1979 saw the beginning of what would become an icon of cinema, and a long-running series that would capture the imaginations of generations of film-goers. And in addition to the birth of all three members of Fuds on Film, 1979 also saw the release of a little film called Alien.
Moving between, and often straddling, the horror, science-fiction and action genres, the Aliens franchise has seen 6 main films, 2 crossover spin-offs with the Predator franchise, numerous books, comics and videogames, a boatload of money and the launch into superstardom of three notable directors. Only Star Trek and_ Star Wars_ can rival Aliens for most recognisable and emotive extra-terrestrial species (and most of these are just humans with pointy ears, humans with wrinkly heads, or tall humans in bear costumes). Not even George Lucas’s syntactically-crippled diminutive space frog, beloved though he is, has the same pull on our emotions as the sight of that shining, black, elongated skull emerging from the shadows, ready to strike.
The series has been marked out by its willingness to take risks on debutant or up and coming directors, rather than established names, and the fact that, until the most recent entry, each film, while clearly part of the series, had its own particular, distinctive, look and feel, something which has helped keep the franchise from stagnating (at least too badly).
I mentioned the Predator cross-overs, and we will be covering those 2 films, along with the Predator franchise itself, in our next episode, but today we’re sticking to the Xenomorphs, and we’ll be discussing the whole series, from Alien up to the recently released Alien: Covenant.
The classic film that started it all and became the template for every space-horror rip off / homage since, Ridley Scott’s film surely needs little introduction. The crew of the space hauler Nostromo are diverted from their trip home to investigate a mysterious signal, leading to the crashed alien ship where John Hurt has an encounter of the face-hugging kind.
Soon, there’s a dirty great alien creeping around taking out the crew one by one, until it’s just Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley taking on Human Resources Giger’s iconic design of xenomorph. Building tension all the way, with a clutch of great performances, Alien holds a strong claim to being the best of the series, and is at the very least at the table in discussions about the best science fiction of all time.
For a film as old as I am, holds up remarkably well. I suppose, now, having seen the chest-bursting seen a dozen times and not having the shock value it once did you can notice that the little fella’s not that convincing when skittering across the table, and the general “control interfaces being a million switches and lights” isn’t quite in line with how tech’s going, but these are only fixable with a time machine.
Minor niggles, and should not dissuade anyone from viewing this in the unlikely event you haven’t already.
Creating a sequel to a successful film can be very difficult. Creating a sequel better than the first, more difficult yet. And a sequel that is not only better than what came before, but is, while clearly of the same cloth, its own distinctive thing rather than simply a continuation or rehashing? Well, those are rarer than hen’s teeth. Yet that is what a young filmmaker called James Cameron, hot off of the success of a little cult science-fiction film called The Terminator, managed to do in 1986.
Cameron, who is also one of the screenwriters, looked at Ridley Scott’s original film, and thought, “Yes, yes, ALL of that. Only MOAR.” As others have similarly observed in the past 30 years, Aliens is one of those few cases in cinema where more is, in fact, more. More aliens, more tunnels, more ducts, more threat. And more genres; Ridley Scott successfully spliced horror and sci-fi. Cameron added war and action to the mix, and it worked perfectly.
The action is set on LV-426, the then-uninhabited planet where Ripley and the crew of the Nostromo encountered the derelict spacecraft and Kane had his unfortunate encounter with the egg. 57 years of hyper-sleep later, and Ripley awakens to find that LV-426 is now home to a terraforming colony of engineers and their families and, wouldn’t you just know it, something seems to have gone wrong, and contact with the colony has been lost. After much persuasion, a traumatised Ripley agrees to travel to LV-426 as an adviser, alongside a platoon of Colonial Marines, to see what is what.
The what is that all hell has pretty much broken loose, and there is now an army of HR Giger’s space beasties crawling over the place, and Ripley, Hicks, Hudson and their squad of ultimate bad-asses must deal with them in any way that they can. Except, of course, they can’t really deal with them, and that’s the genius stroke. This is an enemy that can’t be beaten, but maybe, just maybe, they can survive long enough to run away. The relentlessness of the xenomorphs keeps the tension and threat incredibly high throughout. Our heroes can never relax, never let their guard down, even for a moment.
And still there is the threat from within. These highly-evolved, perfect killing machines, are in a way pure. They are not duplicitous or deceitful, and even Ripley, like Ash before her, can find something like admiration for the species: “You don’t see them fucking each other over for a goddamn percentage” she admonishes Burke.
