Across five decades and now eight films, the Alien series has been a staple of the film geek’s life longer than some film geeks have been alive. The horror diehards will tell you it never got better than the original. The action nuts will tell you James Cameron delivered the franchise’s true masterpiece. The hipsters among us devote their passion to Alien 3. But what’s so impressive about the series isn’t any one entry; it’s the fact that the series is reactive, that it evolves to suit whatever blockbuster trends exist when each movie is made, and that it often does it pretty well! From horror to action to goofy schlock, Alien has been everywhere, and it’s still charting new territory.
The ’70s: Alien – The Intense Sci-Fi Story
“In space, no one can hear you scream.” The tagline for Alien was more of a mission statement than a marketing ploy. Throughout the 1960s and ‘70s, sci-fi films had begun to grow out of their ‘50s B-movie roots into something to be taken more seriously. Advancements in filmmaking styles and visual effects changed what one could do with science fiction, which resulted in a bolder, more intense, and often more cerebral kind of movie. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) is probably the definitive sci-fi movie of the era, and other movies like Solaris (1972), Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978), and The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976) kept science fiction for adults alive.
That all started to change in 1977, with the release and massive success of a small independent production from some nobody called Star Wars. It’s about a kid and a talking dog that go commit space crimes or something. Studios started chasing after the same success, and science-fiction started to become more focused on fantasy than on intensity.
To that end, Alien closed out the decade by representing the best of both worlds. It just places us in a situation with these characters, lets us get to know them, and then lets us watch them get picked off one by one. It’s Halloween, but set in space and with more phallic undertones. When Ripley releases the Xenomorph through the air lock and destroys it in the engine, it’s a definitive statement that this era of hard sci-fi is reaching its end. If Alien were to become a franchise, it would have to evolve.
The ‘80s: Aliens – The Crazy Action Story
And evolve it did. James Cameron was given the unenviable task of creating a follow-up to Alien, and his idea was this: let’s do the same thing, but bigger. He threw in more aliens, more characters, more explosions, more emotions. Aliens is one of the definitive action movies of its decade, and a big 180 from what Ridley Scott did with Alien.
But if you look at the era in which it was made, of course it’s that way. Aliens was released in 1986, the heyday of big, bombastic, crazy action spectacle. Stars like Schwarzenegger and Stallone were household names. Stallone even had two of the three highest-grossing movies from the year before, with Rambo: First Blood Part II, a movie where he wins the Vietnam War, and Rocky IV, a movie where he wins the Cold War.
Over-the-top action was the order of the day in the mid-‘80s, and Aliens transcends the genre through its dedication to character work. There’s over an hour of buildup before our crew even sees their first alien, and the time spent with those characters at the beginning makes the film much more visceral in its second half. Hell, Sigourney Weaver was nominated for an Oscar for Aliens. How many action movie performances can you say that about?
The ‘90s: Alien 3 and Alien Resurrection – Let’s Throw Everything At The Wall And See What Sticks
The ‘90s were a confused time for blockbusters, but it’s safe to say that most of them were goofy as hell. The advent of CGI meant studios could let loose with all kinds of nonsense, and directors like Michael Bay, Roland Emmerich, and Paul W.S. Anderson proved you could make a successful movie by blowing up a whole lot of shit next to famous people.
But at the start of the decade, we saw blockbusters that took crazy premises and treated them relatively seriously – your Terminator 2s, your Jurassic Parks, your Point Breaks. And David Fincher’s Alien 3 fits right alongside them. Sure, it’s not as good as those movies (especially in its original theatrical cut, legendarily cut to hell by the studio). But it captures the spirit of Alien pretty well, scaling back the action of Aliens to deliver a more isolated story that packs some punch. Time has been kind to Alien 3, which initially courted controversy for beginning with the offscreen deaths of two fan-favorite characters and ending with the death of its fan-favorite lead. It’s a bleak, nihilistic exercise that manages to still have enough going for it to recommend. Charles S. Dutton and Charles Dance deliver strong performances, and Fincher taps into some genuinely tense sequences. It all falls apart at the end, but man, the movie is a trip.
