A Look at the Alien Quadrology
Last weekend, I watched the Alien Quadrilogy. I am a huge fan of these movies (and even loved Prometheus when it came out), but taking them all together reveals a downward spiral: each film is a little worse than the one before it. Which is not to say that I didn’t enjoy (almost) every minute of my day with the Xenomorphs. Extremely talented people worked on each of the movies, from Ridley Scott and James Cameron who directed the first two, to David Fincher helming Alien 3 and Joss Whedon who wrote the script for Alien: Resurrection. However, I couldn’t help but notice that each consecutive film had a little worse dialog, a little less production value, and a general cheapening of the Alien experience.
Ridley Scott’s 1979 original was of course the highlight for me. Alien is truly the granddaddy of all sci-fi horror. A perfect blending of terror, tension, and prosaicism, this movie takes as much care exploring the characters as it does revealing the horror. That these people are space truckers, their ship a cargo freighter, still plays as unique; just image how shocking that would have been only two years after Star Wars! This movie just looks gorgeous. The production values are outstanding. The cast is great, and as their characters bicker and argue about their bonuses, we are drawn into this absolutely believable world. It’s a brilliant maneuver to counterbalance the extreme circumstances they’ll soon be thrown into. The film is a well thought-out exploration of claustrophobia and paranoia. The alien’s design and predation—the facehugger is, indeed, orally raping John Hurt—is intentionally pseudo-sexual. And back when this movie was made, a female action star was unheard of. In a way, this is a haunted house story set in space, with dark corridors and that horrible presence always lurking nearby. It’s an example of filmmaking firing on all cylinders.
James Cameron directed the sequel, Aliens. It shows. Cameron is a master of action flicks, and Aliens is an action movie through and through. Watching this one, I missed the pacing and subtlety of Ridley Scott’s direction. And I’m shocked that Bill Paxton had a career after all his terrible whining in this movie! But Cameron knows how to thrill. Seeing that ammo counter run down to zero is nail-biting. Ripley and Newt locked in with the facehugger is gleefully suspenseful. The showdown of alien versus Ripley in that awesome loader is just plain fun. There are moments of genuine character development, too. Ripley’s relationship with Newt reveals a feminine, maternal side of Ripley (a theme further explored in Alien 3). And I always get a little weepy when she finally trusts Bishop. This is a very good movie in its own right, though a different flavor than the original.
So then comes Alien 3. It was a critical and box-office disappointment, and it’s not difficult to see why. The plot is labored. The effects were poor (it’s been a long time since I saw this in theatres, but on my TV, the alien appeared green and shimmery, a terrible visual). The storyline is convoluted. This was a troubled movie from the start. David Fincher came in to direct at the last minute, without a completed script, and, at that point in his career (this was his first feature), without the clout to stand up to the studio. The movie we now see is 114 minutes of his original 144-minute cut. Fincher had a wholly originally idea that the suits didn’t let him see through. You can read all about this at https://mossfilm.wordpress.com/2012/10/13/alien-3-fincher-talks. Not the franchise’s finest hour.
My weekend with the Quadrilogy wrapped up with Alien: Resurrection. The first half should have been titled Alien: Train Wreck. Here we go back to the idea that space is a well-trodden corporate landscape. The military and science personnel, along with our pirates, are not hero astronauts in extraordinary circumstances but just going through rehearsed motions. I was disheartened by the cheapening of set production. It’s unbelievable that a movie from 1979 could portray the future with such mastery while a movie from 1997 could look so cheap. Ron Perlman’s grunting was ridiculous. Wynona Ryder was downright annoying with her doe-eyed action ingénue act. And I would be amiss not to point out that a ship travelling at that snail’s pace would never reach Earth from Saturn in three hours. Now that my vitriol has been spent, allow me to point out that the Xenomorphs in this movie look fantastic. They show personality and cleverness that we haven’t seen before (sacrificing one of their own to use its acid blood was a great idea). Brad Dourif turns out an outstanding performance as an “evil” scientist who actually believes in what he is doing—a well thought-out character which easily could have been written as sub-standard fodder. Joss Whedon of Buffy, Firefly, and Avengers fame penned the script, so it’s really not surprising that there are moments of damn good writing. The mutant alien at the ending is shockingly sympathetic. How its character plays out is heartbreaking, and shows a complexity of thought in the screenplay that I’d say redeems this entire movie. I also found a gravitas in Ripley’s timeline worthy of concluding the series. It’s revealed that two hundred years have passed since the ending of Alien 3, and Aliens took place fifty-seven years after Alien—that’s an astronomical amount of time that Ellen Ripley has been stuck in space fighting this damn creature!
Overall, I think that the Alien franchise is one of the finest out there. If I rated the movies individually, I’d give them five, four, two, and three stars respectively—so not all of them were a little worse than the previous movie. There are moments of true film mastery, lots of suspense, and great effects. Despite the low points of the latter installments, all of these movies are fun and engaging. And downright scary at times. If you find yourself with a spare six hours or so, I’d highly recommend a marathon of Xenomorphs!