A Look Back at the Alien Franchise

So, let’s be real.

Has there ever been a better series of movies than the Alien films?

Um… okay, maybe, but that doesn’t stop it from being one of my absolute favorites. There’s just something hypnotizing about these movies, and in particular the world they depict. I can’t tell from the reviews what I should expect from Prometheus, but I can tell you I’m excited just to be going back to that place for a little while.

So I’m gonna go back over the movies the lead up to (or is that follow?) Prometheus. And since the Alien franchise has seen a lot of tweaking over the years, I’m going to specify which cut I’m referencing for each of the movies.

And no Alien vs. Predator.

1997 – Alien: Resurrection (Theatrical Cut)

Alien: Resurrection is the redheaded stepchild of the Alien franchise, both in terms of story and audience reception. After the workprint of Alien3 came to light, this odd fourth entry really took on the bulk of the criticism aimed at the franchise. But, as I mentioned earlier, this series is one of my favorites in all of film history. So I naturally like its last entry better than most people.

To be sure, Resurrection doesn’t mesh seamlessly with the other three movies. The story leaps 200 (???) years into the future. As far as the world goes, French visionary Jean-Pierre Jeunet brings an undeniably bizarre sensibility to the iconic visuals. As far as characters go, Ripley is the only familiar face, and I use the phrase loosely. As far as non-sequiturs go, there’s a scene in a basketball court. Basically, The movie feels like an afterthought to an otherwise pretty high-quality series.

But I’ll be darned if I didn’t have a good time watching it. Writer Joss Whedon has famously criticized virtually every second of this movie, but his involvement still injects a good bit of life into the proceedings. For instance, the misfit mercenaries at the center of the story. Each is distinctive enough to make an impression, though together they make a weird mix. Winona Ryder feels a little bit out of place; the only big star in a group of players from past Jeunet movies (Ron Perlman, Dominique Pinon) or character actors (Deadwood’s Brad Dourif).

But… it works. Sort of. A lot of the bizarre additions seem to be at home in this world. In particular, Dominique Pinon’s wheelchair-bound mechanic provides a lot of fun and a bit of pathos. Ron Perlman, too, always seems at home in this sort of genre fare. There’s something oddly coherent about their outlandish quirkiness — at least, to this viewer.

And personally, I love this scene.

Additionally, though Alien: Resurrection doesn’t further the narrative of the series, it still riffs on the themes and motifs of the other movies. There’s the typical birthing imagery, from the fetal development of Ripley at the beginning to the one truly tragic scene in the movie involving a room of failed cloning attempts. A hallmark of this series is the short-sightedness of men in suits and lab coats. Resurrection is certainly not short on misguided industry, either. It’s an odd bird, but it’s Alien’s odd bird.

Though if it’s all the same, I’m not gonna try defending this.

1992 – Alien3 (Workprint)

The first three Alien movies more or less make up a complete trilogy (leaving Alien: Resurrection as the odd one out). Alien3, despite what a lot of people would say, does a pretty good job wrapping things up with Ripley, as well as creating its own identity in the series.

One of the great things about the Alien franchise at this point is how different the movies are from each other, despite all taking place in the same world (though admittedly, not the same time). Alien3 is the bleakest; a nihilistic chiller taking place on a run-down space prison. In the first movie, we see an autopsy of an alien entity. In the third, the autopsy is of a young girl. Whereas the second movie saw Ripley become a surrogate mother, in this one she has to shave her head; ditching her femininity to fit in with a penal colony’s worth of violent, potentially sexually abusive felons.

The added element of apocalyptic (and somewhat misguided) religious fervor highlights the twisted feel of this piece. It’s one thing to have people running from a Xenomorph; quite another for them to look upon it as some sort of revered deity.

There’s a reason it’s looked down on, though. The last thirty minutes hold some serious flaws. For some reason, the visual effects look extra-cheesy once the Xenomorph starts running people down in the tunnels. There are other problems, too, like the “alien vision” camera that sounds like a good idea (a la Jaws) but doesn’t quite work onscreen.

