Franchise Corner Entry: ALIEN
ALIEN ***** USA/UK 1979 Dir: Ridley Scott. 115 mins (The Director’s Cut) / 116 mins.
It’s easy to forget, in the wake of its more action and FX-driven sequels, just how wonderfully slow-burn creepy the original ALIEN is. Heavily influenced by much lower-budget genre fare like IT! THE TERROR FROM BEYOND SPACE and Mario Bava’s PLANET OF THE VAMPIRES, Ridley Scott’s directorial breakthrough has a languid, wordless opening. Like other keynote 70’s American horror films (notably, THE EXORCIST), it understands the power of juxtaposing long, quiet / silent passages with short, sharp, noisy shocks – shocks that are often not accompanied by the expected musical shrieks (Jerry Goldsmith’s insidious, evocative score is as low key and sparingly used as his OMEN scores are brazen and omnipresent).
Again, in contrast of the ALIEN films to come, the saga of the ill-fated Nostromo after it answers a distress call reduces its fascinating, terrifying monster to a cameo role and is almost half-over before unveiling the set piece everyone remembers. That said, Scott sustains an overwhelming sense of menace throughout that relatively uneventful first 45 minutes as we follow a credibly grumpy, unglamorous group of underpaid astronauts who just want to get home.
All the things that made ALIEN famous remain impressive: referred to as “the perfect organism” by characters who admire it as much as it scares them, the intelligent, predatory alien is among cinema’s greatest monsters, from its first chilling appearance to its bloody birth and extended stalk-and-kill rampage. Ian Holm’s transition into an inhuman, physical threat is still startling, as is the film’s Cronenberg-era fixation on unpleasant body horror: it’s awash with fluids, from the splattering gore of the chest-burster scene to the sperm-like fluid spurting out of Holm when he’s beheaded, the thick slime dripping from the alien’s maw and the pre-BLAIR WITCH snot seeping out of the sniffly, doomed Veronica Cartwright’s nasal cave. It is, of course, one of the most endlessly influential movies of its time, its talking-point images of partially decapitated bodies and humans messily acting as hosts for far more versatile creatures paving the way for considerable dross and further masterworks (notably, Carpenter’s THE THING). ALIEN is also, arguably, the classiest movie in history to feature two cheap cat scares.
ALIENS ***** USA 1986 Dir: James Cameron. 137 mins / 154 mins (The Special Edition)
James Cameron never made a movie as disciplined and pitch-perfect as THE TERMINATOR – it earned him the unenviable task of sequelising Ridley Scott’s artful splatter movie ALIEN – but ALIENS remains an outstanding, rarely matched hybrid of huge scale creature feature and militaristic 80’s action movie. Cleverly structured, it deliberately keeps the eponymous creatures off-screen for as long as possible (in the Special Edition, it’s over an hour before we see anything more than a glimpse of a facehugger), ensuring that the first, acid-spewing, screeching appearance of Stan Winston’s monsters has an even bigger impact. As if to make up for the first film’s minimalist man-in-a-suit solo monster, the second half of ALIENS fills the screen with the xenomorphs, though, crucially, never dilutes their terrifying power.
The gung-ho first hour cunningly side-lines the reluctantly returning, traumatised Ripley in favour of snappy, very 80’s bad-ass banter between the grunts sent in to hunt the aliens with vast amounts of state-of-the-art hardware. Cameron gradually undermines the macho men and women who so easily become canon fodder, with THE TERMINATOR’s excellent Michael Biehn proving the humane exception. Biehn aside, the most resilient characters turn out to be the reborn Ripley – as iconic and influential a heroine as there ever was in genre cinema – a disarmingly human android (one of Lance Henriksen’s greatest showcases) and Carrie Henn’s pre-pubescent orphan Newt, gloomily dismissing the soldiers’ weaponry in her trademark PTSD juvenile monotone: “It won’t make any difference”. A mark of the film’s subversion of 80’s action man types is the decline of Bill Paxton’s Hudson from an outrageously cocky peddlar of one-liners (“Drop your linen and start your grinnin’!” / “I am the ultimate badass!”) to a gibbering, cowardly wreck (“It’s game over, man!”).
