Regular readers (lol) will remember a while back I started fantasising about whether or not the franchise would start to follow the branded anthology model rather than toiling with prequels and reboots and the like. The underwhelming Covenant appears for the moment to have put paid to a third prequel, with a sort of half-hearted extra explanatory scene released on youtube called ‘Engineers’ providing a plausible link to the first alien film now for those that are interested enough to bother to make it. On the other hand, Blomkamp seems to be getting allowed no closer to Alien 5 thank god, so for a moment, while Disney (Disney!) recently pledged to continuing the franchise, these short filmlets are the best indication of how things are progressing.
On the whole I think it’s a good idea. Having a series of short films lets a bit of fresh blood into the organism without leaving another Covenant-sized hostage to fortune. Ultimately it was the only sensible way to open up the universe. Just at the point where it seemed as though Fox was willing to make an Alien film that wasn’t in some way a continuation of the Ripley saga, Prometheus happened and shackled another series of films to exactly the same narrative cycle, with many fixated on the idea of precisely how the derelict was going to be left abandoned on LV-426 to suture prequel to sequel. I doubt that was ever really going to happen that obviously, but it was a symptom of the way that once again the potential for a wider mythos was sacrificed in favour of the narrative literalism of the Ripley story arc. What I pointed out, and I think I was right, was that a galaxy-wide struggle of discovery and war against the alien species could open up a really diverse spectrum of narrative possibilities, and provide some sort of imaginative release, but to do so the stories and scenarios would have to stand on their own rather than utilise tried and trusted characters (Alien Isolation performed this opening-up exceptionally well, but even then they had to make it Ripley’s daughter).
I don’t know whether the short films are test-cases for a tv series (which I assume will eventually happen), but they are a welcome addition nonetheless. I’ll be watching and providing my thoughts on each of these films as they appear. If ‘Containment’ is anything to go by, the tendency is perhaps for the new offerings to formalise a regression to the films at their most cliched and predictable, but there are some reasons for that as I’ll explain.
It’s ten minutes long and looks pretty classy, particularly the exteriors and spacebound cgi. Not bad for 30 grand. The opening shot, with a large ship breaking up before exploding and a smaller escape craft emerging from it, looks gorgeous and is an evocative piece of narrative shorthand. As you would expect for something so short, the story is fairly simple. Somehow the aliens have broken loose onboard the host ship, necessitating a hasty evacuation. The chosen source of dramatic tension revolves around the differing levels of the awareness about the creatures held by each character. There are three: Ward, who knows nothing, Nass, who has indistinct impressions of the alien, but doesn’t really know what they are, and Albrecht, who knows everything but is presumably one of the scientists that have been meddling with the creature and remains tight-lipped about any specifics.
It’s fairly predictable as things go, even without acknowledging, as others have, the scenario’s debt to the medbay sequence in Covenant, which also involves contamination failsafes being incompetently executed. Part of the suspense is meant to be provided by the decoy it sets up, namely the unconscious character with an oxygen mask lying on a bed. No-one is going to be fooled that the real host is actually Nass, and the beast emerges, again, predictably, at the moment that he is most exercised in his accusations, waving his knife at Albrecht. Albrecht is then conveniently knocked unconscious when the ship judders while docking after attempting to quarantine Ward in the main part of the shuttle with the ex-parasite. This allows Ward safe passage out towards the airlock, whereupon, mindful of the catalogue of previous failures of containment, she instead scrawls a warning in blood on the window that the ship isn’t to be opened. There is then a puerile post-credit sequence designed to raise a smile (I think?) when the unconscious crewman awakens, observes the carnage around him, and opts to blackout again rather than face the horror. This is an extremely odd decision for anyone even with a rudimentary appreciation of the mechanics of the franchise to go with, completely tonally at odds with anything in the films except for Resurrection at its most annoying.
The weird thing about Containment is that is that it’s the opposite of what a low-budget short film should be. It looks really high-end but it doesn’t have an interesting story or any new ideas, whereas by rights it should look awful but be brimming with originality and fresh perspectives.
The characters are recycled stock figures of the series: the doughty heroine, craven scientist/corporate type/ and the aggressive and suspicious male hysteric. The dénouement is pitched at the nastier end of the scope, decidedly more Covenant than Alien. Once again a female protagonist escapes the clutches of the alien, except this instalment effectively begins at the end point of the original film, with survivors jetting away from an exploding ship, only for the final character to realise that her fate is foreclosed upon. Here she chooses sacrifice, and is therefore closer to the Ripley of Alien 3 than the Ripley of Alien or Daniels in Covenant. In reality I think the backwards writing of the blood on the glass is probably the film’s only really effective moment. It’s sort of a payoff of an earlier setup, with Ward getting clonked in the mouth earlier but being able to use the blood as something to improvise and write her message with. With the appearance of the larger ship, the notion that deliverance must be renounced is quite impactful, and while it remains an open question as to whether this particular failsafe will be successful, this at least sustains the thematic premise of containment promised at the outset. It isn’t clear to me why Ward couldn’t just blow the airlock a la Ripley in Alien if she is dead-set on her sacrifice, but the implication that the vast ship might be next to go adds a sense of drama to the ending, not unlike the ironic twist reminiscent of the end of Twilight Zone episodes.
For all this, the short film grapples with the now age-old problem (probably since Alien 3) of having to keep the creature fresh when the screengoing public has seen it before but those inside the world of the drama haven’t. Containment’s drawbacks are laid bare by this particular issue, not able to make up its mind between characters knowing that a chestburster is about to emerge from someone or not. In part, that’s what gives the scenario its dynamism and spark – whatever the contaminant is isn’t fully apprehended by the main character. It’s not that exciting for the audience, however because by this point all you have to do is guess correctly who it’s going to burst out of, and that’s not difficult to do. This is a problem which will have to definitively be resolved sooner or later in the Alien universe. Not every instalment can be first contact.