By Romke van der Veen
Just recently a new ‘Alien’ movie was announced, this time to be produced (not directed) by Ridley Scott. But this news got little media attention. Why is this? For a franchise that was once considered some of the best science-fiction out there. A franchise that produced blockbusters and even one of the earliest movie-universe crossover film, Alien vs Predators. But there is very little chance we’ll see a third Alien vs Predators film, considering the very poor reception of Predator (2018), the muddled reception of Alien: Covenant (2017) and the atrocity of Aliens vs Predators: Requiem. The 50th anniversary of the Alien franchise was celebrated in silence and obscurity, with a few low-budget Youtube short films released in its honour. Many films have been rumoured since Alien: Covenant, including a third prequel film made by Ridley Scott and rumours about a Neill Blomkamp film (from District 9, Chappie and Elysium fame) revolving around Ripley and Hicks, in a direct sequel from Aliens (1986), ignoring the other sequels. The Alien franchise is confusing, and often contradictory, but remains a staple of science fiction, regardless of its slowly worsening reputation.
For the two first films, the franchise remained quite straightforward and discussion about either of them has been numerous and in-depth. Especially the first film, Alien (1979) has received enormous amounts of analysis and search-for-meaning into the themes, allegories, metaphors in the film. However, in the end the film has remained timeless and beloved through the ages. For film buffs and regular audiences alike it is an entertaining, thrilling and well-made film with iconic imagery and ideas. It is hard to talk about the film without covering what has already been said.
When it comes to the overall franchise, the stark contrast between Alien and Aliens has remained a hot topic of discussion. Your pick for the best Alien film (which is usually limited to those two, despite the fact that there are 6-8 Alien films) is also a choice between what genre you prefer. While both are evidently science fiction, Alien is also a clear horror film, where technology and sci-fi tropes keep mostly to the background, with the tensions of the crew and the horror thrills of the alien creature in the foreground. Aliens, however, relies on a narrative centred more on its sci-fi environment and narratives and expands on some of the world-building that Alien only hints at.
In Alien, an unnamed company instigates the events of the first film, by sending Ripley and her crew of miners on their journey home, to the surface of a planet to check out a distress signal. The corporate and apathetic attitudes of the company was present in the film only through the AI of their mining ship, lovingly termed Mother. Mother auto-piloted the ship and instructed the crew with orders in accordance with company policy. Besides stopping their hyper-sleep early, Mother also secretly orders the Science Officer to ensure the survival of the Xenomorph specimen for scientific research and that the crew is expendable in this mission. Now, whether this was strictly a company thing or something with Mother’s AI or even the science officer is not entirely clear, since the film focuses mainly on the suspense of the action than the world-building.
In Aliens, however, we find out the company is called Weyland-Yutani. And since Ripley survived the ordeal in the first film, they have begun construction of a colony on the planet that housed the crashed ship and its Xenomorph eggs. The company are critical of Ripley’s claims of the alien attacks and strip her work license. Briefly put, after losing contact with the colony, a squad of Colonial Marines (another addition to world-building) are sent to investigate it. Along with Ripley, a corporate agent is sent to oversee the expedition, called Burke. He inhabits all the qualities we associate with heartless, amoral, inhuman corporate figures. Again, receiving instructions to capture a specimen he is caught not only trapping two people to be infected by Facehuggers, but also ends up fleeing the group and trapping them with Xenomorphs. Ultimately, the company acquires a much more villainous presence and the narrative of corporate overlords and a military organisation lead to far more world-building outside of simply the characters. Let alone that the entire biology of the Xenomorphs are restructured, to introduce the Alien Queen into the mix.
Some of the most iconic aspects of the Alien franchise are added in Aliens, alongside with being a far more action-heavy film, focused on how a military force responds to waves of Xenomorphs rather than just one by themself. But regardless of the tonal and genre differences, the films work extremely well together. Not a small feat, being made by two unique directors, Ridley Scott and James Cameron.
