Note: This has been slightly edited for clarity and focus
Going on a bug hunt
Miller: Hello everyone! Welcome to the Alien discussion, no Predators allowed. We’re going to keep it to the first four movies – Alien, Aliens, Alien 3 and Alien: Resurrection – and while there is a lot to explore, let’s honor the season by starting with these movies in terms of scares, dread, horror. One of the most interesting things about these movies is how they mimic their subject, always evolving into new forms, and plenty of people will argue that later iterations were unsuccessful. But these evolutions all contain material from their predecessors and while Alien is widely considered the only pure horror movie here, the subsequent films all contain moments that equal and maybe surpass the terror of the original. So let’s start there – how do the other films stack up in this department? Do their additions and alterations bring more to the table, or do you admire the original’s purity?
Oliver: Zomg, Alien is so scary. That’s a pretty duh comment from me, by my god. I can’t even imagine what the experience of seeing it in the theater for the first time would be like. I saw it when I was much too young, because my dad had an “anything goes” approach to VHS-movie-watching with kids, and zomg, so scary.
I think a lot of Alien is just even finding out what the hell this creature is, and that drives a lot of the movie, right? You’ve got creepy egg turning into face-hugger turning into deadly mini-alien turning into an eight-foot-tall adult creature, and at each point, the rug is yanked out from under you, and you’re unnerved. You’re sort of right there along with the crew, right? Being startled and horrified by these things. I actually think it was a really good idea to make Aliens different and action-y, because you’re not going to be able to recapture that initial shock. (Even though Aliens also manages to be creepy and disturbing.)
Vomas: Alien is surprisingly down-to-earth for a movie that takes place in space, and I think that helps it function as a horror film – it’s full of average people having a really bad day at work, and that’s considerably more relatable than anything the sequels have to offer (unless, perhaps, the viewer has been actively involved in the military, or spent time in an all-male monk prison). Each of the sequels manages to conjure up at least a couple of moments of pure dread, and I can think of at least one that I would say does surpass the original – hello, Resurrection‘s laboratory of failed clones – but none of them can sustain that feeling like the original movie can.
Oliver: Yeah, what Vomas said. That’s so key for the first movie, right? It makes it much more horrific. No one’s really trying to be a hero. Ripley is strong and brave and competent, but she just wants to get herself and her friends out of the situation alive. I don’t find most horror movies scary, because I don’t find the characters relatable. (Also, one thing the movie nails, and I think Star Wars began this trend, is that the future looks like crap. Everything’s so run-down and ugly. Again – relatable. If everything was shiny and cool-looking, you wouldn’t believe in it.)
However, the one actually heroic thing Ripley does do in the movie is save the cat. I hate to say this, because I love cats so much, but I would not save the cat. I’d be far too terrified at that point. I would just jump in the escape pod and spend the rest of my life running a cat rescue shelter to make up for my failure. I’m sorry. I’m a terrible person, but the alien is just too scary and deadly for me to handle.
Vomas: As a fellow cat-lover, I feel like fearing for the cat’s life should be something that makes the movie more scary for me, but I never really feel like Jones is particularly in any danger. In fact I’d go so far as to say there’s a certain mutual respect between the cat and the creature – one perfect organism recognises another?
Oliver: For sure, there’s that one moment where the alien and the cat are just hanging out. They seem chill with each other. Humans are lame!
I think one thing that really scares me about Alien is the helplessness of the crew. The most disturbing part – by far – for me as a kid was Veronica Cartwright’s death, where you don’t see it, you just hear her screams over the ship’s P.A. system. And Ripley is running through the hallways, and that’s all she hears too. And us hearing it and not seeing it sort of mirrors Ripley’s helplessness and frustration. This happens for Dallas’s death, also. Hearing it, not seeing it – she can’t do anything to stop what’s happening – and it’s so much more disturbing that way.
Miller: I think Oliver’s point about the first movie being driven by mystery/revelation is a really good one. The crew, to Vomas’s point, is not even supposed to be here today or doing this kind of thing in general, so they have to figure out everything from the start of the movie onward. And everything they discover is horrifying! They were asleep and happy and the minute they started learning they learned new ways of being afraid – this is biblical and thus also Lovecraftian. Subsequent movies don’t have that relentless, remorseless insistence on insignificance and indeed, by their very existence they set boundaries and paths to follow.
On the other hand, they can pursue those paths to disturbing ends. The facehugger in Alien is a horror, but interestingly is largely passive outside of its big jumpscare. Its one moment of motion afterward, falling on Ripley in the lab, is a big fakeout. James Cameron, on the other hand, decided to extrapolate off that moment and the sequence of Ripley and Newt locked in another lab with two facehuggers in Aliens is to my mind the most frightening bit in all the movies. It isn’t the creeping horror of the first film, but holy shit, those scuttling bastards and their slurping intubators scare the bejesus out of me, they’re the pinnacle of horror as action as opposed to mood.
