Throwback Thursday examines films from the past, “classic” films that might not be in the current cultural zeitgeist but can still be important, interesting, fun, or all of the above.
With the imminent release tomorrow of the latest film in the Alien saga, I figured now would be the perfect opportunity to look at this space opera franchise and what the individual production teams have brought to each installment. As discussed in last week’s column, a confluence of events put Dan O’Bannon in the writer’s chair for 1979’s Alien. With six films (not counting the AVP franchise) so far, this series has lasted almost 40 years and doesn’t show signs of slowing down. Warning—some slight spoilers ahead.
Alien is a horror movie set in outer space—and it works. It starts off by showing how small the Nostromo is, and then contrasting that with the gigantic ore refinery it is towing, then going an additional step and showing how infinitesimal even that is compared to the vastness of space. It is into this world we, along with the awakened crew, find out what is going on. Detecting a distress signal, or perhaps a warning, the ship is required to find out the origin of the transmission and help if necessary. Landing on the planet, the crew discovers more than they bargained for, and they are slowly picked off one by one by an alien that has been brought on board.
There are so many things that work well in the film. From the down-to-earth crew interactions that feel real, to the lived-in look and feel of the spaceship. These people are just doing their jobs and going about their lives. Parker and Brett’s continuing calls for better shares wouldn’t be out of place in any environment. At 29, Sigourney Weaver is the youngest cast/crew member, which is a far cry from horror films you get today, where everyone is that age but lit to play ten years younger. And Weaver is the glue that holds the majority of the franchise together. If the crew had listened to her and not let the away team back on the ship, none of the ensuing chaos would have happened. I have read that O’Bannon and Ronald Shushett purposefully added a note to the script that all roles were gender neutral, making it entirely up to Ridley Scott and the casting team to determine the character’s gender in the casting process. And we are led to believe by years of indoctrination that Tom Skerritt is going to be the big hero to save the day. When he doesn’t, it feels vaguely reminiscent of Janet Leigh dying a third of the way through Psycho. You don’t kill off your main character. But when you do, luckily you have Weaver to step up and take the reigns.
There’s a certain undercurrent of sexuality running through these films, but for the most part it’s a brutal depiction. From H. R. Giger’s biomechanoid imagery, to the oral raping of a male character by the alien, and a chest-bursting birth. Motherhood even takes on a stronger role in the 1986 sequel Aliens. With an attempted rape and metaphor for AIDS in Alien 3, it isn’t until Alien: Resurrection that we get a traditional couple making love on screen (in Elgyn and Sabra). An argument might be made for the relationship between Clemens and Ripley in Alien 3, however that comes across more as solace than actual love. Even with the lovemaking in Resurrection, it’s still a somewhat dark film as it also addresses mental torture, in how the scientists treat Ripley as less than human, but still focusing on the themes of motherhood taken to its final conclusion.
If Alien is a horror movie in space, then James Cameron’s Aliens is an almost perfect attempt to steer the franchise into action-movie territory. Gender politics take a back seat (with the almost genderless marines mingling together as a non-issue), with a quieter focus on Ripley’s loss of motherhood and surrogate family represented by the characters Newt and Hicks. However, if you feel Aliens is too sunny, then you just have to look at Alien 3. It’s an incredibly nihilistic film. Set on a former prison colony, all of the characters have been beaten down by life. There is a glimmer of humanity and hope towards the end as the inhabitants band together to try and take down a single alien. There’s been loads of documentation about David Fincher’s direction and studio interference that you can find elsewhere, but it was a very troubled shoot. Luckily the film is as coherent as it is, but it definitely feels like a step down after Cameron’s classic.
Cameron and crew do an amazing job making the audience feel like an entire warren of aliens is out to destroy these humans, when they legitimately only had six somewhat-functioning creature suits. Alien 3 suffers a bit with some very artificial looking CGI, but I feel the film works as a journey for Ripley. It was also supposed to be Weaver’s last time as Ripley. However, anything can happen in sci-fi, and they find a way to resurrect her character many years in the future, unsurprisingly titled Resurrection.
A team of plucky adventurers sell their services to make a living in the outskirts of space, with a roguish captain, a bad-ass first officer, quirky helmsman, a couple gun-happy brawlers, and an additional member that serves as the conscience of the crew. Sound familiar? It’s not Firefly, but it’s no surprise that the screenplay is by Joss Whedon. As a standalone film, Resurrection is interesting from a historical perspective to see Whedon’s thoughts congealing before he brings similar themes to his failed (and awesome) TV show. Reviews of Resurrection were mixed, but overall the film works, showing a cloned Ripley rediscovering her humanity. While an interesting exercise to show how a cloned alien will replicate the birthing patterns of a human, the execution of the final creature doesn’t work: an awkward albino alien with a weird nose. Other than the final 15 minutes, I think the film works and has great direction by Jean-Pierre Jeunet, who not only gives us a film that fits into the Alien universe but is also moody as all get-out. In fact, if you like the ambience that he brings, highly recommended are his first two films, Delicatessen (a post-apocalyptic quirky cannibal film with a French feel), and The City of Lost Children (another great atmospheric film with a fun turn by Ron Perlman). With English not being Jeunet’s first language, you do get the feeling that the language barrier impeded a lot of his direction on Resurrection. And I don’t care what anyone says, I really like Winona Ryder in this film and her choices to deepen the Androids/Synthetic’s backstories. Which makes this a thematic tie-in to that other Scott classic, Blade Runner.
For all intents and purposes, Resurrection was going to be the final film in the series. However, Ridley Scott got a hankering to return to that universe. There’s a deceased alien pilot in the original film, and Scott decided he wanted to explore that history and where the pilot might have come from. There were a lot of high expectations on Prometheus, since Alien is considered by many to be in the top two films by Scott. He took it down an entirely different path this time. Sure, there’s aliens in the film, but I can see why he kept saying in interviews that this wasn’t a real Alien prequel. It tries to set some things up, but it’s more interesting as a meditation. If you met your maker, how would you feel if they came up short of your expectations?
Noomi Rapace as an archaelologist, Elizabeth Shaw, and her team find what they feel are instructions/directions to find out how/who humanity started. They go to meet their creators. Running alongside this plot is Michael Fassbender as David, an android who is given too much time to contemplate his origins and his creator. There are some wonderful philosophical conversations trapped in the film, and they come more to the forefront each time I watch this film. Yes, there are poor choices made by some characters to advance the plot, but for me that pales in comparison to the thoughts in the film. I also love that the troubles in Alien began with bringing Kane onboard the ship against regulations, but in Prometheus Charlize Theron’s Vickers has no nonsense when it comes to that and torches someone who’s infected. It’s these little throwbacks to previous films, while also being set before them, that add additional depth to Prometheus.
It will be interesting to see how Alien: Covenant adds to this mythology. Trailers make it look like it’s going to hew much closer to the original Alien series, but having Fassbender back in the role of another android similar to David gives me hope that this Scott film will have a little more to say.
These films can be found on both Blu-ray and DVD. They are currently available via Netflix, but streaming offerings change frequently, so keep an eye out. Feel free to discuss further in the comments below; just keep it respectful.
If you think there’s a film Throwback Thursday should cover in the future, please let me know in the comments.