The movie is full of unforgettable set pieces – set to James Horner’s endlessly imitated score – and the battle-of-the-mothers that pits Ripley in a power loader against the towering Alien Queen is the kind of tangible spectacle that even the finest CGI could never hope to match. However, Sigourney Weaver’s extraordinarily complex reinterpretation of an older, stronger yet far more cynical Ripley – rich with remorse and bitterness at having lost 57 years of her life thanks to a threat that has not been defeated – is just as powerful.
ALIEN3 ***** USA 1992 Dir: David Fincher. 110 mins / 145 mins (“Assembly Cut”)
The audience that lapped up ALIENS in their droves expected more aliens, more high adventure and thrilling narrow escapes. Debut director David Fincher, on his way to two of the most subversive studio films of the 1990’s (SE7EN and FIGHT CLUB), gave them an anti-franchise sequel drenched in death, blood and grief. Devoid of hope and rife with cruel, unjust fates for the heroes of ALIENS, the movie was hugely contentious for 20th Century Fox, having spent a substantial amount of time in a much-publicised state of development limbo that saw various writers and directors hired and fired. It begins as it means to go on: the triumphant Fox fanfare descends into the eerie, dissonant strains of Elliot Goldenthal’s remarkable, experimental score, while an unsettling opening montage reveals the heroic battle of ALIENS was all for nothing, since Hicks and Newt have died in hyper-sleep and Ripley has crash-landed on a penal colony in the “ass end of space” populated by rapists and murderers…who have found God. Her arch nemesis worms its way into the facility, regenerating itself via a dog, a la THE THING – its rebirth juxtaposed with a breathtaking farewell for Hicks and Newt.
Claustrophobically designed to be as oppressive as possible, the movie offers an astonishingly committed performance by Sigourney Weaver as an embittered, doomed Ripley – resigned to the fact that the alien is the only constant in her life. Upon discovering a Queen is growing inside of her, Ripley finds the resolve to taunt her long-term enemy (“Don’t be afraid – I’m part of the family”) while expressing her bitterness towards it (“You’ve been in my life so long I don’t remember anything else”). We thus have a big Hollywood franchise movie in which the heroine grimly accepts the inevitability of her own imminent death, while anyone we might root for (including love interest Charles Dance) is brutally butchered in a notably ugly and arbitrary fashion. As brutal but articulate co-star Charles S Dutton puts it, “We’re all gonna die, the only question is how you check out. Do you want it on your feet or do you want it on your fuckin’ knees?”
Punctuated by gallows humour, rich with bold themes (including AIDS parallels highlighted by certain contemporary critics) and full of striking images (notably the perversely intimate alien “kiss” and Ripley’s final dive into a literal abyss), the film was reviled upon its original release and admittedly has its flaws. 25 years on, it feels more than ever like one of horror cinema’s boldest and most fascinating sequels.
ALIEN RESURRECTION ** USA 1997 Dir: Jean-Pierre Jeunet. 105 mins
Famously disowned by its screenwriter (Joss Whedon), Fox’s attempt to revive the franchise after the nihilistic closure of ALIEN3 opens strong. 200 years after Ripley’s suicide plunge, scientific experimentation by Brad Dourif on the extinct alien species creates a series of Ripley clones using a combination of human and alien DNA. No.8, the first successful clone, adjusts to her rebirth while inevitable chaos unfolds when space pirates obtain a collection of cryogenically frozen humans carrying alien embryos. Sigourney Weaver cleverly juggles the audience’s sympathies as an ambiguously revived, slyly grinning Ripley, delivering her lines in a clinical fashion as she conveys both the human agony of someone resurrected against her will (a theme later revisited for the heroine in Whedon’s BUFFY TV series) and the hostile alien presence with which she is now entwined.
