Countdown to Prometheus: The Legacy of Alien
The Alien franchise is unusual for several reasons. It started with a highly successful, even visionary, film from an almost unknown director (Ridley Scott’s The Duellists had been a modest success in England, but it was Alien that boosted him to international fame). Seven years later came a sequel from a different director, set in the same universe but with a decidedly different tone and approach. Both Alien and Aliens are excellent films in their own right, and James Cameron (in only his third feature film) managed to build his own unique niche which expanded the original mythology, rather than simply trying to clone the first film.
It would be six more years before the third film in the series followed, and Alien3 was again the work of a newcomer director. David Fincher had only directed music videos up to the time he was hired to carry on the Alien franchise, and thanks to script issues and studio interference, it was not a great experience. Thankfully, Fincher has gone on to ever-greater things, but as you’ll see in our write-up, perhaps the third entry is undeservedly maligned. Still, despite lukewarm reception from fans and critics, Alien3 was successful enough for a fourth film to be made five years later, the also-coolly-received Alien: Resurrection, helmed by French director Jean-Pierre Jeunet in his only American film to date. Four films, made over a span of almost twenty years, all directed by different people, each of whom happened to be relative newcomers to Hollywood. We repeat: this franchise is unusual.
Despite the popular lack of enthusiasm for the last two films in the franchise (and we’re not even getting into the crossover Alien vs. Predator films), Alien has left its mark on the cinematic landscape for all time, combining a fantastically original visual design with a genre-mashing sci-fi/horror (and in Aliens, sci-fi/horror/action) story that set a lasting tone for science fiction which has persisted to the present day. In visual terms, the pristine and sterile spaceships of 2001: A Space Odyssey are gone. In their place is a rough-and-tumble spacecraft and a species of sentient (?) aliens bent on destruction and their own procreation, dripping with sexualized imagery. The themes in Alien run deep, hitting us with our most primal fears. And it’s not unremarkable that the hero of all this is a woman – the quintessential Final Girl who didn’t ask to be brought into all this, but has the smarts, the willpower, and (eventually) the skills to withstand all that gets thrown at her – not just by the aliens, but by the patriarchal society that continually tries to refuse her voice. Ellen Ripley remains an iconic figure, but an icon who is deeply and viscerally human, one of the greatest gifts that the many legacies of Alien have left us.
In my endeavor to delineate the many qualities of Alien, I found it difficult to distinguish my utilization of clichés and fawning from those of all manner of fanboy that most everyone is all too familiar with. A first draft was littered ubiquitous praise and plentiful synonyms for masterpiece and brilliant, and seemed to read as little more than a deranged tome dedicated to Ridley Scott, Sigourney Weaver, Tom Skerritt, and Ian Holm. Nevertheless, further reflections result in adulation, regardless of how narrow a critical lens I attempt to apply. And therein lies the rub – Alien may well be such a film that defies criticism.
Despite its relatively minimalist design, Alien offers what may be the most intricate, if not intimate environments in the history of film. While I do realize that this is something of a contradiction, I can state with conviction that such a dichotomy exists here, on the strengths of the direction, the writing, the characters and their interactions with each other and the environs, and the set design. The Nostromo is breathtakingly large and almost barren, offering a desert-like landscape in the deepest reaches of space. It is silent and omnipresent, always looming, and we are always aware that they are on some remote vessel. At the same time, however, there exists a certain homey quality to the ship, with Ripley, Dallas, Lambert, Kane, Brett, Ash, and Parker quite comfortable in their surroundings. It would be disingenuous to call the Nostromo a home away from home, to be sure, but it is difficult to distinguish it from a ship at sea.