But in close competition is Alien’s other big shock, which to my mind is even bigger than the chest-bursting scene. The movie is, after all, called Alien, so we’re going to see one of those at some point – what it is not called is “Android” and the reveal of Ash as first homicidal and then a milk-spewing robot gets me every time. Rewatching Alien the other night I was struck by how much the movie foregrounds Ash being off from the start, Holm’s chilly performance and secretive, anticipatory actions are setting up something but once again, the discovery of just what he is brings the horror of realization. And this doesn’t even get into his real evil as corporate stooge, but I’ll leave off on that for now.
Oliver: Very good point with the Ash/Android bit. I’m terrible at predicting twists in movies, so I had no idea that Ash was an android, and more to the point, how would we know? It’s not even ever mentioned that there are androids in this future up until that second.
Everything in the Ash scene is so disturbing. The way Ash malfunctions and jiggles around momentarily, the bizarre way that he tries to kill Ripley (by suffocating her with rolled-up paper, I think?), him vomiting milk (aah!). Ridley Scott is just so good at creating unsettling imagery. None of the directors who came after him were bad directors, but none of them could really match him, I feel, for just getting inside your head and fucking with it.
Not only can we not know that Ash is a robot, but for a long time nothing leads us to even guess that Ripley is the main character. She’s just a member of the crew, the camera doesn’t focus on her, for a while it seems like Dallas (the good-looking dude, the captain) is going to be the hero. I guess my big thing here is just how much the film keeps you de-centered and off-guard, which feels like a key part of making horror effective.
Evil corporations… Ripley has an underrated line in Aliens, where she says to Burke, more or less, “I don’t know which is worse, them [the aliens], or you. At least you don’t see them out there fucking each other over for a goddamn percentage.”
That’s another big theme, clearly. That humans, not the aliens, are the worst ones of all.
The Ploughman: One of the things I like about the Alien movies is how they pick up from where the other left off but otherwise feel no obligation to the previous entry. Cameron wants to make an action movie instead of a horror film? Great! We already have Alien, let’s do something new. Each of the next two films also do something new – we can argue how successfully, but none of them can be accused of being, ahem, a clone of another – while keeping with that theme implied in Alien and stated out loud in Aliens: the company, like its representative Ash, is not human whatever it may look like. It’s not any more human than the creature that hunts the crew and just as relentless and dangerous.
But this theme is just flavoring in the original movie. The other theme is what makes this deeper as a horror movie: its thoughts on reproduction and violation. This also makes Aliens the outlier of the franchise. The first movie is about fear of violation, the third movie about fear of unwanted pregnancy, and the fourth about the fear of non-viable birth. Aliens is about the fear of running out of bullets. This doesn’t make it a bad movie by any means, but the other three have such a horrifying escalation in that regard that the Aliens retooling stands out more. I suppose much of this can be laid at Fincher’s feet and his rejection of the family element Cameron had introduced. Maybe you all see another film as the outlier in the quartet? Is there an alternate timeline that strays even farther from the original’s horror?
The Narrator: I think you’re right about Aliens standing as the one of the four that engages the least with the body horror that defines the series, even down to Ripley’s arc about motherhood not having to involve actual childbirth (except in the extended version, but even then her daughter is a distant abstraction rather than any kind of bodily reality). One of my favorite things about Cameron’s work is his gleeful disregard for the human or robot body, milking sick thrills from just how disposable our bodies are when faced with advanced tech or propellers or space whales. This makes him a good fit for a series this violent on one level but also makes him an outlier in how he’s not afraid of bodily invasion and mutilation, just fascinated by it, especially when it comes from one of his beloved gadgets. This puts a cap on just how much of a horror movie it can be between its high-octane action, I would classify it as “relentless” much more than “scary” even as it has its moments (which have been mentioned above).
Cameron’s indifference to the primal fears of the other three doesn’t make Aliens worse on its own merits, especially in a series where every movie is happy to do its own thing. But it does make Aliens the least interesting of the four for me, for the reason I struggle to work up much enthusiasm even for Cameron’s self-evidently great movies. Cameron’s approach is Big Spectacle accompanied by Big Themes, Aliens’ being, more or less, motherhood and Vietnam. There’s certainly not nothing to think about there, but for me its strengths are purely in the present-tense, only as long as the number of bullets is an ongoing concern.
