This month marks the 40th anniversary of one of the most influential sci-fi/horror films, Alien. Directed by Ridley Scott and written by Dan O’Bannon from a story by O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett, the film shocked and thrilled unsuspecting audiences in theaters and continues to scare us to this day.
Alien is still regarded as a landmark film that successfully merged two of the best genres in cinema, science fiction and horror. Its success is evident in the way that it showcases a universe that seems real and almost used up in a way and draws us in with its terrifying premise. The movie starts with a crew of interesting characters that are in basically an outer space version of a tug ship called the Nostromo carrying ore back to Earth. Their journey is interrupted by a signal from a planet along their path that gets them to stop at a desolate world that houses what turns out to be a parasitic alien life form that impregnates one of their crew and then kills him as it bursts out of his chest in one of the most iconic and horrifying scenes in movie history.
The claustrophobic atmosphere of the ship gives off the vibe of a haunted house in outer space that builds tension as the crew is killed off one by one until only Lt. Ellen Ripley (played by Sigourney Weaver) is left to fend off the creature. The death of Captain Dallas (played by Tom Skerritt) earlier in the film was shocking and let audiences know that no one was safe and ratcheted up the tension even more.
The setting of the movie is also interesting from a sci-fi standpoint. It is very different from previous films that came before it such as 2001, which had a very clean, almost sterile look to it. Alien basically features a group of truckers in space flying what looks like an oil rig, trying to make a living hauling fuel for a faceless corporation that ultimately sees them as expendable.
Alien is set in the near future (early 22nd century), but still has a somewhat familiar feel with the bridge and living quarters having a lived-in look. The tension and mistrust between the crew members, caused by things like pay disputes and later on the threat of the alien, is also realistic and puts the characters in a relatable light. This universe would be expanded in subsequent sequels, some more successful than others, that further explored this unique take on our future that featured colonial marines and prison planets that always had humans facing off against the insidious aliens trying to wipe them out.
Another landmark of Alien is the design of the creature itself. Designed by H.R. Giger, it is both hideous and beautiful at the same time as well as incredibly original. Its dual mouth and razor sharp teeth and skeletal appearance is the stuff of nightmares and stands with any other horror icon.
The slow but methodical way in which the alien kills off the crew of the Nostromo builds the suspense of the film until the very end. The design of the crab-like creature that plants the alien xenomorph in unfortunate crew member Kane is also something that is instinctively unnerving to the audience, as well its brutal way of giving birth to its offspring. Later movies would add some wrinkles to the xenomorph design but the basic look of the creature is still based on Giger’s incredibly unique design.
All of these unique qualities resulted in a new genre of film, sci-fi/horror, which led to such films like Event Horizon, and Life and even influenced other mediums like video games such as popular fare like Doom and Dead Space that also feature humans in space facing off against similar alien threats. Alien’s success also inevitable led to a veritable industry of cheaper knockoffs that has the same basic plot of space crew finding an alien that wipes them out. Obviously none of them could match the seemingly perfect combination of chills, mystery and monsters in space that makes the original Alien still a classic film four decades after its release.
Weaver’s portrayal of Ripley is iconic as well and served as the blueprint for subsequent strong female leads in movies such as Linda Hamilton’s role of Sarah Connor in the Terminator series, Katniss Everdeen, Kira Nerys, Furiosa, and most recently the film version of Alita.
Needless to say, Ripley is one of the many influential aspects of Alien and among the greatest on-screen heroines that re-shaped the role of the female protagonist in cinema.
The franchise spawned by this movie is still ongoing as well, all these years later. The first sequel Aliens is a classic sci-fi action movie. Subsequent entries and spinoffs such as Alien 3, Alien: Covenant, Prometheus, and Alien vs. Predator were not as well received, but I have enjoyed all of them and look forward to more movies that take us back to this rich universe populated by arguably the scariest creatures in space ever imagined.
When James Cameron’s classic Aliens was releases 30 years ago, it was instantly regarded as one of the best sci-fi films of all time. It is a fantastic blend of action, futuristic war, as well as a followup to another genre favorite, Ridley Scott’s Alien. The strengths of this sequel comes in many forms.
First is the continuation of having many interesting and iconic characters that inhabit this universe. The most famous is of course the only returning character from the first film, Ellen Ripley played to perfection by Sigourney Weaver. Her portrayal of Ripley as strong and reliable is balanced by her affection for the little girl Newt who is the only survivor of a distant colony overrun by the horrific Xenomorph aliens. Michael Biehn from Terminator fame plays the stoic colonial marine Corporal Hicks, and is a great counterpart to Ripley. The strong cast also includes Bill Paxton as the brash but somewhat bumbling Hudson, Paul Reiser as the slimy company man Burke and Lance Hendriksen as the android Bishop, someone Ripley hates and distrusts at first but later comes to see as an ally. This group of loud and tough space marines contrasts to Ripley’s apprehension and fear of what is coming when they travel to the colony Hadley’s Hope to investigate why contact was lost. Cameron’s depiction of futuristic soldiers was highly influential and has resulted in countless imitations in movies and video games that continues to this day. Everything from Doom to Halo and the film version of Starship Troopers all owe some debt to this film.