Sadly, almost everyone else in the cast is obnoxious: fine character actors like Ron Perlman and Dan Hedaya overact horribly, while Winona Ryder is miscast as the obligatory sympathetic android. Aping the structure and key plot points of ALIENS, Whedon’s script introduces and abandons interesting themes and the aliens themselves are poorly represented, particularly when embellished with instantly dated CGI. There are impressive set pieces along the way: an emotionally wrenching sequence in which Ripley faces the failed clones belongs in a far better film, while a notably perverse scene of Ripley writhing sensually in the Alien Queen’s nest is memorably warped. So much of the movie, however, is flat and gimmicky – including the technically impressive but misplaced underwater chase – and the climax, featuring a “Newborn” alien / human hybrid that looks like a reject from THE FLY II, is the worst of the entire series.
ALIEN VS PREDATOR *** USA 2004 Dir: Paul W.S. Anderson. 100 mins
Coming off the back of goofy gorefest FREDDY VS JASON and its straight to DVD equivalents (hurrah for BOA VS PYTHON!), this long-touted monster mash softens the gory kills of its predecessors for a PG-13 rating (the only non-R rated film in the franchise) but otherwise delivers the goods promised by the title with style and fun. It’s built on a splendid high concept premise: thousands of years ago, the Predators came to Earth, were worshipped as great warriors, built the world’s pyramids and bred the Aliens in order to fight them for sport. In the modern day, an international group of archaeologists are lured to the Antarctic pyramid – led by robotics genius millionaire Charles Weyland Bishop (Lance Henriksen) – and find themselves in the middle of a war between the two species.
Fanboy filmmaker Anderson resorts to cheap scares (a cat scare involving a penguin!), packs his cast with disposable characters, contrives a Ripley-lite heroine (Sanaa Lathan) and indulges in gratuitous in-jokes, but he does generate an eerie, portentous ambience in the first half, aided by the atmospheric backdrop. The family-friendly rating means the Predators no longer skin their victims or yank out spines, while the chestburster is the mildest so far, but taken in the right spirit, it’s an endearing, fun ride. The Predators become, in effect, the good guys – with one Predator hilariously running away from explosions with the heroine in slo mo as if they were the leads of a predator-human buddy cop show. The climactic battle captures at least some of the kind of escapist creature feature excitement that made ALIENS so popular, and the CGI doesn’t drown out the generally excellent monster-FX. It’s hard to be mad with a movie that does what it says on the tin and ends on an amusing note with an alien bursting out of a Predator’s chest, setting up future adventures…and maybe even a sitcom.
AVP-R ALIENS VS PREDATOR: REQUIEM *** USA 2007 Dir: The Brothers Strause. 94 Mins
Though likeable and good-looking, the first AVP spin-off was constrained by its rating, but its go-for-broke sequel had no such limitations, offering bloody chestbursters (including one from a little kid at the very start!), two exploding stoner heads for the price of one and an engagingly tasteless sequence in a maternity ward that’s closer in spirit to HUMANOIDS FROM THE DEEP than Ridley Scott’s ALIEN. Shot on the cheap in Canada with no “name” actors, it’s a refreshingly fast paced, unpretentious monsters-terrorise-small-town-USA horror movie. The inevitably slim plot has the hybrid “Predalien” (basically an alien with dreadlocks) – born at the end of AVP – crash-landing to Earth, spawning fresh aliens and hunted by Predators, keen to clean up the mess their enemy is leaving in its wake. Since this is a post-9/11 monster movie, someone blames terrorists and one character optimistically states “The government doesn’t lie to people!” Bringing the Aliens to Earth for the first time was a welcome move, even if the Earthbound characters are stock soap opera style cannon fodder: teens that look like models, a feisty mom who turns into a Ripley substitute and various locals too dumb to have noticed the huge spaceships that have dropped on their town. The various A v P battles throughout are often hard to follow since they are set at night or in the rain (or in the sewers, in the tradition of many an 80’s monster flick) and the annoyingly faddish ShakiCam doesn’t help, but it’s mostly energetic and rarely dull. Highlights of past ALIEN movies are cheekily referenced (including ALIEN3’s alien “kiss”) and the bravura climax involves a downbeat plot lick borrowed from RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD that enables this present-day-set film to co-exist with the earlier, future-set ALIEN movies.
