“We’d better get back, ’cause it’ll be dark soon, and they mostly come at night… mostly.”
Encounter the xenomorph in our ickiest episode yet! First, the gang discusses their own personal experiences with body horror, including bruised ears and slivers in places there should definitely not be wood. Then, it’s time to get all face-huggy and chest-bursty with Sigourney Weaver in the Alien franchise, beginning with Ridley Scott’s 1979 sci-fi/horror classic and moving on to James Cameron’s rock-’em sock-’em sequel. Have countless rip-offs dulled these classics, or are they still capable of making your jaws-within-jaws drop? Then, we quickly touch on David Fincher’s regrettable Alien3 and the campy Joss Whedon-penned Alien: Resurrection.
This is a mostly comprehensive look at one of the most influential horror franchises ever made… mostly. So strip down to your most retro panties, climb into the nearest available power-loader, and GET AWAY FROM HER, YOU BITCH! Because in space, no one can hear you make fun of the way Becky describes her history with the Alien franchise.
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This episode goes back further than we’ve ever gone before on the podcast, way back to the summer of 1979, which saw the release of the first of many Alien films. (The franchise loomed large throughout the 80s and 90s, so it definitely warrants an episode of this podcast.) The film had a seismic impact on the cinematic landscape, with many imitators over the years. The first three films are directed by three of the most notable mainstream filmmakers of the past 40 years, Ridley Scott (Alien), James Cameron (Aliens), and David Fincher (Alien3). (Alien: Resurrection‘s Jean-Pierre Jeunet, best known for Amelie, is no slouch, but he’s not quite at their level of influence.)
In 2012, Scott returned the franchise with the semi-prequel, Prometheus, and this month returns again with Alien: Covenant, the eighth alien film overall (not that those Alien Vs. Predator movies really count). As so many James Cameron joints do, the first Alien sequel also features a memorably hammy turn from the late Bill Paxton, who died suddenly and unexpectedly in February, which also made this a timely episode.
My first encounter with Alien occurred as a teenager. I don’t recall exactly what led me to the franchise, though I strongly suspect it was my interest in James Cameron following the colossal success of Titanic. I read a biography of Cameron and went back to catch many of his films I’d missed, given that they were generally too mature for me at the time of their release. I became a big fan of all of them — except Piranha 2, which I still haven’t seen, as Cameron would probably prefer. Eventually, Aliens became a prized piece of my beloved Fox Widescreen collection, along with two other Cameron films, The Abyss and True Lies. I used to play the opening vignette, explaining the crimes of “panning and scanning,” for friends to try to convince them that letterboxing was the way to go. It never worked.
(With the rise of DVDs and widescreen TVs, I am finally vindicated.)
“In space, no one can hear you scream.”
Release Date: May 25, 1979
Budget: $11 million
Opening Weekend: $3.5 million
Domestic Gross: $80.9 million
Worldwide Gross: $104.9 million
Alien has one of the all-time great horror movie taglines, which is appropriate for one of the all-time great horror movies. I’d seen Alien many times over the years, including the 2003 Director’s Cut in theaters and more recently on the Blu-Ray I bought. There was never any danger that the film wouldn’t stand the test of time for me.
However, reviewing for the podcast does give me an opportunity to think about such a classic in a new context. One thing that struck me were the negative reviews calling out the film’s violence, as well as James Cameron’s sequel. The special effects in Alien are still pretty disgusting, and are rarely topped by modern horror movies for squirm-inducing effect. This has little to do with the effects themselves, and more to do with the story — when the tiny xenomorph bursts from John Hurt’s chest, it’s a genuinely shocking moment. It is as unexpected from these characters as it is from the audience. Whether on purpose or accidentally, most horror movies today often telegraph what’s coming, but nothing we’ve seen so far in Alien tells us, “Oh, hey, I’ll bet a little alien baby’s about to burst out of his chest.” But because we already built up plenty of suspense with the face-hugger, it also makes perfect sense.
