Friday, October 29, 2010

Alien: Science-Fearction

The reason I don't do horror movies has little to do with being scared and everything to do with the content and presentation. It doesn't take a lot of blood to make me queasy. Sharp objects make me nervous. Zombies gross me out; vampires make me cringe; werewolves...I guess I'm okay with werewolves.

Aliens, though...

If you ever want me to watch a horror flick with you, the part where it's a horror flick needs to be tacked on at the end, after you've already sold me. Tell me it's about aliens or something:

"You gotta watch this movie. There's a very cool alien styled by H. R. Geiger. The film's an American classic. IN SPACE. It's been referenced in geek culture ever since it came out. It's actually pretty plausible sci-fi. It's dark and suspenseful. There's some great action. It's awesome."


"...Oh, and by the way, it's also the most terrifying movie known to man."




...Still sold.

This is effectively how I found myself watching the sci-fi horror classic Alien, a movie which spawned a long-lived (longer than most of the movie's characters, anyhow) line of feature films, novels, comic books, video games, creepy action figures, and...PEZ dispensers?

A truly comprehensive discussion of the Alien franchise would require an entire week of posts, but Alien doesn't strike me as the kind of franchise where an in-depth look at all the media and merchandise is necessary to cultivate a greater appreciation for the property.

In contrast to many other fandoms, you can be a bona-fide Alien fan by watching just one movie. The aliens are the main attraction; story continuity is more of an excuse to make another film, and most of the spinoffs are self-contained adventures that provide variations on the concepts of the films. In other words, one exposure to an installment of the Alien franchise gives you almost everything you need to know.

Compare this to the vast expanded universe of Star Wars, where watching all six films barely qualifies you to be in the same room as a guy wearing handmade Boba Fett underpants.

That being said, an overview of the Alien movies should prove to be ample introduction to the fandom. Enough exposition already; let's get face-hugging!

Alien (1979)

"In space no one can hear you scream." Though the movie's tagline has become one of the biggest clich├ęs in cinema, it's a dead-on description for the film.

Alien takes place on a commercial freighter ship, the Nostromo, in a part of space far, far removed from any trace of civilization. The crew awakens from stasis to answer a distress signal (which is, admittedly, a sign of civilization), and what they find could cost their company a fortune in worker's comp fees...

Alien is frequently cited as one of the best horror and/or science fiction films of all time because it succeeds on so many levels. Cinematically, the pacing is perfect and the tension and fear build at all the right times and in all the right ways. Cerebrally, it's got enough symbolism and Big Questions to keep the critics and philosophers thinking. Everything works, from the script to the acting to the music.

Alien's greatest strength is the ability to leave just enough unsaid or unseen, allowing the viewer to stay suspended in mystery and to fill in the blanks with the most terrifying things their imagination can produce. Even the fact that the alien is just called "alien" is creepy; refraining from naming the species makes the alien that much more of a faceless terror...

Aliens (1986)

The series goes plural. Alien features exactly what its title advertises--one alien. The sequel has scads of 'em. Somebody had the bright idea to build a colony on the alien homeworld of LV-426. I think you can guess what happens from there. I think you can also guess what happens to the team sent to investigate the suspiciously silent colony.

Aliens is definitely more action-oriented than its predecessor, having switched directorial hands from Ridley Scott to JAMES CAMERON. In most cases, a distinct shift in feel from one installment to the next can cause a ruckus amongst fans, but both films are handled so well that I find myself genuinely unable to decide which one I prefer.

The first movie conjured up scares because the alien is a total unknown--the viewer and the characters are learning for the first time what the alien can do and how ineffective any attempts to stop it are. With the sequel, the alien is a known quantity. A scary quantity. Attacking in droves. You know what they're going to do, but the characters don't, and that can be just as scary.

Aliens succeeds because it radically builds on its source material in a meaningful and eye-popping way, while still maintaining the essence of what made the original so interesting to watch.

Alien³ (1992)

There's an alien on the loose in an industrial prison colony. And oops, the prisoners aren't allowed to carry weapons. Poor planning on the part of the wardens, I guess.

