Where did the once-brilliant ALIEN franchise go so wrong?

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With the imminent release of “ALIEN: Covenant” (coming in May) I wanted to discuss the ALIEN franchise in general.  But I became more intrigued by this question: at what point did this once brilliant franchise go so wrong?

The first two films are unabashed classics.  As ALIENS director James Cameron has said, ‘the first movie is the haunted house, the second is the roller coaster.’  They are both visceral, moody, scary, and have amazing production values.   Both redefined science fiction horror/action and took them from B-movie to A-movie status (ALIEN won an Oscar for visual effects; ALIENS got Sigourney Weaver an Oscar nomination).

Both movies are available in extended director’s cuts (Cliff’s notes: the ALIEN 2003 director’s cut doesn’t really improve or degrade Ridley Scott’s original;  ALIENS’ 1991 director’s cut significantly improves on the theatrical cut, adding a full 17 minutes of material, some of which changes the overall context considerably).

I don’t need to go too deeply into either ALIEN or ALIENS in this entry because they are an amazing pair of movies.

What I’d like to explore here is what what wrong with the ALIEN movies.

ALIENS ended with Ellen Ripley (her first name is revealed in the director’s cut) finally slaying her dragons.  She killed the ‘queen’ xenomorph, and saved a little girl nicknamed Newt (a surrogate of sorts for her own daughter; who died during Ripley’s 57 year slumber back to Earth… another point made clear in the DC).   She also grudgingly befriended the android named Bishop (having overcome her earlier distrust of androids, due to her nearly-fatal encounter with the ‘twitchy’ Ash in ALIEN), and ended up saving the last surviving colonial marine (Michael Biehn’s Corporal Hicks), whose squad was initially sent to ‘protect’ Ripley on this mission.

That was how ALIENS ended.

Ripley, who’d lost so much after the events of ALIEN and ALIENS was ultimately left with the seeds of a family; a would-be daughter, a possible love interest in Hicks, and a trashed-but-trustworthy android ‘servant’ in poor dismembered (but functional) Bishop.

Yes, Ripley had been through a hell of a lot, but at least there was hope…

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Would you believe that things will actually get WORSE for poor Bishop??

… and that is the jumping off point for the problems of its sequel, ALIEN3 (technically, it’s ALIEN cubed, but this blog’s formatting doesn’t allow scientific notations).

ALIEN3 opens with a quick-cut prologue sequence showing an alien egg seemingly stowed aboard the marine starship Sulacco.  The spidery hatchling starts an electrical fire aboard the ship, and threatens Newt in her cryogenics tube.   Newt, Hicks, Ripley and what remained of Bishop are quickly stowed autonomously into an escape pod that crashes onto the shores of the planet Fiorina (“Fury”) 161, an all-male penal colony (mistakenly called a “double-Y chromo” facility; males are XY chromosome, not double-Y).

Hicks dies in the crash (for no good story reason), Bishop’s remains survive (for a cameo later on), and Newt is drowned upon impact in “Fury”‘s ocean (a wasted opportunity, if ever I saw one).

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A lot of the movie’s problems for me were traced to the seemingly unfathomable decision to kill off the budding ‘family’ of ALIENS, but no matter; moving on….

Ripley (the always terrific Sigourney Weaver) survives the crash and is washed ashore, where she is brought into the colony.  She is quarantined by the prison’s doctor (and former inmate) Clemens, played by “Game of Thrones” actor Charles Dance, who (besides Weaver) is one of the few bright spots in an otherwise homogeneously dismal and frankly dull movie.  Ripley quickly forms a bond with the intelligent and sympathetic Clemens, and uses him to her own ends; primarily to get him to determine what killed Newt.  Ripley is worried that during her slumber aboard the Sulacco, she (and Newt) might’ve been impregnated by a xenomorph.

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^ Charles Dance as prison physician/inmate Clemens; a bright spot in an otherwise dull movie.

Soon, we meet the rest of the prison inmates, including the two almost Monty Python-esque administrators (“Andrews” and “Aaron”), who are so bumbling and ineffective that they wouldn’t seem capable of overseeing a gaggle of cub scouts, let alone hardened ‘lifers’ on a penal colony.   A running joke is that Aaron is nicknamed “85” because that is the officially listed IQ on his personnel file (the inmates snuck a look).  Even the dumbest marines in ALIENS were Mensa candidates compared to this truly stupid bunch.

The inmates have, as Ripley succinctly states later on, “found god at the ass end of space.”   This sadly, sums up the depth of their religion, which seems to be a hybrid of Christian fundamentalism and old orthodox monastic traditions.  It’s never well-explored nor is it particularly compelling.   The entire religious subplot adds nothing to either the characters or the overall story.  It could’ve been excised and ALIEN3 would’ve been almost the exact same film.

