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Hollywood's Most Famous Alien Was Never Scarier Than in 'Isolation'

As ‘Alien: Covenant’ explains more about these monsters’ origins, it’s left to video games to capture their frightening unpredictability.
‘Alien: Isolation’ screenshot courtesy of Sega.

It's a silly moment, rightfully cut from the finished film, but when the eponymous alien of the 1979 movie puts its hands on the floor and stalks, or "crab walks", toward Veronica Cartwright's Lambert, clearly we're supposed to regard it a bizarre, inexplicably behavioral creature.

As the Alien movies have continued, they've endeavored to explain, in better detail, the alien's nature. The queen in Aliens, Ripley's genetic hold over the creatures in Alien: Resurrection, and the birthing scene at the end of Prometheus all expand upon how the alien (and its variants and predecessors) function. If people complain the monster has become successively less frightening since its first incarnation—as is evidenced in the mixed reception to the new film, Alien: Covenant—this, perhaps, is why. We simply know too much about the creature to truly fear it.

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Beholden to 35 years of franchise lore, the 2014 video game Alien: Isolation nevertheless portrays its titular beast as unpredictable—and in turn, a lot more terrifying. Rather than by waddling across a floor, or revealing a hidden, penetrating tongue as it did initially, the creature wrong foots us by contravening video game logic.

As the name of the very action connotes, when we save a game we are typically ourselves safe. Another horror staple, Resident Evil, epitomizes that by placing its save points in explicit safe rooms. But the alien of Isolation is able to kill us while we're saving. Moreover, it relishes the opportunity. When we save here, we are particularly vulnerable, and a video game conceit we usually take for granted can result in death.

We're similarly confounded by the alien's ability to kill us, in one attack, from behind. To varying extents, games are fair: We expect to be able to see the enemies attacking us or, if not, be given chance to retaliate. But like acid blood contradicts our own standards of biology, being killed from behind, instantly, defies the rules of video games, and confers the alien an ability—or at least, the appearance of an ability—to do inexplicable things.

And that's frightening. Rules, like laws, are protective. When the alien breaks them, in Isolation, it diminishes our sense of safety. In the films, originally, it did this with its incredible physiology and body. Since those things have been gradually explained away, and lost potency as a result, Isolation is what's left to break the rules, quite literally. Its alien is scary, the closest it has come to Ash's "perfect organism" since we first encountered it, because we can't rely on the traditions of video games to guard us against it.

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