$5 Bin Film School: The ‘Alien’ franchise

Hi, my name is Jake and I have a problem. I have entirely too many unwatched films just laying around my apartment. Those of you who know me well also know this problem well, and have told me many times to cull the collection down. That’s what this blog series is all about. $5 Bin Film School is my attempt to work through the bargain bin/Half Price Books discount DVDs and Blus that I have accrued over the years. Some posts will be composed of short thoughts about a film; others might be deep-dives into multiple films joined by a theme; some might be essays about a film’s influence. At the end of each post, I’ll decide if I want to keep the film or get rid of it, and hopefully whittle my collection down to a more manageable number.

The first entry in this series dealt with a trio of Stanley Kubrick films. For the second entry, I’ll be discussing the ‘Alien’ franchise and how it has changed since the 1979 original. 

*I watched the theatrical versions of every film discussed here.

‘In space, no one can hear you scream’

The one that started it all. Ridley Scott’s 1979 landmark sci-fi film “Alien” still has the power to frighten and terrify today. I still jumped at the chest-bursting scene and marveled at how the effects have held up nearly 40 years later.

Moreseo than any effect or scare however, the big thing that sticks with me watching it today is how much influence this film still wields over every other space-set film that has come after it. The Nostromo, Ripley’s characterization, the psychosexual nature of H.R. Giger’s Xenomorph — It can’t be duplicated, but it’s often emulated.

Blu-Ray, 4-pack “Alien Quadrilogy” edition

Keep or Toss? Keep.

‘Game over, man, game over!’

With 1986’s “Aliens,” action auteur James Cameron takes over the director’s chair. Make no mistake: This is a perfect action film. (And one where you can clearly see the beginnings of some setpieces that would’t see the light of day again until 2009 in Cameron’s landmark “Avatar.”)

Everything in this film looks perfectly grimy and gritty, and everyone here is putting in great work, notably Bill Paxton (may he rest in peace). A big part of why this works is because it enhances Ripley’s character from survivor to leader (and surrogate mother to young Newt, whom she rescues), while also upping the action. Endlessly rewatchable and fun.

Blu-Ray, 4-pack “Alien Quadrilogy” edition

Keep or Toss? Keep.

‘We failed to give people the broad, safe entertainment that [America] seems to want…at least we were taking some chances’

Ripley diving in
Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) in David Fincher’s “Alien 3.” Photo taken from Flickr.

After “Aliens,” it would be another six years before the next “Alien” film would hit theaters. 20th Century Fox hired a then-unknown David Fincher to direct. The result was 1992’s “Alien³” (yes, a superscript, because this was supposed to be “Alien” to the “third power”), probably the most contentious of the franchise.

The production was fraught with studio interference and meddling from Fox execs who didn’t trust Fincher, who at that point had only directed commercials.

“You learn very quickly with movie studios that the reason there are so many people working there is to deflect blame and to spread culpability,” Fincher told British film journalist and scriptwriter James Swallow in “Dark Eye,” Swallow’s 2003 retrospective of Fincher’s career thus far. “It was just a disaster on every front, we never had the material, we never had the support.”

That lack of support bled over to the film, which, while a clear disaster that was salvaged int he editing bay, nevertheless still bears Fincher’s hallmark traits: precise sets, a dark sense of humor, a grotesque sensibility and an eerie sense of dread throughout.

“Alien³” undoes most of “Aliens” by having Newt die in the first five minutes and then having Ripley crash-land on a planet meant to house prisoners. Somehow, a Xenomorph has latched onto her escape pod and wants to kill Ripley. Chaos ensues and many people die, including her.

“[It] takes place in a prison, it was supposed to be about the wretched of the world,” Fincher is quoted as saying in “Dark Eye.” “And we had decided that the alien was going to be Ripley’s curse, the bane of her existence. The task was to make people care and think, ‘Hold on, we have a duty to everyone,’ but it didn’t really work. We failed to give people the broad, safe entertainment that [America] seems to want…at least we were taking some chances.”

Knowing all of that going in, I really wanted to give this one the benefit of the doubt, but it does not hold up and it’s such a slog to get through. It’s suspenseful, but in the way that “Se7en” is suspenseful, in that you’re just waiting for the next bad thing to happen. Besides Ripley (and one poor, unfortunate dog), I didn’t care about any of the characters. And it’s so quiet. I don’t know if it was the sound mixing on my Blu-Ray copy or what, but I had the subtitles turned on and the volume cranked up and it was still hard to understand what people were saying. Plus, the ending, while narratively coherent, seems like a slap in the face. It’s an interesting entry in the franchise, but a bad one. Maybe the Director’s Cut is better.

The ending is also nihilistic as all hell, and certainly didn’t win over viewers. “Alien³” remains the franchise’s most maligned entry, although it still outearned its sequel, “Alien: Resurrection” at the box office.

Blu-Ray, 4-pack “Alien Quadrilogy” edition

Keep or Toss? Toss.

