Fox has declared that henceforth April 26 shall be known as “Alien Day” in honor of the planet featured in the movie Alien (LV-426). In addition, this July marks the 30th anniversary of James Cameron’s Aliens (which also takes place on LV-426). The Alien franchise holds a special place in my heart and is well worth celebrating (at least the first two movies, Alien and Aliens. I pretend the rest don’t exist). I loved the action and special effects in the films as a kid, but in many ways my appreciation for them has actually grown over time.
Sure, Ridley Scott’s Alien is basically a sci-fi riff on the “B-movie” horror genre, especially Texas Chainsaw Massacre, but Alien raises the bar by populating the spaceship Nostromo with believable characters. Dallas, Brett, Lambert, and the rest of the crew all feel like individuals who have their own needs, wants, and fears. It’s hard to pigeonhole them into the typical horror movie stereotypes. Dallas, ostensibly the leading man, comes across as irritable and not particularly bright. Lambert is the mandatory “hysterical female victim” of the group, but, unlike nearly every other horror movie ever made, Alien never sexualizes her (Lambert’s short-cropped hair arguably desexualizes the character). Even Parker, who initially comes across as only interested in sex and money, dies in a noble attempt to save Lambert from the alien.
Then, of course, there’s Ripley, played by Sigourney Weaver, the greatest female action hero in cinema. Ripley starts off in Alien as possibly the smartest person aboard the Nostromo, but is otherwise unexceptional. When Dallas and Lambert carry Kane back to the ship with a facehugger attached to him, Ripley refuses to let them in, citing quarantine procedures for unknown alien life forms. Had Ash not intervened, Ripley could well have saved the entire crew. When the xenomorph starts killing the crew, it is Ripley who retains her wits and comes up with a plan to defeat the alien. In the final scene aboard the escape shuttle, Weaver does an excellent job depicting both Ripley’s fear and her determination.*
* It’s an even greater testament to the character that Sigourney Weaver was nominated for an Academy Award for best actress for her work in Aliens.
Aliens takes this core character and sets her off on one of the most satisfying character arcs in cinema. The sequel begins by showing a Ripley traumatized by her experiences in Alien. She agrees to accompany the Colonial Marines to LV-426 not because she wanted to save the colony, but rather because she feels that she had to confront her fears. Unlike most heroes, she doesn’t face the dragon because she found a magical sword or acquired superpowers, but rather because of her own emotional insecurities. Eventually, Ripley’s motherly instinct to protect the marines and the young Newt overcomes her fear. After seeing Ripley suffer so much, her decision to enter the alien hive to rescue Newt demonstrates remarkable growth in the character.
Given the current focus on diversity in science fiction, it’s worth noting that Alien broke new ground by having a female lead back in 1979. In 1986, Aliens made Ripley the genre’s first bona fide female action hero (as Peter Suderman at Vox notes, the movie poster of Ripley holding a young child seems like a rebuke of the machismo of the Schwarzenegger and Stallone films that dominated the 1980s). It’s even more impressive that Fox agreed to this even though exit surveys after screenings of Alien suggested the movie would have made more money had the lead been male. It’s a testament to James Cameron and his team that they insisted on keeping Ripley as the main character for the sequel.
One of the reasons the movies have endured for so long is that they allow viewers to engage on multiple levers. Alien works perfectly well as “just” a sci-fi horror movie, and likewise Aliens is an exciting sci-fi action flick. Yet, they can also be read as much more. There’s a cottage industry of academic articles that interpret the franchise as a feminist critique of male-dominated societies. Indeed, the sexual imagery is hard to miss, from the phallic shape of the xenomorph’s head to the way the chestburster resembles a perversion of human childbirth. Others have interpreted the films as a Marxist critique of corporate America, a satire of militarism, or even a contemplation on the lack of existential meaning in the universe. It’s no wonder that the Alien franchise is one of the most studied works of genre cinema in academia (just behind the scholarship paid to Joss Whedons oeuvre).
The films stand as a testament to the power of smart filmmaking. The script for Aliens efficiently paces the film and slowly unveils key plot points. It’s careful to tell the audience everything they need to know in order to maximize the payoff at the end. For example, one early scene has Ripley asking a sergeant if she can help the marines prepare. When she demonstrates that she knows how to operate a power loader, and the marines nod in admiration. Initially, the scene develops Ripley’s relationship with the marines. However, it also prepares the audience for when Ripley uses a power loader to fight the alien Queen. When the payoff comes, it feels earned.**
** It’s the type of careful character development that The Force Awakens failed to do with Rey.
Aliens was billed as a big-budget movie when it came out, but even accounting for inflation its $17-18 million budget is a fraction of what Hollywood spends on franchise films today (Avengers: Age of Ultron had a budget of $250 million). It’s no small testament to the team of special effects wizards who managed to find ways to bring the xenomorphs to life on such a shoestring budget. Tight budgets imposed an admirable restraint on the storytellers. Scott and Cameron simply couldn’t afford to depict hundreds of aliens destroying cities (something that occurs regularly in superhero movies nowadays). In fact, they often had to obscure the xenomorphs in fog or smoke to hide the imperfections in the costume. All this helped keep the alien more mysterious and threatening.
Finally, the Alien franchise provides a model of how to build a shared cinematic universe and keep it fresh. In our era of reboots, remakes, and requels, franchises seem to exhaust themselves fairly quickly (if not financially then at least in terms of originality). Marvel’s Cinematic Universe has prevented directors from putting their stamp on films, imposing homogeneity across the franchise. By contrast, each Alien film feels like the work of an auteur with a very unique vision. Alien and Prometheus feel very much like Ridley Scott films that engage at least as much with the themes in Scott’s Blade Runner as they do other films in the franchise. Likewise, Aliens is very much a James Cameron film; indeed, Cameron reused many of the same concepts for Avatar. Alien and Aliens aren’t even in the same genre (the former is a B-movie horror, the latter action/adventure). Even Alien 3 and Alien: Resurrection feel like distinct products of their directors in the way that they engage with different themes. I like the idea of treating the franchise as a sandbox and letting individual directors play in it; even if it doesn’t always work, it’s never boring (although sadly David Fincher was never really given a chance to develop his vision for Alien 3).
In many ways, Alien and Alien have become the yardsticks by which I measure all other sci-fi films. The films combine Academy Award level acting, breathtaking special effects, and thoughtful philosophical discussions that allow them to be enjoyed on many levels. They represent what genre film can be in the hands of competent and creative artists. I am cautiously optimistic about Scott’s sequel to Prometheus, Alien: Covenant, as well as Alien 5, which is currently in development by District 9 director Neill Blomkamp. Unfortunately, those films won’t be out for several more years, so in the meantime it’s worth rewatching Alien and Aliens if it’s been a while since you’ve seen either film. They hold up better than you remember.