Miller: Ha, I would’ve thought this – “his gleeful disregard for the human or robot body, milking sick thrills from just how disposable our bodies are when faced with advanced tech or propellers or space whales” – was about Jenuet in Resurrection, give or take a space whale. Cameron enjoys fucking up bodies but loves the spirit, in particular the human one, he’s the only person here who could write “You always were an asshole, Gorman,” let alone make it hit as hard as it does. As you allude to, his fear in The Ploughman’s continuum is the fear of being a bad mother, Ripley misses her daughter’s life and is in danger of losing surrogate daughter Newt. Luckily, there is no more powerful being in a James Cameron movie than an angry mom, so she is triumphant and beats back the horror (another mom wanting space for her own kids, is Aliens an allegory for finding daycare?).
But I want to pull back from this for a moment, I have been thinking about a line from a guy not unfamiliar with alien horror, Thomas Ligotti: “Years of exegesis have made interpreting supernatural tales into a game that anyone can play, and one finds that gods and demons are quite easily relocated from the dreams in which they were born into some mundane context of sociology, psychology, politics, or whatever.” These movies offer so much to unpack thematically, some of it intentional (especially Resurrection) and some not, but they resonate first because of their images, the dreams and nightmares realized before us. The one sequence in Resurrection that strikes pretty much everyone’s nerves is Ripley in the lab (labs again!) coming face to face with the hideous, piteous failed clones, and this is right out of a nightmare – distorted images, being in multiple places at once, identity fractured. The Narrator accurately pegs Aliens as “relentless” more than “scary” but relentlessness is its own nightmarish quality.
Knowing Ridley Scott’s commercial background had me rewatching Alien, especially its beginning, as an advertisement for itself – the images of the Nostromo and later the Space Jockey’s spacecraft wouldn’t be out of place in an ad like the 1984 Apple commercial. But he also lets them unfold in a way that mimics the unease of a bad dream and the most classically horror segment, poor Brett wandering after Jones and getting got, is a bad dream of the worst kind – everyone knows how this will end (even Harry Dean Stanton himself, his face is born to die) but the dripping ceiling and unclear hanging objects and sense of going deeper into a place of doom gets at a fear that can’t be covered by metaphor.
Oliver: My last girlfriend only really liked European art movies where people were in difficult relationships and talked in low voices – but she also really liked Alien. Which got me to thinking about how Alien is sort of like an art movie. It’s a day in the life of these people, and things happen, and shit goes bad. There’s weird imagery and it all makes sense on some level, but the whole thing is totally unpredictable. (Why is Ripley singing “You are my lucky star” when she’s shooting the alien out of the escape pod? I dunno. Because she’s in shock, maybe? It’s very random.)
I think Miller (if that is your real name!) makes a good point. Alien can’t really be reduced to a simple metaphor, I don’t think. That’s what sort of makes it real art. It can mean endless things. I read that yeah, the creature engages in oral rape leading to male pregnancy (Jesus!), but it seems like they picked that just because it was the most disturbing thing they could think of.
If Alien is about anything, to me, it’s about the implacable universe. The alien is an animal, and animals are scary. As this cartoon by Kate Beaton proves –
Animals are scary though. Insects are very scary when looked at up close. Deep-sea fish at the bottom of the Mariana Trench are scary. Even cats (sorry, Vomas) – if you die in your apartment, your cat will wait a few days, but once it gets too hungry, it’ll start eating your dead body. Sorry. It’s just science.
I was writing about F. Scott Fitzgerald for this site this week, so I’ll just throw in this quote from The Great Gatsby:
He must have looked up at an unfamiliar sky through frightening leaves and shivered as he found what a grotesque thing a rose is and how raw the sunlight was upon the scarcely created grass.
If the message of Star Wars was “space is a cool place with lots of neat aliens and fun adventures,” the message of Alien is: space doesn’t give a shit about you. If even a rose can be grotesque, looked at without preconceptions, how much scarier is the alien?
Or there’s this, from Catch-22:
Yossarian was cold, too, and shivering uncontrollably. He felt goose pimples clacking all over him as he gazed down despondently at the grim secret Snowden had spilled all over the messy floor. It was easy to read the message in his entrails. Man was matter, that was Snowden’s secret. Drop him out a window and he’ll fall. Set fire to him and he’ll burn. Bury him and he’ll rot, like other kinds of garbage. That was Snowden’s secret. Ripeness was all.
The alien just doesn’t care. The alien isn’t even evil; it’s just doing its thing. It’s born to reproduce and it’s gonna do its best to do that. And these poor low-paid schmucks on the spaceship are in the way of that. And they’re just matter, in the end. If the alien slashes them, they’ll bleed. And there’s no real safety from that. That’s what makes Alien such a disturbing film, I think. Space is apparently nearly infinite, and every single inch of it would kill you if you went there. (You’d die in seconds without a spacesuit.) That’s the really scary part, amirite? Space is like, fuck your feelings.
