Today is the first ever Alien Day, the latest pop-culture inspired holiday intended to celebrate the classic Alien films (but mostly to sell more memorabilia). Star Wars has May 4th, Back to the Future has October 21st, and now Alien has April 26th. The specific date comes from the name of the planet that started it all: LV 426. Those numbers will strike a chill into the hearts of any familiar with its significance. The creature known as Alien or the Xenomorph is one of the all-time great science fiction monsters, and the series has left an everlasting impact on popular culture. Yet Alien often feels eclipsed by Star Wars’ more family-friendly space opera or the Arnold Schwarzenegger testosterone classic Predator. Alien did so much for the genre, but outside of the nerdier side of pop culture fans, its significance feels underwritten.
It all started in 1979. A ship – the Nostromo – floats silently through space. The crew are woken up unceremoniously and sent to investigate a planet nearby. From the start, director Ridley Scott’s direction tells us that everything about this is wrong. The team who investigates the planet finds a room full of eggs, and one member, Kane, gets a little too close. It hatches in front of him and a parasitic spider-like creature springs forth, latching itself onto him. When he is taken on board the crew finds that the creature, known outside the film as a Facehugger, is keeping him alive, and removing it will kill Kane.
Screenwriter Dan O’Bannon wracked his brain trying to come up with a creature that would feel extraordinarily scary. This would explain why Alien is chock full of rape imagery. The explorers enter the ship through a door that looks like a vagina. The Facehugger has a large phallus thrust down Kane’s neck (which we learn later impregnated him). Oh, and the art design of the movie is based on the artwork of H.R. Giger, whose style is nothing short of unnerving. O’Bannon himself called Giger’s art style“disturbing.”
Which brings us to the scene that instantly cemented Alien in cinema history. The Facehugger releases Kane, and it seems like he will be alright. The crew decides to shake off the traumatic ordeal with dinner before they prepare to go back home. And halfway through the meal, this happens….
This scene can’t quite pack the punch today that it did in 1979. But audiences in theaters remember this moment as vividly as they remember when JFK got shot. The Facehugger has impregnated Kane, and the Xenomorph’s birth kills him. And now this newborn creature is running loose on the ship. It grows to be nearly eight feet tall, has a second jaw that can rip through a human’s skull, oh, and it bleeds acid, making it tricky to kill to say the least.
Alien holds up quite well. The visual effects are reminiscent of the spaceship models from Stanley Kubrick’s science fiction film 2001, which themselves still look great to this day. The creature of the Xenomorph is a timeless horror. And as a haunted house film in space, it all works. But the creature is only half of the series takeaway. The other staple of the film, and the series, is the amazing casting of Sigourney Weaver.
Originally Weaver’s character, Ellen Ripley, was written as a man but changed at the last minute. Ripley ends up being the sole survivor of the attack and goes on to be one of the science fiction film heroines, alongside Sarah Connor and Princess Leia.
Everything about the first Alien film is a perfectly crafted masterpiece. The only weakness is that its gore and shock value, which were legendary in the 70s, have a lessened impact over time. You can turn on an episode of The Walking Dead and see five mutilations just as gory before the opening credits. But with such a perfect formula that proved to be a success, obviously, a sequel probably was in the works.
Enter James Cameron in 1986, who had just finished filming The Terminator. His sequel Aliens is what Godfather II was to The Godfather. Aliens is its own masterpiece and astoundingly enough for entirely different reasons than what made Scott’s original film so great. Cameron, whose rigorous and demanding directing style did not make him any friends, wisely did not duplicate the haunted house in space formula and instead turned this sci-fi horror film into sci-fi action.
The film begins with Ripley floating aimlessly through space after the events of Alien. She gets picked up by chance and brought back to civilization. Initially, the Weyland Yutani corporation (the Alien series evil corporate overlords and organization that owned the Nostromo) blame her for the incidents of Alien including the Nostromo’s destruction, dismiss her version of what happened, and discredit her. (One could make an analog to the rape metaphor here if they wanted with regards to how rape victims are treated.)
In fact, there is no evidence outside of Ripley’s testimony that the Xenomorph exists. LV 426 has been colonized for some years now. Only after Ripley ‘s account of the encounter with the Xenomorph is dismissed do things go wrong: again. One of the colonists on LV 426 discovers the eggs. Shortly after, the entire colony goes dark.
Weyland Yutani hires Ripley as an advisor to a military team designed to go in and rescue the colonists. The team of soldiers reeks of military bravado. All of this disappears as the team lands on LV 426 and discovers the only survivor, a little girl named Newt. Eventually, the team finds the missing colonists and realizes the true horror: hundreds of Xenomorphs and have taken over the entire colony. Then things go from bad to worse. Our heroes find themselves stranded on the planet with an overwhelming enemy.
Cameron’s film has dozens of Xenomorphs and more action set pieces, unlike Scott’s film which had the sole creature. The Xenomorphs strength is in their numbers. Initially, the marines have an advantage in firepower, but they are easily overwhelmed. The army of Xenomorphs makes for good action, but there is an argument to be made that it dilutes the scariness of the original creature.
It once again falls to Ripley to save the day. She naturally fosters a maternal instinct for Newt, which Cameron mirrors against his revelation of the Alien Queen – a disgusting giant of a creature. The finale involves two very, very pissed off mothers fighting for their children. In the director’s cut of Aliens, we see that the events of Alien caused Ripley to miss her rendezvous with her daughter, who lived a long life and died before Ripley could return. This should have been in Aliens because it reinforces Ripley’s actions. The film still makes sense, but this one bit of knowledge explains Ripley’s mentality that much more.