Despite these problems, Alien3 is a great addition to the series from a tonal perspective, and a fitting end to Ripley’s arc. Her face-to-face with the creature in the movie’s final moments is a great sendoff to both of those iconic characters.

1986 – Aliens (Director’s Cut)

We haven’t gotten there yet, but I should go ahead and state the obvious: The first Alien is a straight-up classic. It still defines the sci-fi/horror hybrid for the world of film. Heck, this article is proof that the ideas in that movie have lasted over thirty years. So how do you make a direct sequel to something like that?

James Cameron decided to forgo any attempt at recapturing the horror or claustrophobia of the first film, and opted instead to take on the world of the first movie and blow the doors off it. The brilliant simplicity of the approach starts with the title. From one, to many.

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  1. I was watching Resurrection on cable the other day and realized something. The scene where Ripley finds the other clones, gets all flustered, and burns the place to hell is a re-do of the deleted scene from the first film. I’d imagine, with Resurrection being written in 95′ and shot in 96′, since this was before dvds, Whedon probably had access to deleted scenes of the previous films, saw the deleted “Cocoon” scene from Alien, and decided to re-write the scene for the new film. Not saying it’s a bad scene as Weaver gives us a great performance, but it really doesn’t add to the narrative and seems like it was just added in.

    However, lest anyone think I’m knocking it, it gave us 2 hilarious nods from South Park. The first episode with towelie parodied the scene, then the episode “Giant Douche vs. Turd Sandwhich” with the half human/half duck baby.

  2. Alien 3 was not a bad film. Most of the detractors never get past being butthurt over the deaths of Hicks and Newt to see that other than that bit of piss poor narration, it otherwise works. Resurrection was actually good too until they started getting stupid with the cloning thing. When will writers understand that clones almost never make anything better? If they had let Ripley go and allowed the franchise to move forward to places the novels already had, I think we really would have had one of the greatest franchises of all time on our hands. And hell, if Prometheus lives up and Scott sticks around for a couple more, it still may be.

  3. Meh. I think the highwater mark for me was always (and will always be) ALIENS. The first one I enjoyed; I just didn’t feel it had all that great re-watch qualities. ALIEN RESURRECTION was a pretty huge mis-fire, but I’ll agree that there were a few elements in it I enjoyed. I never had that much problem with ALIEN3. It was a different take on the whole ALIEN universe, and, on that level, I was okay with it.

  4. Nolan’s Batman films are NOT better than the alien series . . . at least not the first two. Nolan’s Batman films are pretty cool, but they don’t hold up under analysis. Or, even if you pay that much attention.

  5. Alien and Aliens are movies that get watched EVERY time I see them on TV. They are both about as close to perfect as a movie can be. Alien, especially, when one considers it was done without the benefits of CGI, is mind-blowing, even more so when you learn how much effort the SFX and set and costume designers put into it. Alien has some faults that really show most when minatures are involved. But by and large, they are, to me, like The Godfather and The Godfather Part II are to others. Different, but great. I liked Alien 3, but the SFX are severely lacking. And at the time it was released the Aliens comics were still being written and Newt and Hicks were alive in them. I don’t deny missing them (Hell! I missed Hudson too. Comic relief cannot be over-looked). Alien: Resurrection was weird, but it felt in line with the series. Now, why Ripley felt any affection for that abortion of a baby alien/human whateverthefuck, I’ll never know. But as a series, I don’t think you can beat them. Even Alien vs Predator made me laugh.

  6. I have now watched Prometheus and while it is a decent film, they really needed Giger’s input more. Seeing that picture of the facehugger reminded me that the effects in Alien transcend their medium. It looks like you could examine it under a microscope and it would hold up. Nothing in Prometheus feels like that sadly.

  7. I like all of the alien films. I even love AvP (but not that God-awful sequel), but for me Aliens will always be the best. To this day I consider Terminator 2: Judgement Day to be the only sci-fi action movie comparable to Aliens.

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