It’s hard to make more of a pure horror movie than that, I think. And then the next movies are: war movie, prison movie, and sci-fi movie, and with the sci-fi movie, I feel like things start to go off of the rails… : )
They’re coming out of the goddamn walls
Oliver: A lot of [Alien’s success] is due to the special effects not working right or them not having enough money for the special effects, and then that changes in Aliens, where there are creatures all over the place. Aliens is a weird film, since it starts out as a suspense movie, more or less, and then suddenly changes into an action movie (“The walls! They’re coming out of the goddamn walls!”), and then it never lets up with the action.
One thing that surprised me when I saw Aliens as a kid is that you can just shoot them. That sort of changes the game. The creature in the first movie just seemed so indestructible, and it surprised me that oh, you can just shoot them with a machine gun, blammo. Of course the point is that you’re just overwhelmed by endless aliens, and that’s the frightening part, but that’s a different type of scary.
I’m a fan of Aliens, but do we have anyone in the chat who feels like – I don’t know – that the sequels were all a bad idea? I’ll reserve my scorn for the fourth movie, but does someone want to make the argument against doing any sequels to Alien in the first place?
Pico: To summarize one of the more global points: the Alien quartet is unique, as far as I know, in having each successive installment both written and directed by a different set of “auteurs”, with almost no overlap (excepting 3, where half of Hollywood contributed at some point). Among other things, it means each film can be looked at individually as a case study in its respective directors’ or screenwriters’ oeuvre, and the quartet itself can be viewed as an eight-hour anthology rather than as a single, coherent narrative. I cannot think of another original-material franchise with these qualities. I wouldn’t say this “predetermines” the results, but in contrast to something like the MCU, where artists are brought in under a house style to adapt preexisting stories, the Aliens universe allowed for a kind of blank-slate filmmaking we don’t often see in franchises, and sure enough, the Jeunet is recognizable as a Jeunet film, the Fincher recognizable as a Fincher, etc. And just as it doesn’t necessarily predetermine the films, it doesn’t necessarily predetermine our reception of them, though that may help: are you already predisposed towards Jeunet? towards Cameron? Because the films carry a lot of their stamp.
That said, whether or not Scott is the strongest (or my favorite) of the auteurs involved, I think his film is undoubtedly the strongest (or my favorite) of the four. For all the film’s much-celebrated sense of wonder and strangeness, its most surprising feature for an eventual franchise-launcher is how much it gets off on withholding. Yes, we all know the story about not-showing-the-monster and why that decision was made, but it’s worth reflecting on *why* that decision was relevant in the first place, that the film’s strategy *overall* focuses on what’s off-screen, unspoken, and poorly understood. And this pays massive dividends throughout in its transition from wonder to horror, in the pivot of “unthreatening unknown” to “unknown with teeth.” Scariest line in the franchise? “Crew expendable,” i.e. two words on a computer screen. Most badass line in the franchise? “You have my sympathies,” an understated kiss of death. Even the film’s famous tagline is expressed in the negative: “no one can hear you scream.” Like a professional striptease, Scott drags out his reveal for nearly two hours, saving the only shot of the full alien for the grand finale, after which: a burst of thrusters, and a long nap. But if Scott’s film is structured like a very coy burlesque, Cameron’s is a rated-XXX orgy. It’s a very well-designed romp, and it’s completely devoid of subtext because Cameron converts everything to text, which has always been his singular quality as an entertainer. Fincher’s feels a fever dream, possibly in part because of its being reduced to a hash, but if you can get on its wavelength, this only amplifies the Freudian aspects of the story even more, like it exists in its own dark unreality. And Jeunet’s is a grotesque lampoon on the knife’s edge of twisted comedy even at its most disturbing, aided by young Joss Whedon’s cracked sense of humor. Of all of them, I most need to revisit the Fincher: it’s the only one that made me want to take a shower afterwards, and … I mean, that’s not the only time I’ve said that about Fincher.
“When they first met this thing, it was ‘Crew– expendable.’
Then they sent in Marines. They were expendable too.
So what makes you think they’re going to give a shit about a bunch of lifers who found god – at the ass end of space.”
– Alien 3
“Crew expendable” is maybe the most scary line. Great point. Just seeing lines typed out on a computer by some uncaring bureaucrat when it’s life and death. The worst.
Pico: See, I forgot about that moment in Alien 3, another reason for a revisit! And it’s consistent with Cameron’s approach that that line takes human form in Aliens as a very archetypical corporate Snidely Whiplash — not to knock Paul Reiser, who’s wonderful in the role! — because Cameron doesn’t do subtle.
Vomas: Speaking of industry stooges, part of the horror of that Aliens facehugger scene is that Ripley and Newt are trapped in the lab as part of Burke’s sinister plans. The more optimistic strain of science fiction (Independence Day et al) tends to suggest that all of mankind’s struggles will fizzle away once we have to team up against a common extra-terrestrial foe, but these movies keep throwing in threats that come from within. Whether this comes from an android or just an absolute bastard, it’s a rich seam of paranoid horror that coexists nicely with the more physical threat.
