Horror Classics: The Alien Franchise

The Alien franchise is one of the longest running franchises in movie history. Not counting crossover movies with the Predator franchise, the Alien universe spans 5 films (with an 6th slated for 2017) and 38 years since Ridley Scott first made the original.

While I want to speak about many of these films in great depth in future retrospectives, here I want to take a broader look at the franchise as a whole. With so many talented artists, writers, directors, and composers working independently across so many eras of cinema, few continuous franchises can give us as profound a look into changing tastes and styles. Where we started with Alien and where we are now after Prometheus are two very different places and I want to explore that.

Few franchises have such a strong start. Alien (1979) is one of the most lasting sci-fi horror films in cinematic history, with some of the most deliberate pacing, progressive character development, thoughtful suspense, and terrifying monsters of all time. Xenomorphs, the primary extraterrestrial antagonist in the Alien franchise, is the manifestation of an apex predator that survives through sexual predation that births itself by eating its victims from the inside out.

The evocative style of the xenomorphs, based on the work of H.R. Giger, haunt you on a subconscious level. They are organized in their chaos, and grotesque in their macabre physique. Simultaneously monstrous and admirable, grotesque and aesthetically engrossing, a series of paradoxical elements all come to life at once and working harmoniously with the narrative terrors they were meant to embody.

Opposing the xenomorphs is the Weyland-Yutani corporation. While we sometimes get a brief glimpse into them as a mega corporation creating everything from toys and clothes to moving vast intergalactic mining operations, they primarily serve as an invisible foil. A wall against which the aliens push the protagonists, undermining their survival from beyond reach in ways that can be subtle and sometimes aggressively overt.

Each new director to create a film in the franchise has managed to take this creature in fundamentally new directions and sculpt unique interpretations. All of these entries have preserved the sense of claustrophobia caused by the being caught between extraterrestrial predators and the amorphous touch of corporate greed from afar. Even the debatably poor films in the franchise find new spaces to explore and viewed these core elements of the fear of the unknown vs. the terrors from within through the lenses of different genres.

Alien (1979)

Ridley Scott’s Alien is a slow burning thriller that uses all of its worldbuilding to make the fantastical (space travel, alien creatures, suspended animation) feel mundane. By having dark and dank areas of the ship where the plumbing is done and crew members bantering about pay and contractual responsibilities, we get the sense here more than almost any other sci-fi movie of a future we can almost believe before Scott begins grinding the protagonists down between the xenomorph and the very ship keeping the crew alive.

Constantly reminded that so very little stands between the crew and empty space, we feel starkly isolated. Ridley puts the characters in a place of extreme vulnerability. They are starving for resources, and have no weapons with which to protect themselves. No one ever feels truly safe or comfortable in this film, and what little that they do have to grab onto is systematically taken away.

The lead of Alien, Ellen Ripley, was portrayed by Sigourney Weaver. Her performance stands, even today, as one of the most strong and nuanced female protagonists. Sigourney would continue to return as Ripley through the next 3 sequels, though it is easy to argue that the original Alien is the strongest writing that her character has received.

Aliens (1986)

After the original Alien, John Cameron’s Aliens redefined the franchise and is remembered by many as the height of the Alien films. Moving away from the slow thriller formula, Cameron set his focus on undermining humanity when we are in a place of confidence, as opposed to Ridley’s narrative of constant human frailty. The core premise of Aliens starts with an elite group of soldiers with combat gear that embodies the peak of human achievement actively seeking out conflict with a xenomorph infestation. They are clad in armor, carrying high caliber weapons, and equipped with vehicles and numbers.

The film is about upsetting the feeling of invulnerability presented by such a strong setup, and eating away at the feeling of confidence the audience is supposed to have. As with the original, though, we’re served with a combination of punches in succession to knock us down. The xenomorphs first, as they overwhelm with numbers and with no regard for their own individual needs. Then, after the soldiers are weakened, we again experience the sabotage of the machinations of the Weyland-Yutani corporation prompting Ripley to verbalize the question: Which is the worst monster? Them or us?

Aliens breaches the action adventure genre more than casually, arguably transitioning fully from its thriller origins by ending with a large set piece action sequence that gave audiences more of a bang to remember as they leave the theater than the whimper of the original. It’s fair to say that in their own ways, Alien and Aliens are each the very best of the genre they represent to this very day: sci-fi horror, and action adventure horror respectively.

Alien 3 (1992)

From here we reach an interesting point in the franchise history, as both Alien 3 and Alien: Resurrection have strong parallels with the original films. Alien 3 was directed by David Fincher. At this point, you should start to notice a trend emerging of some of the best writers and directors of our time having hands in this franchise. David Fincher’s Alien 3 attempts to move back to the roots of the franchise, creating a space where humanity feels trapped, and then grinding the protagonists up between the environment and extraterrestrial menace.

There really isn’t a lot more to say than that about Alien 3. A lot of Alien lore began with this movie’s portrayal of the xenomorph, which in both versions of the film is a hybrid of a xenomorph and an animal other than human. It’s a weaker film in the franchise. David Fincher tells a story of the members of a prison colony, all shaved bald to defend against a lice infestation, trying to survive against a xenomorph escaped within the facility.

