R.I.P. Alien franchise – In Memoriam

A small note in memory of the Alien film series, which finally passed away this January after a prolonged struggle for life. It led a long and eventful existence, after a violent and bloody birth in 1979; the classic original movie remains a masterpiece of the science fiction and horror genres. It spawned an equally classic sequel in Aliens (1986), which is still unsurpassed in terms of nail-biting sci-fi action and is still much imitated today. Both films were milestones in the careers of their visionary directors, Ridley Scott and James Cameron, and continue to be celebrated to this day by the film community.

The second sequel, Alien 3 (1992) was greeted with dismay and derision by fans upon its initial release, but with time has steadily grown in popularity and respect and today is much championed by those who relish the bleak tone and atmospheric direction by another visionary, David Fincher. The fourth movie, 1997’s Alien: Resurrection, attempted to restart the series after Alien 3’s apparent conclusion, but failed to grab the imagination of fans. Nevertheless, it was not without its own merits, and it seemed the Alien series could yet live on, if it could find its way in to a loving and expert pair of hands.

Sadly, after a prolonged bout of middle age spent in the wilderness, the Alien series was spotted by 20th Century Fox execs as having the potential for making a quick buck and, despite the franchise being one of their crown jewels, it was slapped in to a blender with another ageing sci-fi franchise, the Predator series, and handed over to the dismally talentless Paul W.S. Anderson. The resultant offering, Alien vs. Predator (2004), was met with, to say the least, disappointment. The once-frightening monsters of space had been relegated to cheap shocks and naff video-game stunts. Even poor old Lance Henriksen was wheeled out to try and disguise the fact that AvP was just a pale imitation of the glory days of old.

The fatal blow finally came with the sequel, Aliens vs Predator: Requiem (2007), which was so awful that it somehow managed to make AvP look good. Despite upping the violence and blood quotient, AvPR didn’t have a single brain cell to rub together, flailing about with its appalling script, poor production values and inept direction. This death rattle of a movie only has brevity as its sole plus point.

The Alien franchise, 1979-2007. No flowers.

Alien trilogy at the cinema: a post-script

Just looking through my article about the Alien series below, I didn’t mean for it to turn out quite as long as it did… apologies for anyone put off by the vastness of it all. As you might expect, there is much more that I could say about the series – all sorts of favourite bits and moments of genius that I love, but I’ll not go in to those this time. I think perhaps I need to review each film individually, which I’ll do in due course. In the meantime, suffice to say I like them quite a bit. And the next post will be about something else…!

Cinematic heaven: watching the Alien trilogy on the big screen

As this is my first proper post, I’ll own up to my favourite film series: the Alien movies. Some films just make such an impact on you when you are surviving your formative years, that you can’t help but love them for the rest of your life. They are movies that you are intimately familiar with, that you can just sink in to each time you watch them. They do not breed over-familiarity; instead you notice something new about them each time, or they trigger a new thought or angle that you hadn’t considered before.

So it is with me and the Alien films. The first one I saw was James Cameron’s Aliens (1986), which I watched on video one summer holiday. It was the time in my youth when sci-fi, horror and fantasy computer games, films and magazines were the coolest things; when girls were still to be feared, but also secretly worshipped; and when watching 18-rated movies was finally becoming possible. I managed to convince my mum to rent Aliens out for me, as my sister had promised to rent out the just-released Alien 3 for me to watch while babysitting my extremely young nephew. I hadn’t even seen Alien yet, but I had heard of the Alien films and was intrigued by them. After I watched Aliens I knew this was just the best film ever made. It was (and still is) a tour-de-force. Every single element of the film is unified in to a perfect whole, which, considering how many elements there are in making a film, is a miracle. The action, the atmosphere, the music, the special effects, the instantly quotable script, the sets, the designs, the monsters themselves, the performances – what could possibly have been done to improve it? Ok, the lead character was a woman, but Sigourney was no stupid Hollywood babe, she was cool and quite sexy in her own weird kind of way. It was brilliant science fiction. Aliens invited me in to an entirely credible universe that I became hooked on.