Oliver mentioned the helplessness of the crew in Alien, and Aliens has a sequence that seems to be heading in a similar direction – the marines get cut off from communication during their first encounter with the monsters and all Ripley can do is watch them die… at first. But this time around she is able to take action, smashing through walls to save at least a few of them using the space Batmobile. The team realizing the extent of the threat does deliver some welcome horror, but it’s clear that what Cameron is really going for is the big “hell yeah!” rescue, and it felt to me like a key moment in laying out how the tone is going to be different this time.
Oliver: Yeah, so much stuff here! I agree that Aliens thing is very similar in terms of helplessness. They’re watching the marines get slaughtered over the crappy video, with audio that keeps cutting out, and we’re again in the same situation, where we can’t see everything that’s going on. It’s brutal.
The Narrator: Going back a bit, I think the combination of Ridley Scott’s commercial-director, “make it look pristine” instincts and the implacable arthouse rhythms of Alien is what makes it far and away my favorite of the series. It’s one thing to craft images as stunning and unexplained (until Prometheus) as almost every shot in Alien is, but the deliberate pacing forces you to sit in those unfathomable images for much longer than any subsequent or previous monster movie would allow, juicing up their mystery and their latent danger to unbearable extremes. For me, the biggest shift from Alien to Aliens is the difference between Scott’s monumental shots and Cameron’s more meat-and-potatoes style, not interested in mystery but instead in just moving things forward.
This all leads nicely into a defense of the one Alien movie made by a real arthouse director, the “sci-fi movie” that does not send everything off the rails. Miller has spoken often about what he sees as Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s general anti-humanism, usually wrapped up in a whimsical Gallic bow that encourages most (but not everybody) to ignore it. The seeds of Resurrection’s grotesqueries are all throughout his work, most notably the clone parts of The City of Lost Children and the disrespect for the human body that leads to one’s debut being a cannibalism comedy. But Resurrection goes much further, going back to Alien’s “space doesn’t give a fuck about you” message to arrive at a surprising question: Why do humans bother trying to conquer space when, as on Earth, we’re just tubs of goo waiting to erupt? While Cameron enjoys tossing the body around like a rag doll, Jeunet’s interest is in spilling guts and fluids, down to Darius Khondji shooting all the carnage with the silver shine of fresh snot. It’s maybe having too much fun ripping open its meatbags to be particularly effective as horror, its joy is infectious as it invents new and disgusting ways to die. But it feels right that the series would have to end (…initially) in such a nasty place, laughing at the idea that humans can control even their insides, let alone the universe around them.
Oliver: I’d just like to say that I am sad that we lost your phrasing of “spaghettied in space” from your original comment. That was amazing. And respect for Scott’s long static shots; he’s not afraid to bore us, which then makes the startling things so much more effective.
I’m a stan for Alien 3, so I would argue for Fincher as an “arthouse” director. Scott too. They’re both artsy directors who unexpectedly became popular? On the other hand, Jeunet = too cute by far for me.
Vomas: Alien 3 hasn’t really come up in the discussion of the series as horror so far, and I’m curious as to whether its defenders think it’s successful on that level. I think it’s an interesting movie, but I don’t really care about the cast of murderers and rapists getting picked off, and also the effects are way worse than the other three movies to the point that I find it distracting. I think it has some of the best performances in the series and I’m always going to have some affection for a movie full of British character actors, but I never feel much tension or dread, and when the alien is on screen I find myself thinking “I wish the alien wasn’t on screen” – these are pretty big flaws in what is ostensibly a horror movie about an alien.
Oliver: Counterpoint. Alien 3 is the best one! It is life itself! Maybe I take things too far here. ..But mayhaps not? But doesn’t Alien 3 encapsulate the whole series, refine it, in a way? It’s like making No Exit into a movie. Trapped on a prison planet? The only woman? No one listening to her? It’s pure existentialism. And isn’t that frightening?
And by the way… “So what are we doing?” “…Improvising!” An apt quote for this whole discussion. And also: “The apocalypse is upon us. Let us be ready!” Also fairly valid.
Which I have now finally watched! And what a fascinating mess, which in some ways confirmed suspicions and in others was odder than I imagined. It definitely fits in the auteur framework, compare the lived-in and worn-down interiors of Scott to Fincher’s grottiness here, piss-yellow lens on a cobwebbed and crapulent planet. And I don’t know if there is a darker moment in the series than Fincher giving an android a god damn death rattle, Bishop’s exit of course foreshadows Ripley’s but his expiration itself is grim as hell, and this is after poor Newt died screaming and was ripped apart on the autopsy table. Death is merciless and bodies are parts – but what about the spirit? And here is where the movie becomes oddly optimistic.
