Thursday, September 9, 2010


Films: Alien, Aliens
Format: DVDs from personal collection on laptop.

It’s been awhile since I updated, mostly because of a film that will be appearing here in a few days. I just received the last DVD for that, and while I’m interested in finishing that film up, I needed a break from it today. So I’m watching a couple of films I dearly love instead: Alien and its arguably better sequel, Aliens.

Alien is the story of the crew of the Nostromo, a towing ship with a crew of seven. The ship has been roving around the galaxy and is, at the start of the film, loaded with 20 million tons of unrefined ore. The ship is headed back to Earth with the crew in hypersleep, when they are suddenly awakened by a distress beacon from a nearby planet. The crew investigates and discovers something startling—a massive alien spacecraft with no evidence of survivors. The ship itself is huge, and the creatures it held, based on the scale, were massive. The skeletal remains of one sits in a chair on what passes for the bridge, with bizarre wounds—it appears to have had its ribcage burst apart from the inside.

What there is is a room filled with bizarre eggs. As the crew investigates, one of the eggs splits open and a creature leaps out, attaching itself to the faceplate of a crewman named Kane (John Hurt). It burns through the glass and attaches itself to his face. Kane is still alive, and the rest of the crew drag him back aboard the Nostromo before taking off. Any attempt to remove the creature threatens Kane’s life, so they leave him where he is. After a few days, the thing falls off his face and lies dead on the floor. This takes the first hour of the film.

Of course, if that was all there was, there wouldn’t be much of a film, let alone one of the greatest science fiction/horror films ever made. At the next meal, Kane convulses, and a brand new creature pops out of his chest in a scene that, despite being 30+ years old, is still effective and startling. The creature runs away, grows to a massive size, and then begins to pick of members of the crew one at a time. This crew, in no order, consists of Brett (Harry Dean Stanton), Lambert (Veronica Cartwright), Dallas (Tom Skerritt), Parker (Yaphet Kotto) and Ash (Ian Holm). Once things get going, they really get going. Half an hour after Kane’s abortive last meal, half of the remaining crew is dead in one way or another.

There are other surprises along the way, of course. It would still be a great movie without all of the additional surprises that crop up along the way and the interplay of the personalities. Ash, for instance, is a hardass who tows the company line in all things. Parker and Brett just want their share of the money for the job. These characters turn into real people with depth over the course of the film, which is one of the reasons the film is so effective, as is the fact that we don’t really see many of the deaths on screen in front of us.

The two stars of this film are Sigourney Weaver as Ripley and the alien itself, which was based on the artwork of H.R. Giger. Beyond these two, and the rest of the cast, what makes the film work so well is the blending of genres. Alien is absolutely a science fiction film, but it is equally horror. Essentially, it is a slasher movie or a haunted house picture set in outer space, with higher stakes because the characters literally cannot get away from creature, since they are millions of miles away from home.

It’s worth noting that Alien was written by Dan O’Bannon, who was a college friend of John Carpenter. In fact, O’Bannon starred in Carpenter’s college film project, a low-budget science fiction comedy called Dark Star that is actually worth watching despite the $0 special effects budget (the alien in this film is played by an inflated beach ball). It’s not immediately clear to me who is responsible for the overall look of the film, but as far as I am aware, it’s the first time that a film of this type feature such a dirty, industrial look for the future. Far from the lean and clean spacecraft of earlier science fiction films, the Nostromo looks like an overcrowded factory with pipes and wires hanging everywhere, and not quite enough lighting to see everything clearly. It’s really effective. This is made even more effective by the constant smoking of the crew, which adds a foggy, smoky atmosphere to every scene.

It’s also notable in the sense of Ripley’s role. There are two female parts in this film—Ripley and Lambert. Lambert is far more of a traditional sci-fi woman’s role. She screams a lot, and spends a good bulk of the last hour crying, a stereotype often played in movies based on the idea that women are more emotionally fragile than men. Ripley, on the other hand, is a extremely strong, in-charge character. O’Bannon’s original script considered all of the character roles unisex, so there’s nothing specific about Ripley’s part that requires a woman to be in the role. What that means is that Ripley is, in many ways, one of the first film characters who is her job in the film first, and a woman second. There were certainly female asskickers in film before Ripley, but this role is different. Ripley isn’t a kung fu killer or a sexy assassin trading on looks and slinky outfits. She’s a competent performer in her job who merely happens to be a woman, making this an important film in terms of the presence and treatment of women by and in film.

Alien proved to be such a success that seven years later, its sequel was produced. Aliens does not pick up from where the first film left off, but instead gives us a new story with only one character consistent—Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley. The biggest change is the directorial duties. Ridley Scott opted not to direct the sequel, giving way to James Cameron. Cameron is much more attuned to straight action, and in this sequel he delivers.

