Note: this is a revised edition of an article first published in 2011.
When screenwriter Dan O’Bannon sat down to write the science-fiction monster movie he’d been itching to create since working on John Carpenter’s Dark Star it’s fair to assume he had little inkling just how successful his idea would be. Titled Star Beast, O’Bannon wanted to pay homage to the space monster movies of the 50s.
In his own words:
“I didn’t steal Alien from anybody. I stole it from everybody!”
There’s certainly no denying that the basic premise of Star Beast was far from original. Even with several rewrites from other writers and a new title, Alien, it still seemed to be nothing that hadn’t been seen before.
However, sometimes it’s not the idea but the execution that makes all the difference and after the introduction of a young, English director (Ridley Scott) and a slightly unhinged Swiss artist (H.R. Giger), Alien became far more than the sum of its parts. Scott was determined that Alien would be more than just a cheesy B-movie. He wanted something dark, moody, gritty and most of all, scary. Not so much Star-Wars-with-a-monster as The-Texas-Chainsaw-Massacre-in-space.
Realizing that a huge part of the movie’s success hung on the monster, Scott turned to Giger to bring his psycho-sexual nightmare imagery to life in the creation of what has since become the most iconic and inventive monster in cinema. Part human, part skeleton and part penis-with-teeth, Giger’s creature truly is the stuff of nightmares. From its mouth-rape impregnation to its chest-bursting birth and brain-eating maturity, this is about as far removed from the rubber-tentacled invaders of 50s hokum as possible.
Together, O’Bannon, Scott and Giger created something special. James Cameron later added his own brand of lunacy to proceedings, but continued success was not to be. The Alien franchise is the perfect example of how easily a great idea can be milked to exhaustion. It is also a great example of an idea coming full circle. What started as a low-budget, B-movie script was elevated beyond its apparent limitations by superb direction and inspired design.
However, 38 years and 8 films later, the franchise may have found new limitations. With talk recently turning to a ninth installment, Celluloid Zombie takes a look back at the Alien saga’s sliding scale, from excellent to dreadful to frustrating.
The crew of the cargo ship Nostromo land on a remote planet after receiving a distress call. They discover a derelict vessel on the surface and when one of the crew is attacked by an alien parasite, he brings aboard a nasty life form.
“You still don’t understand what you’re dealing with, do you? The perfect organism. Its structural perfection is matched only by its hostility.”
The original and still the best. Ridley Scott could have made an all-out, rampaging monster mash, given the material, but instead gives us an atmospheric and terrifying horror movie. Almost a haunted-house-in-space flick, where the focus is on suspense as much as shock. Hyper-realistic performances, and much ad-libbing, from an accomplished cast give proceedings an authenticity which makes even the more outlandish events far more convincing.
Alien also features some of the finest design work seen in any genre, with Scott’s decision to use completely different artists for the human environments and the alien environments paying rich dividends. The contrast is stark. Giger’s work on every aspect of the alien’s life cycle and habitat gives the movie’s title a rare veracity. Rarely has horror been quite so alien, and quite so beautiful.
The Alien: Tall, vicious and utterly… well, alien. Despite all the CGI and model work that has been employed in subsequent interpretations of Giger’s creation, Scott’s man-in-a-suit (6′ 10″ Bolaji Badejo) still remains the most imposing, chilling and effective incarnation, certainly aided in part by Scott’s frugal use of the creature. The xenomorph never quite seemed this menacing again.
57 years after the events of Alien, Ripley is found drifting through space in hypersleep. She awakens to find that the planet where the alien was found has been colonised and returns with an army to determine why the colonists have stopped transmitting.
“Just tell me one thing, Burke. You’re going out there to destroy them, right? Not to study. Not to bring back. But to wipe them out.”
Perhaps only James Cameron would have the chutzpah to attempt a sequel to one of the most successful horror movies of all time, seven years after it was released. His answer? Simple, don’t even try to make another horror movie. It’s an inspired decision. Although there are aspects of horror to Aliens, it is essentially an action flick. And a damn good one, too.
This was the movie where the character of Ripley became as big a star as the monster, and Sigourney Weaver rises to the occasion admirably. But all-in-all the performances are a lot more comic-book this time around. In many ways, this is the rampaging monster mash the original never wanted to be. It is rare to find a sequel that has so much respect for its progenitor, developing its own magic rather than trying to recreate the original’s.
The Alien: Cameron employed effects guru Stan Winston to put his own spin on Giger’s alien, making them smaller and more insect-like than before. And while Aliens adds to the life cycle of the creature by introducing us to the thing that lays all those eggs, the mighty Queen, it suffers a little by diminishing the original creature. Because there are more of them this time they become somewhat more disposable, and in turn a little less frightening. However, Cameron does wonders with the facehuggers, and the battle between Ripley and the Queen at the end is very, very cool.
