Comparing the “Alien” Films

I sometimes pepper the travel content of this blog with movie critiques. See, I was a movie geek long before I became a travel geek, and both activities appeal to the dreamer inside me. (I have even penned a few screenplays – of varying degrees of ineptitude.)

The “Alien” films, which began with 1979’s simply-titled “Alien,” comprise one of my favorite movie universes. Not only do they generally have above-average writing and acting, but their art direction and creature design are state of the art. And what kind of traveling journeyman hasn’t dreamed of spending months or years in peaceful cryo-sleep, en route to a new world?!

This past weekend marked the release of “Alien: Covenant,” the sixth film in the franchise. So far, it has all the hallmarks of a box office disaster, although it will still turn an eventual profit following its overseas release. I don’t consider the cheeky “AVP” (“Alien vs. Predator”) movies part of the immediately family, but I will share my thoughts about the six core “Alien” films in the following paragraphs.

Yes, there will be SPOILERS.

Alien (1979): “In space, no one can hear you scream.” That was the horrifying tagline for this equally-horrifying first film, a “one-off” from director Ridley Scott that found the deep space crew of the towing freighter Nostromo being picked off one by one after making a brief stop on an unknown planet, LV-426, to answer a distress call sent by a ship that appears to be deserted, except for cocoons that gestate face-hugging aliens. The late John Hurt, who passed away earlier this year, got one of the great screen deaths as his character, Kane, unwittingly gives birth to a chest-bursting Xenomorph. Said Xenomorph, a sleek, scary vision by Swiss painter H.R. Giger, grows alarmingly fast, boasts two sets of teeth and concentrated acid for blood. Warrant officer Ripley (newcomer Sigourney Weaver, now forever associated with the franchise) is the ship’s second in command, under Dallas (a top-billed Tom Skerritt), but as good as both actors are, my favorites are Ian Holm, unforgettable as traitorous android Ash, and Veronica Cartwright, who plays navigator Lambert, and whose reaction to John Hurt’s chest-burster immediately elevates the actress to scream siren immortality.

“Alien,” which won an Academy Award for its visual effects, is one of the great films of the 70’s, and remains a genre classic. The movie is quiet, well-paced, and intelligent, and, until the high-tension ending, gives viewers only the briefest glimpses of the alien…making it scarier than it would otherwise be. In what is something of a rarity, the Director’s Cut is actually shorter than the theatrical cut. Bravo, Ridley Scott. Both versions: A.

Aliens (1986): The jury will forever be out on whether or not the exciting sequel, directed by a pre-“Titanic” James Cameron, is better than its predecessor.  Personally, I say “yes.” The story begins 57 years after the end of “Alien,” which found survivor Ellen Ripley blasting the Xenomorph into space and then putting herself back into cryo-sleep. Her vessel, the Nostromo, drifted aimlessly for almost six decades while she remained essentially ageless. By the time she is rescued, all traces of her old life are gone. Any efforts to begin anew are put on hold when she is asked by Weyland-Yutani Corporation goon Burke (a slippery Paul Reiser) to accompany a platoon of marines to LV-426, the planet from the previous film and a place that has since been given an man-made atmosphere and colonized by a team of terraforming miners…who have stopped communicating with earth. It takes almost an hour to set up the story and introduce the trigger-happy space marines, who are given lots of hilariously jingoistic dialogue (the movie was released in the 80’s, after all). Such character building is nearly unheard of today, and it makes us genuinely root for Ripley, Hicks, Newt, Bishop, Vasquez, and even Hudson…even though Ripley (and viewers) know that for most of the crew, it is soon to be “Game over, man.” Once the shooting begins, it almost never lets up until the movie ends. But hey, it is like Sergeant Apone (Al Matthews) says: “Another glorious day in the Corps.”

Weaver is at her all-time best here, and earned a surprise (but deserved) Oscar nomination for Best Actress. The movie racked up seven nods in total, winning two. Cameron, a better writer here than in “T2,” “Titanic,” or “Avatar,” helmed what is perhaps his tightest movie, and gave the film its own feel. “Aliens” is noisy where “Alien” was quiet, funny where that one was somber, and outlandish where that one was subtle. And damn the torpedoes, it works. The Director’s Cut, which adds all of what Cameron had previously left on the cutting room floor, flushes out Ripley’s character more but makes the questionable choice of showing the LV-426 colonists before their ill-fated demise. Theatrical version: A+. Director’s Cut: A.

