Sunday, June 30, 2019

THE ALIEN FRANCHISE



ALIEN

I saw the original Alien on its opening weekend in 1979. People actually ran out of the theater during the chest-burster scene. A sign of how jaded moviegoers have become since, I can’t imagine that happening today.


As a sci-fi fan geek, I had been told to expect something visceral and disturbing in the movie so was somewhat prepared for what happened. It is an unforgettable scene.

What Ridley Scott did here was take the sci-fi horror story to a new level. While it’s all still just essentially a monster movie, a haunted house in space story, Scott dropped all the melodrama and took a more organic, naturalistic approach with his actors. That, for me, is the key that makes Alien work the way it does.


Like the classic Thing From Another World, Scott takes time let us get to know the crew of the Nostromo and, like the Howard Hawks film, we watch as they engage in banter and ball-busting and griping in the sort of easy exchange and  patois that people adopt when they share a task or are in each others company for a prolonged period. He used the camera in such a way that were distanced from the action at first, very much voyeurs to their world. He’s aided in this by as fine an ensemble of character actors as you’ll find in any movie of this period as well as Sigourney Weaver in her breakout role as Ripley.


Unlike in The Thing, not much about the alien is revealed. We learn about its gestation cycle along with the crew but know nothing more than what they, and we, can see. Like earthbound insects, it has a metamorphosis. But is the eight-foot-tall humanoid monster the end of this cycle or is there more? Its origins are a mystery. The only clear motivation it seems to have is to kill every living thing it meets. Like all great science fiction, this movie asks more questions than it answers.


The look of the film is also spectacular. Jean “Moebius” Giraud worked on set and costume design and the movie, overall, derives much of its look from the work of Belgian and French comic artists. As Star Wars borrowed heavily from the look of Jean Claude Mezieres’ Valerian, this film was inspired by the organic, lived-in look of SF graphic novel works of Mezieres, Giraud, Druilliet and Bilal and others.


The screenwriters and Scott do not look away from the meaner aspects of the story they’ve created. And that is at the core of the entire Alien franchise. Meanness. This is a horror series that is unrelentingly brutal and unforgiving to its characters.  Throughout the entire film cycle we see characters established only to be killed in the most awful ways imaginable and often unexpectedly.


This cynical angle on man’s place in the universe, that we’re all only meat for the taking or hosts for extraterrestrial offspring, is at the center of what makes these movies (at their best) click. It sets up the notion that no one is safe. That anything can happen to anyone at anytime and very often does.

Another unique aspect that is very present in the first film but not much as the series continues is the pure, danged cussedness of the human race. Sure, Ripley is scared and we’re scared for her. But she’s also pissed off and we feel that too. She has this mindless, eyeless thing that’s murdered her crewmates chasing her around and she’s been effed over by her own employer in the shape of the ultimate company man, the android Ash. She’s tired of being effed with and someone has to pay fro that. First the alien and then her bosses back on Earth.

For me, that excuses the one departure from the “anything to survive” theme of this movie. I’m talking about Ripley’s foolhardy efforts to save Jones, the ship’s cat. I can excuse it because, hell, I want her to save the cat. But, more than that, Jones becomes a symbol of Ripley’s determination not only to survive but to triumph. She’s NOT going to let that mean old beasty have  the only other living earthling remaining on the Nostromo.


In the end, the movie ends on a satisfying note but also leaves us uneasy about Ripley’s fate. Will she be found? And how much time will pass? And what will the world be like when she awakens?
 

Which brings us to.........

ALIENS


This won’t be popular with some of you. Most of you even.

I have to confess that I loved his movie when it came out. It was a pure adrenalin rush. And, on the surface, what’s not to like? The story is a sturdy one. A distant colony has not been heard from in a while. The last reports mentioned a dangerous xenomorph species. A military unit is dispatched to investigate and, if needed, eradicate the threat. They will be taking along Ellen Ripley who is the only survivor to have encountered this species.

Gung ho monster-killing action by the guy who made The Terminator. Yay. 


And the movie does deliver on its original premise. Loads of action between space marines and aliens. The discovery of the beginning of the alien birth cycle, a cyclopean queen who is murderous in her wrath when her children are threatened. It’s even cool that it all ends in a Battle of Moms with Ripley defending the helpless waif Newt from the killer alien queen.