It’s no revelation to state that Alien is not just a landmark in science fiction and horror, but also for female action heroes. Ripley is still probably the all-time greatest action heroine ever to grace any screen (and I say this as a die-hard Buffy The Vampire Slayer devotee). No one quite has her mix of smarts, cool, confidence, courage, brawn, and vulnerability. Perhaps this is only because the character was originally written genderless, and easily could have been played by a man instead. I don’t think the series would have had nearly the same impact, though. Maternity is so thoroughly baked in to the Alien series that it has infinitely more resonance when our protagonist is a woman, even if, as in this first film, we know almost nothing about her. The potential trauma of giving birth is nicely flipped by the creature that bursts from a man’s chest this time. It is often joked about that men would freak out at going into labor; this joke is nicely given a horrific twist in Alien. But if that were all this movie was, it wouldn’t be the classic it is.
The Alien films were never planned as a series, of course, but moreso than almost any other film franchise, each entry feels entirely unique, with themes and mood all its own. Appropriately, Alien is the film most concerned with the human body itself, as it introduces the odd (but eerily plausible) mechanism through which the xenomorphs are “born.” Writer Dan Bannon created the creature wanting to make audience — primarily men — uncomfortable. The alien can be interpreted as a stand-in for many things throughout the series — cancer, AIDS, rape, the “miracle” of birth — but one thing that tends to be consistent is our biology betraying us.
To me, Alien is most universal as a metaphor for puberty — our body doing strange, new things we can’t understand, as we are forced to “become” something else (whether we like it or not). This is brought out by the callous computer program named Mother, which Ripley must break away from in order to survive. There is a moment for many of us in our teenage years where some aspect of our body feels alien to us — we discover something new and unexpected, often even frightening. We may try to ignore it and proceed as if everything is normal, but it will not be ignored. “Life finds a way,” as it is put in another very good sci-fi/horror thriller.
The potency of this first Alien film is how broadly it can be interpreted. The alien is frightening in its own right, but what’s truly terrifying is the way it uses our own bodies against us, and how little power we have over our own physicality once the process has begun. As humans, we are all susceptible to the whims of biology. We consider our bodies to be “us,” but ultimately, have no say in what they’ll do to us. More than a monster movie, Alien is a film reaffirming that our greatest enemy is the skin we live in. We can’t predict its moves or fight against its will, any more than the crew of the Nostromo can outwit or outmatch the xenomorph.
Release Date: July 18, 1986
Budget: $17-18 million
Opening Weekend: $10.1 million
Domestic Gross: $85.2 million
Worldwide Gross: $131.1 million
The tagline called out the fact this sequel to the relatively small-scale Alien was going to be bigger and more action-focused than its predecessor. If Alien was a haunted house movie in space, Aliens is more like a war movie, with the sides slightly more evenly matched. That doesn’t stop most of them from being dispatched rapidly, but you can’t say they weren’t warned.
I have virtually nothing negative to say about either of the first two Alien films, and could gush about each for hours. Alien is the true original, a sci-fi/horror classic that left its mark on cinema in a major way. It’s still the most spectacular and original creature design I can think of, especially for extra-terrestrials. Aliens, on the other hand, is a perfect morsel of popcorn entertainment — not just because it gets the action and special effects right, but because it has an honest emotional core and treats its audience like adults. (Even though the movie spawned action figures aimed at kids — oddly enough, for an R-rated gore-fest.)
After The Terminator, which created Sarah Connor (but didn’t yet make her a true badass), James Cameron took the reigns of the inevitable Alien sequel, re-purposing a script he’d already written entitled Mother. In his Director’s Cut (the superior version of the film), Ripely learns that the daughter she left behind before her 11th birthday has died of old age in the 57 years she’s been in hyper-sleep. How strange it must be, to see your own daughter grow older than you are now.
James Cameron doesn’t get quite enough credit for how femme-forward his action-packed oeuvre is. Every one of his films has a female character who is as interesting and complex as the male “hero,” if not moreso. She’s never a mere damsel, either. The Terminator’s Sarah Connor may spend most of the movie needing rescue, but by the sequel she’s learned a thing or two and then some. True Lies’ Helen Tasker is played as a bumbling housewife, but she gets to (comedically) kick ass a couple of times, too (and Jamie Lee Curtis makes the most of the role). Even Titanic’s dainty Rose proves herself pretty capable once the ship is going down.
