Sequels are rarely better than the original, perhaps with the only true exception being the FAST & FURIOUS franchise, in which the series keeps getting better with each entry. There are plenty of arguments to be made for second films in a series that are at least up to par, if not superior, to their sequels: THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK to STAR WARS, THE GODFATHER PART II to THE GODFATHER and one of the most debated amongst film fans is ALIENS versus ALIEN.
ALIENS is an easier film to like — it’s big, it’s loud, it’s action packed. ALIENS is a real rollercoaster ride, brought to us by a master of sci-fi action, James Cameron. It’s also got its own style; it isn’t a retread of Ridley Scott’s original. That being said, when the debate comes up, I always lean towards ALIEN, the more cerebral and much more frightening film that has been kicking people’s asses since 1979. I would also argue that it is Ridley Scott’s best film as a director, superior even to BLADE RUNNER.
ALIEN screenwriter Dan O’Bannon wanted to do a “scary movie on a spaceship with a small group of astronauts.” O’Bannon had previously made a science fiction comedy film with director John Carpenter which included an alien which was basically a spray-painted beach ball. This scary movie in space needed to include an “alien that looked real.” The working title of ALIEN was STAR BEAST — which is an indication of the kind of cheesy, Corman-esque, sci-fi movie that the story could have become. ALIEN could have easily have ended up resembling one of its many knock-offs, like GALAXY OF TERROR (produced by Roger Corman), CONTAMINATION, or INSEMINOID.
After 1977’s STAR WARS, the idea of the used and abused universe was en vogue, but ALIEN brought space travel even more down-to-earth than Lucas ever had. While the STAR WARS sets had great grit and grime, our main characters were still warriors and wizards. The crew of the Nostromo were truckers in space, average Joes and Janes more concerned with getting their bonuses upon their return to earth than with saving the galaxy from danger. This was a relatively new concept in films, as even in 2001, the main cast were astronauts and scientists types. This also helped make the characters infinitely more relatable. Ridley Scott has a reputation for not caring about his actors and for being more concerned with visual style over creating characters of substance. In ALIEN, Scott treads this line perfectly. In addition the actors, Scott provides a world that is both familiar and alien. The Nostromo set is a perfect mix of ’70s futurism — provided by artist Ron Cobb who was also involved in Jodorowski’s DUNE — and mechanics that looked like a factory that could be spotted in New Jersey. The everyman characterization, coupled with the claustrophobic set design, provides the perfect set-up for a classic monster in the house movie, which is what ALIEN is at its core. It’s TEN LITTLE INDIANS with a nasty, unstoppable creature.
ALIEN will forever be remembered for its innovative creature design by Swiss surrealist artist, H.R. Giger. Screenwriter O’Bannon and previously met Giger while working on Alejandro Jodorowsky’s abandoned adaptation of Frank Herbert’s DUNE. O’Bannon was quite disturbed by Giger’s work and suggested that Ridley Scott look into hiring the Swiss artist to design the alien beast. Giger’s bio-mechanical alien has been described as a nightmare vision of sex and death. Nigerian actor Blaji Badejo brought the alien to life in the classic man-in-suit style, and ALIEN went on to win the 1980 Academy Award for Best Visual Effects.
The thing ALIEN is probably most remembered for, perhaps even more so than Giger’s design of the monster or the set design is the character of Ellen Ripley. In the script-writing process, the genders of the characters were never stated, and Sigourney Weaver’s portrayal of the by-the-books Ripley is a revelation. The closest the sci-fi genre ever really got to the strong female archetype in the past was Princess Leia in STAR WARS, but even she began her journey as a damsel in distress. When ALIEN begins, it is unclear on who will live and who will die. The good money is on Tom Skeritt’s Dallas coming out on top, but ALIEN plays with those preconceived notions, and probably surprised quite a few viewers upon its initial release in 1979. The character of Ripley was more than likely written as and envisioned as a man by the screenwriters, but Sigourney Weaver brought a power to the role without sacrificing any of her femininity.
When discussing female action heroes, Linda Hamilton in TERMINATOR 2 comes to mind, but she’s so buff, she looks like she could manhandle a T-800. One scene in the film that perfectly captures the character of Ellen Ripley is her refusal to let the crew enter the Nostromo when John Heard’s Kane has the extraterrestrial facehugger attached to his person. Ripley refuses entry to the team, as policy states that Kane should be decontaminated for 24 hours before coming on board. Ash, the evil android, disregards Ripley’s decision, and lets the crew in. Typically in science fiction and action films, women were portrayed as more emotional creatures, and ALIEN spit in the face of those stereotypes and ushered in the era of a new kind of role for women in film. Every time a new James Bond film comes out, the new Bond girl will ultimately state that she “is not your typical Bond girl,” but they usually are. I don’t think Hollywood has gotten the female action hero right since 1979, except for maybe ALIENS in 1986, or again, the FAST & FURIOUS franchise.
Of course, as terrifying as the alien is in ALIEN, the creature is not even the scariest villain. It is in fact the android Ash — an agent of the Weyland-Yutani corporation — that lets Kane on board with the facehugger attached, not out of sympathy or any human emotion. Ash lets Kane back on board in the pursuit of money; Ash is working for big business and in the world of ALIEN, anyone standing in the way of profit by the 1% is expendable.
ALIEN is a masterpiece of modern cinema. It defies genre tropes at every turn and becomes a singular thing that not even James Cameron or David Fincher could recapture in either one of its sequels. ALIEN is generally considered great science fiction but I think it stands better alongside THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE and HALLOWEEN as great horror that may burn slow but once it ramps up, it grabs a hold and never lets go. The final moments of ALIEN are unrelenting, and in the end, the creature cannot be stopped — it’s still out there, maybe on its way to earth.
Tags: Aliens, Bolaji Badejo, Cats, Dan O'Bannon, Gender, H.R. Giger, Harry Dean Stanton, Horror, Ian Holm, Jerry Goldsmith, John Hurt, Ridley Scott, roger corman, Ron Cobb, Ronald Shusett, Sex, sigourney weaver, Space, Tom Skerritt, Veronica Cartwright, walter hill, Yaphet Kotto