Someone said recently, was it Richard Dawkins, that the universe is not hostile, only indifferent. Ridley Scott’s initial terrifying vision with his film ‘Alien’ was to give us a universe that was both hostile and indifferent to man. A supreme expression of such a universe was the evolutionary apex of a hunter-killer, as designed by H R Giger, a nightmare poster child of the horror in the dark.
Since that film several different directors have given us their various takes on this nightmare, battling studio interference and the law of diminishing returns. We’ve also had novelisations, novels and graphic novels, all seeking to expand this nightmare universe and its protagonists, and take it in new directions.
Tim Lebbon’s novel ‘Out of the Shadows’ is a direct sequel to Scott’s first film, and is reasonably close to the vision and ascetic of that film. It has huge, grimy industrial ships, and a crew that seem to be more ‘truckers in space’ rather than Han Solo heroes. Other echoes to the original include an awe inspiring alien space-craft, artefacts and remains of another alien race, a rocky, wind-blasted planet, and the machinations of ‘the Company,’ Weyland Yutani. And, of course, it has those terrifying Xenomorphs. It also nods to the universe of the sequels, with references to the Marines, and even some of the “what Gods made these” philosophising the oddly misfiring Prometheus gave us.
But it’s also, thankfully and most importantly, a rattling good story and read in its own right.
Ship’s engineer Chris Hooper, aboard the deep space mining orbital ‘the Marion,’ is jolted from his workaday routine when two shuttles from the surface make a frantic dash back for the Marion, pursued apparently by something that terrifies them. This ends with a violent crash, and the lives of the Marion’s crew are now plunged into the horror of an alien infestation, as they also struggle to work out the fate of the miners on the planet’s surface, and the trajectory of their ruined, falling space-station. They then rescue a life-boat, the Narcissus, containing the sleeping form of one Ellen Ripley, and the true horror of their situation begins to dawn.
The story is well paced, using cinematic set pieces and suspenseful build-ups to violent confrontation as the crew unravel the mystery, and Ripley’s story joins theirs. I enjoyed particularly the feeling that all the sequels were being forgotten, and the whole Alien story was being reset to the point that ‘Alien’ finished. It certainly has the tighter, grimier focus of the first film. However, connivances towards the end point at efforts to slot this into the franchise, which felt a disappointment. The sequels got so stupid in the forced continuity of their story arc; a big refresh would have been welcome.
I also enjoyed the reintroduction of Ash, as a homicidal AI programme bent on the continuation of his ‘find and return’ mission of the first film. Peering out balefully from cctv cameras and monitors, he outdoes 2001’s HAL as the omnipresent psycho computer with a cultured and mannered voice. His transmissions to the Company punctuating the narrative are well done.
There is real tension, jarring shocks and the merciless ‘offing’ of characters you would expect from an Alien story. The other alien race is interesting, and there are similarities to the ‘Space jockeys’ of the first film, before Prometheus muddied the waters. The mines are an effective setting, both claustrophobic, with dark corridors, and agoraphobic, opening up into massive chambers containing derelict spacecraft (and lots of Aliens).
What doesn’t work so well? A few of the ‘set pieces’ seem weirdly ineffective, like the perspective is too distant. The initial crash is like this, being viewed through a scanner that in turn looks through a ship’s window. Some of the Alien attacks also feel rushed. Also as mentioned, the contrivances at the end of the story that force it into the wider movie franchise are clever but unconvincing. I was so hoping for the boldness of an approach that would reimagine the whole sequel-scape.
But these gripes aside (as someone says in original movie “quit griping”), this is an above par Alien story that re-introduces the sub-space chills of that very first encounter.