Aliens remains Cameron’s most female-centric film, however, finishing what Ridley Scott started in making Ripley the greatest action heroine to ever grace the screen. Ripley remains professional and cool under pressure, but Aliens adds depth to a character left purposefully vague in the first film. Ripley finds a surrogate daughter in Newt, the sole survivor of the alien attacks on the recently colonized LV-426. Weaver earned the first ever Best Actress Oscar nomination for a sci-fi, horror, or action film, and remained the only nominee in these genres until Sandra Bullock’s Gravity nod. Given how iconic Ripley has become, in large part thanks to where Aliens took the character, it is well-deserved.
The first Alien can be interpreted in many ways. For me, it’s best looked at as a tale of adolescence — breaking away from “Mother,” facing strange new biological happenings, and proving oneself capable of surviving on one’s own. There’s less gray area in interpreting Aliens, which is clearly focused on maternity. Not only do Newt and Ripley become each other’s surrogate daughter/mother, but the showdown at the end is against the Alien Queen who is similarly aiming to protect her young. The movie certainly passes the Bechdel test — even the classic line, “Get away from her, you bitch!”
If James Cameron got Ripley so right in 1986, it’s a wonder that we haven’t seen a true rival to this character since. (Sarah Connor might be next in line on that list.) Even a woman being known by her last name, rather than her first, is a rarity. (Hillary Clinton, who came close to becoming the most powerful woman in the world, is generally called “Hillary” rather than “Clinton.”)
Aliens is as entertaining as it is because, like Alien, it is intelligent and has real depth beneath its more superficial pleasures. In it, a lot of typically “male” elements — military machismo, corporate greed, technology — brush up against biology, maternity, and reproduction. The masculine side of the equation gets its ass thoroughly handed to it. No amount of artillery or money is a match for Mother Nature. The men all fail against the aliens, leaving it up to Ripley to save the day.
The Vasquez character manages to be even more butch than Ripley, and still avoids being a stereotype. (Her retort to being asked if she’s ever mistaken for a man is priceless.) Bill Paxton’s performance is pretty hammy — he’s the tough guy who ends up being not-so-tough when faced with killer space monsters — but the character manages to be endearing, anyhow. (Cameron has a way of making the slightly goofy work.) Despite a bigger budget, cast, and scale, Aliens remains true to its roots by keeping the action pretty contained and retaining the focus on the survival of a few core cast members. It’s easily one of the best action films — let alone sequels — ever made.
Release Date: May 22, 1992
Budget: $50 million
Opening Weekend: $19.5 million
Domestic Gross: $55.5 million
Worldwide Gross: $159.8 million
That tagline is perfectly suited for the dreary, pitch-black third installment in the Alien franchise.
Otherwise, Alien 3 is the biggest misstep in the franchise, by far, and I see no cogent argument for any of the other installment being worse. (Still not counting anything that also has Predator in the title.) The film is joyless, fumbling badly where the first two films soared — in getting us to root for the characters’ survival. We don’t care about anyone in Alien 3 — not even Ripley, because she isn’t very keen on surviving herself. Alien 3 also kills Hicks and Newt off-screen, which renders Ripley’s triumph in Aliens completely moot. (I have a beef with franchises that kill off main characters from previous films carelessly.) By the time another alien wreaks havoc in Alien 3, Ripley has outlived everyone she’s ever known, including her own daughter, then failed to save her surrogate daughter and a potential love interest (or at least, a friend). What’s left for Ripley to want now? Well, she wants to eradicate the aliens. That’s about all we can hope for here.
Alien and Aliens were certainly dark films overall, but the interactions between characters had a certain light-heartedness. Alien 3 is portentous, elaborating on a bizarre story by Vincent Ward that saw a planet of monks battling the xenomorph, believing it is the second coming of the Black Death. Using a prison as the setting doesn’t endear us to these characters, and the all-male supporting cast just feels wrong for the franchise that previously had two or three great female characters in each film. Even David Fincher has virtually disowned this movie. (It is his first and easily his worst, the only true misfire of his career… though the direction is the least of its problems.)
