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A Look Back: The Alien Quadrilogy (1979-1997)

It’s October again, which means that Halloween is just around the corner, so the horror movie season has begun. And for those who prefer a little sci-fi in their horror flicks, the Alien series is a dream come true. Suspenseful, surreal, action-packed, masterfully crafted, and featuring one of the best movie heroines (and monsters) of all time, 1979’s Alien and 1986’s Aliens are nothing short of masterpieces… The films that followed, not so much. All four are worth talking about. Whether to admire their masterful storytelling, or become enraged at their descent into uninspired monster flicks, let’s not waste any time, and take a look at the Alien series. (Prometheus and the Alien vs. Predator films will not be included, as I have not seen them and I don’t really plan to.)


ALIEN (1979)


Courtesy IMDB

Alien is a movie that greatly surpassed its potential. Released two years after the massive Star Wars, this easily could’ve been a cheap cash-grab reminiscent of the silly monster movies of the 1950s it was paying homage to. It was even pitched as ‘Jaws in space.’ But, thanks to the right script and director Ridley Scott, who would later helm classics like Blade Runner and Gladiator, this became a sci-fi/horror masterpiece that still holds up 35 years later.

For the two people who don’t know, Alien follows the seven-member crew of the spaceship Nostromo that discovers an alien planet where a parasite attaches itself to one of their members. Although it is later removed, a baby has been planted inside him that then grows and starts picking the crew off one by one, and their chances of survival don’t look so good.

What makes this film work so well, and what its many imitators don’t understand, is that the film isn’t entirely scares and gore, although there is plenty to spare. Rather, the director of Alien understood the importance of creating characters the audience will care about. The film spends nearly half of its two-hour running time developing the seven crewmembers, (and their cat) making them more of fleshed-out human beings rather than flat monster victims. The crewmembers aren’t typical scientists who are amazed at how their discovery will change the world. They are ordinary people doing their job, worrying about food, pay, fuel, and how to stay alive. Because of this, the audience cares for them, and they fear for their lives when the seven start getting killed off.

The movie also goes with Jaws’ approach of “hint, don’t show,” which increases the suspense by merely suggesting the alien’s presence. This means that the alien could be anywhere. (Although this was also to hide that the alien was just a man in a suit, as it’s only onscreen for about five minutes’ worth of the entire movie.) This, along with the loneliness of space, helps the film create a mighty sense of dread.

Another great aspect of the movie is the surrealist painter H.R.Giger’s design of the titular creature, which makes it one of the most menacing, mysterious, disturbing and terrifying creatures ever put on film.

The film’s production design is beautiful. The shots of the Nostromo floating through space are wonderfully done, capturing the vast size and loneliness of space. The ship’s interior and the technology within it give an interesting view into a very possible future with lots of possible technology. (Or at least, what the future seemed like back in 1979)

And, of course, there is the iconic character of Lieutenant Ellen Ripley, played brilliantly by the then-unknown Sigourney Weaver. Before this, most females in horror movies were helpless damsels-in-distress, who mostly did nothing except wait to be killed, or get saved by another character. Ripley, on the other hand, is nothing like this. Although she shows moments of fear, she is more of a soldier, defying many gender stereotypes, especially for the horror genre. Although the titular monster is very deadly, the film makes it possible to believe that Ripley might just make it out alive.

Alien is a very frightening and intense movie that forever changed both the horror and science-fiction genres, so it is easily a 10/10 film. However, this was only the beginning…

ALIENS (1986)


Courtesy IMDB

Movie sequels are a risky business. Most of the time they fall flat and don’t come anywhere near the quality of their predecessors. Of course, there are some sequels that are just as good, if not better, than the originals they followed. These include The Empire Strikes Back, The Godfather: Part II, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Spider-Man 2, The Dark Knight, and of course, the 1986 classic, James Cameron’s Aliens.

Released seven years after Ridley Scott’s original, there was no way James Cameron, fresh off 1984’s surprise hit The Terminator, would be able to top it in suspense and horror. He didn’t. Realizing he could never come even close to the horror classic, he instead decided to make the follow-up as different as possible by going for a full-out action movie. Because of this, fans still argue to this day over which film is better.

The film follows Ripley, the only survivor of the previous film, (Uh, spoiler alert) as she awakens from cryosleep 57 years later, constantly having nightmares about the events of the previous film. And to make things worse, the planet from Alien has been colonized, with about 158 people living there. But suddenly, contact with the colony is lost: Any guesses what happened? Before the audience can say, “It was the aliens!,” Ripley is sent along with a squad of space marines to the planet to deal with the aliens.

As good as Alien is, it is very clear that it is only for a certain audience. It is full of slow-moving scenes that build so much tension you feel as if you will burst, and it is not exactly for die-hard action fans. But, if your favorite movie is something like Die Hard, then this is definitely more for you. This film features so much action, so much excitement, that it will leave you speechless as soon as the credits roll. (In fact, it’s best not to eat during the movie, you may regret it).

Also, some sequels either feel like mere extensions of an already finished film, or just separate stories that feel cut off from the original. Aliens, however, manages to add to the story set up in the first film, while also telling its own. It respects the first film, but also differentiates itself as much as possible. It does what any good sequel should. Instead of simply rehashing the first film, it continues the story and expands upon it in creative ways.

This is also a case of “bigger is better.” In the first film, there was only one alien, and that was already terrifying enough. But this installment, there is not one, but a whole army. Allow the possibilities to sink in…

The film does well in revealing more about the aliens. In the first movie, we didn’t know much about them. But in the sequel, it is revealed that they work like a beehive, with a bunch of drones (Seriously, there are quite an overwhelming lot of them on show here) serving one queen. And when the queen finally shows up for the film’s finale, it is awesome. The queen is HUGE. It takes everything that was scary about the original’s monster and amps it up to eleven.

Of course, that is not to say that the human side of the movie is lacking. Sigourney Weaver reprises her role as Ripley to tremendous effect, as she confronts her fears from the first film and in the process, becomes not only a warrior, but also establishes a mother/daughter-like relationship with Carrie Henn’s Newt. In a rarity for the science-fiction genre, Weaver was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress. And the film makes up for only one returning character by adding a plethora of memorable characters, such as Lance Henriksen’s robot Bishop, Jennette Goldstein’s Vasquez, Michael Biehn’s Hicks, Al Matthew’s Apone, Newt, and of course, Bill Paxton’s Private “Game over man, game over!” Hudson. And also, the movie has several great quotes. And then there is that awesome score by James Horner, which surprisingly was recorded in only four days. (A good example of the score is the track Bishop’s Countdown, which can be found here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ygrUcbrZ8XA)

Aliens is the epitome of a good sequel, creating a mind blowing action experience that still has fans arguing over which of the two films is better to this day. Ultimately which is the best comes down to personal preference, but my favorite of the series is Aliens. However, after Aliens the series started to go downhill a little…

(Note: Two versions of the film exist. The 1986 theatrical cut removed seventeen minutes due to the studio’s belief that a 2 ½-hour movie was too long, but these extra scenes are restored in the 1992 Special Edition, which adds more character depth and suspense. It is highly recommended that this version is the one you see.)