Eye For Books

The Alien Quartet (Bloomsbury Movie Guides)

by Andrew Robertson

HR Giger's most famous cinematic creation.
HR Giger's most famous cinematic creation.

Fourth in Bloomsbury's late-Nineties series of of Movie Guides, this book features David Thomson's musings and history of the Alien franchise, as then was. This 1998 release is now perhaps more interesting as a contemporary reading of the films it covers rather than as coverage of the films itself.

Much of the content is available elsewhere, and much of it has been superseded by further developments. We have fifth and sixth movies in the franchise, Prometheus and Covenant. We've also had the quartet released under the clumsy portmanteau of quadrilogy, when any lexicographer would have perhaps suggested tetralogy if only for its pleasing similarity to teratology. Discussions of scriptwriter Joss Whedon might feature different studies of monstrousness.

Alien: Resurrection, the fourth instalment, was written by Whedon as a precursor to a fifth. The way that Fox handled that business in the looming shadow of Titanic has echoes in Firefly and beyond. The business we call show is well discussed here - Thomson's work might largely be known in the UK but he's been based in the US for decades, and exploring how Aliens both did and did not make money is given good account.

The work itself is four extended essays, with interludes between covering some of the intervening time(s). One per film, with discussion of plot, production, impact and more. There are some real oddities within these - what I would call a misreading were there not further complexities. I first saw Aliens in a submarine sandwich shop in Houston in 1992 or thereabouts, on a Sunday afternoon. It played on broadcast TV on a cathode ray television in a wall or ceiling mount, competing with the background chatter of my parents and siblings all fresh from football practise. In circumstances so far from ideal even my thinking about them probably causes some cineastes pain, it grabbed.

The Alien Quartet
The Alien Quartet

Yet the version I saw, then, and the versions I have seen since, may not be the version that Thomson saw. For sure I know why Ferro and Spunkmeyer are not entirely alone on the dropship, even without Bishop's delivery. In that and the other edits I am aware of, the arcana of Alien, are multiple mysteries. Some are covered in Memory: The Origins Of Alien, but in a film series predicated upon parasitism and inherited characteristics there is yet room for further study of the evolution of these works as works. Ridley Scott's not infrequent revisitings, Cameron's preferred cut, discussions of how Whedon's words came to be on the screen, even the fact that now, more easily than this book, can you purchase a graphic novel of William Gibson's not quite realised script for the third instalment.

There is discussion of cubed, another potential misreading - my understanding, primed perhaps by another Cameron sequel, was that it was cooling and not scalding water that was climactic. So too trying to get a sense as to how and when Weyland-Yutani became a known thing and not a background detail or thing to be observed. Around Alien* grows a panoply of merchandise and marginalia, and while this is a part of it I must admit I would only recommend it to the most ardent of completists.

This is not a perfect organism. There are some oddities within it, not just the potential misreadings but some seeming gaps. With Alien(s) I think it worth discussing not just Weaver's Oscar-nod but versions and revisions, even the impact of home video. I found elsewhere a reference to the 1987 release on VHS with a projected RRP of $89.98 (£60ish, historically). That's 1987 dollars - inflation adjusted that's $129.11 (£78ish) in 1998 and $207.19 (£148ish) today - this on a film that allegedly lost money. I translate not only because of inflation but because of the influence of other mediums. Titanic made money in theatres, but for all its deadliness Alien and its companions had not yet made profit from the long tail.

Fittingly, it's discussing the fourth work that the book really goes off the rails. There's discussion not of what Whedon wrote, but of what Thomson would have preferred - an extension of his readings of the films as an eroticised (if not always erotic) conflict between Ripley and the hive-mind and the Company itself. He discusses the fact that Resurrection's primary location (the Auriga) is not a name from Conrad, but neglects that Betty is. Auriga means 'Charioteer', of course, an enslaved one at that - perhaps the most portentous name of the franchise until Prometheus made audiences wonder if they'd prefer to have their liver pecked at by eagles.

Complaints about the gap between 3 and 4 seem oddly founded, those both before and behind the camera. There's discussion of the basketball sequence without the benefit of behind the scenes footage that shows Ron Perlman's laugh when it goes in. It is fair to say that it could have been done with CGI, and fairer still to say that it was considered. I'm not sure if excising it in the wider schemes of Thomson's planned revisions to the work is any more justifiable than moving it back two hundred years and having Bishop-Prime seduce Ripley-8.

Revision becomes more apt given the odd publishing history of the guides. Released under, I think, three different names with two different numbering schemes, they are pretty solid 'cult classic' / 'game changer' works. Much the same territory as the Controversies series from Palgrave Macmillan, only less, well, controversial. Not to be confused with the Pocket Film Guide or the British Movie Guide, or indeed the possibly contemporary 'Ultimate A-Z', The Alien Quartet was volume 4 in some releases, and, I think, 2 in others. Knowing they exist is enough to wake the completist in me, but this work is only commended to those with similar tendencies. Everything within it is better and more ably covered elsewhere. At 174 pages (ex-bibliography, etcetera) it's not a heavy read, the few photos are now all widely available online and in colour, and the pun at the end is almost unforgiveable.

Where it does potentially have value though is as a window into where critical thought and coverage of the franchise was in that early window between the introduction and now seeming obsolescence of the DVD. It's useful to look at Alien* as a filmic entity, even if some of its critical judgements seem off. It does talk about the artificial live(s) in the franchise, not just the characters but the replicants and the xenomorphs. This, though, is not the book that discusses how nature(s) shine through and that the most terrifying entities are men and man-made. Weyland-Yutani is as much a predator as any other.

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