The Alien Anthology is a classic science fiction horror film series that stole the hearts and peaceful slumber of millions. While each of the four movies was made by a different director and with a different aesthetic taste, each tells (or tries to tell) a rough, in-your-face survival story. Every installment of the Alien Anthology takes place decades after the previous, but each features sole-survivor Lieutenant Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) and her violent encounters with the xenomorph. The xenomorph – a vicious and reptilian alien that gestates inside a human host – was conceived by director Ridley Scott (who also directed Bladerunner, American Gangster, Black Hawk Down) and was brought to life by uniquely morbid artist H.R. Giger. This mammoth bugger has a gruesome life cycle, going from egg, to “facehugger”, to “chestbuster”, to full on adult xenomorph. In anticipation of the DVD release of Ridley Scott’s latest Alien film Prometheus, we’ll be revisiting the entire series.
Directed by Ridley Scott
Alien was a shocker – it terrified the living daylight out of people in 1979, and it terrifies the living daylight out of me today. Alien is elegant, eerie, and at times explosive. Ridley Scott combines H.R. Giger’s gruesomely beautiful artwork and Jerry Goldsmith’s echoing Avante-garde music with the sight of a terrifying alien bursting its way out of John Hurt’s chest and splattering blood and guts onto the rest of the crew. Alien was a true turning point in horror movie history. Gone were the days of big guys in rubber suits and roller skates chasing down wailing maidens – here our heroine is fearless, efficient, and a true survivor.
The story takes place on the Nostromo, a deep-space commercial towing ship whose crew just woke up after a cryogenic sleep. The small and motley gang of future alien food touch down on an unknown planet to investigate what they think is an SOS beacon. What they find is a huge trove of eggs that waste no time in infecting one of the crew members. A day after touchdown, the alien explodes out of the doomed crewman’s chest and rapidly matures into a savage killer. After that, it’s a bloody and gruesome game of cat and mouse as the newly hatched xenomorph preys on the remaining group of crew members until there’s no one left except Ellen Ripley and her cat Jonsey.
Ripley is introduced as an emotionally detached and pragmatic flight officer that took up this lonely tow-job to make ends meet. Ripley displays strong “leave-no-comrade-behind” tendencies – especially towards the Nostromo’s resident cat. She watches every last member die horrifically at the claws of a truly terrifying alien with more teeth than the Osmond family. Alien is by far the least character-driven of all the Alien movies, and reveals nothing about who Ripley is except that she is highly proficient at blasting aliens out of airlocks.
Ridley Scott evokes real human fear in the audience. There have been numerous reports of people downright passing out during the infamous “chest-buster scene” which was dubbed the scariest moment in cinematic history. Unfortunately for those that managed to stay in the world of the waking, the fun only began there. During its initial release, audience members would stumble out of the theatre disoriented and vomit after watching Ian Holm’s head being ripped off. If they stuck around, they would see said head continue the conversation from the floor with the greater portion of his spinal column trailing out behind it.
This is a movie that demands multiple viewings – the visual artwork can captivate you, the Nostromo’s deserted corridors make you want to turn tail and run, and Sigourney Weaver’s performance as Ellen Ripley will carry out with increasing strength throughout the rest of the Alien Anthology. It is a masterpiece and the crown jewel of the horror genre. Alien is as much an icon as it is a great movie, and began a long and treasured tradition of terror.
Directed by James Cameron
While Alien was a classic science fiction survival story about the spirit of man overcoming the trials of the unknown, Aliens is an all-out guns-a-blazing war movie. Directed by movie legend James Cameron (The Titanic, Terminator, Avatar) this 1986 movie lives up to the legacy of the original, and then some. Instead of simply remaking Alien with a bigger budget, James Cameron brought his own touch and story-telling to the beloved sequel. Those that have seen his hit 2009 movie Avatar might recognize some similar motifs between the billion-dollar success and Aliens. Matrix-esque robot-suits can be found in both Aliens and Avatar and have become popular in many science fiction stories. Cameron also utilizes boyish space-marine charm in both movies for dramatic relief once things start to go horribly wrong.
