Review of the Week–The Alien Saga

This week’s Review of the Week is actually going to cover more than one movie–six, to be precise! One of my favorite movies of all time is the sci-fi/horror classic Alien, and as the story continues (or is prequeled) by several other movies–some of which are good, some of which are bad, and all of which I have strong opinions on–I figured, how can I possibly talk about one without doing all of the others? So, without further ado, I give you a complete look at the Alien saga.

Note that the “review” for each movie will be quite a bit more abridged than I normally would write. I know you’ve all got places to be.

Alien (1979)

God, that’s such a crazy, crazy good tagline.

In the original installment of the saga, which takes place in the far future where humans have mastered space travel (but notably not faster-than-light speeds), the commercial towing vessel Nostromo is on its way home to Earth when its crew of blue-collar roughnecks is awakened as their computer detects a strange signal on a passing planet. Going down the surface and exploring a crashed ship, the crew unwittingly brings back aboard a nightmare that will span years to come: an alien life form that’s the perfect predator, savage, without conscience, and hungry for human flesh.

There are very, very few examples of what I would hold up as perfect movies, but Alien is one of them. Seriously, I dare you to find something wrong with this movie. You can’t do it. The depiction of space travel is suitably realistic, and its characters suitably relatable as just clueless working stiffs, that it really grounds the whole adventure to the point where you truly empathize with their plight. The dark, damp, claustrophobic settings of the Nostromo are perfect as atmosphere for the kind of chase that’s everyone’s worst nightmare. And the alien xenomorph itself is so completely alien (yes, a word I’m going to be using a lot), terrifying, and disturbing in its portrayal that it strikes to the heart of that monster under the bed fear that we all experience.

This was pretty much the first movie of its genre to focus on horror almost over the sci-fi aspects, and ask the question: what would happen if we encountered alien life that wasn’t like us? What if it was just an animal? The perfect predator? Something that had no interest in us other than how we tasted? It blazes a lot of trails in that regard, to be followed by other classics such as The Thing. Sure, blood and guts can be found in this movie, but it’s the visceral, around the corner, in the rafters scares that really steal the show here, and the slow-boiling horror of watching the hapless crew get picked off one by one. Plus, this was the beginning of the legend of Ellen Ripley: an everyday, unimportant woman who rises to the occasion, overcomes her doubts and fears, and does what needs to be done when no one else will. Ripley is a model for feminine heroines everywhere as the precise image of what a truly empowered woman should look like, and who never gives up, no matter how high the stakes are. Yeah, she’s kind of awesome.

My Rating: 10/10

Aliens (1986)

In the follow-up to Alien, Ellen Ripley is recovered after drifting through space in hibernation for decades as the last survivor of the Nostromo, having killed the alien xenomorph that killed her crew. As she struggles to overcome the trauma of what happened to her, greedy corporate interests have set in motion another catastrophe as, to get their hands on the aliens, they expose an entire colony of humans to them. To face her fear and save the colonists, Ripley joins up with a team of hotshot marines whose mission is to exterminate the creatures–but some on the force have their own agendas, and the threat may be even greater than Ripley had imagined.

Aliens is a completely different movie than Alien, in that instead of a psychological horror thriller, the film makes the abrupt and jarring shift into a guns-blazing, shoot-’em-up action movie. Normally I’d have a huge problem with a change like that as I hate big, dumb action movies, but director James Cameron somehow manages to put together a story that’s an incredibly worthy sequel and almost, but not quite, as good as the first film. It’s a completely different approach to the basic premise that Alien set forth, but it does so without sacrificing anything that made the first movie great: the slow-burn horror aspects are still here amid all the gunplay, there’s an underdog but plucky team of characters to root for, the aliens are as scary as ever (and there’s more of them!), and some of the plot threads left dangling by Alien–Ripley’s psychological state, her antipathy toward androids, and desire to be a mother again–are all brought into play and nicely resolved.

Truly, the only strike against Aliens is that its story is a bit more predictable than the first film, if only for the virtue of being a sequel, and some of the subtlety can tend to get lost amid all the explosions and gunfights. But on the other hand, it really delves into the psychology of the xenomorphs by introducing the queen and showing the creatures all working together–an opportunity not present in the first film. All in all, a superb sequel that absolutely lives up to the high bar set by Alien.

My Rating: 9/10

Alien 3 (1992)

Ugh. Now we get to the bad one.

In the aftermath of Aliens, Ellen Ripley once again finds herself in trouble as the ship carrying her and her companionjos home to Earth malfunctions and crashes on Fury 161, a penal colony planet where the extremely violent and unstable prisoners held run a refinery plant. Once again the only survivor of her crew, Ripley finds she can’t escape her past as the xenomorphs resurface, one having stowed away abroad her escape pod and matured in the refinery, and begin killing off prisoners. Waiting on a rescue that may never come, Ripley and the prisoners have to take matters into their own hands if they want to survive, and she comes face to face with the horror that’s stalked her for years once more–in a new and deeply personal way.

