The Alien movie franchise stands as one of the longest-lasting and more popular series, started in the golden age of sci-fi movies in the late 1970s. With the incredible photography and suspense of the first movie, it didn’t take long for the success and cultural permeation to bring about additional movies and demand for even more, which continues to this day with not only movies but video games, comics, and more.
Released two years after Star Wars, Alien couldn’t be any different. Compared to Star Wars’ grand scale, bombastic soundtrack, and action-driven plot, Alien feels cramped and suspenseful. A merchant vessel, the Nostromo, is headed back home when its computer, Mother, picks up a distress signal from a nearby planet. Reluctantly agreeing to check it out, the crew finds more than they could possibly imagine.
Following the pacing of 2001 and Star Trek: The Motion picture, as well as his later release Blade Runner, Ridley Scott takes his time to let the story unfold, as the crew realizes the danger they’re in and how they’ll try to deal with it, all the while dying one by one at the hands (or actually a little zippy mouth and sharp tail) of this unknown creature skulking about their ship. In the end, it’s the wit and courage of Ellen Ripley, played very well by Sigourney Weaver in what will become a defining female sci-fi role, that allows at least for her (and her cat!) to escape the menace.
As it had been awhile since I’d seen this movie, I was curious how well it has held up over the decades. Needless to say any doubts I ever had were put to rest very quickly. By the time the crew was out to investigate the planetoid I was on the edge of my seat, knowing what would happen but the suspense still as high as the first time I saw it. Throughout the rest of the film I still appreciated the set design, sound effects, and the camera work of Scott’s that all worked together to bring such an incredible film to life.
Released seven years after Alien, Aliens shares the same universe but approaches it far differently. Director, writer, and special effects wizard/veteran James Cameron used one of his existing stories and adapted it to the Alien universe, putting Ellen Ripley back in the spotlight and taking charge once again, this time with the help (or at least attempted help) of some marines.
Taking place right after Alien, in this movie Ellen’s escape pod is discovered. Unfortunately it drifted right through the main system and wasn’t discovered until well after traveling through the other side some 70 years later. She is alone, struggling to make a living, when the Weyland-Yutani Corporation come to her for help, as her experiences make her the perfect consultant for a mission to rescue colonists on the very same planet that Ellen’s crew discovered the alien ship long ago. Accompanying the marines and a very untrustworthy W-T representative, the group finds far more than they anticipated, and only with Ellen’s experience and initiative will some of them survive.
This movie has far more action than the first movie, and I can see that in some ways it’s a welcome change. Yes Cameron could have tried to keep the same atmosphere and tension that Scott did, but would he have done as well? And even so, would audiences have cared as much, or would they be fatigued by the sheer terror and/or bemoan that Cameron had merely copied Scott? Of course we do still get plenty of tension and terror, but it is in a different light. We get more guns, more aliens, and more bravado. This was the mid-80s, and action films were close to ludicrous levels of machismo, violence, and patriotism. Aliens no doubt brought some of that in, but again in the context of what this film is focusing on it really does work.
I haven’t watched any films in the series since Aliens: Alien3, Alien: Resurrection, and Prometheus. From what I’ve heard they’re not anywhere near as good, and don’t really follow the story set by the first two movies. Ridley Scott has a new Alien movie coming out within in a year, Alien: Covenant, and will take place between Prometheus and Alien. Neill Blomkamp has also supposedly been working on a new Alien movie, as a sequel to Aliens. I’ve seen some concept art for Dwayne Hicks, and I like what I see. We’ll just have to wait if this movie does indeed finally come about, and if so how it stacks up both to the existing movies as well as Ridley’s forthcoming one…