If Alien: Covenant is going to win back those naysayers who foolishly failed to appreciate Ridley Scott’s backdoor prequel, Prometheus, it will be through its triumphant, bloody return to facehugger and chestburster set pieces. For those unfamiliar with the franchise, I’ll summarize: Upon encountering a Xenomorph egg, an unlucky human is first attacked by a “facehugger,” which attaches itself to the victim’s face, and injects an embryo via a proboscis that travels down the esophagus. The victim is rendered unconscious during this process by a paralytic, while oxygen is supplied to keep them alive. They must be alive, you see, because after the facehugger shuffles off and dies, the embryo has a short incubation process, during which the host goes through rapidly accelerating symptoms of sweatiness, nausea, and shortness of breath. This all comes to a head, of course, when the baby alien bursts through the host’s chest, leaving him or her a heap of bloody scraps.
I think this is the best sex scene we’re bound to get at the movies in 2017.
A while ago, my former podcast co-host Liz Lopatto and I interviewed a social psychologist who was researching the psychology of spoilers. I reference it a lot because I think it’s useful to think about. What he found, in brief, is that the vast majority of the time spoilers actually enhance the enjoyment of a narrative work. By knowing how something ends, you can (a) take more time to enjoy the other aspects of the work besides the path to the ending, and (b) wait for its arrival with toe-curling anticipation. This basic idea extends to several other experiences I can think of besides the movies.
If you have seen a single Alien movie, you’ve probably had a similar experience. When it became clear that the first two bursts were on their way in Alien: Covenant, I found myself seized by an involuntary giddiness. I knew the explosion was coming, so I could appreciate the way a new group of actors dealt with the chaos and horror of the chest-burst for the first time. It’s the opposite of a jump scare; a chest-burst is satisfying because you expect it, and you know there’s no stopping it. It’s kind of like a slow climb up a roller coaster, where you can see the drop just around the bend — it’s sweaty and agonizing and very exciting.
It’s also the opposite of the film grammar that’s currently in vogue for sex scenes: the “and now they’re fucking” smash cut. If we see full-on sex onscreen these days, it’s more often than not a punch line; the film pulls away emotionally, if not graphically. It’s very rare to see any kind of build or composition in a contemporary love scene. Instead, we go straight to the jackhammer. Sometimes, not all the time, it feels as if there’s a latent mockery of sex in that editing. That’s all right for a comedy, but what if you’re really trying to sweep viewers off their feet? Maybe that’s the problem: Very few films these days are trying to genuinely seduce their audience.
The chestbursters, though. Perhaps they are not the most romantic onscreen subjects, but they are among the most sensual. They are also radically feminist: Their embryos are invaders, not passive objects for sperm to fling themselves at. And like any generous lover, they’ve gotten more adventurous over the years to keep things from getting too stale; in Covenant, they try out a variety of new orifices and delivery methods. Which makes me think: Is it too late to get Ridley Scott on the next Fifty Shades film?