Words: N. Scatcherd
So what with Ridley Scott’s recent confusing/confused comments regarding the future of the Alien series (“Prometheus 2 isn’t going to lead into the Alien films, although it totally is and it’s actually called Alien: Paradise Lost, but it might still take another three movies anyway, and what’s an ‘Alien 5’?”), I thought it would be fun to run through the franchise – which becomes increasingly, fascinatingly messy and weird – reviewing each movie week by week.
By this I mean Alien, Aliens, Alien 3, Alien: Resurrection and OK, fine, I’ll do Prometheus as well (*sigh*, the things I put up with…). I’ll be reviewing each film in the version it was released, so no director’s cuts or assembly edits. Also I want to stick to the films which are ‘officially’ canon in the franchise – so no spin-offAliens vs Predator bullshit either. Sorry to all three of you who enjoy those movies.
All right, without further ado…
Director: James Cameron
Starring: Sigourney Weaver, Michael Biehn, Lance Henriksen, Paul Reiser, Bill Paxton, Carrie Henn, William Hope, Jenette Goldstein
Sequels are tricky things. There must be an impulse – when following a film which is well-received enough to warrant a sequel in the first place – to just retry whatever worked the first time. Revisit the basic storyline, or some of the action beats; transpose the atmosphere or ‘feel’ of the original and attract as many rears in seats as possible, hoping nobody notices that what they’re watching is essentially just more of something they’ve seen already.
However, the best sequels don’t do this at all. They don’t rehash or ‘reimagine’, but rather they expand upon what came before, splitting off from their predecessor into new and exciting territory. It’s a rare breed of sequel that manages it, and Aliens is one of them.
‘Rescued’ from stasis after 57 years (!) of floating through space following the events of the first film, Ripley is hesitantly coerced by the Weyland-Yutani corporation into accompanying a team of military hardcases – the Colonial Marines – onto planet LV-426 (where the derelict ship and Alien eggs were discovered). The problem is, in the many years since Ripley survived her run-in with the creature aboard the Nostromo, LV-426 has been terraformed and colonised and is now home to human families; families with whom all contact has been suddenly and mysteriously lost (well, maybe not so “mysteriously” for the audience; no prizes for guessing what’s happened to our poor, doomed settlers).
If Alien was a haunted house in space, then this is a good old-fashioned rollercoaster ride. Trading in claustrophobic horror for blazing-guns action, Aliens is its own beast with an entirely different feel than its predecessor. Even the title subtly announces how the set-up is very different this time around, with a large group (‘swarm’? ‘Hive’?) of Aliens – or ‘Xenomorphs’, as they are referred to here – versus the military, as opposed to a single Alien in an enclosed space picking off a crew of blue-collar ‘civilians’. Whereas Alien used its single creature to create a slasher-movie style ‘cat and mouse’ tension, Aliens is concerned with loud, popcorn action movie thrills.
Strange as it sounds, this feels like an entirely natural progression. The scene in Alien wherein Kane and Lambert come across a vast amount of eggs teased the fact that there were a lot more of these creatures than just the one which terrorised the Nostromo; and what with the introduction of the Marines, and the reveal that planet LV-426 is now-terraformed, there’s a lot added to the universe both films (and, of course, later instalments) take place in.
The Aliens are not as scary here – used as shoot-em-up cannon fodder, attacking in waves, with none of the silent, deadly dread of the original – but they make for entertainingly gruesome, and still excellently-designed, creatures for our military protagonists to mow down as they try to get off-planet. They’re mostly stock characters* – the brash loudmouth; the cigar-chewing Sergeant; the coolly aloof ‘rogue’ of the group (Corporal Hicks, played by a brooding Michael Biehn) – but the dialogue is sharp, and the film takes its time with introducing us to the ensemble (the first Alien appears almost exactly one hour into the movie), ensuring that even though who is and isn’t going to make it is fairly easy to predict, it’s fun to see how these characters react to the increasing chaos (particularly as Ripley quickly takes charge of the group along with Hicks).
In fact, the most interesting thing about Aliens is the development of its hero, Ellen Ripley, from the steely survivor of Alien to – by the end of Aliens – a kind of Amazonian warrior woman with strong maternal instincts. When the team find Newt (Carrie Henn), a terrified little girl who has hidden from the Aliens after having seen her family killed, Ripley immediately takes on a maternal role for her. She allows her usual steeliness to soften as she cleans Newt up, gets her to open up about what happened to her family, and does everything in her power to keep her safe; she even kills the monstrous Alien Queen in a battle of the matriarchs, using the exoskeleton-like ‘Power Loader’ to physically battle and dominate the Alien mother figure, protecting her new surrogate daughter and proving her alpha-female authority (Ripley’s entrance line as the Queen menaces Newt – “get away from her, you bitch!” – sums up how fearless she is when Newt is in danger).
Alien 3 goes on to do interesting things with Ripley, as the series returns more to its horror roots, but Aliens is the film which cements her personality.
*Two notable exceptions are Jenette Goldstein as the muscular, tough-as-nails Vasquez – as much an alpha-female as Ripley – and Lance Henriksen’s noble, yet somehow unnervingly calm android, Bishop. Paul Reiser is also particularly entertaining, as slimy Weyland-Yutani company man Carter Burke.