‘I’m the monster’s mother’

Continuing the tradition of handing off the director’s reins to a new auteur for each film, 1997’s “Alien: Resurrection” saw French director Jean-Pierre Jeunet (“Amélie,” “The City of Lost Children”) take over from Fincher. “Resurrection” was also written by Joss Whedon. This is important because if you watch “Resurrection” as a prototypical version of “Firefly,” then it’s a great little romp. If you’re looking for a decent “Alien” film, you might come up lacking.

The whole thing feels like a space pirate riff on the franchise, with Whedon’s wisecracking and light script (this features a supernatural basketball game years before Halle Berry did it in “Catwoman”) at odds with Jeunet’s dream-logic visual style and “rage against the military industrial complex” theme.

True to its title, it brings back Ripley as a clone, who now has Xenomorph blood living in her. Whedon writes her like he would later write River in “Firefly,” as the ship’s special secret weapon.

All of that again pits a Xenomorph against Ripley 2.0 and Co. (including an excellent android Winona Ryder) in increasingly small spaces. The best part of the film for me is the underwater fight sequence (referenced in the GIF above). It’s a visually striking and brand-new conceit for the franchise in a film that mostly seems like it’s running out of ideas.

Blu-Ray, 4-pack “Alien Quadrilogy” edition

Keep or Toss? Toss.

‘We made you because we could’

With the end events of “Resurrection,” there was nowhere to go but back. Back in time, back to Ridley Scott, back to before the events of the first “Alien.”

2012’s “Prometheus” seeks to answer more than just where the Xenomorphs came from. It’s a film that’s just as preoccupied with our own origins as well.

I first saw this one upon its release in the summer of 2012. I hadn’t seen any of the other “Alien” films yet at that point, so I had no clue why it was so reviled by the fandom upon its release.  Upon revisiting it, I understand why, but I still stand by my opinion when I first saw it. This is a fantastic movie.

Scott’s filmography in his later years has gone increasingly introspective, and “Prometheus” is the beginning of that trend. It continued with “Exodus: Gods and Kings,” a film about searching for God that was dedicated to Scott’s late brother, the director Tony Scott. Scott is working out his life through film, and seeing him use the “Alien” template to work out questions of belief is fascinating.

Granted, I’m a sucker for sci-fi that deals heavily in questions of faith or God or “purpose”— I feel like “Contact,” “Blade Runner,” “Interstellar,” “Ex Machina,” “Annihilation,” “Arrival” and other films of their ilk were tailor-made for me — but the point still stands. With Scott’s return to the franchise at 75 years old, he seeks to do more than just thrill or inspire awe. He’s probing, just as curious as the explorers on the titular spaceship.  That same curiosity gets the best of all of the crew onboard, but Scott seems to be saying that blind curiosity with no respect gets us nowhere.

In the end, the film’s central questions — Why were we made, why did God turn on us, and do we deserve answers about why from God or a god — largely go unanswered. At the end, protagonist Elizabeth Shaw says she is “still searching,” and that goes for Scott as well.

iTunes Digital Copy

Keep or Toss? Keep.

‘What do you believe in, David?’ ‘Creation’

Xenomorph Covenant
The xenomorph in “Alien: Covenant.” Photo taken from here.

2017’s “Alien: Covenant” is the second of the planned prequel trilogy for the “Alien” franchise, and definitely the franchise’s most thematically ambitious installment. Set 10 years after the events of “Prometheus,” the film focuses on the colony ship Covenant, sent to a hospitable planet 7 years of hypersleep away from earth. When an old transmission from “Prometheus”‘ Elizabeth Shaw pops up once the crew is prematurely awoken, the crew decides to abandon their original flightplan and head to the transmission’s point of origin, a planet that looks to be much more hospitable than the Origae-6 planet they were originally headed toward.

Once they land, the seemingly hospitable planet literally infects the crew. This being an “Alien” movie, more chaos ensues. Oh, and David is there. And he’s been harvesting Shaw’s DNA to create prototypical Xenomorphs.

By making the android from “Prometheus” this story’s main protagonist/antagonist, director Ridley Scott is upping the ante on the themes of God and creation and intelligent design he introduced in “Prometheus.” Other writers have highlighted the film’s many, many religious references (John Milton’s “Paradise Lost,” the story of Noah’s Ark, the Genesis narrative, the Last Supper, Judas before the betrayal, etc.) and spotlighted the film’s narrative surrounding procreation vs. reproduction and creation vs. destruction.

All of the above metaphors may get too muddled by the end, but I don’t really care. This is Scott aiming for the stars and largely succeeding. It also weaves itself into the framework of the larger “Alien” mythology by highlighting how later installments would try to use the Xenomorph to evolve humanity. There is truly nothing new under the sun, to evoke another Biblical metaphor.

What has been will be again,
    what has been done will be done again;
    there is nothing new under the sun.

-Ecclesiastes 1:9

The world is an endless cycle of creation and destruction. The only question is, why?

Blu-Ray

Keep or Toss? Keep.

My final “Alien” power rankings, for those who care:

  1. “Alien”
  2. “Aliens”
  3. “Alien: Covenant”
  4. “Prometheus”
  5. “Alien: Resurrection”
  6. “Alien³”
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