I think I detect the secret fifth auteur of Alien, Walter Hill, at work here – he gets screenplay credit and while this was famously fucked with by lots of people, the determination of the end and in particular Charles Dutton’s character feels like Hill, even if the execution of said determination is ridiculous (the spatial dynamics of the final trap make no damn sense, as Wallflower points out in a superb long review). Hill is concerned with people and their limits and Alien 3 by way of Dutton (who is magnetic here and somehow coheres a character who makes very little sense) speaks to the idea that life can be given, not just taken. A person can be the captain of their soul, aliens and corporations be damned. Death is nihilistic but how a person deals with it can be otherwise, this is a powerful thing to believe in. But I don’t think it’s horror.
There is a very interesting parallel here with George Romero’s Dead movies. Both series start with with a full-on horror film that essentially creates a genre going forward; the second film is more action-oriented and also the one with the strongest pop culture presence; the third more brutally despairing and death-focused while being set in a confined location (and notably fucked with by the studios); while the fourth moves back from the grim and apparently final conclusion of its predecessor and is more overtly gory and mainstream. But the other big connection here is how a true and terrifying Other becomes tied to human morality and eventually gains the moral high ground because of this. Think of Burke getting owned in Aliens and the bikers getting owned in Dawn – the xenomorphs and zombies are agents of karma for transgressions. In Day the humans are all terrible and the most relatable figure is Bub, the zombie who can use a walkman; the alien in Alien 3 is a nasty customer but not as vile as the Weyland-Yutani scum that would use it for their own ends. By Land of the Dead (a hugely underrated movie), the zombies are rightfully rising up against rich exploitative shitheads and the humans are basically along for the ride. Which at long last brings me to Alien: Resurrection, where the aliens are … rightfully rising up against rich exploitative shitheads and the humans are basically along for the ride.
But here Ripley is half-alien herself, it’s arguable that she is even “Ripley.” The Narrator’s insight here about humans conquering space is a great one, because the movie’s big insight is to move past the idea of humanity as conqueror and ideal, even as it melds xenomorphs with human biology. Alien has the already-discussed line “crew expendable” and that is a corporate judgment and thesis statement for humanity as a whole, we are just food or not, to use the formulation of Kate Beaton via Oliver. So why don’t we move on? Become the predator (NOT a Predator, I told you all those movies are off limits), or at least become something no longer human? I’m about to become a walking White Zombie song so I will sign off but leave this question open: Is not the flip side of horror ecstasy?
Pico: Ha, the Romero comparison is really good, both in where it works, for all the reasons you’ve laid out, and where it doesn’t. Like, I mentioned above that the Alien quartet can be viewed as an anthology — yes, there are recurrent themes, but there’s no unified development of them, and they ebb or flow depending on the installment and the focus — while the Romero films, whatever the stylistic leap between Night and Dawn, have a coherent through-line (zombies are mindless -> they remember things -> they’re capable of thought -> they’re capable of advanced thought). I submit that you could wave away a few inconvenient plot points and watch the Alien films out of order (1,4,3,2 would make for a satisfying balance!) but I think it’d be harder to find a satisfying way to do that with the Night quartet.
Speaking of quartets, you could also draw some fun parallels with yet another Miller’s Mad Maxes: your lean first film, your big spectacle-based second film… and maybe we switch the last two, with Thunderdome having more resonance with Jeunet’s weirdness and Fury Road with Fincher’s steely precision. And of course the Matrixes (Matrices?) have been mentioned above. If only Linklater had made a fourth Before film… (Vienna? Nuke the entire site from orbit. It’s the only way to be sure.)
Miller: *utterly sublime image of Julie Delpy dancing* Not bad … for a human.
Nuking the site from orbit
Pico: One thing I’ve really come to appreciate about the first film is that Weyland-Yutani isn’t yet so omnipresent a villain; sure, it’s responsible for setting everything in motion, but it could just as well be a small mining corp. that realized it could bring back something more valuable on this run, crew be damned. The bigger, the more ubiquitous, the more string-pulling Wey-Yu gets in these stories, the more it flattens out into a generic abstraction. Which, to my mind, also flattens out the anti-capitalist energy of the first film by turning the corporation into an all-purpose chimera you can find in any other SF story. This goes (way) back to what Vomas said above about the first film being “considerably more relatable” than the others.
Oliver: I think that Alien 3 is weirdly optimistic, and that’s something I wouldn’t have thought about much if you hadn’t mentioned it. I think that pins down why I like it best, even though Alien is technically a better movie.
I mean, look at this, Dillon’s speech during the funeral:
Why are the innocent punished? Why the sacrifice? Why the pain?
There aren’t any promises. Nothing’s certain. Only some get called. Some get saved.