But…the movie does not bear up well over time. Unlike the first movie in the series which looks timeless, this movie is firmly stuck in the 80s. Paul Reiser looks so in the period this movie was made in he looks like he got an unlimited giftcard to L.L. Bean. He even acts 80s.


And the dialogue. James Cameron can write the most painful, on-the-money dialogue ever written. And here he shoots the wad. Everyone talks in hyperbole or jargon without a trace of irony. This is lightyears away from the organic, naturalistic conversations of the first film that made the characters so human and relatable. Here the characters have par phrases and ready responses instead of conversations, ball-busting by rote. Except they don’t seem tired of it. Their bon mots are delivered as if they still think they’re clever. Sigourney’s eye-rolling at some of these exchanges probably wasn’t scripted.

This is especially, excruciatingly true of all the military characters. James Cameron either has a “special loathing” for the military (to quite Bill Clinton) or simply doesn’t know how to write them.  These are supposed to be experienced soldiers, specialists in their own way. Yet they come off as preening morons, strutting around like peacocks and spouting one “you talkin’ to me” cliché after another. I think Cameron is writing them as jocks. He must have gotten shut up on a locker or pantsed by his football team back in junior high and is now getting back at them. And this isn’t the only instance in his writing. In his screenplay for Rambo 2 he portrays everyone but Rambo and Troutman as uber-macho gym rats. Same for Avatar, soldiers as braggadocios murderers.  


Not only are the Marines shown as loudmouth dullards, they’re not even good at their jobs. Even Hicks, the only “good” and principled one in the unit is portrayed as kind of slow on the uptake and lacking in initiative or drive. He needs Ripley to tell him what to do. 

And, while their shared dialogue reveals that they have been on “bug hunts” before they seem entirely unprepared for what comes next. One can assume that they went on military missions against alien life forms perhaps not as lethal as the critters of this franchise. But wouldn’t that have them taking even more precautions as they begin to realize that this new species is different than any they faced before? Wouldn’t their preconceived notions of what to expect evaporate in the light of the complete annihilation of the colony’s population and the presence of a massive, maze-like hive under construction at the heart of the complex? It’s obvious even from the first encounter that these “bugs” are no Zanti misfits. And yet these vaunted space marines troop into an ambush bunched up like the Bowery Boys.


And what’s with the Bishop character? Why should Ripley trust him after almost being murdered by one of his kind in the previous film? His reasoning that the previous models were “twitchy” excuses nothing. It all comes off as a ham-handed allegory to racial prejudice. “Don’t judge all us robots by one homicidal machine man.” Never mind that Bishop works for, and was programmed by, the same company that ordered Ash to make sure everyone on the Nostromo died. What is this thing Cameron has about killer androids redeeming themselves? He’d revisit this theme in Terminator 2.


As we’ll see in a future review, he might not be the only filmmaker working out some personal issues through this franchise.


More than anything else, this sequel takes us away from the meanest aspect of what defines this series; the inescapable chaos of the natural universe. The sheer random brutality of the universe. Aliens works more like a standard horror or action film in which all the “right” people survive. By this standard, Captain Dallas should have lived to the end of the first film as he was undeniably the most courageous of the Nostromo’s crew. Here, we see all the braggarts, cowards, connivers, fools and assholes rendered victims of the beasties while the virtuous heroes, Ripley, Newt and Hicks survive. The only regrettable casualty is Bishop who ends his existence while valiantly trying to assist Ripley in her battle with the queen mama. But, as I stated before, there’s no reason a future programming update wouldn’t have had him shoving the survivors’ hyper-sleep chambers out an airlock.



ALIEN 3

I’m going to lose even more friends over this one, but I see Alien 3 as the only true sequel to Ridley Scott’s first film. In tone if nothing else.


While Cameron went full bore on a comic book approach, here David Fincher embraces a more somber mood piece much like the first film. Here there’s a return to the “nature’s a bitch” theme. Nothing will save you from this film’s critter. The deserving die alongside the sinners. It’s also the end of Ellen Ripley’s arc. This Ripley anyway. And the conclusion of the film is fitting and poignant despite being downbeat.

