ALIEN FRANCHISE: REVIEWED

Introduction

Saturday, 27 May 2017, I embarked with a number of friends on a journey into space on a number of tragically doomed spacecraft, with the frightening and ever-increasing possibility that an alien would hug my face and then burst out of my chest. That is to say, we watched all 6 films in the Alien franchise (not counting the Alien vs Predator spin-offs). I’d seen the first three before, but the last half were new to me. Here’s my review. (You can read my review of the Miyazaki Marathon I participated in here and read Chris’s review of this one here.)

Alien (1979)

We’ve gathered at 10 am to begin, chatting briefly on Chris’ porch before beginning our journey. The film starts and builds tension right from the get-go with no dialogue, a soundtrack of unsettling, vaguely ambient sounding music, and the slowly appearing title with that famous foreign-feeling font. We then explore the ship, the camera walking through as if we are there. The design of this film is incredible. The set design, costumes, and especially the sound design. The franchise does this pretty well throughout, but is at its peak here of using silence and ambient, diagetic sound to ramp up the horror, rather than musical cues. IT IS SO SCARY. *shiver* I get chills just thinking about it.

Sigourney Weaver is incredible. A strong, human performance that anchors the film and highlights the metaphor of sexual assault that is pretty in-your-face (ha!) of the xenomorphs that tracks decently throughout the franchise. The cast is solid all around, really. We see a lot of things that become hallmarks of entries in the franchise throughout the film (opening shots of the setting/crew in hypersleep/cryo/whatever, crew eating together pretty early on, a mix of horror and other genres, class commentary, an android/artificial person/synthetic, a lull between the fake-out climax and the real climax, etc.).

This movie is near perfect. Almost 40 years later and it is still terrifying. (After all, in space, no one can hear you scream.)

Aliens (1986)

It’s noon and we’re onto Aliens. I didn’t love this film when I watched it a few months ago, but recognized that it was doing a lot of things pretty well. But, today, watching right on the heels of Alien, it really really worked for me. (This may even be James Cameron’s best film.)

It does a lot of classic sequel things, expanding the scope, going bigger in about every way, etc. But whereas those usually trip a film up, they work really well together. Perhaps due to a shared thematic interest with the first film (class commentary, greed, relationships to authority, role of science and knowledge, value of human life, etc.). But I think mostly because it is grounded in solid performances from Sigourney Weaver (who has so many great scenes), Bill Paxton (R.I.P.), Michael Biehn, Paul Reiser, definitely Lance Henriksen, and most assuredly Carrie Henn, who is phenomenal. The relationship between Ripley and Newt is powerful and moving and provides an emotional core to this action-packed sequel, filled with striking images (the shot of the alien running down the air duct, backlit in red towards the end of the film is gorgeous). A great sequel.

Alien3 (1992)

2pm and we’re about to watch the worst entry.

This film is a muddled mess. It has a lot of fascinating ideas that it’s playing with, but is unsure what it is saying about practically all of them. There is A LOT going on and it doesn’t synch well as a film or really with the franchise as a whole (we’ve got thoughts on prisoners, religious zealotry, patriarchy, patriarchal tendencies of religious zealots, loads of gender commentary, redemption, rehabilitation, bits of class commentary, and more).

Sigourney Weaver is good and the film has a very bold climax, which is worth something, though I’m not entirely sure that the film really earns it.

The CGI of the alien here is truly abysmal. Just awful.

My friend Jon was concerned that this film erases all of Aliens in its first few minutes (which in many senses is true), however, I think it at least tries to build off the emotional journey of Ripley throughout the previous film in what happens here. Again, it’s not great at doing that, but I think there’s something there.

I don’t really like this film because in addition to all those problems it feels more gleefully violent than anything we’ve seen up to this point and that manifests in some really troubling ways (like attempted rape). That said, I don’t hate it. I think it still does some decent stuff, and has some very David Fincher touches.

Alien: Resurrection (1997)

It’s 4pm and we’re entering new territory for me. I’m filled with confusing, mixed feelings as the credits roll for this film seeing all sorts of actors: Sigourney Weaver! Ron Perlman! Winona Ryder! And then, written by Joss Whedon, who I unabashedly adore.

The opening scene is bizarre and undoes the bold climax of Fincher’s entry, which leaves me feeling baffled and irritated right from the get-go. However, I’m quickly one over by the sheer bonkers nature of this film. It is WILD. And feels in many ways like a trial run for Firefly. Dingy spaceship, ragtag ethically questionable crew, and so many witty quips.

There is some really really really weird stuff happening here and I’m not really sure what it is ultimately trying to say, but I had a great time. There’s some shocking violence here, but it’s more cartoonish and feels far less offensive than Fincher’s. Tonally, this film is in an entirely different universe than any other in the franchise and I think, I dig that, a lot? I don’t know. There’s lots of things that I couldn’t explain and probably problems and such that I couldn’t justify, but I liked it.

Prometheus (2012)

6pm and we’re going into new territory with the prequel.

This is easily the most beautiful film in the franchise. It looks SO GOOD. The cinematography is amazing and I just want to look at it all day (I mean, probably not all of it because it is still an Alien movie with shocking, grotesque violence).

I love the direction that this film goes. It dives into the lore and mythology of the world and is concerned with really big cosmic questions about God(s) and creation and the meaning of life and where we came from and leaves a lot of those questions unanswered or vaguely, ambiguously answered. I LOVE it. Unsurprisingly. Those sorts of questions are my bread and butter and it is very very cool to see a film like this exploring them.

There’s some weird, nonsensical character decisions and the logic connecting this to Alien is not always clear, but the world it inhabits is big and mysterious and messy and beautiful. Also MICHAEL FASSBENDER. Totally on board. I want to watch it again to really wrestle with all the theological ideas at play.

Alien: Covenant (2017)

9:40pm and we’re in the theater after a short break, nice drive, and paying way too much for some concessions.

This film is SO VIOLENT. Everyone has an alien popping out of their chest in very gruesome, grotesque, bloody, unnecessary ways. Next to Fincher’s entry this is the most disturbing as far as violence goes and it is easily the film with the most violence on screen. I did not dig that at all.

I wanted more Billy Crudup’s character and the tensions of faith and how that worked with the crew (as well as just more of the tensions of the crew members overall). There’s a throughline for the arc, but it feels very unsatisfying and unfairly simplistic to me.

As Chris notes in his review, the film is far tidier than Prometheus and seems to want to clean up some of the messiness of that film. I didn’t love that tendency and it felt pretty predictable (I called the final twist well before it happened). Michael Fassbender is great again here and really shows his depth of character and the nuances of performance.

Katherine Waterston does a nice job as Daniels, but the film feels less about a strong, female lead (her character) and more about Fassbender’s character, which feels somewhat like a betrayal of the franchise’s main interests and core. I don’t know. I need to watch this again when I’m more alert to better evaluate it.

Conclusion

These movies are GREAT. They do a lot of fascinating things and offer a blistering critique of capitalism and greed, which does my socialist, little heart good. There’s a lot of female empowerment throughout, which is beautiful. Great performances, fascinating intellectual and theological questions are engaged throughout the franchise (even when they are not done well). Also, they are scary and startling and wow. Highly recommend. Besides Alien3. It’s a mess.

And finally, a ranking, at this very moment:

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