In considering the setting, it is the aforementioned characters and their actions and interactions that bring most everything to life. The small cast of Alien shares a sense of camaraderie and intimacy that can only be created by talented actors and a tremendous script – both of which are readily apparent here. The film is terrifying in the most primitive of senses as the characters are not only relatable (a tenet of horror films that is all too often glossed over), but readily believable. That is, the viewer understands the motivations of the characters, we can see their faults and their desires, and little is reduced to a single dimension. Moreover, the characters’ reactions to the situation is realistic, and we are not subjected to the sort of drivel that leaves us rolling our eyes at the decisions of modern horror hors d’oeuvres. The characterization is a meditation on humanism.
The masterstroke of Scott’s filmmaking, however, lies in the baroque and ominous sense of doom that pervades Alien from start to finish. With few exceptions, most action occurs in the darkest corners of one’s imagination, with terror lurking in shadowy corners and around every bend. The bowels of the Nostromo are not only dark and gloomy, but wet, providing a sort of heat and perspiration that can be easily associated with fear. The creature itself is on-screen enough that we know its gruesome design, but out of sight enough that we want to see more and attempt to comprehend its nature and construction. The utilization of sound – from the drips of water to the pounding of feet on metal to the score – and sight, in what is seen and unseen, is simply unparalleled. It is what Spielberg attempted in Jaws, earning a distant Silver Medal to Scott’s gold.
One final thought revolves around the sensuality of Alien – both the creature and the characters. There is a sense of intimacy that surrounds and binds all of the characters, enough so that we wonder what was, what is, and what could have been between the men and women aboard the Nostromo. The contact between the characters is always delicate, with a palpable notion of kindness and caring. Along those lines, it is not a stretch to suggest that those qualities are perverted by the creature from the moment it bursts free. It delicately, if not sensually caresses Lambert prior to taking her life in a fit of violence and rage. Later, it stalks Ripley, sharing in a moment when the heroine is at her most vulnerable, and most feminine. It is merely a noteworthy subtext that adds yet another layer of intrigue and humanism to Ridley Scott’s greatest film.
After the atmospheric horror pervading Alien, James Cameron’s entry in the Alien universe takes a decidedly action-oriented direction. There are still terrifying creatures hell-bent on carnage, but instead of a civilian crew encased in dread trying to survive the surprise attacks of a single creature, we have soldiers defending against a hoard of aliens. Yet both films believably inhabit the same universe, and which film you prefer comes down almost entirely to whether you prefer the slow burn dread of the first or the out and out action of the second.
Matt Gamble over at Where the Long Tail Ends has been doing a series of podcasts called Cabin in the Woods with his girlfriend Angela, showing her the horror films that he loves (she is not a horror fan and most of these films are new to her) and then discussing them. They just watched Aliens, and Matt has graciously allowed us to repost his text and the podcast itself with their discussion of the film. Please visit Matt’s original post as well.
On this episode of the Cabin in the Woods Film Festival Podcast, Angela (of The Film Confessional Podcast) we continue our COUNTDOWN TO PROMETHEUS! This time we dive head first into the second film in the Alien franchise, and the film I expect to be the biggest hurdle to finishing the series, Aliens. Of course, if she makes it through she’ll probably suffer night terrors for the next six weeks, but honestly, you need to give to get in this world. Suck it up and deal as they say.
We’re always interested in feedback. But we are trying to keep this to more of a conversational style than a true critique of the films. And of course, I’d always be open to suggestions for her to watch. Word of warning, torture porn and zombie films will get me yelled at and probably punched in the face.
As always, thanks for listening!
What then, Alien3? It is the best and the worst of the saga, all rolled into one profoundly uncomfortable ball; it is the signature emergence of one of the most talented directors working in Hollywood, and one of the worst sequels ever made.