Aliens is just so well-made and well-written. Sigourney Weaver is superb as the strong, smart but reluctant leader Ripley, pragmatically doing what she knows needs to be done. While they are necessarily thin, as there as so many of them, the characters of the marines are sketched out deftly enough to allow each to seem human and relatable, crucial for us to actually care about their fates. A few (Michael Biehn’s Corporal Hicks, and Bill Paxton’s Private Hudson most notably) are more roundly drawn, and they are so much more than the one-note jarheads that so many war films are populated with.
It is expertly paced, too; while neither the characters nor the audience can ever relax, there are peaks and troughs of tension, but the baseline level is gradually increased throughout, building to a superb climax. (It’s also worth noting that of all the films in the franchise, it is the director’s cut of Aliens, with its 17 minutes of extra footage, that genuinely benefits from the increase in material, stretching out the peril and making the tension almost unbearable, particularly the extra shots of the robot sentry guns). It’s an ordeal, and intentionally so.
Our friend Matt Toler contacted us to say that he thought Aliens may be the greatest action film of all time. Obviously he’s wrong, because Die Hard, but Aliens is certainly up there, and there is little, if anything, that I would want to change about it.
It seems like only a scant few months ago since we last spoke about Fincher’s instalment in the franchise, because, well, it was – in our David Fincher episode, predictably enough. However, future generations would never forgive us were we to simply point you in that direction and skip daintily on to the next film, so as a compromise position, let’s go over the basics here, and recommend the Fincher episode for the full low-down. It’s a good episode. You’ll enjoy it.
Ripley crashes down to the near deserted prison planet of Fury 161 as the only survivor of the Sulaco, a casual sweep of the pen killing Hicks, Newt and Bishop off camera. Well, not the sole survivor, it turns out, as a facehugger hugs the face of an inmates dog, eventually bringing forth a dog-type xenomorph to rampage through the prison population.
An unarmed prison population, at that, meaning that not only must Ripley face down an alien armed with the sharp stick that Hudson joked about in Aliens, but there’s a good chance that she’ll have to fend off the humans too. They’ve all sworn vows of celibacy, under the leadership of Charles S. Dutton’s Dillon, but these will be stressful, trying, and as evidenced by the other films, fatal times for everyone. The skeleton custodial staff of authoritarian tea salesman Andrews (Brian Glover), dunce second in command Aaron (Ralph Brown) and ex-junkie medical officer Clemens (Charles Dance) aren’t going to be a huge amount of help either, once the inmate hits the fans.
If there’s not enough of a clock put on this by the loose alien, a few more appear once Ripley discovers she’s also hosting one of the critters in her chest, and the Wayland-Yutani boys are on course for a “rescue mission”, which is not the most reassuring news in the world. So, Ripley and the survivors hatch a desperate plan to kill the beast while Ripley ponders killing herself rather than hand herself over to the bioweapons boys.
There’s a podcast by itself in the chaos of the various wildly different scripts knocking about pre-production, and the folly of starting to shoot without a script, but in short, it’s frankly incredible that anything at all watchable came from this birthing process, and I’d go out on an increasingly shored up limb and say that Alien 3 is pretty good. With Fincher’s career blossoming after this, it’s easy to see the visual style he carried on through with, in particular Seven, and that elevates a lot of the arguably slender material that they’ve essentially improvised. It was, perhaps a few years ahead of its time, and now we’ve all made our peace with “dark and edgy”, it’s easier to see the positives in Alien 3, particularly the great central turns and the visual distinctiveness of the setting.
I think we three have all re-evaluated_Alien 3_ over the years, and now rather like it, although I didn’t as a young lad. I don’t think that’s a particularly controversial viewpoint now, but if you haven’t felt the need to revisit this since the 90’s, I again urge you to do so. I also stand by my comment that the theatrical cut is better than the longer “assembly” cut, which I find to entirely ruin the pacing of the film without adding all that much of interest.
While I always thought that Alien 3 was hugely underrated, Alien: Resurrection got a horrendously bad rap, most particularly from me. Perhaps it’s a juxtaposition thing because I rewatched it (for the first time since it was released) the same day that I rewatched Prometheus, and it’s nowhere near as bad as I recall finding it on initial viewing.
