Ridley Scott’s 1979 alien horror movie, creatively titled Alien, is arguably the single most iconic sci-fi horror film of all time. It also may be the single most overrated sci-fi horror film of all time.
Alien isn’t bad. It’s not the sort of movie that makes you want to shoot yourself in the face or weep as you ponder the state of the movie industry, but it’s not nearly as riveting as it could or should be.
The biggest problem is that its a “dwindling party” movie (in other words, a movie where the characters slowly get picked off until there’s only a couple left standing, usually the ones played by actors or actresses you’ve actually heard of) where you don’t particularly care about the party. There just isn’t enough character development in Alien. Which is ironic, considering that it takes about 45 minutes before people actually start dying. I was getting so impatient that I actually looked down at my DVD player to see how much time had gone by without an alien making an appearance, and I no longer recall the exact figure, but it was at least 45 minutes before the alien finally ripped its way out of its first victim’s chest. Unfortunately, these 40-odd minutes were not filled with snappy dialogue or character development. Instead, they contained painfully long scenes of spaceships landing and taking off, and people sitting around monitors in dark, dreary rooms (seriously, can’t they afford to put LIGHTS in their spaceship?) It’s not quite as slow as 2001 (which takes about 30 minutes for a line of dialogue to be spoken) but it’s uncomfortably close.
At last the Alien starts killing people by sneaking up on them and dragging them offscreen. Its job is made easy by the fact that, as I discussed above, no one deemed it necessary to install lights in the spaceship. Some of the scare-scenes are well-executed, and would even be frightening if we weren’t secretly rooting for the alien to put an end to these bland bozos.
The alien itself is somewhat frustrating. At times it’s almost uncannily efficient, striking with the stealth and the speed of a ninja, but when it comes time to kill an unarmed Sigourney Weaver, who is strapped to a chair in a tiny escape pod, it slows down to about the level of a turtle. A dead turtle. I can only conclude that it somehow sensed Ellen Ripley was the main character and decide to cut her a break. If so, that was very sporting of it. It is a rare monster that is willing to lay down its life in the service of the plot.
The production design and atmosphere for this movie are spot on. It’s dark, claustrophobic, and oppressive, which is, I’m sure, what the filmmakers were going for. If they’d only got you to care about the characters, and not made it painfully obvious who was going to survive (I’ll give you a clue–it’s Sigourney Weaver and the bloody cat), they could have had a truly suspenseful movie on their hands.
Aliens, the sequel to Alien, proves tow things. The first is that it is possible to come up with a movie title even more unoriginal than Alien. The second is that there was a time when James Cameron actually knew how to make good science fiction movies.
Aliens succeeds in all the ways Alien falls short, and is the best example I’ve got of a sequel that far surpasses the original. It’s suspenseful, exciting, and terrifically fun. The superiority of Aliens is due to its having two things the first movie lacked–likable characters, and interesting dialogue.
To be fair, Aliens is not exactly the same type of movie as Alien. It’s less focused on the horror, and more on the action. It’s faster, and bigger, with more shooting, more yelling, and, as the title subtly hints, more aliens.
When I think of Aliens, I have trouble naming, or even remembering, a single character that isn’t Ellen Ripley or the weird cyborg dude with milk coming out of his face.
When I think of Aliens, I can remember not just names but faces and dialogue. In truth, in a movie that boils down to people with guns shooting at slimy monsters, how much you care about the people with guns makes all the difference in the world.
Ellen Ripley is back, joined by a badass team of Space Marines who are not as incompetent or obnoxious as you first expect them to be (they are not at all like the soldiers in, say, 28 Weeks Later). Overconfident, yes, arrogant, yes, but you can’t help but love them. And they’re overconfident for a reason. Although Ellen Ripley likes to go on (and on and on) about how dangerous the aliens are, the fact is that these marines rack up a pretty high body count, with a kill-death ration that is enviable even by video-game standards.
Not an official trailer, but I really liked the music
Like Alien, the movie takes quite a while to bring any actual aliens on the screen. Unlike Alien, it takes advantage of this ‘down time’ by providing us with scenes full of character development and light, playful banter, showing us that these characters like and care about each other and making us like and care about them, too. The team’s camaraderie provides the backbone of the movie.
The one thing that brings it down a notch is the kid (given the cringe-inducing name of Newt), who is a bit too bland, a bit too wide-eyed and one-note. Besides that, the trouble with kids in this sort of movie is that it’s hard to watch the marines getting killed off while the kid somehow manages to pull through scene after scene. It begins to strain believability, which, while stretchy, will break eventually. You’d think the muscle-bound people with the huge guns would be the ones to survive, but in movies cuteness acts like some kind of magic monster repellant.
Pictured: a huge gun.
Also, on a side note, this movie contains not one, but four female characters, and not one of them is a love interest. Also one is the main character. That has to be some sort of world record for action movies. I hope the Guinness Book has taken note.