Alien 3 does have a few interesting ideas, like Ripley’s near-rape (a chilling echo of the xenomorph’s rapey reproductive process). With Alien telling a story about adolescence (says me) and Aliens about motherhood, Alien 3 is very much about death and accepting one’s mortality. Ripley’s climactic sacrifice might have been moving in a film that set it up better. Alien 3 reminds me of the ways this franchise follows the Scream series — with the first film being a bold and truly frightening original, the second upping the ante but remaining emotionally truthful, the third striking the wrong tone completely, and the fourth moving back in the right direction while falling far short of the original two installments. Like Scream, the Alien movies can easily be seen as a metaphor for trauma — Ripley survives once, and in the second film, survives again — mostly for Newt’s sake. By Alien 3, she’s too traumatized to have any hope for survival this time around (and who could blame her?).
Admittedly, Ripley’s shaved head is the perfect look for Weaver in this gritty third film. (She gets a little more butch in each installment.) But ultimately, there’s very little pleasure to derive from an Alien 3 viewing. It might have sounded good on paper, but in execution, it’s a drag.
“Witness the resurrection.”
Release Date: November 26, 1997
Budget: $75 million
Opening Weekend: $16.5 million
Domestic Gross: $47.8 million
Worldwide Gross: $161.4 million
“Witness the resurrection”? That’s a marketing department that’s seriously bankrupt on ideas.
Alien: Resurrection may over-correct for Alien 3’s dourness — it is silly in moments, bordering on campy, which is not terribly surprising given that it was penned by Joss Whedon. This is the only Alien film I actually remember being released, though I didn’t know the creator of Buffy The Vampire Slayer had written it then, or I would have seen it sooner. (I don’t know exactly when I caught this one, but I have owned it on DVD for quite a long time.)
Alien: Resurrection has far more interesting ideas on its mind than Alien 3 did — mainly, that Ripley is a clone of her former self, and xenomorph DNA has mixed with her own to make her not quite human. She has some memories from Ripley’s past, but poignantly can’t remember Newt’s name. (Leave it to this film to mourn Newt when Alien 3 killed her but couldn’t be bothered to do anything more than give us an icky autopsy of the poor girl.) The scene in which Ripley discovers many failed attempts at cloning her in a lab — one who asks for a mercy killing — is appropriately disturbing.
The “Newborn” (the white, somewhat humanoid alien we meet at the end) is a bit ridiculous — the original xenomorph and Alien Queen are much more frightening villains. The series wisely never asked us to feel any sympathy for these killing machines… until this moment. (The Newborn is kind of… cute?) But the action works well, and Whedon’s script has a similar wit to Alien and Aliens. (“It was in my way” as Ripley’s justification for killing her “kind” rivals her Aliens retort: “They can bill me.”) It also positions Winona Ryder as a heroine similar to Ripley in the first film, which is particularly interesting given that she ends up being an android. (Alien 3 ignored the “man versus tech” angle that’s so crucial to the other films.) Neither Ripley nor Call is fully human… and once again, it’s the women who are left to survive.
I wouldn’t say Alien: Resurrection speaks to any stage of human life the way the first three films do, though the Ripley clone nicely embraces the “not giving a fuck” mentality many of us hit at some point in our old age. It’s nice to see Ripley have a little fun for a change.
The Alien films not only hold up as well as they did upon their release — they’ve actually gotten better with age, especially in comparison to all the lesser creature features we’ve seen since. (Not you, Alien 3. Your CGI is atrocious.) Even the special effects are still great, far more convincing than the computer generated monsters we see these day. Many critics were put off by the gore in the first two films, though they’re both rather restrained by today’s standards. Now, it’d be difficult to find a critic who would argue that the first two films are classics.
Even with one truly bad entry and one that’s merely competent, this series’ batting average is still pretty stellar. There’s still enough juice left in the series to get me interested in Alien: Covenant — not bad, for a series that’s going on 40 years old.