Now comes the ugly duckling of the franchise, Alien 3, a film doomed from the start with a dozen rewrites and a rushed production, where scenes were rewritten days before filming and the final director, David Lynch, was pushed onto the project just days in advance. The film suffers from inconsistent effects, bad editing and strange dialogue. But most of all, it is completely inconsistent with the first two films and its continuity. Although we’ve already seen Ripley as the sole survivor in Alien, that was from her mining crew that we barely knew. In the second film, she practically adopted a small girl, developed a romantic relationship with Hicks, and befriended the android. All of which survived the stressful and traumatic ordeals of the second film with the aliens all but destroyed. Then the third film starts off by killing all of the characters we’ve grown to love. A loose Facehugger on the ship (in a very strange retcon to justify the sequel) ends up unintentionally crashing the ship and in the process brutally slaughtering all of them, except Ripley that is. She is stuck on a prison colony of male monks, who cringe at the sight of women, let alone that some of them are rapists and pedophiles. The problem is that the film is utterly miserable. Everyone she’s known and loved (including her own damn biological daughter) is dead and she wakes up surrounded by criminals. The ending is not any better but makes sense considering what she’s been through. As an independent film, it works somewhat as an interesting sci-fi concept, as a final film in the trilogy, it is quite insulting to any fans who were invested in the characters from Aliens.
Alien: Resurrection is an odd film, with a unique direction and crass script, compared to the more lean, efficient and relatable dialogue of the first two films. While Alien 3’s dialogue is very straightforward and wry, Alien: Resurrection is crass and most characters have comical sort of tough talk. Many are near-caricatures of the military general, weird/pervy scientist, criminal/mercenary/pirates. The general spends his night spit-shining his leather boots, the scientist has a sexual obsession with his creations and a creepy look at every second, and the mercenaries act raunchy, standoffish and with no patience and limited intelligence.
The film looks like a straightforward late 90s science-fiction action film. It was released around the same time as films like: Event Horizon, Armageddon, Pitch Black, Independence Day, The Fifth Element and a few years before the Matrix – with which it shares visual similarities. Alien: Resurrection is a grimy, dark and somewhat ugly film, visually speaking — which one reviewer termed as ‘techno-gothic’. The narrative structure that the characters have to undergo is pleasantly simple, however the plot is frustratingly strange. Although the film stars Sigourney Weaver as Ellen Ripley, in this film she is a Xenomorph-human hybrid made from DNA samples of Ripley before she died in Alien 3. She possesses enhanced strength and reflexes, acidic blood and has a psychic link with Xenomorphs. That’s not the craziest part. Ripley’s clone not only had mixed Xenomorph DNA but also had an Xenomorph queen embryo inside it, who grew up but has a uterus because of human genetic tampering. She gives birth to an absolute hybrid abomination who kills the queen and sees Ripley as her mother, it is called the ‘Newborn’.
The effects are surprisingly great, mostly sticking to practical effects for all the Xenomorphs and to a completely unique alien design. The Newborn is nonetheless utterly horrifying and disgusting, though also shown to be naive and somewhat innocent?. In the film’s most memorable sequence, Ripley creates a breach in the ship’s window and the Newborn is sucked out, with organs and limbs being torn apart piece by piece while the hybrid wails in a human scream and seems to be undergoing excruciating pain for the entire sequence. The mix between horrifying and sympathetic qualities are jarring, even if they’re intentional. Although Ripley and the Newborn have a maternal relationship, their scenes also have oddly sexual overtones to them.
The problem is that in efforts to up the stakes with each sequel, the film’s get ever more confusing and frustrating. Not only are the emotional stakes of the prior films utterly destroyed, the plot and characters get more confusing at the same time. So, in the end you find it hard to be invested in a franchise which takes away everything it made you invested in. It’s obvious 20th Century Fox went haywire over repeating the success of the first two films. In doing so they put enormous pressure on small up-and-coming artists to fulfill studio demands; ultimately resulting in two middling and confusing films. The relationship of the Alien sequels was very strange from the start with the stark tonal differences between Alien and Aliens but became even more absurd and detached as it went on. Luckily they rarely delved into VOD or b-movie nonsense and provide decent entertainment.
Image source: https://www.serietotaal.nl/nieuws/19021/opnames-alien-serie-beginnen-in-maart-2022