However, at the core, the movies Aliens and Avatar are very different. Cameron’s 1986 film is a long and desolate road leading our heroes into the awaiting arms of a vicious alien queen. Avatar on the other hand is a colourful and magical retelling of Pocahontas with enough eye-candy to make Lord of the Rings look like an infomercial selling cat food.
Speaking of cats, this is the last we see of Ellen Ripley’s feline friend Jonsey who valiantly survived the ordeals onboard the Nostromo in Alien. He is left behind by Ripley as she sets forth to exterminate the last of the aliens on the now-colonized planet LV-426, after being woken up from her 57-year cryogenic nap that followed the events in Alien. It’s all out warfare between the isolated and shrinking group of humans and the terrifying hordes of aliens.
With more survivors, Aliens brings out a lot more characters than its 1979 predecessor. Most notable is Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), who is facing the demons that have haunted her since the events aboard the Nostromo. Adorably petrified Newt (Carrie Henn) is the young child who not only raises the stakes but allows for a few tender mother-daughter scenes between she and her surrogate protector Ripley. Corporal Hicks (Michael Biehn) is the all-American hero that’s there to watch Ripley’s back, and finally Bishop (Lance Henriksen) is a much more human-friendly android than his Alien counterpart Ash (Ian Holm). Despite his character’s heroics, he fails to escape the fate of all robots in this franchise and gets torn in half – but apparently he’s okay and can still manage to save lives with no legs. ‘Tis only a flesh wound.
All in all, Aliens is an astounding sequel that lives up to the hype of the franchise. It is an intense journey that pulls the audience along with it. The only qualm I have with it is the ending. Plot-wise it is brilliant, but from a technical standpoint it invokes viewers to tilt their heads and squint. Reminiscent of the final scene in Alien, Ripley gets rid of the xenomorph queen by blowing it out the airlock. Only this time, she’s not in a space suit, and she is clinging onto the edge of the ship’s airlock with the alien queen herself clinging onto her leg. Our heroine fights the vacuum of space and climbs up out of the airlock, managing to grapple with the controls to close it. This all happens within a span of a good five minutes. I’m no scientist, but I’m fairly certain that space doesn’t work like that. Human beings shouldn’t survive being in an open airlock in space for a prolonged period of time, nor should they be able to shake off alien queens and climb ladders.
Aliens is a phenomenal journey of intense action. Fans of the original and casual viewers alike will coo, shriek, and squeal at another masterpiece by James Cameron. It features a terrified woman using duct-tape to fasten a grenade launcher to a flamethrower so she can carry both at the same time. What more could you ask for?
Alien 3 (1992)
Directed by David Fincher
This movie killed everything – it killed our hopes of there ever being another good Alien movie, it killed Newt, it killed Hicks, and it even killed protagonist Ellen Ripley.
Alien 3 begins – like the previous two films – with Ripley and her companions floating through space in their cryogenic pods. While the ending of Aliens alludes that the makeshift family unit of Ripley, Hicks, and Newt have earned their happy ending and will sail away to earth and live out the rest of their lives, this does not turn out to be the case. A malfunction on the ship crushes not only our hopes of a decent ending to the series, but also my personal dream of finding a movie where actor Michael Biehn doesn’t die.
After the vessel flies itself into the ground of prison-planet Florina 161, Ripley is saved by the planet’s only inhabitants – a group of hard-boiled criminals left to govern themselves. As for Hicks and Newt? We are notified in an early conversation that both died off-screen. Hicks met his end by being impaled by a wayward rod that somehow managed to rattle loose and kill him in his sleep. Newt, whom we fell in love with even faster than Hicks, managed to drown in her own pod. If that made you skeptical and angry, listen to this: an egg somehow escaped Ripley’s purge with her trusty flamethrower, made its way into Ripley’s pod, and infected her. Ripley then miraculously survived the long-term flight in a broken pod and remained in stasis, and the facehugger apparently removed itself from Ripley and her pod magically repaired itself. Now with an alien embryo gestating inside our heroine, she somehow survives throughout the entire movie despite it being confirmed in previous films that once infected, the host has twenty four hours to live. After a crash landing, the facehugger displays just as much life and ability to move around as the egg that it came from and infects a dog. While it was interesting to see how the canine host would affect the physiology of the alien, the nonsensical killings of Hicks, Newt, and Ripley are hard to forgive.