PROMETHEUS *** USA 2012 Dir: Ridley Scott. 123 mins.
Ridley Scott’s much-hyped return to the ALIEN universe resulted in a pretentious monster movie aping the structure and style of his 1979 movie (including the appearance of the one-word title), while expanding upon its unforgettable set design and reworking its slow-burn, portentous build-up before cutting loose with the monster mayhem. Its biggest misstep is to cast Guy Pearce and drown him in distractingly terrible “Old-Man” make-up: he’s Company man Peter Weyland, financier of a mission to learn more about “The Engineers”, a mysterious group of beings who throw doubt on the origins of the human race. Charlize Theron is the frosty leader of the mission, Noomi Rapace the heroine, Sean Harris a twitchy geologist and Michael Fassbender channels Ian Holm as a well-spoken artificial human who quotes from LAWRENCE OF ARABIA and, like “Ash”, loses his head. The characters are largely unsympathetic (as was the case with ALIEN) and Rapace’s love interest is dull, but the visually astonishing backdrop lends considerable value to the film’s deliberately paced first hour. The second half is dedicated to crowd-pleasing old-fashioned jump scares, unplanned pregnancies, monstrous vaginal imagery and a strong combination of prosthetics, animatronics and CGI to bring the creature feature stuff to life. The gruesome highlight is a gender-switch variant of ALIEN’s most famous moment: Rapace endures a self-engineered laser caesarean to rid herself of the alien-squid like thing evolving inside: it’s gross and alarming even though 30 years of cinematic splatter made it an impossible task to recreate the shock of John Hurt’s fate in the original. When PROMETHEUS accepts itself as a big, expensive B movie like its precursor, it’s a lot of fun – and the punchline is a rousing reveal of what we all secretly wanted to see all along: the evolution and messy birth of what we know as the “Alien”…
ALIEN: COVENANT **** USA / Australia / New Zealand / UK 2017 Dir: Ridley Scott. 122 mins
On the publicity trail for COVENANT, Ridley Scott effectively apologised for misunderstanding fanbase expectations with PROMETHEUS, so this movie largely dispenses with that film’s more thoughtful constructs in favour of amping up the monster mayhem. Unfolding ten years after PROMETHEUS and opening with an existential conversation between the surviving David (Michael Fassbender) and his creator (Guy Pearce), the film writes out Noomi Rapace’s heroine and introduces the passengers of the Covenant, who receive communication from a planet that’s significantly closer than their actual destination. With a crew including an upgraded synthetic named Walter (Fassbender again, with American accent), the Covenant discover a world where David acts as an obsessive caretaker for an extraordinary species.
Scott and writer John Logan incorporate many references to the original ALIEN, from the Giger-inspired design to the prominent use of Jerry Goldsmith’s elegantly malevolent original music. The main cast are mostly cannon fodder, though Katherine Waterston makes a contrived transition from weepy, grief-stricken potential victim to quipping, vest-wearing surrogate Sigourney Weaver. The use of CGI to enhance the creature FX is initially distracting but, if you accept that a 21st century ALIEN movie is unlikely to revert wholly to rod puppets and man-in-a-suit creature FX, COVENANT really delivers the goods. The deliberate pacing and sparse shock effects of ALIEN are replaced by fast-cut, in-your-face monster attacks at regular intervals, though Dariusz Wolski’s marvellously oppressive cinematography helps sustains a genuine sense of dread and intensity. The movie’s unembarrassed return to straight creature feature territory is refreshing, and it overtly acknowledges the slasher movie aesthetic at the core of the whole franchise with a gruesome shower-set scene of coitus-interruptus. Among the goriest of the ALIEN movies (with multiple chestbursters and even a spineburster), it hinges on a very guessable twist but ends on a satisfyingly sour note – and the whole thing is boosted by Fassbender’s marvellously sinister presence. He’s so good, he even keeps a straight face while delivering 2017’s finest line of dialogue: “I’ll do the fingering…”
Reviews by Steven West