I’d argue that Aliens had a greater impact on film history (and video games as well) than Alien. There are so many unique and well-developed characters, so many great lines of dialogue, and little details that all come through. My favorite bit of personal Aliens trivia is the line “Drake we are leaving!” which as a kid I always heard as “Marines, we are leaving!” But there are so many iconic moments in Aliens. And this was the film that made the character of Ripley the iconic badass she is today. What’s great about her too is that this is a natural development from her motherly nature rather than just arbitrarily making her the typical ‘tough action hero.’
Aliens would be the last great entry in the series. however. It was followed up by Alien3, directed by legendary filmmaker David Fincher in 1992. Unfortunately, the development of that film was a nightmare from start-to-finish. Fincher’s experiences were so bad that he almost never worked in Hollywood again. Think of modern filmmaking without Fight Club or House of Cards, or any other classic Fincher work from the past twenty years!
Alien3’s lack of direction and focus can be seen in the beginning when of the survivors of Aliens, all but Ripley are unceremoniously killed off screen. The script had gone through years of rewrites and had been in and out of the hands of multiple screenwriters. At one point, Ripley wasn’t even going to be in the film. The original setting of the film at one point was going to be on a planet with awooden interior that was inhabited by monks.
Ripley is crash-landed on a prison planet run by the male convicts among whom she is the only woman. There is a great prison drama in here somewhere as Ripley navigates the politics and tension of this prison. There is an interesting dynamic between her and other convicts as she waits for a ride to come and take her away. Unfortunately, it’s also revealed that a Xenomorph also crash-landed with her and is wreaking havoc.
As I said, there are a few decent movies in here. But nothing really gets a chance to work. Everything is rushed and lots of ideas feel unbalanced. Fincher did only what he had to do to get the film finished. The final film was critically panned. Ridley Scott and James Cameron both were disappointed with it. Aliens actor Michael Biehn was so angry that his character was killed unceremoniously that he charged the filmmakers more to use his likeness.
Alien3 was followed up by Alien: Resurrection, which came out in 1997 and stands as certainly the weirdest of the series. Here is some fun trivia for you, The Avengers director Joss Whedon actually wrote the screenplay, which had a finale that took place on Earth but never made it into the final cut. Jean-Pierre Jeunet, whose only other immediately recognizable film is the romantic comedy Amelie, directed Resurrection. In some ways it feels like a reboot of the series. Ripley is revived, but only so they can harvest her DNA and recreate the Alien. By this point, the Xenomorph is a legend among evil scientists and military organizations which all have nefarious intentions with the creature.
Resurrection was an awkward finale for the series. It has its fans, but overall it is nobody’s favorite. Sigourney Weaver does get something else to do in the film, though, as her character is a clone with weirder tendencies than the original Ripley. Ultimately it feels like a B-rate sci-fi action horror movie with the Alien branding.
The Alien series would be on ice for a few years before Fox decided to make a versus film with Alien and Predator. Alien vs. Predator would go on to be harmless but also forgettable, like halfway decent fan fiction. Its sequel Alien vs. Predator: Requiem is one of those movies better off not being discussed.
In 2010 though it was announced that Ridley Scott was returning to the Alien saga, much to the delight of everybody involved. He had intended to make an Alien prequel, one which would look into the mysterious “Space Jockey”, the pilot of the ship the Xenomorph eggs are first found on. Damon Lindelof of Lost fame was going to write the script.
Halfway through production Scott had decided he had a different film in mind, and this new movie was going to be Prometheus. What was an Alien prequel had naturally turned into another science fiction film. With Ridley Scott at the helm audiences were inclined to be curious. But rumors from set came out that this was still an Alien prequel. In 2012, Prometheus hit theaters, and surprise surprise, it was both. It was a half-baked (and lazy) Alien prequel and a half-baked (but interesting) sci-fi film about whatever species ‘seeded’ humanity.
Prometheus was decently received among critics and did well enough in the box office, but fans of Alien still felt shortchanged. Worse, Prometheus looked like it was the start of a bad period of filmmaking from a legendary and well-respected director. 2015’s The Martian proves his visual style and directing are still in top form, but he should only use other people’s scripts.
After Prometheus, it was announced that District 9 director Neil Blomkamp was going to do Alien 5. And not only that, but his film would ignore the continuity of the series and be a direct sequel to Aliens. Fans were pumped. Blomkamp even tweeted some concept art featuring Newt and Hicks. But Blomkamp’s directorial debut of District 9 started to look like a flash in the pan. His follow-up, Elysium, was mediocre, and his most recent film, Chappie, was shredded critically. It was announced his film had been put on hold. Though today Blomkamp has once again tweeted concept art depicting an adult Newt, thus keeping hope that the sequel is still alive. Ridley Scott, meanwhile, is now making a sequel to Prometheus called Alien: Covenant. Details of this film are still coming out, but the Alien brand name appears to be a major selling point.
So there is your ‘brief’ history of the Alien films. Alien and Aliens are the real standouts, but nothing since has truly captured that glorious science fiction horror and action. Yet the character of Ripley truly has stood the test of time as one of the great sci-fi heroes, male or female. Amazingly, the series has survived the Hollywood onslaught of remakes. So go out and enjoy your April 26th, and ignore any and all distress calls you may hear!