Another brilliant aspect of the film is its perfect blend of action and horror. While Aliens is much more action packed when compared to its predecessor, it still has moments of tension and fear, especially when the marines first land on the colony and try to find any signs of life. The audience (as well as Ripley) already know what happened to everyone there, and the anticipation of finally seeing the deadly creatures definitely raises the tension level. When the aliens do make their appearance, an all out battle ensues with the marines suffering greatly despite their enormous firepower. The movie can go from quiet and nervous to chaotic and hectic in a flash, and yet it all works. Later in the film after another big battle between the marines and aliens, the film suddenly takes on another scary tone when Newt is kidnapped and Ripley has to journey into the Alien Queen’s lair to rescue her. This foreshadows the epic climax when she fights the Alien Queen in a souped-up power armor/construction device while onboard the ship after the colony is vaporized after a pulse pounding countdown to its destruction. Ripley’s victory against the creature helped to cement her as one of sci-fi’s best heroines and added to her characterization as the ultimate survivor and great example of human ingenuity succeeding despite all odds. The quiet note on which the film ends again parallels the first movie and seemed to set up future adventures with Ripley and her new surrogate family of Newt and Hicks. Unfortunately this didn’t happen with the next film taking on a different direction.
All of this is set against the backdrop of the fascinating Alien universe that has kept audiences coming back and not just in films. Many books, games and comics have explored this world and perhaps the star attraction of it all is the alien creature itself. H.R. Giger’s unparalleled design that is both disgusting and captivating has kept fans always anticipating new adventures set in this universe. A universe of bleak distant worlds, corporate intrigue, and insidious alien beings that are perhaps the most deadly ever seen on film. Aliens was the first time that so many of these creatures were seen at once. Dozens of them swarming all over the place was terrifying and a sight to behold. The design of the Alien Queen was also new and the size of it was simply staggering. None of the subsequent films in the franchise have yet attained the level set by Aliens, but with a new Alien film by Neill Blomkamp on the horizon that is supposed to be a direct followup, hopefully another sci-fi epic will continue the story of Ripley, Hicks and Newt. Regardless, Aliens will always be seen as an absolute high point of the genre, one of James Cameron’s best films, and will be well remembered even 30 years from now.
The Alien movies are some of the most well-loved films in science fiction and with the upcoming prequel Prometheus about to be released in the U.S., here are the films that preceded it in order of my personal preference:
1. Alien (1979) Ridley Scott’s sci-fi/horror masterpiece set the standard for this genre. Over the years I have come to regard this one as the best of the bunch because of how well it works. These are the elements that work: the claustrophobic feel of the freighter ship, the slow, but scary, build up to the mystery of what is on the planet that the crew land on and what exactly is picking them off. The infamous chestburster scene is still effective to this very day. The director’s cut on DVD and blu-ray is also very good and even shows a scene where Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) finds Captain Dallas in a cocoon after being attacked by the alien and burns him alive to put him out of his misery.
2. Aliens (1986) James Cameron created a sci-fi war epic that is one of the best films ever made. It created the image of the space marine that is so prevalent in films and video games today and is a great thrill ride from start to finish. The main character Ripley was joined by Newt (Carrie Henn), Hicks (Michael Biehn), Hudson (Bill Paxton) and others that audiences grew to love. The extended edition shows the back story of the colony Hadley’s Hope and how the aliens took it over. On a side note there will be a video game next year entitled Aliens: Colonial Marines for the PS3 and Xbox 360 that will continue the story.
3. Alien 3 (1993) An underrated David Fincher film that is striking in its visuals and feel. Lone survivor Ripley crash lands on a prison planet and is followed by a single alien that proceeds to wipe out the prison population harkening back to the original film. I think this movie is excellent and unfairly hated because fan favorites Newt and Hicks were killed off. Many wanted a follow up to Aliens and instead got a dark almost existential film about Ripley at the end of her rope. This film had a video game adaptation for the Super NES in 1993 that actually played like a side scroller action game with lots of guns and aliens to fight. Quite different from the actual movie. There is also an alternate cut of the movie available on blu-ray and DVD. It restores a subplot of one of the prisoners worshipping the alien and releasing it when it was trapped by Ripley and shows the alien bursting out of an ox instead of a dog as in the theatrical version. Definitely something for fans to check out.
4. Alien Vs. Predator (2004) I’m putting this one ahead of the 4th film Alien: Resurrection since it is simply a better movie. Why it is hated so much is strange. A very good film that shows predators coming to Earth to hunt aliens in the south pole that they placed there as a rite of passage for their young. The set up with the archaeologists finding the eggs and alien queen in the underground temple is great and the battles between the two franchise monsters is lots of fun.
5. Alien: Resurrection (1997) The last Alien film with Ripley. It is set 200 years after her death and has her cloned to extract an alien queen from her body. It has interesting concepts with Ripley actually having alien DNA and blood in her system. The scene where she finds the previous versions of herself is both fascinating and disturbing. The movie returns to the idea of multiple aliens chasing down a rag tag group of mercenaries trying to escape a doomed ship. Seeing Ripley finally returning to Earth is also a nice way to finish her story.
6. Alien Vs. Predator: Requiem (2007) This entry is the only real misfire of the bunch. A follow up to the much better Alien Vs. Predator, the idea of a predator/alien hybrid sounds okay but looks kind of dumb when seen on film. The characters are very forgettable and the whole thing feels more like a bad Syfy movie of the week. Although it is neat to see the aliens crawling around a present-day town in Colorado, since most of the other movies are set in space and the future. I get the feeling that under another director this would have been so much better since the core story of a single predator hunting down aliens on earth is good and there are some good battles between the creatures.