Replay: The Alien Quadrilogy

After last week's look at the successor to/rip-off of (depending on your perspective) Alien, I thought it was high time to go back over the original series and see if the films were really all that.

Two things made the franchise a classic. Firstly, the Bugs/Monsters/Serpents/Aliens/Stars of the films themselves. Their design by HR Giger and their fictional biology managed to make them menacing, dangerous and somehow sexy. Something the Species films took, mixed in with a drop of naked Natasha Henstridge and got a little overexcited by. Equally, numerous feminist theorists exaggerated the themes and turned the whole series into a thinly-veiled allegory of table-turning on men, wherein they were forced to suffer rape and pregnancy at the hands of the vicious xenomorphs. Well, that's one theory....

The second Alien legacy was a post-Star Wars future. Of course, Bladerunner and its ilk got there first and made the future gritty, dirty and real, but Alien pulled the same trick on space. The Nostromo wasn't crewed by a bunch of clean-cut killjoys; it was filled with salt-of-the-earth smoes with Hawaiian shirts who had porn in their bunks, not quite Star Trek.

Despite this, the question remains, influence regardless, were they any good? Well, since each was by a different director, it makes sense to look at each individually.


Yep, Ridley Scott's offering has the above all accounted for, Aliens are almost exactly as they are in the more-modern films, no retcon necessary here, which is almost unheard of for a scifi film.

Still, something's missing: there's no hint as to what lays the Face-Hugger eggs; no word on what the creature is actually after; and not really that much threat. The alien is either very lucky or very, very clever. All it would take is one good shot with a flame unit and there's a happy ending. Indeed, the danger is further diluted by the fact that the monster is very clearly a guy in a suit, at least to modern eyes.

The film starts slowly, builds, then barely hits its stride when it's all over, with very little pay-off. Scott's direction is so gritty that the film looks like it's shot on CCTV, which pulls us out of the experience.

Yes, you can say that it would be different on a first viewing, back in the 70s, but Star Wars and Bladerunner still hold up, this later offering doesn't. The one saving grace, iconography aside, is the amazing cast. Sigourney Weaver, Tom Skeritt, Ian Holme, not a bum note in the tune.


Now this is more like it! Cameron's opus took Scott's iconography and added his own.

The Vietnam-inspired space marines started a whole new genre. Every film featuring military grunts who don't know what they're in for taking on a supernatural force owes a debt to this film; everything from Dog Soldiers to the Doom games.

The feminist themes get drummed up, to climax in the twisted alien mother getting literally bitch-slapped by a pissed off Ripley in maternal overdrive.

Even more importantly, we begin to see the themes that would form the expanded concept of the xenomorphs and let them leap from the films to their own storyworld: the nightmares they cause, the queen, the hive-mentality, their potential to spread.

Cameron did what all good sequel directors should, he took the concept of the first film and blew it up to life size. Not to mention, he made a film that is still thrilling and technically-brilliant to this day. All hail the master.

Alien 3

We should all have heard of the problems behind the third offering by now: shot-by-shot rewrites, insane studio demands, directors jumping ship, harsh working conditions, crew dissent and worse.

Many would say it was a cursed production, but in truth, it was doomed from the start. The studio commissioned an unworkable concept - a wooden space station crewed by monks who thought the aliens were the devil - and tried to flog a dead horse that didn't want to be an Alien film into part of the franchise. In the process they killed off fan-favourite characters and halted any more sequels for five more years.

As such, it's a wonder that the film is as linear as it is; it made it to become a watchable piece. However, it's still bloody terrible. The whole affair is completely joyless, so devoted to its own grittiness that it wouldn't cheapen the result by making it entertaining. After, you feel as brutalised by the wilfully-unsympathetic characters as Ripley nearly was. Best forgotten.

Alien: Resurrection

This lesser-known offering was penned by a pre-fame Joss Whedon, and it shows.

Good old Joss injected new lovable characters into the series to replace Cameron's troop who were brutally murdered by the third piece. We get Michael Wincott, Top Dollar in The Crow, as an unprincipled mercenary, nonetheless dedicated to being the best boyfriend in the world, foot-rubs and all; we get a pre-CSI Gary Dourdan as a hard-ass gunslinger, Ron Perlman as, well, Ron Perlman; and even, only bloody Winona Ryder in a spoilerific role as the ultimate non-humanitarian, not to mention Brad Douriff's presence, equally squee-worthy to Lance Henrikson's in the first three.

Okay, so the human-xenomorph hybrid Newborn was a bit balls, but it shuffled off the mortal coil pretty quickly, leaving us with the Sigourney-demanded, half-xenomorph, bad-ass, clone Ripley! How cool is that?

So why did it flop? Well, it isn't Alien; the originals films aimed, at least, to make art out of pulp scifi, this is pure B-movie. In fact, it's proto-Firefly versus Aliens: not what the fans wanted. Nonetheless, it was brilliant trash, and deserves a follow-up, even after all this time; or at least a re-watch now we're all Whedonites.

So, what's the conclusion? Well, mainly that, despite Alien being great as a whole, not many of the individual films are up to much cop. It was Cameron who made the concept, and only the spin-off novels and comics have managed to live up to his vision. In the modern age, we're left with a diminishing Alien vs Predator franchise that's really more Predator-based than Alien. With the idea of a new Predator-only film doing the rounds at the minute and Hollywood going sequel crazy, is it time for Alien 5? I think so.

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