Film Review: The Alien Quadrilogy

Into the Dark - Film Review: The Alien Quadrilogy

The Alien Quadrilogy is one of my favorite film franchises. Few other series have allowed so many talented directors an opportunity to share their differing visions of the same material. These films (not counting the silly Alien vs Predator sequels) may be stylistically disparate, but they are all of remarkably high quality. And what better time than now to reflect on these films than now, mere months before the release of Prometheus, Ridley Scott’s long-awaited return to science-fiction horror and the franchise that helped kick-start his career?

Alien (1979)

Inspired by Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and the disturbing paintings of H.R. Giger, Ridley Scott set out to make a haunted house movie set in outer space, where a ragtag team of “space truckers” do battle with one of the most fascinating monsters in movie history.  Scott is one of the finest directors of our time, and this may be his best film — a taut thriller, designed and executed with tremendous attention to realism and detail, with psycho-sexual overtones that invite repeat viewings and varied interpretations.  The acting ensemble is one of the finest ever assembled: Sigourney Weaver, Tom Skerritt, Ian Holm, Harry Dean Stanton, Veronica Cartwright, Yaphet Kotto, and John Hurt.  Not a one of them is overacting, even in their death scenes — it’s some of the most believable acting I’ve ever seen in a sci-fi, fantasy or horror film.

He thought it was just a tummy ache...

The alien itself is a revelation – the most extraordinary ‘man in a suit’ monster ever, thanks to the disturbing design work of H.R. Giger.  But it’s not just a great design.  The alien’s physiology and reproductive cycle are also interesting.  It doesn’t just kill you.  It impregnates you and uses you as a living host for its wicked little progeny.  When the baby is ready to be born, it just rips its way out of your chest.  As movie monsters go, nothing can top this shit. 

Alien is a masterpiece, and in light of the new, popular trend of skipping build-up and suspense in horror movies, it will only get better.

Rating: 5/5 ★★★★★ 

 

Aliens (1986)

James Cameron (Avatar, Titanic) accomplishes a rare feat with a sequel that doesn’t shame the original and succeeds on its own merits.  In a smart move, Cameron decided not to compete with Ridley Scott in the areas of horror and suspense.  Aliens is decidedly a combat movie.  The last hour of the film is an incredible run of non-stop thrills, complete with a surprise double-ending that surpasses whatever high expectations you might have had for an action movie.  With marines firing heavy artillery at hordes of aliens that burst into lethal sprays of acid, and Sigourney Weaver with pulse rifle and flamethrower in hand, Aliens is an irresistible kick-ass action flick.

Into the Dark - Film Review: The Alien Quadrilogy

Ripley vs the Bitch Queen

But there’s also some substance woven into the storyline.  After discovering a little girl who has miraculously escaped death, Ellen Ripley (Weaver) finds a new reason to live after almost letting her nightmares get the best of her.  Sigourney Weaver is ferocious in the role, one for which she earned an Oscar nomination (rare for a genre flick).  Hers isn’t the only memorable part, either.  Michael Biehn, Bill Paxton, and Jeanette Goldstein are very good as marines unprepared for the horrors ahead of them, and Lance Henrickson is memorable as the resident android.

James Horner serves up one of his most exciting and beloved music scores (also Oscar nominated), and Stan Winston does an outstanding job bringing the Queen alien to frightening life.  The final confrontation between Ripley and the Queen is a remarkable combination of miniature photography and on-set animatronics, stunning craftsmanship that outshines any of today’s digital effects.

I’ve seen Aliens a few dozen times now, and it simply never gets old.

Rating: 5/5 ★★★★★ 

 

Alien3 (1992)

The third time is far from a charm in the Alien franchise.  Alien3 is an ill-conceived sequel that offends many fans of the previous two movies for its drastic departures in tone and content.  First-time feature film director David Fincher, who would later bring us Se7en and Fight Club, does a terrific job with mood and atmosphere, but he’s working with a screenplay that should never have been filmed.

Into the Dark - Film Review: The Alien Quadrilogy

Ripley goes bald in "Alien3"

The script begins by killing off beloved characters Hicks and Newt (bad idea number one) before plopping Ripley down on a penal planet that has no weaponry of any kind (bad idea number two).  After that, the movie struggles for take-off, with little action, little memorable horror, and sub-par visual effects.  The all-male ensemble surrounding Sigourney Weaver are very good, but the dynamic between Ripley and the double-Y chromosome prisoners isn’t enough to save the movie.  There’s also great cinematography and production design, and an excellent score by Elliot Goldenthal — but again, not quite enough to save the movie.  A lot of people hate the ending.  I actually like that Ripley is forced into a position of self-sacrifice.  I just wish she didn’t have to kill herself at the end of a disappointing sequel.

While it may not be wholly satisfying, you can still enjoy some bits and pieces of Alien3. The expanded, reconstructed version of the film recently released on blu-ray is a little better than the theatrical version, adding a full half-hour of material back into the film. But don’t expect a miracle.

Rating: 2.75/5 ★★¾☆☆ 

 

Alien Resurrection (1997)

For the fourth outing, we get an odd pairing of creative talents.  Visionary director Jean-Pierre Jeunet (Amelie, City of Lost Children) imbues the film with a little of his trademark dark fantasy, while screenwriter Joss Whedeon (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Serenity) contributes his own particular brand of off-kilter humor and character dynamics.  In fact, it’s interesting to watch Alien Resurrection after Whedon’s Firefly series.  There are a lot of parallels between the two.

Does it work?  Well, I know a lot of people strongly dislike this movie.  Maybe it’s the humor, maybe it’s the absurdity.  I mean, Ripley (or rather, her clone) does make out with an alien.  But you can’t say it’s more of the same, and that means a lot to me.  It may not be what fans of the first two films were expecting, but I think it’s an interesting film in its own right.  The cast can’t quite pull off Whedon’s dialogue, and Jeunet over-engrandizes a few moments, but it’s a pretty well put-together little action movie otherwise.

Into the Dark - Film Review: The Alien Quadrilogy

L'enfant terrible from "Alien Resurrection"

The newborn creature that features prominently in the last twenty minutes is one of the nastiest-looking, creepiest-sounding, all-together disturbing monsters I’ve ever seen.  As vicious as it is, I can’t help but feel sorry for it when it meets its grisly demise.  I also like the rag-tag team of cast members, which includes Sigourney Weaver playing a cloned, autistic version of her character’s former self, Jeunet regulars Dominique Pinon and Ron Perlman, raspy-voiced cool guy Michael Wincott (“The Crow”), hot Gary Dourdan (“CSI”), and Leland Orser as a doomed man whose chest is due for exploding at any moment.

Rating: 3.5/5 ★★★½☆ 

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About Scott_S

Scott studied film and sociology at Indiana University and is currently the video producer for a large publishing company. He is the director of several independent films, including "House of Hope," "Off the Beaten Path," "The Day Joe Left," and "Found." For more about Scott, visit www.scottschirmer.com. Scott is also one of the principal organizers of the Dark Carnival Film Festival. (www.darkcarnivalfilmfest.com)

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