With the newest Ridley Scott Alien movie released this year, it’s about time to go back to where it all started and how different directors used H.R. Giger’s frightening creature design in the original quadrilogy.
(USA 1979, director: Ridley Scott)
After receiving a distress call from an unknown planet and investigating, the crew of the merchant ship Nostromo is soon confronted with an evolving alien lifeform that is out to kill them in space.
Calling the original Alien a masterpiece would be too easy and lame, but it seems that cinema lovers across the world prefer to dwell in the past and choose this classic over all its sequels. I’s true that the creature design is still frightening, the atmosphere is dark and claustrophobic, and there are some very intense and memorable scenes, especially towards the end. But like any Ridley Scott movie, it’s very slow-paced. Some might argue this is to build tension, and in a way that’s true. But if characters are introduced that aren’t really that deep (including Ripley) with too much time spent on talking, one should consider asking the question if the movie isn’t a bit overrated.
The screen time of the alien itself isn’t as long as one would imagine, but just like Steven Spielberg’s Jaws, Ridley Scott’s movie is more effective in playing with people’s fears and expectations than showing it all the time. Fortunately, unlike the underwater horror flick, when the creature is shown, it’s not in the least disappointing. Special effects aren’t dated, either, which mostly has to do with that they’re not overused. There is some overacting with unintentionally funny scenes, but as it stands, the soundtrack is timeless and the movie is still very watchable despite its rather long run-time after all these years.
(USA 1983, director: James Cameron)
57 years later, the alien planet is colonized but soon contact is lost, and it’s up to Lieutenant Ripley of the Nostromo and a group of marines to see what happened.
The plural form title sums up the whole movie pretty well: more aliens, more suspense, more action, more Ripley. Even if it takes a third of the playtime until the fighting starts, it never gets boring, with enough emotional scenes that give Ripley more depth (even more so in the Special Edition which mentions her daughter that would become especially important for the game Alien: Isolation), and entertaining marine talk scenes.
It all seems very militaristic, but the presentation fits the general tone of the movie that sets itself apart from the first one by having one memorable action set-piece following another, and with the sheer number of aliens attacking, it’s only reasonable to counter it with more firepower. Some of the special effects like the flight sequences might feel a bit dated, but the pacing is perfect and again shows that Cameron knows how to make things explode and deliver intense action sequences, accompanied by a great score from James Horner. Considering how family-friendly and boring Avatar would later become, it’s an amazing experience to return to this sequel time and again and be just as thrilled today as when it was released.
(USA 1992, director: David Fincher)
Ripley crash-lands on the maximum security prison planet Fiorina 161, only to find out that the alien terror followed her and starts decimating the inmates.
The Alien series has always been about body horror in some way or another. This isn’t more true than here, although religion and morality is another big topic, and it’s here where the movie goes in a wrong direction. While the idea of having a group of inmates who try to make the best of their lives on a planet that society and technology has forgotten is great, there is simply too much talk between characters one really doesn’t feel any compassion for. The biggest problem is the pacing, though. Despite presenting an environment with all kinds of corridors and ventilation shafts where the alien can hide, the infrequent attacks never feel as terrifying as in the original movie. The less said about the bad CGI creature scenes, the better.
This is too bad, because the decrepit setting is quite fitting, and what happens at the beginning and at the end of the movie is of a darker subject matter than any Alien movie has delivered so far. But suspense is lacking, and only when the chase sequences and lots of blood shedding in addition to plenty of gore start, does the movie finally redeem itself as a true sequel and also as a final act. David Fincher has certainly done some great movies like Fight Club, S7ven or Zodiac, but this isn’t really his best work, only picking up the scraps left behind by former writers and fired directors.
(USA 1997, director: Jean-Pierre Jeunet)
Ripley is revived after 200 years, and together with a group of space pirates, she has to prevent a military ship with aliens running loose to reach Earth.
After a rather lackluster third instalment that had atmosphere but no real suspense, this is a completely different Alien movie in both tone and presentation. This doesn’t come as a surprise, though, considering that director Jean-Pierre Jeunet did Amélie or Delicatessen, French movies that were weird comedies, but that weren’t really horror (although it’s debatable with the last one). So there’s quite a lot of humor here, some that works, and some that doesn’t. The biggest problem is that there are very touching and horrible moments that are mixed with one-liners and action set-pieces with an unprecedented amount of gore, with some genetic manipulation critique thrown in.
One could argue that the new Alien movie manages to bring back the revolting body horror with much faster pacing to create a mix of the first two movies. But the way how transitions are too abrupt and the characters, while weird, are difficult to relate to, make it a ride of spectacle that is often bumpy. Except for Ripley whose comeback is also very questionable in logical terms, one is only presented with stereotypical, one-dimensional, and ultimately forgettable characters. However, if one accepts that this is just a fun sci-fi action flick with many disgusting scenes, then it works, although the aliens (and especially what happens at the end between Ripley and the mother alien) have lost some of their frightening magic in the process.
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