Alien 3 (1992)

After two artistically and financially successful films, where next for 20th Century Fox’s sci-fi horror franchise? Why, another sequel of course – but could they make it three out of three? Defying the usual pattern of cranking out sequels as soon as possible to milk the cash cow, there was a six year gap between Aliens and its successor, though this was not really intentional. In the meantime, the studio’s Predator franchise was born in 1987 to try and tide the same audience over, itself spawning a sequel as well as a future crossover franchise (triggered by the infamous shot of the skull trophy case in 1990’s Predator 2).

As has been well documented, this was no normal period of development hell – Alien 3 became a real problem child for the studio and producers David Giler and Walter Hill. They were determined to keep to the successful established pattern of picking an up-and-coming hot talent to take the reins, but finding the right direction to take the story for the next episode proved a real sticking point. Directors and scripts came and went with alarming speed. Writers such as William Gibson, David Twohy and Vincent Ward took a stab, only to have their efforts tossed in to the bin. Renny Harlin was first offered the director’s chair (what were they thinking?), followed by Ward, but both were shown the door when a satisfactory script failed to surface. Giler and Hill eventually took charge and wrote a script themselves, using various elements from earlier drafts; but this was also rejected by Fox. Finally first-time director David Fincher was signed up, and Giler and Hill continued to revise their script, even as the film was forcibly pushed into production. Star Sigourney Weaver herself got involved to try and get the development mess in to some sort of shape.

It has been said before, but it’s worth saying again: Alien 3 should have been an utter disaster, and indeed initially it was reviled by most fans of the previous entries. This is quite understandable. Once again the tone of the film changed tack; instead of taking the easy road and simply serving up more of the same, Alien 3 bravely tried to go in its own direction. Gone are the colonial marines and their firepower (most of the survivors from Aliens are disposed of in the opening minutes with shocking speed); gone too is the haunted house in space from the first film. In their place are some 25 fairly nasty convicts, mostly converted to a “Christian fundamentalist” religion, populating a lice-ridden, broken-down prison complex (bereft of any sort of weapons) on an obscure, desolate world: inhumane people on an inhumane planet. Bleak is just the beginning. The story, unfashionably downbeat with religious overtones, was almost certainly not what the studio or fans were hoping for. No wonder audiences left crushed and disappointed.

I have to admit, I was one of them when I first saw it. The loss of Hicks, Newt and Bishop was especially traumatic. The marvelously gripping ending of Aliens was suddenly negated, its meaning cut out and lost. There were odd and frustrating story inconsistencies (where DID the egg on the Sulaco come from?). And the lack of any characters to warm to in the new film – no Parker or Brett, no Hudson or Hicks here – made it difficult to empathise with the plight of the prisoners when hell expectedly breaks loose. Even Ripley herself seemed strangely alien, with her shaven head and having become so fatalistic about her nemesis that she welcomes her own death at the end.

But time has been rather kind to Alien 3. Once over the initial shock and disappointment, and accepting the fact that it was admirably and determinedly going to be its own beast, the true qualities of Alien 3 have slowly emerged. Director David Fincher by all accounts had a nightmare experience trying to make the film, with constant interference from the studio, but credit for the final product almost certainly should be laid at his feet. His subsequent films have proven him to be a greatly talented director, but Alien 3 showed this talent first emerging. The bleak atmosphere, eschewing the adrenaline rush of Aliens, is one to savour. It’s certainly memorable, more so than the characters; and even if the final script was a mishmash of ideas from earlier drafts, the story and setting proved to be intriguing science-fiction. Fincher’s direction turns the script in to an intense sci-fi horror thriller that refuses to go for a happy ending. If Aliens was a ‘beer-and-snack’ movie, this is a whisky flick: no fizz, just savour the strength and mood. Even the photography makes it look like it was shot through a glass of Scotland’s finest: all yellows and browns, deceptively warm-looking, but actually anything but. In this regard it is certainly the equal of its predecessors, providing a location and atmosphere as godforsaken as its Alien visitor.

And although the characters are no match for its predecessors, it does have one or two highlights. In a cast full of British character actors, Charles Dance as Clemens comes across as pretty much the one likeable guy in the whole place, exuding charisma in a charisma-free zone. The legendary Brian Glover is also good value as the warden Andrews (“This is rumour control. Here are the facts!”), as is Ralph Brown as his assistant Aaron, blessed with an IQ of 85. Of the prisoners, Charles S. Dutton as Dillon is the most likeable, emerging as a reluctant leader to his wayward flock. Paul McGann and Pete Postlethwaite are also in there, and of course good old Lance Henriksen turns up in a baffling cameo at the end as ‘Bishop II’, causing much debate about whether he was just another android or in fact the real Bishop that designed the android, as he claimed he was.

