#5 & #6 Alien & Aliens

(1979, Ridley Scott/1986, James Cameron)

“It’s game time!”


The Alien franchise has had wide-reaching impact on pop culture. The xenomorphs have become one of film’s most well-known monsters, and has seen a crossover with the Predator franchise.

With more recent action-packed movies, as well as the aforementioned Predator crossover, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the series was just about a large-scale intergalactic war, where space marines fire explosives at these unstoppable acid-spewing monstrosities. But it wasn’t always this way. If you’re familiar with the series only through vague cultural osmosis, coming into the first movie, Ridley Scott’s Alien, expecting that level of action, will lead to disappointment. In fact, don’t expect anything particularly explosive. This movie is quiet. Very quiet, indeed.

Alien, at its heart, is a tense horror film with a group of people being chased by a serial killer in an enclosed space, except the serial killer is a beast from another planet and the enclosed space is a mining spaceship. There’s no all-out war. There’s no bloodbath. Only tense psychological horror.

The first thing that strikes you about the movie is that the opening scenes are all incredibly slow and quiet. The soundtrack is minimal, consisting of mostly ambient noise and dialogue amongst the crew of the Nostromo, who’ve been woken to investigate a transmission from an alien planet. There are lengthy scenes showing the ship docking on the planet, and scenes of the crew talking amongst themselves about what’s going on. Other than this, not much happens.

Now, this could be potentially dull to watch, but there’s a sense of foreboding. We don’t know what the transmission is, and the build-up to find out is so long we scare ourselves imagining what it will be. And then when we do encounter the titular Alien, it tends to spend most of its time in hiding, barely appearing on screen at all, leaving us as the audience to wonder when we’re next going to see it. It’s tremendously effective, as nothing is scarier than nothing at all.

It’s impossible to fault Alien on any count. The whole movie is tense, the acting is fantastic, and the minimal special effects are still impressive to this day. The Alien itself is still a terrifying sight, despite overexposure in modern pop culture. And ultimately the movie is fantastic, a masterpiece of sci-fi horror.

Aliens, by contrast, is an entirely different film. From the outset, the cast has increased from a small crew of 7 to an entire army of space marines and the business that hired them. This alone removes much of the feeling of isolation from the first movie, and ultimately the tone has shifted to that of a war movie.

The story here is that a colony has been set up on the planet the original Alien came from, and all contact has been lost. A team of Marines has been sent in to investigate and to recover what they can. Over the course of the movie, we follow the war between the Marines and the Aliens, and the odds this ragtag team has to contend with. Linking it with the first movie is Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), survivor of the Nostromo, who is acting as an advisor based on her previous experiences with the Aliens.

This shift in tone could have easily caused huge problems for the franchise. Turning the tense “haunted house in space” into a dumb action movie alone would have been disastrous. Instead, James Cameron found a way to keep the tension of the first movie, albeit in a different way. Where it came from the isolation of the cramped ship in Alien, the tension of this movie comes from the futility of the battle. The Marines are armed to the teeth in the latest high-tech weaponry, and none of it helps. They simply don’t know what they’re up against, and this lack of knowledge costs them.

The plot also layers in allegories to the Vietnam War and the corruption of big business, which makes the story more intelligent than first expected. There’s also a key human element in Sigourney Weaver’s performance, especially when she cares for Newt, a small girl who is the sole survivor of the colony disaster. These heartfelt scenes truly shape the growth of her character to one of cinema’s most iconic female action heroes, and it’s easy to see why Weaver was nominated for an Oscar.

Of course, the first movie is the better of the two. Its mystery, tension and ability to leave things to the audience’s imagination make this the more involving of the two, but Aliens is not without its charm as an action movie with heart.

Aliens credits
Starring Tom Skerrit, Sigourney Weaver, John Hurt, Ian Holm, Veronica Cartwright, Harry Dean Stanton & Yaphet Kotto
Written by Dan O’Bannon & Ronald Shusett
Produced by Gordon Carroll, David Giler & Walter Hill
Music by Jerry Goldsmith
Cinematography by Derek Vanlint
Edited by Terry Rawlings

Aliens credits
Starring Signourney Weaver, Carrie Henn, Michael Biehn, Lance Henriksen, William Hope & Paul Reiser
Written by James Cameron, David Giler & Walter Hill
Produced by Gale Anne Hurd
Music by James Horner
Cinematography by Adrian Biddle
Edited by Ray Lovejoy

Favourite Scene (Alien): The iconic chestburster scene. Sure, it’s a cliché to say it, but the look of real terror on the actors’ faces (Ridley Scott didn’t tell them exactly what was going to happen) makes the scene that little bit more impressive
Favourite Scene (Aliens): The first appearance of the Aliens themselves, as they practically morph out of the walls of their “nest”, is terrifying.
Scene That Bugged Me (Alien): Something about the facehugger’s corpse dropping from the ceiling after it leaves Kane’s face seemed an attempt at a cheap scare for me. If they’d found the corpse under a table or something, I’d be OK with it, but falling from the ceiling didn’t make a lot of sense.
Scene That Bugged Me (Aliens): Maybe I missed something, but something just didn’t feel right about the scene where Ripley ejects the Alien Queen from the escape ship. I kept thinking “but surely it’s impossible to breathe?”

Watch them if: You want to test if anyone can hear you scream in space
Avoid them if: You’re from the Weyland-Yutani company. It might give you ideas. No one wants that.

Originally posted on Blogspot Monday 17 October 2011

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Posted on March 22, 2012, in 1970s, 1980s, Action, Horror, Sci Fi and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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