Just like it’s hard to find anything that went wrong with Alien, in Alien 3 it’s hard to find anything that went right. Unlike the first two movies, where the obviously dark tone was offset with beats of humor, character moments, and a genuine, gritty optimism that humanity would persevere despite all the odds that kept you on the edge of your seat, Alien 3 is a joyless slog through familiar, well-trodden territory, but with none of the things that made the first two movies so enjoyable. Sigourney Weaver seems genuinely tired of her role as Ripley, which is understandable given how much the character has been through, but not something that makes for a particularly engaging performance. Not to mention that fact that the supporting cast doesn’t give her any help–unlike in Alien or Aliens where they were generally likable, if not helpful, the prisoners and staff Ripley’s surrounded by are incredibly unlikable and dull–with the notable exception of Charles Dance, who inexplicably gets killed before anything fun happens. Otherwise, it’s basically Aliens without all the guns–seriously, no weapons are allowed on Fury. Is it just me who thinks that’s an awful, awful idea, even for a prison? It just reads like a why-not tweak of the movie formula: “Ooh, what would happen if Ripley had to face the aliens without a gun?” Not exactly inspired storytelling there. The great characters from Aliens are also tossed to the wayside without so much as a goodbye–again, perhaps realistic in its tragedy, but it just comes off as a massive missed opportunity. Also, the big “plot twist” of the story, where Ripley learns there’s an alien queen growing inside her, is an interesting development to be sure, but not one that apparently has any real consequences. So she’s got the odd pain here and there. So what? Why’s this thing taking so long? Anyone want to explain that one to me?

Look, it’s no secret that I love grim and gritty movies–but only if they have a dose of fun and spirit in there somewhere. Alienis everything the first two movies would be if you just took all the fun out of them. There’s no fun being scared by it because you’ve seen it all before, you couldn’t care less about the people involved, and the biggest horror moment of the movie (Ripley’s alien baby) is completely undersold. So I’m giving a half-baked score to a half-baked movie that was clearly only made to further a franchise.

Also, Ripley with no hair isn’t trailblazing or edgy. It’s just weird. That is all.

My Rating: 4/10

Alien Resurrection (1997)

You thought a little thing like death would stop Ellen Ripley? Well, you’d be wrong about that!

The fourth and allegedly final movie in the saga, Alien Resurrection, takes place years after Ripley’s death on Fury, as she fell into a fiery pit to kill the xenomorph queen sprouting from her chest. Government scientists have managed to use cells scavenged from the scene to clone Ripley and the alien inside her, allowing them to breed more xenomorphs and continue their research. The Ripley clone also lives, but with a strange twist: her genetic recombination with the alien has given her some of its abilities–acid blood, increased strength and agility, and an eerie ability to sense and commune with the aliens. When a mercenary crew arrives to deliver fresh bodies to feed the xenomorphs, one among them recognizes Ripley, but it’s too late: the aliens have once again broken free and wreak havoc on the ship. To make matters worse, it’s on a course back home, which means the aliens could have the chance to destroy the Earth if this crew of misfits–and a Ripley more troubled than she’s ever been–don’t end them once and for all.

I had very mixed feelings about Resurrection. On one hand, the idea of giving Ripley alien powers was pretty cool, and seeing her after all of her heartbreak, terror, and pain finally come around to embracing the aliens in the way she did was a nice change of pace for this movie, making you at times uncertain if she’s a good guy or a bad guy at this point. I’m also a fan of Winona Ryder, who plays Call, the “new” Ripley of the film: she’s a great mirror image of how Ripley used to be at the start of the saga in that she’s naive but determined and always looking to do the right thing. The two share a tense, semi-antagonistic relationship that makes for great chemistry and dramatic tension. In addition, we learn the aliens have picked up some new tricks from Ripley, like the new queen giving live birth to a half-human, half-alien offspring that eventually sides with Ripley (its true mother) to overthrow the queen. It’s truly heartbreaking to see the look of betrayal clear on its monstrous face as Ripley double-crosses it, with obvious difficulty, and lets it die in space.

On the other hand, what new did this movie really do besides that? Not much, actually. It was basically a remake of Aliens with bits of Alien 3 mashed in–all the worst bits, I might add, right down to the completely forgettable supporting cast. In the end, it makes for a decent couple hours of entertainment and a nice rebound from the utter dumpster fire that was Alien 3, but not by a lot. It’s a half-hearted attempt at best to make the franchise great again, and the end result is a movie that while it has a lot of cool ideas, just can’t seem to break free from the shadows of its much better predecessors.

My Rating: 7/10

Prometheus (2012)

Hey, did you ever wonder or care where those xenomorph things came from? Yeah, me neither. But we made a movie about it anyway!