Alien trilogy all-nighter flyer

So it was with huge anticipation that I awaited Alien 3 (1992). Not being a movie geek quite yet back then, I had no idea what the story was for the sequel. But it’s safe to say that the almost instantaneous demise of Hicks, Newt and Bishop was not what I expected. Talk about gutted. I’m sure these feelings are pretty much what every fan of Aliens felt when first seeing Alien 3. It was like A3 robbed the ending of Aliens of all its power and meaning.

And yet… and yet, I still loved it. The astonishing production design, the camerawork, the bleak setting, the prisoners of dubious loyalties, the weird new Alien – it still felt true to the Alien universe. The ending especially so. And that’s still what I feel today. Also, just like Aliens, it scared the crap out of me.

So, where next? Back to the original of course. I had yet to see The One That Started It All. Now, this is my main regret in watching the films out of order – that the surprise had been taken out of who survived Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979). Of course, still being under 18, there was no way I was going to buy the video, if it was even available, and certainly renting was impossible (renting a 15 year old movie? Who ever heard of such a thing?). So it was that my first experience of Alien was on ITV one Saturday night, with my dad watching it too. The advert breaks didn’t spoil it for me: Scott’s movie could overcome any obstacle in it’s path. The thing that struck me at the time was that, even though I knew Ripley had to survive, and that the others almost certainly couldn’t, I was still rooting for them all. And the awesome sets and production design still looked cool. Like it’s sequel, it was a brilliant piece of science fiction.

Over the years, with repeated viewings, my opinions and critical tastes developed and changed. Aliens was the best one, easily. I increasingly disliked Alien 3. The first one was almost as good as Aliens. Then, Alien 3 wasn’t too bad actually. Later on Alien was the best one, with its greater emphasis on atmosphere and characterisation. Today, I still can’t pick between Alien and Aliens – they are both magnificent films, with different strengths. Alien 3 I still admire and support, although there’s no doubting its flaws. It brings the series to a logical and fitting ending in my view, while imprinting its own identity on the franchise.

Alien: Resurrection (1997) eventually came along, attempting to revive the story, when I was actually old enough to go to the cinema to see it. I enjoyed it then and enjoy it now, though there’s just a bit too much humour in it for my liking and its certainly the weakest of the series. Good story though (writer Joss Whedon recycled the concept to much greater effect with his short-lived but hugely enjoyable tv series Firefly). After several years they tried to take the series in a new direction with the spin-off Alien vs Predator (2004). There are of course many things wrong with this film, not least the fact that the Aliens aren’t remotely scary. It was nice to see Lance Henriksen back in the series however. Here’s hoping the forthcoming sequel Aliens vs Predator (2007) will salvage something from the wreckage.

My one great cinematic hope over the years was to be able to see the first three movies in a huge screen, preferably alone, or at least with an appreciative audience that similarly loved the movies. I saw the director’s cut of Alien in 2003, which was totally spoiled by two teenage twats in the back laughing and talking through it. I also saw an old print of Alien in a tiny screen in Cambridge, which was in distractingly poor condition.

Then… a miracle happened. My prayers were answered. Out of nowhere, the Arts Picturehouse in Cambridge (Lord Bless them) announced they were screening an Alien trilogy all-nighter, from 11.30pm to 7am on a Saturday last June. In their biggest screen. 70mm prints, with THX sound. My brother noticed this first and pointed it out to me – my jaw dropped some several feet and I knew I had to be there, come hell or high water. I told him he had to come too, which he happily agreed to.

What can I say? To rediscover these films in such good condition, on such a big screen, was a revelation. The details in the picture, the atmosphere of the soundtracks. My only concern was not staying awake through the third picture – there was no way that Cameron’s adrenaline rush was going to let me fall asleep. And indeed by 6am, halfway through Alien 3, I could feel my eyelids start to droop. But I kept eating my trusty sweets, and kept refocusing, and made it through. It was pure cinematic heaven. Even the audience were well-behaved.

I love these movies – the epic stories, the action, the suspense, the tangible universe they created, the horror of the creatures themselves, the human characters who must face them, and Sigourney Weaver’s magnetic presence onscreen. I will always enjoy re-entering their universe. I only wish everyone could experience their favourite movies this way.