I like the logical progression of the alien metamorphosis as well as this time the monster is created out of a dog rather than a human. The end result is pure predator, a creature that relies on speed rather than size. There’s less of the wandering in a haunted house feel and far more of a chase going on.


The setting of a prison planet that’s become a sort of twisted monastery is an interesting choice. Ripley is as much an alien here as the creature she brought along with her. They are both, in their own way, in a fight to survive in this hostile environment.


I know this entry doesn’t have a lot of fans but I will defend it without reservation. It has a number of amazing sequences, a crushing feeling of dread throughout and one of the most iconic images of the entire franchise; Ripley’s face-to-face confrontation with an alien warrior.


Now let’s move on to the entry that everyone loves to hate.

ALIEN RESURRECTION 


You know, Alien Resurrection has a lot going for it right up until the third act.


Of all of them, this one comes closest to the French graphic album feel that played such a part in the first film. And there’s a lot of very cool scenes.

First up, I’m a sucker for the “you don’t know who you’re messing with” kind of story. And the clone of Ellen Ripley is all that. Sigourney’s slicked back look, newly acquired gym muscle and general air of “I can kill everyone on in this room’ badassery makes for a lot of fun encounters. Plus, this is the first time the franchise takes advantage of her real-life six-foot height. She really is imposing especially against the rest of the not-so-tall cast.


The crew of space vagabonds who show up and become Ripley 2.0’s allies is well cast with Ron Perlman at his most Neanderthal and the criminally underused Michael Wincott as the space pirate skipper. 


Winona Ryder is along in the thankless role of the android. She’s all emo all the time and the only character in the movie who seems to care for anyone beyond herself. Get it? A robot is more human than the humans! You got that right? Just making sure. Ryder seems genuinely scared of Weaver but I’m going to put that down to acting skills.


And we have Brad Dourif and Dan Hedaya here in a race to see who can chew more scenery. It’s a wonder there weren’t bite marks everywhere.


Well it’s all run and shoot and fight and die and a fine sci-fi monster movie until we get to whatever the hell that hybrid human/alien thing was supposed to be. There’s no way the cast and crew didn’t have trouble keeping a straight face at the idiotic end design of this creature. It’s all pink and rubbery and has a nose! A little, nubby, tilted nose. Oh, and big sad eyes. It’s possibly the dumbest monster design ever and I’m including Philippine kaiju and Roger Corman movies. What the hell were they thinking? There were probably thousands of concept drawing done for this and they picked the worst possible one.

And the design was key to make the final scenes of the movie work. I mean, the remaining human portion of Ripley’s mind is supposed to bond with this wriggly beastie like a mother to a child. But who could become attached to this thing? I could understand if it was scary looking. But it looked so silly! If there was an Academy Award for not bursting out laughing it has to go to Sigourney for all those close-up shots she shared with the overgrown gummi baby.


As I promised, this movie features a recurring theme from its screenwriter.

The scene where Ripley discovers the room full of aborted clones is remarkably similar to another reveal scene in another Joss Whedon scripted movie.
 

Remember when Buzz Lightyear discovers that he’s a toy and not a terrible unique one at that? Same scene right?




Well, anyway, that’s my take on the Alien franchise. I might do a future entry dealing with the prequels, crossovers and prequel crossovers. But that would mean watching Prometheus again and I’m not sure that’s a sacrifice I’m willing to make.



                       GAME OVER, MAN!

3 comments:

  1. Couldn't agree more. Three is my fave of the franchise because, in a true horror movie way, the people die and the monster gets away. If I had to have one on my shelf, Fincher's would be it.

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  2. I always appreciated the games made off of ALIENS than the actually movie.

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  3. Your feelings on Aliens mirror my own. The Space Marines always bothered me, all the way back in 1987, because they were so unprofessional and undisciplined. They bring along an adviser just so they can make fun of her knowledge and advice. I now realize Cameron's working out his Viet Nam metaphor. That doesn't make it any better. (I wish he'd quit insisting he likes the military and has military people in his family. His movies make his feelings quite clear.)

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