Retro Review Triple Play: Alien Trilogy.
We review the Alien Trilogy before seeing Covenant. Also, nobody mentions Alien Ressurection.
This week director Ridley Scott returns to the franchise he created with 1979’s masterful space horror, Alien. The series changed directors and tones many times over the years and even lent itself out to mashups with other horror staples in the Alien Vs. Predator franchise. In 2012, Scott flirted with fans by releasing a kinda-sorta prequel in the form of Prometheus. While it had its merits, it was not a true entry into the Alien/Aliens franchise and didn’t feature the iconic xenomorph monster.
With Scott returning to the actual main continuity, we take a look back in the rearview mirror and try to nail down what made the series so good. Except for Alien: Resurrection. Man, what the hell were they thinking?!
A mining ship, the Nostromo, comes across a distress beacon on their trip back to Earth and decide to investigate. On the desolate planetoid LV-426, they find a crashed extraterrestrial ship and its deceased pilot. In the cargo hold, strange eggs respond to the visitors and a crab-like creature attaches itself to one’s face. Evacuating the wreck, the downed man recovers only to suddenly give violent birth to a creature that quickly grows into a towering killing machine. Lt. Ellen Ripley and the crew try to kill the creature before it can kill them.
Though it was not popular with critics at the time, Alien has become a classic in the sci-fi horror genre and film in general. Director Ridley Scott creates a tense and atmospheric film. The set design is fantastic, the creature and alien ships are visually striking (thanks in part to artist H.R. Giger.) The universe feels realistic despite minimal exposition, and elements such as cryo-sleep, space travel, androids, and alien civilizations are all handled deftly.
The tone of the first film is very much a horror of its day: stuck in an isolated situation, a small group of normal people has to overcome a brutal killer. It works in Alien because each leg of that stool is rock solid. The setting is phenomenal. The cast is strong and rarely commit the stupid gaffes that traditional horror victims torture audiences by doing. The monster is completely novel, despite being a creepy slasher at the end of the day. Everything is handled with care and attention, and it manages to elevate a familiar story with strikingly innovative design choices.
The sole survivor of the Nostromo, Ripley, is found in cryo-sleep by members of the Weyland-Yutani company that dominates space travel. They publically disavow her story about killer aliens but create a covert strike team to return to the planet and evaluate her discovery for private use. Ripley is pressured into returning to LV-426 where a small human colony has gone missing. On the surface of the planetoid, she again confronts the aliens which have had a chance to establish a full-fledged hive of murderous creatures.
Despite the big shift in tone, Aliens is still a terrific movie. Director James Cameron makes a big sci-fi action film that honors the horror elements it has inherited and treats its source material with care. The SF elements of the film are still fleshed out and believable; in fact, the film elevates many of the weirder aspects of Alien such as androids and a sprawling space corporation into pivotal parts of the story. The aliens take a back seat for the first half of the movie as the Weyland company asserts itself as the true villain, which becomes fertile ground for the series in the future.
Action movies have a different set of requirements, and once again this film nails the basics. Usually, you have an eccentric group of heroes who get in over their head and have to overcome the odds to win. We see Ripley become a leader and fierce fighter, but she is surrounded by a diverse and memorable cast of misfit soldiers. The film ups the stakes of the first by increasing the alien count and introducing well-crafted new aspects to them that feel organic in both senses of the term. The pace is very well managed, with complicating incidents sprinkled in between excellent action sequences. The horror elements are treated with care despite the overall bombast of the film. It’s a departure from the first film but still feels like it belongs in the franchise.
Alien 3 (1992)
Once again the sole survivor after a catastrophic life support failure, Ripley crash lands on an isolated prison planet. Housing the worst of the worst, the planet is completely cut off from human contact between monthly supply drops. As the only female, she has to survive in the prison till the transport arrives. Making matters worse, not all of the aliens were killed on LV-426, and one stowed aboard Ripley’s doomed escape pod.
Alien 3 is a tough movie to love. Studio meddling and a revolving door of creative influences make this film a stitched together monster. Director David Fincher got the shit end of the stick by being dropped in unprepared to a film with no final script and sets that were already made. It doesn’t help that the constant change in direction squandered the budget, so the effects this time out are really sub-par.
For how disjointed and rushed this film wound up, there is actually a good Alien movie hiding in the air ducts. We get our most intimate portrait of Ripley of the series. She has lost so much to the xenomorphs and has endured so much horror, we start to see her bend. As the situation gets rough, though, the survivor we have grown to root for steps up and gets the job done. The supporting cast is not quite as strong as earlier films, but stand-outs like Charles Dutton and Lance Henriksen shine.
The film hews more closely to survival horror, where a crew must marshal scant resources to beat a foe before a time limit expires. Like The Mist, The Thing, or The Andromeda Strain, we have a clear countdown and a tough but overmatched team fighting a threat that is more a natural disaster than a personal antagonist. In this regards, it works. The clever gambits they use to try to trap or kill the creature are interesting. The pacing is choppy, but this was a stitched together movie. Overall, it has some great performances and good moments but is really hampered by the mess the studio made.
What Makes a Good Alien Film.
The franchise often deals in big concepts. The drive of people to explore, create, and ultimately dominate nature cause the classic man vs. creation conflict. As the series progressed, there was quite a bit of heavy religious iconography (see Ripley spread like Jesus Christ at the end of Alien 3 or the whole run time of Prometheus.) A pervading sense of isolation is present: The crew is isolated in space, Ripley is alone as a survivor and she is also frequently alone by dint of being the only person who knows/believes in the alien threat. As the series grew, more and more high ideals were grafted on, but at the heart we have a man vs. nature conflict that drives the action.
For all of the lofty ideas shared by the films, the original trilogy has a strong central conflict between Ripley and the creature. We always have a central protagonist to identify with. She is strong but not a power fantasy. She can be vulnerable and maternal at times, but above all is competent and rational. Sigourney Weaver gives a tremendous performance as Ripley. Even as her character becomes more jaded and fierce, she doesn’t stray into the tropes of an 80’s action hero. She remains believable and grounded, even when the story doesn’t.
The flip side of the coin is the xenomorph, which also grows in power and character. We go from a mysterious lone killing machine to an insect-like colony dominated by a queen with a clear biological imperative: spread the species at all costs. There is enough about the creature from its design, behavior and social structure to make it vaguely familiar, without making it any less strange and unsettling. The alien follows rules, even if we don’t fully grasp them. It isn’t random. It is, ultimately, “natural” and its conflict with humanity is as old as time.