Mention should also be made of Elliot Goldenthal’s melancholy score, memorable throughout for its sombre, medieval mood. The early CGI looks a little primitive these days, but on the whole the effects are fine; the occasional cuts to space as the Company’s ship races to ‘rescue’ Ripley is a welcome nod to Scott’s original, as is the ghostly radio message heard at the very end. And while one certainly laments the fact that the film as a whole failed to be as satisfying as the earlier two entries, it does at least take itself seriously: there are some great set-pieces, particularly the climax, and it provides satisfying closure to Ripley’s story. On its own terms, Alien 3 is undoubtedly good, grown-up science-fiction horror.

[xrr rating=4/5]

Aliens (1986)

Continuing my series of Alien movie reviews, we come to the second entry, James Cameron’s 1986 sequel, Aliens. This was actually the first Alien movie I ever watched, and fortunately it was the 1992 Special Edition director’s cut (rented out from the local video shop – remember them?). I therefore have a tremendous amount of affection for it, even whilst admitting that the original is probably the superior piece overall. Not to slight Cameron’s work, however; he crafted a technically brilliant and highly influential film in its own right, and it’s extremely doubtful the Alien mythos would have survived and thrived as much as it has were it not for his work here.

A sequel to Alien could have gone in numerous directions, but it eventually landed in the lap of Cameron, having proved his talents on low-budget hit The Terminator (1984). Coming a full seven years after the original, and working from a story by himself and producers David Giler and Walter Hill, Aliens gave the director the first real opportunity to stretch his skills on a proper budget (though certainly not huge for the time – around $20m). Rather than simply retelling the same story, Cameron sensibly raises the stakes in several ways. Firstly, there is now more than one Alien, as the title implies – in fact there are LOTS more. Necessarily this does take away some of the sheer terror that Ridley Scott’s original developed. There we saw how just a single creature almost supernaturally stalked and killed Ripley’s entire crew. By having hundreds of the creatures on the loose, thereby giving them the advantage, the terror should conversely be greatly diminished. Thankfully this is not the case, for two reasons: firstly, H.R. Giger’s creations are so superbly nightmare-ish that being afraid is still the only option; and secondly, James Cameron turned out to be one of the finest action directors Hollywood had ever produced. The tension and adrenaline he succeeds in generating through set-piece after set-piece is phenomenal by anyone’s standards, and certainly overcomes any loss of mystery and suspense that sequels usually suffer. This is a different terror from the original movie: this is no longer a haunted house in space; this time it’s war.

The term ‘rollercoaster ride’ might have been invented to describe the film’s story. The happy ending from the first movie (well, hopeful rather than happy, perhaps) turned out to be not-so-happy, as the movie picks up 57 years later, with Ripley’s family having died in the interim, and worse still, the planet that Ripley’s ship landed on is now colonised. Ripley is coerced into revisiting the planet with a platoon of hi-tech colonial marines when contact with said colony is lost.

Cameron’s certainly a much better director than he is writer (see Titanic for proof of that), but I would argue he did some of his best ever writing here. Ripley’s character is much beefed up, with a psychology and history that adds depth and intelligently builds on what we learnt from the original film. Sigourney Weaver takes the script and delivers a powerful performance, and, astonishingly for a genre film (and a sequel to boot), won an Oscar nod for her trouble. The stakes are raised for Ripley too – her maternal relationship with Newt (Carrie Henn – never seen onscreen again since), the girl who miracualously survived the slaughter of the colony, is key to the film’s emotional wallop. Were it not for this beautifully-judged and handled plot thread, the subsequent action scenes would lose their resonance, and this is what separates it from the imitators and rip-offs that followed.

But that’s obviously not what makes the film so cool to a teenage boy – that would be the action scenes. The film delivers in spades here. The initial investigation in to the abandoned colony buildings, the devastating first encounter with the Xenomorphs, the subsequent desperate defense against the unstoppable foe and the final running battles – it’s brilliant, relentless, buttock-clenching stuff. Making the most of his mere six Alien costumes, Cameron offers a deft lesson in how to make less appear more. Yes, the film lacks the subtlety of its predecessor, but when the replacement is this much fun, who cares? Chock full of memorable moments (the attack underneath the cooling towers, with Gorman watching his monitors helplessly while his troops are wiped out; the auto-sentries; the moment where Hicks discovers how the Aliens have evaded their defences (ripped off wholesale in 2005’s Doom); Ripley’s descent to rescue Newt), Cameron’s inventiveness and ease at shooting action is quite evident to see.

