Embarrassingly, September 23rd, 2003 marked the first time that I’d seen any of the illustrious Alien series, now almost cultish in their large fan base. I’ve now rectified this with viewings of Alien (Ridley Scott), Aliens (James Cameron), and Alien 3 (David Fincher), and enjoyed them all to varying degrees. While it appears chic to select Aliens as the best of the bunch, I’ll buck the trend and say that Alien is clearly—though not significantly—the finest of the lot. Actually, the only thing that the films have in common is the continuity of the story; they all belong to different genres. Alien is horror, Aliens action, and Alien 3 a less successful mixture of the two. Now, Alien is theatrically re-released in a brand-spankin’ new Director’s Cut and while I can’t say what the changes are, having never seen the original version, this print is pristine and the film hasn’t aged a day since its original run back in 1979. I’m not sure if Cameron or the others plan to do the same at some point, but I imagine there’d be a warm reception if they did.
As the only pure terror entry in the saga, Scott’s Alien kicks things off in fine fashion. The crew of the freighter ship Nostromo is awakened from hypersleep by an unexplained signal from a nearby planet, and must investigate per company orders. Upon arrival, three team members leave the Nostromo to explore, and discover a strange nest of an unknown species in a seemingly deserted cave. Meanwhile, the remaining members of Nostromo’s crew decipher the signal, which they disturbingly find to be a warning, not a cry for help. When a tiny creature from the mysterious colony attaches itself to the face of Kane (John Hurt), the rest of the squad find themselves in severe peril against an enemy they know almost nothing about. Led by Lieutenant Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), the crew desperately attempts to survive, while simultaneously dissecting the creatures’ weaknesses and planning an escape.
Alien opens with a gorgeous series of establishing shots in an empty Nostromo, which serves as the primary location throughout. The camera patiently pans and tilts from room to room, establishing an uneasy mood that lingers throughout the picture. Atmosphere separates Alien from its sequels; the monster remains unseen until about halfway through, but we always sense its presence around each corner and in every room. Alien also features chilling music, but not just in its composition. Its usage is remarkable, as Scott is fully aware that silence is the deadliest sound of all; he blends the soft score with eerie quiet to create a constant feeling of dread. As characters are picked off one by one—often at unexpected times—the realization that things won’t “end up okay” slowly crystalizes. The theatrical re-release is a blessing for those of us who didn’t get to see Alien on the big screen, as its impact and fear factor multiplies tenfold in 70mm. In an era where the horror genre has faded into a laughable mix of teen slashers and formulaic storylines, Alien provides a welcome dose of authentic terror.
The epic finale of Alien concludes with an exhausted Ripley alone in an escape pod, back in hypersleep, and that’s where Aliens takes over. 57 years after her clash with the creatures, Ripley is discovered floating in space, and awakened to the disturbing news that the planet in which the aliens were discovered is now colonized. When contact with that planet is lost, a military operation is sent to investigate, with Ripley accompanying them as an informant.
The similarities in the films basically end there, though. Scott was most concerned with frightening the hell out of his audience, evident even in the tagline – “In space, nobody can hear you scream.” Cameron, on the other hand, likes his movies big. Big explosions (Terminator 2: Judgment Day). Big boats (Titanic). And in Aliens, big guns. LOTS of big guns. Aliens is a supreme adrenaline rush of bullets and battle cries (again, the tagline says it all: “this time it’s war”), and luckily it’s done right. The action unravels in a consistent stream once the rescue team arrives, and the script is packed to the brim with juicy one-liners. In this genre, any picture that boasts a plus screenplay deserves a gold star, and this one manages to avoid any clunkers and utilize that lost trait; wit.
Despite primarily focusing on blowing shit up, Cameron delivers a few real creepathon moments as well. The best of ‘em takes place in a bedroom, where Ripley and her 12-year old companion Newt attempt to outwit and outmaneuver a baby alien in tight quarters. Aliens never strives to be as accomplished as the original, but its wit and turbo-charged battles make it a wild and electric ride, one with the best replay value of the franchise.
Alien 3 marks the directorial debut of David Fincher (Seven, Fight Club), and it’s certainly a competent one. Much of Fincher’s trademark style can be found here, particularly his famous swirling camera; unfortunately the film as a whole is a good deal less successful then its predecessors. Alien 3 successfully produces the fun, but it’s a huge step down cinematically. It’s severely lacking in several areas, some Fincher’s fault and some not. Plenty of the trouble stems from typical sequalitis; as a series runs on, chinks begin to show up in the storyline. Example: Ripley finds herself stricken with a condition that afflicted a member of her crew in Alien, but its timing and severity level feel awkward and lack believability. Alien 3 often feels like a rehashed mishmash of the first two films, a hybrid of horror and action that never finds the proper balance. It manages to get the job done if you temper your expectation to the modest level, though, and features a lively performance from the always entertaining Charles S. Dutton, better known as Roc on TV. That dude drips charisma, propping plenty of scenes on his back when things threaten to invade drab country.
Much has been made of Weaver’s performance as Ripley, and I think it’s justified. She mixes toughness with the vulnerability appropriate for a woman thrust into unexpected surroundings and circumstances. Moreover, she smoothly remains in character from film to film, despite the large yearly gaps between them. I’ve yet to see Jeunet’s Alien: Resurrection but will welcome the opportunity to see how things finish up despite its mediocre reputation. Plop down ten greenbacks for Alien in theatres while you have a chance, buy some popcorn, and snag Aliens from the video store. If you’re in a real mood for space mongrels, snag Alien 3 as well, and spend six hours or so basking in the atmosphere of a superb franchise.
Alien – 4/4
Aliens - 4/4
Alien 3 – 2.5/4