Striping down all of the characters of hair and placing them all in disheveled unisex clothes removes humanity from the protagonists as Fincher explores our own hive like behaviors to attempt to survive. The theatrical cut missed a lot of the heart and insight of the film and audiences largely rejected it as it veered away from the action formula of Aliens, but failed to quite live up to the standard of the original Alien. You’ll probably find that how much a person likes it depends so much on whether they liked Alien or Aliens more. Fans who feel that the atmosphere and horror of the original were more satisfying than the action adventure transition often very much enjoy Alien 3, while fans of the later get neither the action of Aliens, nor the unparalleled excellence of the former.

Arguably, though, the director’s cut of Alien 3 is an excellent film, and contains a lot of the fingerprints of Fincher’s later work. His exploration of individuality ultimately does help this movie stand on its own as a unique vision. His interpretation of Ripley is arguably the second best in the series as her emotional range expands, giving her more agency and freedom to make meaningful decisions than in Aliens, if lacking the more distinct female perspective that she was able to express in Alien. There is a lot more to explore here as Alien 3 relates to the work of Fincher, more so than any other director on this list, and it is worth doing in a future analysis.

Alien: Resurrection (1997)

Similar to Alien 3, Alien: Resurrection was deeply undermined by not feeling different enough different enough. It was Aliens without the horror or polish, and it gave nothing to fans of the tense atmospheric horror roots of Alien. It’s easy to see why audiences largely felt like they were watching Aliens all over again, but not quite as good. This isn’t really fair, however.

Failing to satisfy fans of either Alien or Aliens, Resurrection is all the same a very interesting film. Written by Joss Whedon and directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet, Alien 4 is a uniquely weird movie. The work here is so playful with the subject matter and different that it isn’t fair to simply label it as bad. The pacing is strong, and the cast includes entertaining performances from Ron Perlman, Dominique Pinon, Winona Ryder, Dan Hedaya, and others, including the return of Sigourney Weaver.

Whedon’s more action centric narrative and less heady sense for science fiction is more interested in creating a space for character evolution, looking at the relationship between humans and our own creations that places characters in a vicegrip of multi faceted predators. Similarly, characteristic of his other works, Jeunet focuses on finding a sense of style in the universe that is wholly unique. Engaging both the characters and environments in an almost cartoonish use of the camera, Jeunet’s work is gleeful in watching humanity destroy itself.

As a pair, Jean-Pierre Jeunet created a space that’s so playful with angles and unusual environments as to be fun, and Whedon wrote a film that puts the corporate interests and extraterrestrial menace in the forefront of the film. Watched in series, though, viewers may find it too hard to separate Resurrection from the action roots that the franchise evoked in Aliens. Jeunet’s focus on emotion through charicature could only draw negative comparisons against the genius of Cameron’s technical mastery of the craft and focus on cohesive writing, as these are Jeunet’s weaknesses. Viewers who can let go of that baggage frequently do find a film that has its own voice and is a fun ride.

Prometheus (2012)

Ridley Scott bookends the series as it currently stands. Prometheus doubles as a chance to look at his growth as a film maker over the course of 30 years. Alien and Blade Runner stand as some of the greatest works of science fiction of all time largely because of his willingness to forgo action for intimate story telling and a pacing that furthers the suspension of disbelief which is fostered by his dedication to building unforgettable worlds that hold their own weight. Whether fortunately or unfortunately, Ridley appears completely disinterested in making an Alien film, resulting in an ambitious but flawed film almost completely divorced from the tone and themes of the franchise as a whole, which is a remarkable task given the wide range of unique interpretations created by the talented filmmakers.

The ironic hubris of Prometheus is that it is too ambitious, as Scott uses it to attempt to reframe the very nature of the xenomorphs. Many felt it was too subtle in its points, aggressive editing left genuine plot holes that were all too easy to confuse with the holes that were deliberately left to encourage us to make our own conclusions. To discuss the relationship of Prometheus to the Alien franchise would require a larger look that I want to do in this piece far richer in spoilers than are appropriate for this retrospective and is too loosely related to the themes of the work as a whole to be worth the tangent.

Prometheus uses all of the elements of human curiosity by using the perspective of scientists for the first time in the series, and it asks the question, “What if God exists, is tangible, and can be found, and what if that God doesn’t want us?” The movie is filled with these questions. Originally intended as a more direct prequel to the series, Scott became enamored with these questions and changed the entire direction of the film. The overt shift in themes, tone, and even the entire purpose of the film likely are what led to the issues of overall narrative construction that prevented those who could have seen what Ridley was doing from appreciating the film, while simultaneously completely failing to deliver anything of substance to fans looking for an Alien film.

Too different and too broken, few appreciated Scott’s beautiful use of color and cinematography to draw us into a terrifying place and the intimidating question of what it would mean to be able to meet our maker and how hollow it would make us feel to be unsatisfied with what we found and terrified by that maker immediately seeking to destroy us for having found it.

The Future

It’s no wonder that this franchise keeps coming back, or that some of our most interesting writers and directors have used it to explore new and pioneering spaces. The Alien franchise has produced such a broad range of work. The very diverse audiences that each vision appeals to are likely the reason why the entries are so well separated by time. With every new film, audiences need that time to be able to digest it and learn to love the films in a new way.

Neill Blomkamp is working on a sixth entry into the series of films that is considered canon. Given his work with Chappie, District 9, and Elysium I feel it is safe to say that we will continue to see Alien films that manage to carve their own niche and still say something new and unique with every visit, and I am excited to see what we get.

I only have one requirement: Sharlto Copley had better be in it.