th Century Fox, 2012
 The creature in “Alien” is plantigrade due to the requirements of having a man in a rubber suit portray it, while it is digitigrade in most of the other films
 Annalee Newitz, “The CIA’s secret experiments to turn cats into spies,” io9.com, 13 March 2013
 Stuart Fox, “Darpa’s Cyborg Insect Spies, now Nuclear-Powered,” Popular Science, 11 December 2009