Alien 3: Bleak, bleak, bleak. If Hicks and Newt were your favorite characters in 1986’s “Aliens,” then you may want to give this ‘92 release a miss. As the opening credits play out, the USS Sulaco’s escape pod, in which Hicks, Newt, and Ripley are in cryo-sleep, crashes into the icy waters of Fiorina “Fury” 161, a barren moon in which a lice-infested penal colony is the only source of human life. Hicks and Newt both perish; Ripley is rescued by prison doctor Clemens (Charles Dance) but soon wonders – as the savage, shaved-head, rape-inclined inmates start suffering gruesome deaths – if her ship brought with it a certain facehugging stowaway. This is quickly confirmed after Ripley witnesses an attack. When she is spared by the now-grown Xenomorph, Ripley deduces that she is pregnant with a Xeno Queen, effectively ensuring everyone’s doom. I did not enjoy “Alien 3” the first time I watched it. It is downbeat in tone, and its hopeless ending is depressing, even for what is essentially a slasher movie set in deep space. Still, the acting is universally strong, with Sigourney Weaver delivering another commanding performance, and matched beat-for-beat by Charles S. Dutton, who plays Dillon, the spiritual leader of the prisoners. The cinematography is wholly original, its Xenomorph POV shots filming key chase scenes upside down as the creature runs along the ceiling. So learning, years later, that the director was none other than David “Seven” Fincher didn’t surprise me a bit.

The “Assembly Cut,” which adds 30 much-needed minutes of footage, including new/altered opening and closing sequences, vastly improves the film. Among other changes, it flushes out the supporting cast, especially Golic, a mad prisoner (brilliantly played by Paul McGann) whose character simply disappears without an explanation in the theatrical cut. That being said, Fincher, who remains unimpressed by the film in any form, refused to attach his name to that version as well. Theatrical version: C. Assembly Cut: B.

Alien: Resurrection (1997): Something cool about the first four “Alien” films is that they each have a different director, lending each film a unique tone. Where “Alien” was quiet dread, where “Aliens” was relentless action, and where “Alien 3” was somber claustrophobia, “Alien: Resurrection” is comic abandon. This comes from the twisted visions of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” creator Joss Whedon, who wrote the screenplay and filled it with his trademark banter, and “Amelie” director Jean-Pierre Jeunet, who helmed the movie with his touch of offbeat whimsy. I love this movie, but I’ll humor you that one’s appreciation of it is predicated on being able to accept its far-fetched premise: Ripley, impregnated with a Xenomorph at the end of “Alien 3,” plunged to her death in a fiery pit, and corporate muckety-mucks (but not Weyland, who in the Director’s Cut we learn was “bought out by Walmart”) somehow clone her from a single drop of blood (taken from where?!?!?!). The embryo is removed from her body (and later escapes, natch); “Ripley 8” as she is called is stitched up and finds herself with increased strength and acid blood. This of course may save her life later when the escaped Xenomorph, now a proper Queen with Ripley’s gift of natural birth, has spawned kids all over the research ship Auriga, which is three hours away from landing on Earth.

What I like about this third sequel, in addition to its goofy brand of dark humor, is the motley nature of the surviving crew members: hardened marines like Raymond Cruz’s Distephano (Tuco from TV’s “Breaking Bad”) busting the balls of Ron Perlman’s reckless scavenger Johner, while space pirate Michael Wincott’s Elgyn lusts over a spunky, secretive Call (Winona Ryder, against-type casting that works). The Director’s Cut adds just 10 minutes of footage, including an alternate ending that may be too bleak even for this series. On the plus side, this additional footage also humanizes Ripley even more, despite the fact that she is a clone who already knows the fate awaiting everyone on board. The Xenomorph effects, particularly during an underwater sequence, are superb. Both versions: B+.