There are elements of an interesting film in there: Ripley has been the hero of the previous films, and now you have her finally beaten by the corporations that she was continually battling against, just when you thought she had conquered them forever after her sacrifice at the end of Alien 3. Then you take the protagonist and make her, against her will, the antagonist. I like that idea. And you could even play with the idea of nature vs nurture – perhaps there is something inherent in the DNA that composes Ripley that means that she is always going to be good, so she fights against the aliens. But instead, they cram in a ham-fisted, nonsensical, “yeah, she’s got genetic memories now” explanation so they can have the same character, more or less. It’s very disappointing.
Whedon’s script is less Whedon-y than usual, but some of his trademark humour is in there, for example “would all aliens please report to level 1”. And it’s not that it’s not funny, because it certainly can be, but more that it doesn’t fit with the tone of the film, and certainly not the series.
Winona Ryder being a robot is completely underwritten, and her character as seen in the final product isn’t much more than “the other films had androids (See also “Father”), so we better mark that off of the checklist for this film also”. Rebellious androids seem a bit much, but if you are going to do that then commit, and don’t make it a largely throwaway line.
Jeunet was a very strange choice for this, and I think his visual style and palette doesn’t really fit with an Alien film. That said, there is an argument to be made that in a long-running series like this that there is value to be had in giving each film a distinct identity. Alien had a very specific look, Aliens, while necessarily sharing some elements, had its own identity, both in terms of content and visuals. Alien 3 is perhaps the least individual visually, being closest to Alien with some elements of Aliens thrown in, but its bronzed palette is quite different to the blues and greys of the preceding films. And Prometheus is incredibly distinctive, looking nothing at all like rest of the series (sadly Covenant looks largely identical to it, and breaks that pleasing trend). And in that regard, Resurrection is successful, even if I don’t like the look of it.
I think that Jeunet too often casts for interesting faces, rather than interesting performances, and while that is probably a boon in The City of Lost Children, or even Amélie, it doesn’t work in an Alien film. As a case study, I direct you towards Dan Hedaya’s wildly, comedically, swirling eyeballs when the Alien takes a chunk out of the back of his skull.
Sadly it falls apart spectacularly in the last 20 minutes, what with all of the maternal bonding nonsense, Ripley hugging aliens, and all of the roaring. The human/alien hybrid is great design, because that thing looks creepy as hell, but it just doesn’t work. In Alien, Ash talked about how he admired their purity, and I think it is that very purity that has made the alien such an enduring thing, but Alien: Resurrection ruins that (as does Prometheus. Thanks Ridley). The denouement has more than a hint of the demise of Frankenstein’s creature about it, and that may actually have been poignant had Ripley had anything whatsoever to do with its creation, but since she died 200 years earlier, she did not.
I worry about Ridley Scott, I really do. Despite having talked regularly since not long after the release of Alien about wanting to return to the Alien universe and make a prequel that would show the origins of the creatures, he will do things like pop up in interviews, as in a recent episode of Radio 4’s The Film Programme, and state flat-out, and with no seeming hint of irony, “I don’t do backstory”. It makes me wonder if this apparent cognitive dissonance is what largely contributed to him so spectacularly missing the point when he brought his all backstory, all the way, prequel Prometheus to the screen. (Well, that and letting Damon Lindelof write the script).
And he really did miss the point. In that same interview, Scott mentioned “Nobody asked the question ‘what the ship was?’, ‘who was the bloody space pilot?’, ‘what were the eggs?’”. Because nobody cared, Ridley. It is, and always was, about the Alien. To further support that point of view, the characters in his own film, that he directed, didn’t care. When Ash, Kane and Lambert, who it would seem have never seen an alien species before, discover the space jockey sitting in his chair, their responses can largely be summed up as, “Alien fella, huh? Well, whaddya know. Move along.” And if they don’t care, why should we?
While everyone else cares about the alien and not a heck of a lot else, Scott seems interested in almost anything but, with principal focus going to who, or what, created humans, and what we would do or say if we could meet our makers.
Archaeologist Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace, frustratingly, and unnecessarily, hamstrung by an English accent – doesn’t Sweden exist in 2094?) discovers paintings in several ancient sites around Earth, and concludes that the remarkable similarities point to an ancient visit by interstellar travellers, and that the paintings constitute maps. Receiving funding from Guy Pearce’s Weyland Corporation, Shaw and a team of scientists board a ship called Prometheus, and set out to follow the map and, she hopes, meet God.
To the surprise of no-one in the audience, when they finally find the planet things do not go well, as the crew have to deal with some sort of nasty mutagenic virus, a nasty god creature and a nasty robot. Oooh, nasty.