Alien Resurrection is the opposite end of the spectrum, playing more like Independence Day or Event Horizon even as it recreates the setting of the original film. The late-‘90s silly-blockbuster boom would probably reach its zenith with Wild Wild West, and Alien Resurrection is not far ahead of that in terms of quality. That’s a shame given the level of talent involved; it was directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet (who would go on to make Amelie) and written by Joss Whedon, of all people. But Jeunet’s direction lacks the self-awareness of Whedon’s screenplay, and Whedon’s dialogue lacks the visceral punch of Jeunet’s visuals. The pair were a bad fit for each other, and the result was a film that follows a Ripley clone who has super basketball powers 200 years in the future. The last 20 minutes make this movie a must-see for anybody interested in a “what the hell am I watching?” kind of movie – it involves an Alien Queen giving birth to an Alien/Human hybrid and it recognizing Ripley as its mother before getting its brains and organs sucked out the back of its head through a small hole in the ship.
To Alien Resurrection’s credit though, it does feature Ron Perlman dual-wielding pistols while hanging upside down from a ladder. It’s important to appreciate the little things in life.
The 2000s: Alien vs. Predator and Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem – The Cynical Cash Grab
Hollywood has always been obsessed with sequels, and as we’ve seen in recent years, it has become more obsessed with cinematic universes. We can blame Marvel for that (though the Universal Monsters and Kevin Smith got there first), but the 2000s saw a couple of other stabs at universe-crossing. Freddy Krueger and Jason Voorhees faced off in 2003’s Freddy vs. Jason, and just a year later, our beloved Xenomorph fought against another iconic movie monster in Alien vs. Predator.
Building on an Easter egg from Predator 2 some 14 years earlier, Alien vs. Predator has its moments. It even features the return of Lance Henriksen to the franchise. The whole thing feels a lot more lifeless than an all-out battle between two movie icons should, though. Interestingly, it wouldn’t be the last Alien movie to exist mostly to explain set decoration from a previous movie (hello, Prometheus!).
The sequel, Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem, is much worse, and looks like it was shot with the lens cap still on the camera. The AvP movies represent the most cynical aspects of franchise filmmaking, smushing two popular properties together without giving any thought to how well they actually fit. Besides, they never made Alien vs. Predator vs. RoboCop, so what was the point of this whole thing?
The 2010s: Prometheus – Nostalgia Porn or: The Buzzfeedification of Cinema
We’re living in an age of nostalgia, and it’s seeped into our movies. It’s why Star Wars: The Force Awakens was a retelling of A New Hope, it’s why Jurassic World kept calling back to Jurassic Park, and it’s why Terminator Genisys reeeeeeeally hopes you liked the first two Terminators. Prometheus, which sees the return of original Alien director Ridley Scott to the series, goes through a lot of the same motions as the first film. Crew explores unknown planet, dumb crew member exposes himself to alien, alien starts terrorizing crew on their ship until all but one is dead and the droid is decapitated.
Prometheus is better than its reputation suggests, even while it’s deeply flawed. Yes, it hits the same beats as Alien, it falls into the same trap as the Star Wars prequels by explaining things from the original that probably needed no explanation, and it has the single funniest delivery of the word “Father” in all of cinema. But it’s visually stunning, features a great performance from Michael Fassbender, and has at least one body horror sequence that is right up there with the best of the Alien movies (if you’ve seen it, you know the one).
It remains to be seen how Alien: Covenant, also by Scott, will stack up with the rest of the series. But it should be noted that, when they’re not fighting Predators, the Alien series has remained one of the most interesting and versatile ones in movie history. It’s a franchise littered with distinctive voices, dark subject matter, strong thematic undertones, and kick-ass horror and action sequences. And, if history is any indication, it’ll be right there alongside whatever the next big trend in blockbuster filmmaking is.
I’m personally hoping for Alien: The Musical, but I’m willing to wait and see what happens.
Michael Smith can be heard screaming in Poughkeepsie, N.Y.