Why the Alien Franchise Matters: or, Why You’re Wrong if You Didn’t Like Alien
Just as a forewarning: this is easily the longest and most comprehensive post I’ve ever done before (so far). Prepare your eyes for a lot of words, and prepare your brain for a lot of re-education, especially if you’re one of those people to whom this title is dedicated.
My first experience with the Alien franchise came shortly after my tyrannical parents granted me access to the wide and wondrous world of PG-13 movies. Just in case you’re jumping ahead of me, none of the real Alien movies are PG-13, they are all rated R. This must mean then, that my first experience with the franchise came once Alien vs. Predator (2004) came out on DVD in 2005. How a studio took two franchises known for their gruesome portrayals of horrific death scenes and managed to squeeze them both into a PG-13 movie is beyond me. Needless to say, as a 10-year old, AVP quickly became one of my favorite movies. The only defense I have for a Paul W.S. Anderson film with a Rotten Tomatoes score of 21% being a favorite film of mine at a younger age is that it’s friggin badass… obviously, as a 10-year old, I would have found a less descriptive and more PG way to say that.
But what more does a 10-year old need? Dinosaurs weren’t cool anymore, Star Wars had just ended its long reign on the sci-fi throne (thank God), and Spielberg’s War of the Worlds certainly wasn’t flashy enough to appeal to the mind of an adolescent boy. AVP had mercenaries with British accents, archaeologists that felt very Indiana Jones-like, and featured two extra-terrestrial creature concepts that arguably redefined the sci-fi horror genre fighting each other! 10-year old me immediately fell in love with both of them… in a platonic sense (I think).
Of course, my father, as fathers are known to do, had to go and destroy my childhood naivety of the two creatures by showing me their source material when he decided that my eyes were mature enough to see them (they weren’t). Predator wasn’t too bad; Ahnold’s constant stream of one-liners and the campy vibe made up for the horrible acts of violence being portrayed on the screen. However, I quickly realized that Alien was going to be a completely different story after having to ask my father to pause the movie so that I could grab the blanket from my closet that I hadn’t slept with in maybe three years.
My first viewing of the original Alien is probably the first time I remember being legitimately terrified by a movie. Sure, as a youngster, I had definitely been scared by movies before this to the point where I might have had an awful time going to sleep, but this was different than that. What Alien did was introduce me to a type of horror film that was both a sci-fi monster movie and a psychological horror. Not only did it help mold my connection with sci-fi movies, it also singlehandedly created my love for horror films.
In this post (and in our podcast episode that centers on the upcoming Ridley Scott film, Alien: Covenant) I am going to go into detail about these films to hopefully answer the question, “what makes this franchise so special?” not only to me, but to the rest of the cinematic world. Most of this post will contain spoilers for the original Alien film directed by Ridley Scott, so please go see it before reading any further.
The first thing I want to talk about is how the original film is paced. I’ve heard a ton of people – close friends, even – say that the first 40 minutes of Alien are some of the most boring they’ve ever seen (at least for a horror movie). I can see why they might think that, but the fact of the matter is that they’re wrong. There is a strategy to this 40 minutes of boredom that not a lot of people realize; and, if you’re paying close attention, this 40 minutes will have a pretty big impact on how you watch the rest of the movie. It’s set up like a theatrical play. The opening shots show us, in detail, the stage that this play will unfold on. It’s a gigantic, yet uncomfortably claustrophobic shipping container of a space ship. Before our actors take to the stage, the computer acts as a sort of chorus. It speaks to us in an industrial and mechanical language that we can’t really understand, but it is still able to get its message across despite the language barrier: “something bad is happening.” Then, the film cuts to our cast members as the lights slowly turn on and their sleeping pods stretch open. The only thing missing from this scene is the rising swell of an orchestra in the background.
Helping you understand why and how the pacing works (as well as a myriad of other things in the film, now that I think about it) so well in this film would require me to give you a lecture on Freud’s conception of “The Uncanny,” which I don’t have time for, and I would probably make a terrible mess of; even if I am smarter than Freud. The essential thing is that the extremely slow pace of the beginning works as a sinister tease to get you worked up. Think of it as very frustrating foreplay.
You’re sitting there with your head in your hand, yawning for forty minutes straight, when what’s this?!? You’ve gone and dozed off and suddenly there’s screaming and loud noises and there’s a thing on some dude’s face and people are yelling at each other and oh geeze what the hell is happening and the cuts are so disorienting and what is that thing sweet Jesus don’t let it on the ship and goddammit you let it on the ship and why don’t you guys freeze him and they’re trying to get it off his face but there’s acid and it chokes him and it looks like he’s gonna die, BUT THEN …[deep breath]… it gets quiet again…
For those first experiencing the film back in 1979, this was when they first contemplated leaving the theater; “I spent an hour of my night just to watch this thing attach itself to somebody only for it to just fall off and die? That’s some major BS, Scott. I want my money back.”
