There’s no denying the legendary status of the Alien franchise but it’s also been no secret that the brand has been going through some dark times. After a couple of much maligned sequels, two underwhelming cross-over films, and the massively disappointing Prometheus, it has become increasingly difficult to hope that the series would be able to regain it’s credibility. While Alien: Out of the Shadows isn’t enough to offset the franchise’s past failures, it’s an encouraging step in the right direction.
The book begins thirty-seven years after the events of the first Alien film on a mining ship called Marion. While mining the planet LV-178 for material called trimonite (which was really tempting to call unobtanium), the workers discover a swarm of the mysterious Xenomorphs. The resulting chaos causes a shuttle to collide with Marion leaving all but eight crew members dead. As the surviving crew members, led by Chief Engineer Chris “Hoop” Hooper, are frantically searching for a way to escape the dying ship, they pick up a shuttle containing Ellen Ripley. Once they revive Ripley, Hoop devises a plan for the crew to escape in her shuttle. Hoop quickly realizes, however, the only way the escape is feasible is to gather supplies on LV-178, in the middle of the Xenomorph nest. Making matter worse is that android Ash managed to hitch a ride on Ripley’s shuttle and continues to be hellbent on completing his mission for his bosses at Weyland-Yutani to bring back the alien life form.
Since Alien: Out of the Shadows serves as a midquel between Alien and Aliens, there is an certain lack of suspense to be expected but Lebbon still manages to give the book a surprisingly tense setting. For example, in the opening chapter, the Marion crew members are forced to watch a shuttle video feed in horror as the aliens slaughter everyone on board. There’s no audio and the silence winds up making the carnage all the more devastating.
Afterwards, the majority of the novel gives off a very claustrophobic environment which I felt was one of the best elements of the first two Alien films as well as a perpetual feeling of dread. As a matter of fact, it feels like they try to borrow many of the better elements (at one point a guy even says game over”) of the first two films. Normally, I would call it a ripoff but here it feels more like a respectful homage from an author who recognized what made the series work to begin with.
As far as Ripley goes, rather than try to add to the character’s legacy, the book decides to go to delve into her life before her time on the ill-fated Nostromo. Some of the more dedicated fans of the series might remember that she had a daughter that is seldom mentioned and never seen. To me, this fact always felt like a bit of an elephant in the room and it was refreshing to finally see it addressed. When Ripley finds out how long she has been in stasis, she is immediately wracked with guilt over her inability to be there for her now fully grown daughter. As the novel progresses, she’s being haunted by hallucinations of what her life might have been like if she had never left Earth before being brought back to reality.
The one element though that gives me mixed feelings is the portrayal of Ash. Since using his android body was no longer an option for fairly obvious reasons, his presence has now been transferred into the computer of Ripley’s shuttle. While this certainly makes him more threatening, the fact of the matter this has been before (and better) with characters like HAL-9000, Ultron and Brainiac. There’s nothing particularly wrong with this version of Ash and there even certain times where his presence feels downright unsettling but at this point it’s kind of been done to death.
Alien: Out of the Shadows is the first installment of a new Alien trilogy and though it’s too soon to tell how the rest of the series will go, it’s off to a promising start. While certainly not a perfect story, it manages to recreate the some of the better elements of the franchise and remind me of what made the franchise so appealing in the first place.