Prometheus (2012): Ridley Scott, back in the director’s chair, did everything he could to refute claims by media outlets in advance of the film’s release that “Prometheus” was not an “Alien” prequel, that it was merely set in the same universe. Well, after rewatching the film I can tell you that “Prometheus” is absolutely an “Alien” prequel…or a pre-prequel you could say, since, in all fairness, the Xenomorph that eventually appears bears little resemblance to H.R. Giger’s famous 1979 creation. “Prometheus” opens on an unpopulated Iceland of the past, where a lone Engineer – a gigantic albino humanoid of sorts, releases a DNA spore of sorts into the water…giving birth to humanity. Many millenia later, archaeologist Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace, the original “Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”) finds a literal star map that matches others, suggesting the astronomical location of said Engineers. Suffice to say, the journey is fraught with peril, as Shaw must contend with an infected husband (Logan Marshall-Green), idiotic fellow crew members, a bad storm (think of the sequence in Scott’s “The Martian” that strands its title character on the red planet), and an uncooperative company type (Charlize Theron, wasted). If all of that wasn’t enough, she finds herself with an unwanted pregnancy – and in the “Alien” universe, that ain’t good. (Wait until you see how she handles it…easily the best scene in the movie!)

“Prometheus,” while eminently watchable, is something of a missed opportunity. It looks great, visually-speaking, but raises many more questions than it answers. The film often feels like a wannabe art film…until it gives us characters doing things that scientists would never do. (One such example: Fifield, the ship’s geologist and map expert, gets lost in a pyramidal temple, then proceeds to smoke pot via a bong that he has fastened to the inside of his space suit.) On the plus side, Rapace gives a terrific performance, her character standing alongside Ripley as one of cinema’s strongest female heroines (a common theme for director Scott, who also directed “Thelma and Louise” and “G.I. Jane”). Rapace is complemented by Michael Fassbender, excellent as David, the too-emotional android. Look at the way Fassbender walks and gestures; what attention to detail! B-.

Alien: Covenant (2017): Ten years have passed since the end of “Prometheus,” which found Dr. Elizabeth Shaw and a decapitated David taking off for new worlds in a spaceship that they commandeered from the Engineers – humankind’s creators. The Weyland Corporation has since replaced “David” with “Walter,” a more stable model, still played by Michael Fassbender. Walter is monitoring the operations of the space ship Covenant, the 2000 passengers and crew of which are headed to the planet of Origae-6 on a colonization mission. An accident en route awakens the crew early and takes the life of the ship’s captain (James Franco, whose only dialogue occurs during a flashback). The new captain, Oram (Billy Crudup), is untested and untrusted, so when the ship discovers a planet much closer to them than their destination, and this one also capable of supporting life, everyone agrees to simply touch down there. What do they find? Breathable air, harvest-ready wheat, David (Fassbender again)…and death.

“Alien: Covenant” is one of the most frustrating films I have seen in a long time. The first half is almost perfect – music, lighting, tone, and acting (with shout outs to Fassbender, Katherine Waterston – playing Franco’s grieving wife, and Danny McBride – playing Covenant pilot Tennessee). Watching the suspense mount and Ridley Scott’s vision gradually unfold, I began thinking that maybe – just maybe – the 79-year-old director would finally win an Oscar. But alas, everything fell apart in the second half. For one thing, too much time was given to Fassbender, whose dual role is showy but who should have played second fiddle – or flute, if you prefer – to Waterston’s Daniels. For another thing, the action sequences became increasing difficult to follow. (Note to filmmakers and cinematographers everywhere: HOLD THE FUCKING CAMERA STILL!!!) For yet another thing, we have, as in “Prometheus,” important characters who should know better doing things they shouldn’t be doing. That sort of behavior (looking directly into an opening egg sac, for instance) is excusable in slasher movies, but inexcusable in otherwise-intelligent science fiction such as this.  B-.

Was I too harsh on “Alien 3,” or on the second half of “Alien: Covenant?” Was I too easy on “Alien: Resurrection?” Which “Alien” film is your favorite? Let us know by leaving a comment below.

Author: gringopotpourri

Gringo - aka Scott - was born outside of Chicago and has lived most of his life in or around big cities. He spent two years of his adult life in Mexico City (talk about big cities!) and fell in love with Mexican food and culture all while weathering the challenges of life in a city with over 20 million people. Life's unpredictable journey has since brought him to Tennessee, where he is close to family and to the natural beauty of the Great Smoky Mountains. Scott also enjoys movies, hiking, top ten lists, and travel in general.

4 thoughts on “Comparing the “Alien” Films”

  1. Hey Scoot. A completely wonderful critique on the Alien series. I have always been a fan of the series, and I truly feel like the original Alien was my favorite. While I did like Alien 2 and Prometheus, I feel like the original Alien movie had that overwhelming sense of dread like you had mentioned. Great job, man!

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