Oh, but how indeed ‘ole Ridley Scott had it out for those original movie-goers. He’d gotten them all worked up – lube and everything – just to let the film lay down flat again… OR DID HE?? Suddenly your eyes are glued to the screen as that one guy that had the thing on his face is coughing uncontrollably and the crew is desperately trying to figure out what’s wrong with him and he’s writhing like a maniac and moaning like a wounded deer on the table and there’s this pounding heartbeat in the background and he lets out a terrible scream and then what the hell was that blood that just shot up in the air??… now the writhing is even worse and he looks like he’s having a pretty bad seizure and there’s this awful ripping noise coming from his T-shirt or pants I guess and then JESUS CHRIST WHAT IS THAT? Then it comes out of his chest AGAIN and blood shoots everywhere and sprays the cast and the walls and the ceiling and, behold: the miracle of childbirth.
Warning: the below video is pretty graphic. You’ve been warned.
Anyway, this is how the entire film is supposed to work; a constant building of and sudden releases of tension, with the buildup time getting shorter between each release. Each scene is meticulously shot, edited, and crafted to use this effect to its full potential. It’s brilliant film making, and it remains one of the key reasons why this is one of the greatest horror films ever made.
The second thing I want to talk about is the creature itself. Just by looking at it, it’s hard to deny that you’ve ever seen a design so unique and so… well, truly alien. Sure, it bears a kind of human resemblance, but it is unmistakably unhuman. This dichotomy between familiarity and unfamiliarity existing in the same body is the foundation of the body-horror film genre (which I talked about in my latest review on The Void). Now, I’m not saying this is a true-to-form body-horror film, but one could definitely argue that it helped create the genre, especially since John Carpenter’s The Thing was a sort of response to the “perfect organism” in Alien. What’s also brilliant about the creature is how it also ties into Freud’s idea of “The Uncanny.” If you want to hear more about this, I’d HIGHLY suggest watching this video from KaptainKristian that talks about H.R. Giger’s (that’s the artist who created the alien) design and the “beauty” of it. This video is able to explain the design in a much better way than I ever could in writing.
The too-long-didn’t-watch synopsis of the video is this: they hired two artists for the film, one for all the industrial future type stuff, and the other for all of the alien environments and creatures. Giger was their go-to man because he’s simply a genius. The creature is sinister, but it’s also strangely beautiful; it’s a monster you want to see despite your instincts telling you to stay way the hell away from that thing.
Despite the roller-coaster ride that the Alien franchise has turned into, it’s important to remember why this film was so revolutionary. This wasn’t one of those times where a movie made so much money that the studio decided to make a franchise out of it. This was a movie that was so good that other directors and writers demanded that it be made into a franchise, so that they might have an opportunity to be a part of it one day. James Cameron’s Aliens is popularly recognized as “the greatest sequel of all time” because he had a unique vision for the film and stuck with it. Where the franchise began its nose-dive was in the years leading up to Alien 3, in which the studio went through 10 different writers and tons of different scripts until somebody eventually came up with a compromise that looked “safe” to the studio. David Fincher, who is recognized as one of the best filmmakers in the present day, was the unfortunate newbie director who got stuck with the mess at the time. The first two films worked so well because it was a unique situation in which the production studio actually let the filmmakers pursue their vision because they trusted them; it was a safe haven for them to create art.
Whether or not the studio remembers the relationship filmmakers used to have with this franchise is yet to be seen. In 2012, Ridley Scott returned to the franchise with Prometheus, which did moderately well for itself at the box office, but was met with mixed reception from critics (I say that even though it has a 72% on RT, which isn’t bad… BUT I feel the need to point out that Kong: Skull Island currently has a better score than this film). Personally, as someone who rather enjoyed the movie, I think this lower score comes from a misinterpretation or misunderstanding of the film’s philosophical conflicts. Each major installation of the franchise has focused on different types of fear; the fear of violation and isolation in Alien, the fear of hopelessness and loss in Aliens, and the fears of doom and damnation in Alien 3. Where Prometheus ventured away from these themes was in its attempt to link them all in a singular philosophical question; “what if we were created just because something could create us?” Anyway, that’s a topic for another time (but if you want to discuss it now, then watch the video below from Chris Stuckmann). My point is that I find it hard to believe that Scott was given full artistic freedom in the making of Prometheus like he was in Alien. At the same time, it seems that the studios learned their lessons from the poor reception of Alien 3 and the atrocious monstrosity that ironically works as an allegory for itself, Alien: Resurrection. Scott has proven time and time again that he has a vision for this current series of Alien prequels – if you can call them that. I think a lot of Alien: Covenant’s success hangs on whether or not the studio was willing to give up control and let Scott run with his vision.
As a wrap up, I want to give the Alien movies a few quick overall scores:
- Alien (1979) gets an astounding 9.3/10; the highest score I’ve ever given.
- Aliens (1986) will be awarded a very high score of 8.7/10
- Alien 3 (1992, the Theatrical Cut) gets a mediocre score of 6.2/10
- However, the Alien 3: Assembly Cut receives a 6.8/10. Watch this version instead if you ever plan on seeing this film.
- Alien: Resurrection (1997) receives an abysmal 3.5/10.
- Prometheus (2012) is awarded with a 7.7/10, which is probably higher than most people would give it using my scale.
- And, just because I mentioned it earlier, Alien vs. Predator (2004) walks away with a 5.5/10, which is probably more than it deserves if I’m being honest.
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