So you know the Alien franchise, the four movies centering on H.R. Giger's banana-headed, flesh-rending, acid-bleeding xenomorphs? Well, I didn't encounter them in the way you're supposed to. I watched Aliens (the second installment) first and the awful Alien: Resurrection (the fourth installment) second. A friend spoiled the ending for Alien 3, which I never got around to seeing and don't ever plan to. Only this past week did I pick up the original Alien. I feel like I've missed something, not only because it took me decades to watch a classic movie, but because viewing the series out of its chronological order robbed Âlien of its dramatic impact.
Like many horror yarns, the plot is pretty bare-bones. The ore-hauling spaceship Nostromo is bound for earth with a seven-member crew locked in cryogenic sleep. However, the ship's artificial intelligence MU-TH-UR 6000 (a.k.a. Mother) wakes the sleepers months ahead of time. The reason? A distress beacon broadcasting from a nearby planet. The crew's contracts require them to investigate any potential sign of alien life, no matter how risky. And alien life they find in the form of a strangely organic-looking ship chocked full of mysterious eggs ...
Part of the joy of Alien lies in watching director Ridley Scott ratchet up the atmosphere of unease until it's tightrope-taut. The special effects haven't aged terribly well (in certain scenes, it's obvious that the titular extraterrestrial is just a dolled-up stuntman), but the creepy tone remains unmatched. Still, my previous experience with the franchise made the suspenseful scenes less than surprising. I knew that face-hugging larval spawn crouched within the aforementioned eggs, waiting to quite literally jump down the throats of the curious. I knew that they left their spawn buried in the bellies of their victims, that they bled acid, that they erupted from their hosts abdomens in a tremendously gruesome manner. I knew that ... well, you get the idea. All of those little facts were supposed to stay hidden for the sake of the story, but I'd spoiled the narrative flow by watching out of order.
With that in mind, I find it odd that a number of publishers have begun encouraging readers to do the very thing that spoiled Alien for me. Some have reshuffled series, swapping out publication order for narrative-chronology order. Harper Collins mixed up C.S. Lewis' The Chronicles of Narnia, bumping The Magician's Nephew from sixth to first in the series and The Horse and His Boy from fifth to third. Simon Pulse did something similar with John Christopher's The Tripods Series, putting a vastly inferior prequel as the first volume in its boxed set when it was actually written two decades after the other books. But authors usually have reasons for why they write things in a certain manner. Perhaps that seemingly out-of-place title was actually introduced flesh out a setting or develop a character or highlight a delicious irony. Of course , we'll never actually know if we don't read it the way they intended.
(Picture: CC 2013 by Maggie Osterberg)