In fact, Aliens is very much a straightforward science fiction film. While there are scares and jump moments here, no one would call this film horror. It takes place nearly 60 years after the original film. Ripley’s escape pod has been rescued, and she learns that, to coin a film cliché, everyone she knows and loves is dead, including her daughter. She’s put on trial by Weyland-Yutani, the company she worked for because of the destruction of the Nostromo, and is banned from finding work in the same field. Shortly thereafter, she is contacted by the company again when a terrible secret is revealed. The company has placed settlers on the original planet, and they have now lost contact with the colony.

Ripley, because she is the only one to have survived contact with the alien species the first time, agrees to return to the planet to investigate what has happened. She accompanies a team of marines who are going just in case the worst has happened (and if you know anything about films, you already know that the worst has happened). The colony has been overrun—the people are dead, and the place is crawling with the same kind of alien that ravaged Nostromo in the first film. Of course, the kicker this time is that there are a bunch of aliens this time—probably coming from the thousands of eggs that didn’t open in the first film.

Ripley is seen as something of a crackpot at first, at least until the marines first encounter the creatures for the first time. It’s at this point that the personalities of the marines start to come into play, and we get a better sense of who they are, and they are an interesting bunch. A good half of the marines bite it in the first encounter, and those remaining are a motley assortment. Ripley is still around naturally, as is a little girl they encounter on the planet early on. This is Newt (Carrie Henn), who survived the carnage by hiding from the giant creatures. Also surviving at this point is Hicks (Michael Biehn), the corporal, and a solid soldier; Bishop (Lance Henriksen), who is more of an advisor (see the spoiler below); Carter Burke (Paul Reiser), a company representative; Hudson (Bill Paxton), a wannabe tough guy who is prone to panic; Gorman (William Hope), the inexperienced lieutenant; and Vasquez (Jenette Goldstein), a tough-as-nails marine out to prove that women can do anything men can do.


Bishop is an android. This is revealed early in the film, so it’s not much of a spoiler. Ripley has an intense reaction to this, though, because Ash in the first film was also an android, and attempted to kill her as well as the rest of the Nostromo’s crew.


Again, the goal is to survive, this time against overwhelming alien odds. The characters attempt to get off the planet, fighting against time and the aliens as well as each other. While there are certainly tense moments, this is an action film. The characters aren’t stalked by the aliens, but assaulted by them, and the aliens are fended off with high caliber weaponry, flame throwers, and explosives. Burke wants nothing other than a live specimen to bring back to Weyland-Yutani, and threatens the others at every turn.

There are two payoffs in this film. The first is that Ripley continues to be a strong female presence on the screen, this time with mothering instincts kicking in thanks to the presence of young Newt. While in Alien the Ripley role could have been handled by a man or a woman, in this film, the role is definitely a female one. Ripley is no less competent, no less bad-ass, and no less an asskicker than in the first film, but here she is allowed to be more than just a character who happens to be female. Here, she is allowed to be an asskicker who happens to have a nurturing, caring side. It’s an even better role than the first film.

The second great payoff is the confrontation between Ripley in the forklift suit and the queen alien in the loading dock. In this moment, Ripley comes into her own in one of the great fight scenes in science fiction film history. It says a great deal for Cameron’s script and Cameron himself that he was not only able to recognize this quality in the character, but keep it and expand it in the sequel without it ever becoming trite or maudlin. Ripley’s relationship with Newt is entirely believable. This is especially true in the director’s cut of the film, which reveals Ripley’s relationship with her biological daughter.

Aliens happens to be far more quotable than the original film as well. I don’t know if I can think of more than a couple of actual lines from the first film, but there are more than a dozen from Aliens that have become classics not only for the genre, but for film in general.

So which film is better? It’s impossible for me to say. These are not really comparable films despite the fact that the enemy is the same and the main character is the same. Alien is a horror film in a science fiction setting. The fact that the characters happen to be on a spaceship just means that they don’t have a way of getting out of the situation. They’re trapped, but they’d be trapped the same way in a deserted house with a guy carrying a machete. The second film is a straight action film. It's a war with an unusual foe, and so it really works like a war film in a lot of ways.

Naturally, with the success of the first two films, more sequels appeared. Specifically, there was Alien3 and Alien: Resurrection. The first of these was directed by David Fincher, who was so disgusted by what happened with the film that he wanted to have his name removed from it. Fincher has since gone on to have a tremendous career, but Alien3 started it out on a very wrong foot. In truth, it’s not a terrible film. It’s actually okay, but it starts with two strikes against it, namely the first two films in the series. Had it been a stand-alone film, it would have something of a following for no other reason than the kick-ass critter. As the third film in one of the greatest science fiction properties ever made, though, it falls woefully short. The fourth film is really better not mentioned any further. For my money, the series ends after the second film.

Why to watch Alien: Because it’s freakin’ awesome!
Why not to watch: Lambert needs a punch in the kisser.

Why to watch Aliens: More of what made the first movie great, plus a shit-ton of great quotes.
Why not to watch: Where the series went after this film.

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