Coupled with that is the instantly quotable dialogue – especially from Bill Paxton’s panicky Private Hudson:

“We’re on an express elevator to Hell – going down!”

“I am the ultimate badass! State of the badass art!”

“Stop your grinnin’ and drop your linen.”

“Yeah man, but it’s a dry heat!”

“They’re coming outta the goddamn walls!”

“That’s it man, game over man, game over!”

“What do you mean, “they cut the power”? How could they cut the power, man? They’re animals!”

“You’re dog-meat, pal!”

Ever since this film, as far I’m concerned, Paxton can do no wrong.  The rest of the cast are also excellent, led of course by the often-underrated Michael Biehn as the quietly resourceful Cpl. Hicks, Paul Reiser as corporate slimeball Carter Burke, and the ever-reliable Lance Henricksen as android Bishop. The rest of the cast play their roles with equal conviction and, as with Alien, are far more memorable than usual in films of this ilk. Indeed, one feels greatly saddened when they are whittled down to the final survivors.

Another key element in the mix is James Horner’s score, which is both suitably atmospheric and heart-poundingly exciting when necessary. The production design is also noteworthy, building on Scott’s original whilst updating it too. As with Alien, very little of it has dated, and I would go so far as to say that it is still being imitated today; again, only the computers have aged. And the sets and photography are terrific: I swear there are times you can feel the chill air, damp with the smell of hot gunmetal and sweat, blowing off the screen. Hats off to the late, great Adrian Biddle, who struck gold on his first outing as Director of Photography.

The main point of contention that seems to divide fans of Scott’s and Cameron’s films is the Alien Queen. This is understandable, as it does remove a lot of the mystery that surrounded the origins of the Aliens, and how those eggs came to be in the wrecked spaceship of the first movie. It also added some confusion about the Alien’s lifecycle, conflicting with the excised scene in the first movie where Ripley discovers the fate of Dallas. Cameron’s modification to the lifecycle does at least make sense, and undoubtedly makes for a thrilling showdown, though the point about demystification is well made.

All in all, it’s an excellent film, and a most worthy follow-up to Alien. The 1992 special edition is the superior version, without question – it adds about 17 minutes more, including a good deal more action and backstory for Ripley and Newt, whilst never feeling overlong. One suspects this was the version Cameron would have preferred to originally release in cinemas, but was overruled by the studio (I’ve not read this anywhere, but it sounds plausible). It was that rare beast: a sequel that could legitimately claim to be the equal of its predecessor.

One final note of praise: I love the sound effects in this film. Kudos to whoever came up with the sound for the pulse rifles and the motion trackers – just fantastic!

[xrr rating=5/5]

Alien (1979)

At long lost I have got around to writing a review of probably my favourite film – Ridley Scott’s Alien. Long time readers will be well aware of the enormous affection and esteem in which I hold this sci-fi horror masterpiece, and I know I’m not alone. Far from it – such is the quality of the movie that it probably has far more fans now than ever before. I obviously can’t compete with all the professional criticism out there that has dissected the film far more thoroughly, so these are just some of my own thoughts.

Part of Alien’s enduring appeal is of course the titular creature itself, which I’ll talk about later on. Firstly I want to discuss the film in its own right, because it is easy to overlook everything else in the movie that works so perfectly. The sequels and rip-offs that followed have helped to obscure the level of thought, detail and sheer artistry that constitutes this milestone in film-making.

Let’s start, as all films must do, with the script. Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett’s writing here was never going to win any awards, but then it didn’t need to. What they did do, with hindsight very cleverly, was to resurrect a successful formula from the 1950s (monsters from outer space picking off helpless humans) and mash it up with a gritty 1970s sensibility. The dialogue for the first part of the story concerns itself with the humdrum work of a ship’s crew, consisting of conversations that could be transplanted in to any other social context and still work. Gripes about pay, bitching about work-provided facilities, jokes at the expense of senior personnel – for a movie supposedly about a lethal extra-terrestrial, this is pretty soft stuff. No ‘Jaws’-like kick-off here that instantly makes clear the impending threat; instead the audience is drawn gently in to a mystery about why a deep-space mining ship’s crew on their way home has been awoken early, after having been diverted off course. The dialogue and characterization is unusually intelligent for a film of its genre. Restricting the crew to seven was a wise move; this allows each character in the script to ‘breathe’ a bit more than normal, whilst making the inevitable death scenes to come more intense and gut-wrenching. There’s also a nice line of subtle humour running through the film that is easy to overlook – it certainly adds a dimension to the characters’ relationships.