Ripley, now the sole survivor of the Sulaco, crash lands on the prison planet ‘Fury’ 161. Finding herself the only woman in a prison full of men, Ripley also finds that an alien has landed with her. However, this is a prison and there are no weapons with which to fight it.
“You’ve been in my life so long, I can’t remember anything else.”
This is where it all started to go wrong for the franchise. A troubled production from the very beginning, the script and story went through way too many changes, even during shooting. That, coupled with budget restrictions and studio interference, left first-time director Fincher with an almighty mess on his hands. Alien 3 was an attempt to return to the single alien threat of the original, but it just doesn’t measure up.
The script is awful, with too much pointless running around and very little for the mostly unsympathetic characters to do. In the hands of a lesser director this would have been truly dire but Fincher injects enough mood to rescue it, if not completely. Alien 3 is the most depressing, bleak and uncompromising episode of the franchise and ultimately it is this which prevents it from falling into total mediocrity.
The Alien: The first time the creature emerges from something other than a person. Born of a dog, this alien runs around on all fours and only occasionally stands up. While it’s a novel idea, it doesn’t really work. Also, the early CGI used for the dog alien fits so badly with the guy-in-a-suit used for the standing poses that you have to keep reminding yourself that there aren’t two different aliens running around.
It has been 200 years since Ellen Ripley died, but scientists on a military space ship manage to clone her in an attempt to clone the alien Queen within her, too. While the scientists begin experimenting on the freshly born aliens, Ripley finds that she is not quite human anymore.
“There’s a monster in your chest. It’s a really nasty one. And in a few hours you’re gonna die. Any questions?”
French director Jeunet continued the series comfort with maverick directors, but even his unique style couldn’t save this next-step-down for the ailing franchise. Anyone who has some familiarity with Joss Whedon’s writing will search in vain for his trademark snappy dialogue as the rather weak, confused story creaks along.
Ripley and a group of tough-by-numbers mercenaries try to escape the vessel after the aliens break free, but the threat is now predictable and tired. The only real saving grace is Weaver’s turn as the new, slightly psychotic Ripley, now with added alien DNA. The movie’s attempts to add new angles to the alien merely serve to reinforce that this is becoming a franchise with nowhere left to go.
The Alien: Same old, same old for the most part. The aliens are rendered with improved CGI, we even get to see them swimming for the first time, and there’s another appearance from the Queen. But by now the novelty has worn thin and the grace and dark beauty of Giger’s original is all but lost. Worse, however, is to come with the introduction of Ripley’s half-human, half-alien baby… thing. It’s just crap. And ridiculous. It looks like a decomposing Muppet.
ALIEN VS PREDATOR
Paul W. S. Anderson
Present day earth, and a research team travel to Antartica to investigate an ancient structure buried in the ice. Once inside, they discover a bizarre temple containing alien eggs. When some of the team become hosts to the aliens, a group of Predators in orbit arrive for the party.
“When that door opens, we’re dead.”
So, just when you think it can’t get any worse, some studio exec has a bright idea. Why don’t we mix franchises? Huh? Huh? After all, the comic books have been doing it, why not the movies? Well, here’s why. Alien vs. Predator. It was a dumb idea way back when Universal decided to put Frankenstein and the Wolfman in the same picture and it’s a dumb idea now. And as with many of Paul W. S. Anderson’s movies, this hints at greatness before wandering off into confused mediocrity.
Coming off like a cross between Tomb Raider and Alien: Resurrection, AVP (as it likes to be known) ends up being worse than both. Not even the great Lance Henriksen, reprising his role from Aliens (sort of), can save this movie from being far too occupied with cool to remember that we’re supposed to be scared. Or at least thrilled.
The Alien: Nothing surprising, imaginative or creative here. Aliens, a Queen, facehuggers and some Predators (who are also aliens, so why isn’t this called Alien vs Alien?) all make an appearance, but none retain a semblance of the dread they evoked in previous outings.
ALIEN VS PREDATOR REQUIEM
Colin and Greg Strause
Following on from the events of Alien Vs Predator, the Predator’s ship crashes in the forests outside the small town of Gunnison, Colorado. A group of Facehuggers, and the newly born Alien/Predator hybrid, escape and overrun the town. Another Predator arrives to stop them. Yawn.
“Her stomach… It was gone.”