She won’t ever know the hardship and grief for those of us left behind. We commit this body to the void with a glad heart…
Within each seed there’s the promise of a flower. And within each death, no matter how small, there’s always a new life. A new beginning.
That speech is ironically undercut by the alien appearing half a second after that, but I mean, I think that point stands. Ripley sacrifices herself for humanity. At the end of the movie, she stands on that same ledge over the furnace and jumps in. She could make a compromise with the company and save her own life, while standing on that catwalk over the pit of fire. Instead, she just says: “No.”
Literally that’s all she says. She doesn’t even make a grand speech. She just says: “No.” As in, fuck that noise. I’m not letting you get the alien and fuck up humanity with it. Her head is shaved like Joan of Arc, and she throws herself into fire. And when she dies, the planet – Fury 161, which has been plunged into darkness for the whole movie – wakes up, with the sun rising at the second of her death. That’s not nothing.
Miller: Aliens has gotten a bit of a kicking here but I see its language threaded throughout this discussion’s 17(!) pages and that is not nothing. It’s the most quotable of the films and I think that reflects its overall positive vibe, it is fun to pull this out in conversation even if the text is coming at a bad time for the characters uttering it. The most nihilistic line in the movie is one of the most-used – does anyone in real life really believe it when they drop a “game over man! Game over!” Hell, does Hudson really believe it or is he just being his whiny self?
Alien doesn’t have as many deployable lines (although its much-worked-over script is excellent, letting stuff like Brett and Parker’s bonus bullshitting build character). The being with the most quotable dialogue is that damn Ash, with his loving description of the xenomorph having a chilling precision of its own: “I admire its purity. A survivor… unclouded by conscience, remorse, or delusions of morality.” This leads into the irony of the ending, where the survivor is Ripley. In your face, space coyote monster! Where Alien 3 is strongest is a denial of all this, though. No one survives forever. I’m going to steal Babalugats’ excellent summary from Friday’s comments: “In Alien 3 the monster is inevitable. It eats children and friendly robots and lays eggs in the hero and the only thing that can be done to fight it is to choose where to die, and even that is a struggle.” The execution (heh) of this is not always strong, like vomas way, way earlier I found a lot of the alien attacks to be pretty rote, essentially a slasher offing goons. But as Oliver points out, the lack of escape is realized at the end in a denial that is also an acceptance: Ripley’s final “No.” Sometimes the horror is understanding there’s nothing left to be said.
Which no one ever told Joss Whedon! (Or us in this discussion.) I think the first three movies (and 3 in particular) have language which contains signifiers of their times but could be fairly easily rejiggered – cut out some profanity, a technological reference or two – into hypothetical versions made in an earlier period, which really speaks to Hill’s influence. But Whedon’s style is in large part his substance, there’s no way to take out its arch 90s tone and I think this is a big factor in why the movie is hated, not so much for the particulars of the style but for the heavy presence of it – it’s the verbal version of Freddy Krueger on a skateboard. And as we’ve all discussed, the lack of explanation is generally more effective than over-explanation; Whedon has a lot to explain here and makes sure we understand all of it. Another divergence from the previous movies.
One of Whedon’s clever, or maybe “clever,” lines in Resurrection is how Weyland-Yutani doesn’t exist anymore, it was acquired by Wal-Mart. Pico notes how W-Y grows from an unnamed corporation in Alien to an all-powerful entity and oddly loses some power in the process, but I think this brings back some menace – the names are gone but the structure is there, absorbed into something else. Sound familiar? Resurrection only exists because the corporation that owns the IP wanted more of their franchise, I think the result breaks free of its limitations but on the other hand it must’ve occurred to the individualistic libertarian Whedon that he was trapped in corporate machinery that you could describe as “unclouded by conscience, remorse, or delusions of morality.” Ash admires the xenomorph because it embodies what he already serves and what really gives me chills is how that is also extolled as a “survivor.” Like another alien said, live long and prosper.
Oliver: For me, Resurrection jumps into nihilism (very 1990s sexily-shot nihilism; my main thing with the movie is it just wants so badly to be cool) and undercuts that. I should say that despite my ranting, I don’t think Resurrection is TERRIBLE or anything. I just think it’s NOT VERY GOOD. (Huge difference.)
And the last thirty seconds of Resurrection is awesome. First, Ripley sarcastically saying to Call (while looking at a nuclear explosion that probably destroyed half of America): “..Well, you did it. You saved planet Earth.” And the clear undertone of that statement being like, Whatever. But then Call says: “So what do we do now?”
And Ripley – a clone, not even human, standing there with a robot, looking out at the sun-flecked clouds of Earth (which we’ve never seen in the series until now) – says:
“I don’t know. I’m a stranger here too.”
That’s awesome. I just wish I liked the rest of the movie before that.
(Sigh. The only available clip of this for Resurrection has a slightly alternate ending, I guess. But it’s still sort of the same-ies.)