How much of the end-product was down to the writers is arguable, given that the unquestionable driving force behind the quality of the film was director Ridley Scott. Certainly the earlier drafts of the script (titled “Starbeast”), whilst structurally similar, hewed far closer to genre conventions and lacked the wit and sheen of the final piece. In another director’s hands, the same lines and actions would likely have had far less impact. All the myths that have built up around the movie’s production usually involve Scott to some extent, adding to the sense that this is less a studio product and more the vision of an auteur. There is of course the famous/infamous anecdote about John Hurt’s chestburster scene, and how the other cast members were unaware of what was going to happen (apparently this is mostly true – they knew something was going to happen, but the details were left deliberately vague).

It was Scott’s attention to detail however that paid off in spades. To its credit, very little in the film has dated, which only further confirms Scott’s status as a visionary director. So much 1970s sci-fi succumbed to prevailing fads and fashions (made worse by the 70s fashions themselves) that within a decade, they were hopelessly dated – just look at Logan’s Run, which came out three years earlier in 1976, but in terms of design is practically prehistoric. Alien on the other hand almost completely evaded these pratfalls. Beyond the inevitable computer displays, the only elements that could be easily traced to the 70s are the computer control room (lots of pretty but meaningless blinking lights) and perhaps the odd pastelly uniform, though according to another story Scott himself rejected the original outfits as being far too naff and ordered more practical and realistic ones to be made instead. Regarding the computer displays, yes they are dated, but part of me still thinks that when mankind does finally explore the outer edges of space, they will be using software and hardware that looks and works just like these computers do – they somehow seem harder and more “sciencey” than Windows or a Mac. That’s probably more to do with my age, though.

Scott’s direction is practically faultless. From the moody establishing shots of the distant sun and empty vastness of outer space, to the ominous quiet of the Nostromo’s corridors, to the bitter inhospitality of the strange planet, to the utterly alien extra-terrestrial shipwreck, to the gripping onboard battle with the monster itself, Scott builds tension like a pro, despite it being only his second outing. Like all great horror, the viewer never quite knows what’s going to happen next. Scott’s camera lingers on little details around the ship, allowing us to become familiar with its vast empty corridors and throbbing engines. And when the action does come, it’s gripping, sweaty-palmed stuff, especially when Ripley makes her last attempt at an escape from the doomed vessel.

The production design is just superb – the sets are fantastically otherworldly. The gothic gloom of the Nostromo is suitably spooky by itself, but the alien planet and its foreign shipwreck is something else altogether. Certainly prior to 1979 there was little else to match it.

And now of course we come to pay homage to the other instrumental force behind the film: H.R.Giger, the Swiss artist who designed the Alien itself. An utterly terrifying mixture of the organic and mechanic, the best description one can make is to quote Ash from the film: “Its structural perfection is matched only by its hostility.”  The sleek, steely exterior is bad enough, but then there’s the huge head, within which are its salivating jaws – both of them. I’ve no idea what nightmare this thing came from, but I’m glad I didn’t dream it myself. Possessed of a terrifyingly deadly intelligence and intent, this demon instantly became a classic movie monster, and remains there to this day.

Finally, there’s the cast. Of course Sigourney Weaver shines in her star-making role: she invests Ripley with a guts and intelligence that just allows her to scrape through to the film’s end. Crucially though, she remains resolutely a woman (female action heroines being fairly uncommon at the time, especially in a genre that was – and arguably still is – male-dominated); this was something James Cameron’s sequel developed further seven years later. The rest of the cast are just as good though, all inhabiting their roles so well that they feel totally real from the moment they appear onscreen. I could heap praise on each individual cast member, but it’s not really necessary – if you’re read this far, you’ll know yourself how good each performance is.

I can tell this review is fast turning in to a love letter, so I’ll conclude by simply saying that Alien is undoubtedly a classic work of science-fiction horror, building a wholly credible universe in the distant future, and then terrifying the poop out of us. Thanks to the minds of two geniuses (Scott and Giger), it remains entirely convincing and relentlessly entertaining.

[xrr rating=5/5]