Just when you thought it couldn’t get worse than worse… well, brace yourselves. The once innovative, proud and glorious creatures finally find themselves picking off teenagers in a small, American town. This is the equivalent of horror movie purgatory. There is pretty much nothing to recommend this train wreck of a movie. The dialogue is dreadful, the acting on par and it’s so badly shot that you’re hard pressed to see what’s going on. Which could be a blessing.
Among the fantastically original characters are the reformed bad boy returning to town, the small-time Sheriff out of his depth, the weedy kid with a crush on the hot blonde and the bully jock. The franchise finally returns to the B-movie dross that gave birth to it, becoming the very movie it so successfully avoided being back in 1979. What were they thinking?
The Alien: The aliens run around, the facehuggers do their thing, the Predator follows them and throws things at them periodically. That’s about it. And then there is the so-called “Predalien”, which is neither Predator enough to be cool, or Alien enough to be scary. It just looks like what it is, an alien with dreadlocks. Please stop now.
2089 and two archaeologists lead a space mission to find humanity’s possible forerunners. Financed by Peter Weyland, of the Weyland Corporation, the crew of the Prometheus fall prey to an alien infestation, and the agendas of human and Engineer alike.
“You don’t understand. You don’t know. This place isn’t what we thought it was. They aren’t what we thought they were. I was wrong. We were so wrong. We must leave.”
38 years after bringing us the beginning of this franchise, Ridley Scott returns with a prequel set 30 years before the events of Alien. Perhaps scarred (as we all were) by the diminishing returns of the sequels, Scott wanted to inject something fresh into the series. In this regard he very much succeeds, but strangely his success is also his downfall.
Prometheus could have been a great science-fiction movie, if only it weren’t constrained by the franchise connections it needs to weave. It asks the big questions and tackles humanity, creation and religion with the intelligence that SciFi was made for. The problem is Prometheus is so far removed from the franchise it represents that it ultimately does not convince as an entry into the Alien series. It would have been better off as a standalone movie, with more room to breathe.
On the plus side, Noomi Rapace is a worthy replacement for Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley and Michael Fassbender takes on the android duties with a cold assurance. In fact, everyone brings it home, particularly Charlize Theron. And once again, the substance and style of the movie live up to the word “alien” in the same way the original did.
The Alien: Take your pick. The evolution of the bio-engineered goo brings us a number of critters, each as vicious as the other. Ultimately we are treated to something that kinda, sort of, resembles the legendary xenomorph. But is kinda, sort of, what we came here for?
11 years after the events of Prometheus, the colony ship Covenant is forced to stop when it is damaged. Picking up a human voice from a nearby planet, the crew decide to investigate. What they find is the evolution of the species which ended the Prometheus mission, and the fate of its survivors.
“No one understands the lonely perfection of my dreams. I found perfection here. I’ve created it. A perfect organism.”
Ridley Scott comes back for more, continuing what he has promised will be a trilogy. Like Prometheus, Covenant continues to explore the themes of creation and faith, using the androids David and Walter (Fassbender in dual roles) as opposing forces. Covenant also continues the franchise tradition of strong female leads with a wonderful turn from Katherine Waterston.
Covenant is a frustrating experience, again torn between being a satisfying franchise entry and its own beast. It lacks the depth and nuance of Prometheus and never achieves the scares and horror of Alien. It isn’t the first time that a franchise creator has failed to recapture the magic that eluded so many others on its way to this eighth episode.
Where Covenant really falls down, though, is in the brutal dispensing of Prometheus‘ central character, Elizabeth Shaw. It’s rather bewildering to have spent an entire movie creating a trilogy-ready character only to kill her off before the second installment has even begun. In fact, it is strangely reminiscent of the fates of Hicks and Newt in Alien 3. It is a woeful misstep and a needless distraction in the narrative.
The Alien: The xenomorphs and facehuggers make a comeback, albeit rather briefly. And while it is great to see the xenomorph once again resembling the original Giger suit from Alien, the CGI still does not do them any favors.
As of 2019 Disney (having acquired 21st Century Fox) have stated their intention to continue the series. Scott is reportedly in the script stage of another entry, and has commented that he won’t necessarily continue with the Prometheus story. Whether the franchise will ever regain the heights of its first two movies remains to be seen. The return of Scott was always going to be welcome after the horrors of AVP and AVPR, because he at least brings intelligence and creativity back into the process.
That being said, sometimes evolution can take a species so far from its origins that it becomes unrecognizable. Hollywood has always fallen into the trap of making sequels rather than making new, untested, product and Ridley Scott’s latest entries suggest that perhaps it is time to let the xenomorph drift off into space, and place some faith in those new ideas that are trying to shine through.