Vomas: Whedon’s snarkiness is such a double-edged sword, he hits upon some really great stuff at times – I love it when they ask Ripley what she did last time she ran into the xenomorphs and she just deadpans “I died”, and I’m partial to the extremely relatable “Earth, man. What a shithole.” – but at other times it feels like he’s prioritizing wisecracks over character consistency and it really does jar. Some of the stuff that I don’t like includes the various sexist banter that feels like it could be an extension of the “man is the worst monster of all” theme we’ve encountered throughout but it always just feels like a writer too in love with their own voice rather than working as (negative) character development, even when Ron Perlman is spitting it out. And especially when Ripley gets to deliver it, because it just feels totally out of place even for the new version of the character.
But hopefully now that I’ve indulged in a little criticism of Resurrection I can throw in some more praise – I really do think that it takes the franchise in some fascinating new directions, particularly with the human-alien merges and the ways in which it gives “Ripley 8” and the new breed of Xenomorphs new strengths and weaknesses and turns its own ever-reliable heroine into one of the characters who you’re not entirely sure whether to trust. I feel genuine tension from the scene where Winona Ryder breaks into Ripley’s cell (even on repeat viewings) and it’s fascinating having characters who combine so many of the series’ character elements – human, alien, android – face off in a scene where we still don’t know too much about either of them.
Oliver: We need a conclusion to this essay! I like Aliens! Also, “Earth, what a shithole” is an excellent line. I also like the part where Winona Ryder is announcing over the P.A. system that the evil humans are in Sector Three (or whatever), and she’s like “All aliens, please proceed to Sector Three.” That’s funny. Otherwise, having not seen this movie in a million years, I am impressed at how bad Winona Ryder is in it, just from that one clip that I shared with her and Ripley, where they have like negative charisma. (And Sigourney doesn’t do a great job in that clip either.) My thing with Resurrection is that you are changing the tone much more than in the other movies, which at least tried to be realistic… ish. It’s introducing sci-fi stuff where the other movies were very, very grounded.
But now, Ripley is a super-strong clone! With mad b-ball skillz, yo! It’s just dopey. Fun-ish dopey, at times, but still. But how do we end this very long discussion? What is everyone’s defining moment in the series. maybe?
Vomas: Well, Resurrection is set 200 years later than the others. Everything has changed! Basketball is now compulsory for all science fiction (see also: Escape from LA). But I take your point re: drawing things to a close, and for a defining moment I have to go back to the first movie, because it has the most cat in it. Poor Harry Dean Stanton, heading for certain death just to check if Jonesy is OK – extremely relatable to my relationship with cats who like to go outdoors and get stuck in places after dark and so on, and hence always on my mind. Much as I love Aliens and Resurrection and think 3 is also kinda pretty good, it’s the first movie that I will always come back to for horror. And cats.
Oliver: It’s space basketball! The basketball of the future!
I just realized that I asked a big question without knowing the answer to my own question.
Since Aliens hasn’t gotten enough love, I’ll go with this as my best moment. We can tease James Cameron as much as we like, but that’s some solid directing-slash-character-acting right there. And it reasserts the whole thing with these movies, mostly. (They mostly come out at night, mostly.) That this is about characters having normal, relatable reactions to this horror. It’s hard to imagine another writer-director making this choice here, especially in an action movie. The marines want to get out, and they make a totally normal decision. Take off. Nuke it. Is that an indictment of militarism? Sort of, you bet, maybe. But it’s also a normal (if possibly flawed) human reaction, and things like that are what keep us grounded in these movies. And it’s sort of what keeps them from being just horror/sci-fi/whatever movies. Give us characters to believe in, which they do. If you do that, you can bring us into any story.
Ploughman: The shot that I always lean in with anticipation for is in the first one, when everything has gone to hell and Ripley sneaks through a steam-filled hallway toward the escape pod, madness behind her and (supposedly…) salvation before her. It’s a gorgeous shot with color, light and texture all working in concert and to me it’s unbelievably beautiful and exciting. And that’s what works in every permutation of Alien, those moments that step back and see something attractive amid the horror. Whether it’s a confluence of design and photography, an indomitable character moment, the right amount of ooze off a practical effect, or the gross humor of contemplating our own brain in our hands – we all turn into disembodied Ash heads for a bit, look at our greatest fears and admire their strange beauty.
Miller: I was about to extoll my favorite moment – the Newborn in Resurrection ripping itself out of the Queen, turning the pregnancy horror of chestbursting back around on the species that started it in the first place before tearing its mother’s jaw off – and I can’t do better than “ we all turn into disembodied Ash heads for a bit, look at our greatest fears and admire their strange beauty.” This has been a lot of fun, my fellow disembodied heads. See you in the next sequel.