Despite being a crew of accomplished scientists, everyone is also an idiot. Bad enough when the crew of the Nostromo fail to follow quarantine procedures – they were just cargo haulers – but these muppets should know better. And as soon as it is decided the air is breathable, off come the helmets. That’s fair enough, really, because there is absolutely nothing in our planet’s history to suggest that there could be anything bad, but unseen, in the air, right? (Remarkably, Alien: Covenant is even more cavalier in this regard).
This blatant disregard for the rigours of their scientific disciplines is compounded by the fact that everyone is a complete tool, and if they’re lucky they have one characteristic. There’s belligerent for some reason geologist man, glasses man, old man, grumpy woman, “I’m going to entirely ignore the fact you hit me in the head with a fire extinguisher the next time we meet” woman, “I just presses the buttons on the ship” man, and Idris Elba.
The only two characters given any, well, character, are Shaw, and weirdo robot boy. And I have big issues with him.
In Alien Ash always struck me as not so much malevolent but something more akin to HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey, as much a victim of the Weyland-Yutani corporation as any of the Nostromo’s expendable crew, and that running thread throughout the series, that human corruption and avarice were the greatest dangers, not vicious space monsters, was always very compelling and, sadly for our species, spot-on. That’s another thing that gets thrown out in Prometheus, as Michael Fassbender’s super-creepy David comes across as something of a combination of Victor Frankenstein and the sort of cruel little boy who pulls the wings off of flies just to see what happens, but, crucially, was never told that this was wrong and a bad thing to do. He has just scaled up from flies to humans.
Characters aside, Prometheus’ largest problem is that it is suffering from an identity crisis. Scott originally (though I suspect he has several variations of his own backstory) wanted to make a film in the Alien universe, but with its own mythology. Fair enough – seeking one’s maker, philosophical questions about our place in the universe, life, death, existence, creation; all of these are legitimate and potentially interesting themes. But not in something that may have begun as something else entirely, but has now clearly been grafted onto an Aliens film. The sutures are obvious, and Prometheus strains at the joints. Scott, and the film’s marketing, persisted for a curiously long time with the message that this was in no way a prequel to Alien, despite very clearly being a prequel to Alien.
It’s ambitious, possibly even wondrous, but it has lost all of the tension and suspense that made Alien such a success more than 30 years previously. It also misses restraint; there was so little music in Alien, and it was never needed – the low hum of the engines, the dripping of water, the gentle clanking of the chains hanging from the ceiling… It was masterful. In Prometheus the order of the day is “massively overbearing, percussion-led orchestra, please. No, louder than that. Louder. Yes, there we go, so we can’t hear anything else.”
It is, however, absolutely gorgeous, and possibly the single sharpest film that I have ever seen. It’s full of detail, which is good because you’ll have plenty of time to study it and it will give you something to do as the narrative dawdles along doing nothing interesting. There are scenes from Skye in Scotland and the Wadi Rum valley in Jordan, but most of the photography took place in Iceland, and it is bleak, other-worldly and arrestingly beautiful. It is, also, real. Clearly real. While some of the shots may have been digitally manipulated, the source is a real place, and it makes so much difference. There’s quite a backlash to the “anti-CGI” backlash that, clearly, I am a part of, but there is still an inability (or an unwillingness) to create computer-generated environments that look like this, and as well as immediately engaging me more because I know that this is a place that exists, we are also spared that horrible CGI light that never looks quite right.
Alas, the visuals just aren’t enough on their own, and Prometheus is just dull. Backstory that no-one wanted, alongside a bunch of metaphysical questions it can’t answer. It’s a bummer.
Did you like Promethus, you weirdo? In which case, I’m sure you’ll like Alien: Covenant, as despite the title it’s far closer to Prometheus 2 than the _Alien_s of yore, and maybe there’s five or six people in the world who would celebrate that fact, while the rest of us must consign ourselves to dumpster fire duty.
The likeable crew of the colonisation ship Covenant are given a rude awakening from hypersleep when an unusual signal is detected, unfortunately in the process their captain (James Franco) is incinerated in what must be the earliest death for what I guess we can call an A-lister, although it does rather make me question why hypersleep pods were connected to the gas mains.
This means the slightly awkward Oram (Billy Crudup) must take command, with the now second in command Daniels (Katherine Waterston) questioning his religious beliefs for no obvious reason apart from clumsily introducing a tertiary theme to the piece. Once the crew have said their goodbyes to dear ol’ Cap’n Whodat Wossisface, their attention turns to the signal, which seems to include snippets of a woman singing, despite them being out way past where humans had boldly gone before. They take a detour to investigate, over Daniels’ objections, which only really make sense if she had access to the script, or at least the film title and a working knowledge of the survival rates therein.