When viewed against its immediate predecessor – arguably the most outright entertaining entry in the franchise – Alien3 is little more than a profoundly cruel joke. Within moments of its opening, Alien3 nullifies the survivors of the second film, leaving only Ripley; what point, then, all of her heroic action in Aliens? Alien3 holds that kind of heroism in the laughing disdain of atheists and film professors. In the concrete undergroundland of Fury 161, there is only fire and death. The film is gory as fuck (and newbie director David Fincher introduces “chunky blood” to the landscape in a way that is repellent, even today), and after presenting us with an undifferentiated array of bald Brits who populate the penal colony, sends them into a needless bait-and-chase in the foundry tunnels which is nearly impossible to follow – on account, again, of them all being bald white guys we don’t know. It’s impossible to glean a trace of human feeling for any of the people that the “beastie” vivisects in Alien3, except for Ripley herself. And as a kind of externalization of Ripley’s soul, Alien3 saves its greatest depredations for poor, vulnerable Newt; before the film has reached its half-hour mark, we will see Newt’s pale, naked corpse autopsied, while Ripley loses her mind with grief over the death of the little girl. We can relate. As a sequel to Aliens, Alien3 sucks.
Yet, there’s something to it, I can’t deny. The first step is always to discard the theatrical cut in favour of the “extended edition” first trotted out on the 2003 DVD set. 45 minutes longer, the extended edition is a substantially different picture, thinning out the flaws described above and beefing up Alien3’s many strengths. The brooding, melancholic mood is forcibly detailed; Fincher’s hand dishes out visuals that are simultaneously more delicate and yet hauntingly more precise; and the interplay of all those faceless Brits reassembles itself as a garden of complete, rewarding performances. And where the other Alien films were content to cut around the monster, Fincher dotes on it like a schoolboy fixated on a Raquel Welch poster.
The extended edition is not a director’s cut – Fincher never had the chance to shoot a director’s cut, so there can never be one – and it ultimately belly-ups in largely the same way the theatrical film did; and on top of that, the film is still just so goddamned depressing. But I’ll take depressing and substantial over depressing and thin any day. The extended cut of Alien3 is handsomely made and resolutely badass; if it’s still a failure, it’s a far more absorbing and insightful failure than we give it credit for.
Alien: Resurrection (1997)
It’s safe to say that out of the Alien franchise, Alien: Resurrection is the ugly step sister. It also sort of strikes me as the pre-cursor to the Alien/Predator garbage that followed a few years later except this has style and a feeling of playfulness.
I can’t remember what I was doing in 1997 beyond preparing for high school graduation but I sure as heck wasn’t getting excited at the idea of Jean-Pierre Jeunet directing a movie written by Joss Whedon. If this project was announced today, the internet would be swarming with fanboy love but in ‘97, this was just another big budget entry into a franchise that was starting to show wear.
I first saw Resurrection as part of a marathon hosted by the university film society. By the time we got to it, a quarter of the crowd was drunk, the other quarter asleep and the rest of us somewhere in between. That is until the movie started. Unlike its predecessors which revel in the darkness, Resurrection is bathed in light, an interesting visual queue for what follows. The story is set 200 years in the future long after Ripley’s death. Some new corporation has cloned her, pulled out the alien foetus that had been growing before her death, and have forged ahead with testing. They leave the Ripley clone alive for further testing and good thing too because she comes in handy when shit goes sideways and the scientists, along with a group of mercenaries caught on board to deliver additional test subjects, have to kill off the vile creatures before they reach earth.
Poor Ripley. She never gets a day off. But at least here she gets (or rather provides) a few laughs. Resurrection is much lighter in tone than previous entries, chalk full of what can only be described as Whedonisms. There’s nothing scary about it and when the aliens burn out of their observation chamber as Dr. Gediman (Brad Dourif being awesome) looks on in horror, it’s funnier than it is scary. The one moment that will forever creep me out is Ripley seeing the failed clone/alien experiments – the room full of near-Ripley’s is effective and completely strikes me as something Jeunet would include.
It’s no masterpiece (though it certainly looks nice!) but I love the campy goodness of Resurrection. The hilarious basketball scene, Winona Ryder foolishly thinking she can kill Ripley, Ron Perlman being Ron Pearlman… it’s all here and though it may not fit cleanly into the rest of the franchise, it’s certainly a nice reprise in a group of films largely concerned with doom and gloom.
- Marina Antunes