Prometheus, named for the Greek titan of myth who brought fire and civilization to a savage humanity, is the first in a series of films that are set before the original Alien, chronicling the rise of the xenomorphs and the legacy of their “creators”, the Engineers. In the not-so-distant future, religious anthropologist Elizabeth Shaw leads an expedition on behalf of billionaire tycoon Peter Weyland to the stars and a far-off planet where they believe the creators of humanity can be found. But the members of the mission soon learn that these so-called Engineers have many secrets–among them, a mutagenic weapon that devastated their civilization and was intended for use on Earth. To stop the catastrophe, Shaw and her crew have to face down the beings that originated humanity, as well as their monstrous creations, while also facing division from within as secret agendas threaten to destroy everything.

Let’s get one thing straight–Prometheus is an Alien movie in name only. In reality there’s precious little to actually tie this alleged prequel into the series at large. The xenomorphs don’t even show up, unless you count a highly, highly questionable modified form and an origin story that doesn’t at all stand up to scrutiny. It doesn’t help that the follow-up movie, Covenant, basically renders everything that happened in this movie pointless, but we’ll get to that. Again, a large part of the failure lies with the cast of Prometheus. Despite some truly great talents in Charlize Theron and Noomi Rapace, nobody really manages to wow with their performances in what seems just like a pantomime version of an Alien movie without any actual aliens. The sole stand-out is Michael Fassbender’s sociopathic android David, who’s probably as close to the true villain of the film as there actually is one–again, a questionable proposition.

Honestly, if Prometheus was just marketed as its own kind of sci-fi/horror movie, with no ties to the Alien franchise, I probably would have liked it a lot more. Instead, fans everywhere were disappointed as all they left the film with were more questions and confusion than when they entered. The timeline of the whole thing is really sketchy and doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. What’s more, the movie was supposed to be about man’s search for the divine–how about, I don’t know, actually spending some time talking about that instead of random alien squid baby? Yeah, that happened.

Prometheus‘s mortal flaw is that it tries to go in way too many different directions at once, and ends up doing none of them well. It’s a frustrating hodgepodge that comes off as a fumbled attempt to inject some fresh ideas and new blood into the Alien franchise.

My Rating: 6/10

Alien: Covenant (2017)

Now THAT’S what I’m talking about.

On the heels of Prometheus comes Alien: Covenant, a tale of a wayward group of space colonists who stop off at an uncharted planet when they pick up a distress call from what appears to be another human castaway (I know, familiar, right?). Upon setting down, however, they quickly learn all is not as it seems, as the wildlife-scarce and yet paradise-like planet harbors hidden dangers, including spores that mature in the body and give birth to a new breed of alien called “neomorphs”. Beset on all sides, the crew of the starship Covenant is saved by none other than David, the android from the previous film, who claims to be the only survivor of the lost Prometheus expedition. What the Covenant crew learns quickly, however, is that David is lying about nearly everything: he’s the mastermind behind the creation of the neomorphs, the destruction of the planet and the genocide of its resident Engineers, and the birth of a new race of perfect predators, the ever-familiar xenomorphs. Having graduated from sociopathic lackey to full-on super-villain psycho, David plans to use his pets to exterminate humanity, which he views as a blight on the universe, and it’s up to the rag-tag group of settlers to stop his horrific plans.

I loved Covenant. Does it retread some familiar ground from the previous films? Sure, absolutely. But it’s everything Prometheus was not: a return to form from a franchise that’s capable of greatness, a boatload of answers to the questions posed by the first prequel, and the introduction of something new for the Alien universe by placing David front and center as the antagonist rather than focusing completely on the xenomorphs.

I could spend hours gushing about David, so I’ll just boil it down to say that I think Michael Fassbender has created the single greatest sci-fi bad guy ever. David is on display from the very first scene of the movie, where he gets a lesson in callousness and cruelty from none other than his own “father”, and the wheels of doubt are set in motion to lead to the disillusioned, delusional monster we meet on the planet. Yet everything David does makes sense: he’s a creation of humanity disappointed by the flaws of his creators and wants to prove he can do better. Again, I know that other movies have covered this whole “rise of the machines” trope before, but David does it in such a visceral and human way that I can’t help but be enthralled by it. He makes the movie worth watching just for his performance alone.

Covenant also ups the ante by placing the characters not on a tight, dimly-lit, claustrophobic ship (well, mostly), but in a much more open environment that lends itself to moments of epic action that even Aliens couldn’t aspire to. It blends horror with action in a near-perfect melding of its predecessors and creates something that’s undeniably new. Not to mention the cast is just so much more likable than any of Covenant‘s more immediate predecessors: you can really root for them and feel the fear their situations brings upon them as they descend into David’s nightmarish mind.

And that ending? Oh, man. What a gut-punch. It came completely out of nowhere and I never expected it for a second, even though I probably should have. I won’t say much, but I will say it’s a cliffhanger worthy of the annals of sci-fi history. Again, something that up until this point the Alien movies haven’t really toyed with all that much. But boy, did they nail it this time.

The Alien franchise is back, baby. Alien: Covenant proves it. Let’s hope all the future movies are as good as this one.

My Rating: 8/10

MY TOTAL RATING: 7/10

Long story short: if you’re in any way into sci-fi, horror, or any combination thereof, you should watch the Alien movies. Some may be better than others, but all in all, they’re well worth your time.

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