Turns out the planet would make a suitable colonisation target, prompting Oram to wonder if it’s better to set up shop here, rather than another few years of deep freeze voyaging. Before any decision is made, they explore the area to find the source of the signal, a crashed vessel that will look familiar to viewers of Prometheus, as will Michael Fassbender’s David, which comes as a surprise to the crew who have their own model, Walter, their model sporting a generic American accent rather than a bizarre Lawrence of Arabia homage. The trick, Potter, is not minding that it sucks.
Anyway, Ridley Scott has taken up the mantle of killing off main characters offscreen between films, with Noomi Rapace apparently having died peacefully some time after re-soldering David’s bonce back onto his bod. And, well, I suppose I’ll have to stop recapping here before getting into spoiler territory, but I assume I am not blowing any minds to reveal that there are aliens around, and they do what aliens are wont to do to the crew, and it turns out that things are not what they seem.
Trailers for Aliens: Covenant suggested a return to the classic Alien formula, or at least the classic Alien design. While that’s there, and used to great effect during sections that would be entertaining in the context of a better film, it’s somewhat obscured by Scott deciding that the question of “What are the xenomorphs?” is best answered by “whatever you want them to be, including an airbourne pathogen, or magic, or a suitable furniture polish substitute, or whatever”.
For a film with Alien in the title, it doesn’t seem to care all that much about the xenomorphs. It seems that Ridley’s much more excited by the prospect of artificial intelligence, and at the risk of spoiling things for you, artificial intelligence doing the thing that artificial intelligence near enough always does. Weirdly, it also seems that David has cultivated a vendetta against the Precursors, or whatever we’re calling them big blue boys now, for no explained reason I can recall. Well, I suppose there was the whole decapitation thing. May have coloured his perception.
Anyway, it seems like an undue amount of the film is based around David trying to corrupt Walter with his master race propaganda along with a side helping of the whole “meeting your makers” thing, and that might work, if Fassbender’s David wasn’t the most irritating thing of all time, he said, with nary a trace of hyperbole.
I see why Ridley Scott has been going that way – there’s only so much you can do with a antagonist that’s a pure killing machine. It’s not like a xenomorph is going to branch out into white collar crime or work his way up the ranks of a Mafia crime family, although I would totally watch either of those movies. Given that the plots of the first four Alien films are essential “one/many aliens kill everyone”, with most variation coming from directorial style, I understand why Scott would not want to rehash Alien again, and why he’d want to explore new corners. I’m just not at all convinced this is the franchise in which to have those discussions, as they’re only tangentially concerned with your titular protagonists.
I always thought the pertinent unexplored questions in this universe were about Wayland Yutani, but perhaps even the oblique hints of that mentioned during Aliens Vs Predator poisoned that well. The whole “origins” tangent is, to be fair, a worthy concept to mine in general, but not with the toffee hammer that this franchise equips you with.
Anyway, the matter at hand – I’m not sure I’d say this is much better or worse than Prometheus. It wins a little by having a generally likable crew that aren’t entirely douchcanoes, particularly Danny McBride’s Tennessee, but loses with a narrative that I’m convinced no-one cares about dominating the piece until it all kicks off towards the end, when it suddenly remembers it’s an Aliens film and does the Aliens thing pretty well. But, too little, too late.
I’m probably overstating my reactions to Alien: Covenant, largely because it’s a franchise I greatly wish better things for and I’m only getting very well produced slices of tedium going in directions I don’t think are particularly fruitful. My biggest problems with Covenant, however, are more mundane than where Scott’s pointing the ship, it’s that the film’s kinda boring, and entirely predictable.
Thanks to everyone who has got in touch with us on this, or said kind words about the show – it’s all very much appreciated.
If you’ve been affected by any of the issues discussed today, please hit us up on Twitter (@fudsonfilm), on Facebook (facebook.com/fudsonfilm), or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. If you want to receive our podcast on a regular basis, please add our feed to your podcasting software of choice, or subscribe on iTunes. If you could see your way clear to leaving a review on iTunes, we’d be eternally grateful, but we won’t blame you if you don’t. We’ll be back with you on the 10th with the low-down on the Predator franchise, including the Aliens vs Predator flicks, but until then, take care of yourself, and each other.