Alien³ is unquestionably the Rocky V of the Alien series. Everything The basic premise is something of a rehash of the first movie, but real surprises are few and far between.

The tense, creepy atmosphere has been replaced by a dark, uncomfortable air of religious obstinance mixed with the stink of grungy prisoners. Worse yet, the film effectively throws away anything it had to work with from Aliens, further separating it from the greatness of the first two films.

It's not entirely Alien³'s fault. As I understand it, the entire production was a mess, with directors switching at the drop of a hat, scripts being tossed out left and right, and filming occurring before the actors had a finalized script! The movie still has a great deal of character and its fair share of scares, but most fans of the series will likely find this one unpalatable.

Alien Resurrection (1997)

A scientific experiment gone wrong leaves aliens running amok aboard a research vessel. Mankind's only hope is a ragtag band of cannon fodder led by a genetically altered clone who has more than a little in common with the aliens...

Alien Resurrection is generally considered to be marginally better than Alien³, but still atrocious. In truth, the best way to approach Alien Resurrection is to ignore the Alien legacy and judge the film on its own merits. In other words, look at it as any ol' sci-fi survival thriller. You'll enjoy it more.

The acting may not be as convincing, the special effects might look cheesier, and the plot might be a little iffy at times, but there are a number of memorable moments that make Alien Resurrection worth watching, especially if you suffered through Alien³ to get here.

The creepiness comes less from the ambiance and more from spending any length of time thinking about the ideas the movie raises. The clone premise allows for some interesting character development possibilities, as well. Even when there's no violence, some of the visuals in the film are downright disgusting, and yet somehow compellingly weird. Even if the execution isn't as wonderful as the previous films, there are still some neat ideas.

Alien vs. Predator (2004)

We've officially crossed the line from sci-fi horror to mindless sci-fi action. The whole notion of aliens fighting the titluar characters from the Predator movies comes from a scene in Predator II where an Alien skull can be seen in a sort of Predator trophy room; this rivalry has been a popular premise for more than one video game, and more than one feature film (for better or for worse).

Taking place in modern-day Antarctica, AvP is a prequel where a group of human explorers gets caught up in a showdown between Aliens and Predators. It's harmless fun with a few cool scenes, but ultimately only necessary if you're a completionist or not yet at a point in your life where you could stomach/appreciate the other films in the series.

Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem (2007)

We've officially crossed the line from mindless sci-fi action to brutal slasher flick. A lone Predator travels to modern-day Earth in response to a distress signal from another Predator ship that crashed into Colorado thanks to those meddling Aliens. EVERYTHING DIES. In the most gruesome ways possible.

I'm going to use capital letters again. NOTHING IS SACRED. The movie goes out of its way to brutalize and mutilate someone from every demographic, and I'm not just talking about race. AvP:R is unsettling and disturbing. At least some of the action sequences are cool. Also, a bonus point for the best cheap scare in the entire series.

But mostly, I felt sick to my stomach and had to look away from the screen every 20 minutes.

It's improbable that any given person will like every entry in the Alien series, but there's enough of a mix that sci-fi junkies, horror fans, and mindless action aficionados will all find something to like. If you're a fan of Metroid, you'll like the Alien franchise--and you'll also notice some striking similarities. (Spoilers!)

In short, watch Alien, and see what happens from there.

If nothing else, it's not as scary as E.T.


zharth said...

I agree with you in that I honestly can't decide whether I like Alien or Aliens better, but they're both at the top of the batch. I liked AvP:Requiem better than the first AvP movie, but Alien 3 was better than Alien: Resurrection. Resurrection was horrendous. Alien 3, while not up to par with the previous two installments, redeems itself (in my opinion) with that dark and depressing mood that permeates the film. I love it. The CG effects used for some of the alien scenes are disappointing, however.

P.S. That PEZ dispenser is AWESOME! I want one.

Flashman85 said...

That PEZ dispenser is pretty great.

AvP:R was ultimately better a better movie, but it was far too gory for me to enjoy it.

Dark and depressing is rarely a selling point for me, but creative action sequences are, which is why I liked Resurrection more than Alien 3. It also helps that Resurrection was either the first or second Alien movie I saw, so expectations were very different.