Plot-wise, Alien 3 follows the original Alien rather closely. A rag-tag group of unlikely and unprepared characters are thrown together with one savage alien killer on the loose. However, unlike the original Alien, Alien 3 evokes no fear and is merely 145 minutes of bald people being killed in mundane ways. At the end of the movie, Ripley throws herself into a pit of burning iron, killing herself along with the alien queen gestating inside her.
There was one good thing about this ending: with the death of Ripley, another movie couldn’t be made. They were not going to make another movie. It would’ve been stupid to make another one. Ripley was dead, every last alien was dead, the planet that they came from was a nuclear ruin; it was impossible for there to be another Alien movie. The franchise had already been run into the ground.
Alien Resurrection (1997)
Directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet
You’ve got to be kidding me. Okay, they made another one. While I’m not proud to admit it, I was cautiously optimistic about this one. First, the title was hopeful – it seemed that the studio was going to “resurrect” the franchise and bring back the warm fuzzy feeling of a facehugger engulfing your head, and who better to do it than the writer Joss Whedon? Joss Whedon, who is a personal hero of mine, worked his way onto the science fiction Mount Rushmore with his work on Firefly, Dollhouse, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and The Avengers.
My faith was misplaced.
There is no way to summarize Alien Resurrection without keeling over, but I’ll try my best. Two hundred years after her Terminator 2-esque death, Ripley is resurrected as a human/xenomorph hybrid. It seems like mankind has yet to give up its hopes of using the aliens as biological weaponry, and with every last one of the vicious buggers killed off two movies ago, it decides that the best way to get its hands on one is cloning the woman who died in a pit of molten iron, and hoping that the alien that was gestating inside her is brought back as well. As ludicrous as all that sounds, it actually works. After several failed attempts, a Ripley clone is alive and fully functional with acid-blood and an eerily inhuman disposition. In addition to their new clone of an alien queen, the corporation is also breeding xenomorphs using kidnapped human hosts, and after two centuries of study, mankind has gotten no better at xenocontrol. Not only is nothing acid-blood proof, but the fact that these mammoth killing machines are allowed to roam around almost makes you think that these humans deserve to be xeno-food.
This brewing disaster comes to a boil when a scruffy band of space pirates land on the flying space lab to make a business transaction. During their stay, the xenomorphs, whom we all expected to break out ages ago, finally break out and initiate their inevitable killing rampage. Ripley and the space pirates race to escape the slaughter, which is much easier now since every time our group of heroes hits a dead end, Ripley can just fling some blood at the wall and melt a hole in it.
There are more oddities and contradictions in Alien Resurrection than there were alien eggs in LV-426 and listing them all would take longer than listing every orc that was killed in The Lord of the Rings. Needless to say, Alien Resurrection didn’t bring back the heart-stopping, jaw-dropping, gut-wrenching magic in the first two movies, but instead the animosity and disappointment that came out of Alien 3.
In conclusion, the Alien Anthology is a semi-masterpiece. It is a feat in both Ridley Scott’s and James Cameron’s portfolios, and has become something that science fiction lovers could be proud of. I highly recommend the series to thrill seekers, eye-candy eaters, science fiction lovers, and anyone else that wants to watch a series of movies that made history. However, out of respect to the series, I kindly request that you pretend that Alien 3 and Alien Resurrection were never made and did not happen. That seems rather harsh, but when the director himself disowns a movie, I feel that it’s in the fans’ best interests to follow suit. Let Hicks, Newt, and Ripley stay alive in our heart and in our minds. For those who love the original movies as much as I do and, like me, discredit the two that followed, Prometheus, directed by Ridley Scott – the man that started it all – is a brilliant prequel to the series. However, that movie can be saved for discussion at a later time.
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Excellent wotk, Jamie.