There is also a cameo involving the reanimated torso of android Bishop, whom Ripley uses to decode black box data from her crashed escape pod.   The scene is interesting mainly because it is one of the few links to the superior ALIENS.   And as intriguing as the scene is, it falters because Bishop essentially undoes his heroic status accrued in ALIENS by stating that “the company knew all along” about the alien stowed away aboard the Sulacco.  So… did Bishop himself know of this stowaway when the crew was put into cryo-sleep?   Did he rescue Ripley and Newt in ALIENS knowing they could be impregnated later?   The meaning of Bishop’s words are left unclear.   But it no longer matters either.  The movie is so ‘vagued up’ by this point that another unexplained plot hole is but another splinter for the fire…

Moving on…

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Sigourney Weaver’s always-well-played Ripley (R) and a gang of generic, bald, nondescript “lifers” at the ass end of space…

In perusing the ALIEN Quadrilogy set’s bonus features, it appears the monastic stuff was a carry over from a previous version of the story; which initially had Ripley crash-landing on a backwards fundamentalist space colony made of wood (!?!).

For my money, it might’ve served the story better if the prisoners were just prisoners; unredeemed and fully dangerous.   Maybe even a wrongfully convicted convict or two in there as well, for sympathy.

In a film with almost no surprises, it would’ve been nice to let us empathize with some of them, or at least make each one stand out somehow.  This could’ve happened by assigning them each with some kind of shorthand trait; preferably an interesting, or even useful trait.   This is Basic Horror 101.   It’s why even something as banal as a “Friday the 13th” sequel has the prankster guy, the sensitive  introvert, the sweet virgin, etc.   When you have a large ensemble, you need to give them such shorthand traits with which an audience can relate to quickly in a short running time.

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Charles S. Dutton (top) as “Dillon”; and Paul McGann (above left) as “Golic”; two of the few memorable inmates among a gaggle of dull stereotypes…

As they are, the prisoners come off as a dull collection of nondescript, bald-headed ‘lifers’ with mostly British accents.  Other than Charles S. Dutton’s foul-mouthed, barking preacher/ex-killer/ex-rapist “Dillon” and Paul McGann’s mad-as-a-hatter “Golic,” the majority of the prisoners have little-to-no personality to speak of.   When they’re predictably killed off, I can barely tell which one just died… they’re that interchangeable.  I felt bad when Kane, Capt. Dallas, Lambert and Parker were killed in ALIEN.  I felt just as bad when the lovable jarheads of ALIENS began to get picked off; especially when cowardly Hudson (the late Bill Paxton) finally found his courage at the very end.   But I felt absolutely nothing when the convicts were picked off in ALIEN3.   Maybe that was the point, I dunno.  But it’s frightfully dull when watching a horror movie to simply wait for characters to die off without caring about them or their plight.   It’s about as exciting as waiting to catch a bus…

It doesn’t help that most of the movie is shot in a style that alternates between warm, shadowy, sepia tones and… a dirty gas station restroom lit by torches.  For much of the movie, I can barely see what is going on, let alone care.  There are many moments where the film is actually quite beautiful (visuals-heavy director David Fincher later helmed “Se7en” and “Curious Case of Benjamin Button”), but sadly, that style doesn’t always convey basic story information well.  The crisper photography of ALIEN and ALIENS is sorely missing here.

Between the photography’s lapses in coherence and the underdeveloped convicts, the movie has major deficits.  The extended cut of the film adds back some extra bits, but in my opinion they’re inadequate.   They don’t fundamentally alter the film in any meaningful way.

There are also a few optical effects that weren’t terribly successful either; when the quadrupedal alien is seen in full shots, the matte lines are very obtrusive (esp. on home video).  And the running doglike motion of the creature is less terrifying and more silly.

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Another glaring issue I had with the movie (both when I saw it in theatres and during my recent director’s cut re-watch) is the deathly dull pacing.   I don’t mind a good old fashioned nihilistic science fiction movie.  Hell, I grew up watching nihilistic, pre-Star Wars science fiction movies (“Soylent Green” “Westworld” “Omega Man” “Boy and His Dog” etc).   And I certainly don’t mind a cast of antiheroes.    The difference is that those older ’70s movies had event and forward momentum, despite the nihilism.

Bleak minus hope, plus glacial pacing just equals dull.   There are several points in the movie where everything just stopped.    That isn’t nihilistic science fiction; it is just boring masquerading as introspection.   The least they could’ve done would’ve been to punch up the characters a bit, or to add a ticking clock somewhere for suspense (like the pending fusion reactor implosion in ALIENS, for example).   In ALIEN3, there is nothing.   We know the company rescue team won’t help, and we know the convicts won’t succeed in stopping the xenomorph.  So… why again am I watching??

Anyhow the Weyland Yutani team arrives at Fury 161 and they still want to retrieve the alien for their bio-weapons division (all those decades of time between the first and third movies, and this is still their best idea??).  They have no interest in saving any of the doomed prisoners (shocker).   The creepy, hazmat suited Weyland-Yutani team is led by the ‘real’ Bishop (once again played by Lance Henriksen).   The extended cut makes clear that this Bishop is “not an droid!” (he screams this revelation as a betrayed “85” smashes Bishop’s head with a pipe).

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Android Bishop’s human template (with one hell of an earache) pleads for Ripley to let them pluck the alien fetus out of her for ‘study’… and to sell her some lovely beachfront property for cheap.

With his ear hanging off in a not-terribly-convincing makeup effect, Bishop pleads with Ripley to let the company take the alien fetus out of her so that they can study it.   Ripley, of course, doesn’t trust him and… in a final betrayal of any reason to give a living damn for this movie, Ripley dives in a cauldron of molten steel; like a cross between Arnold Schwarzenegger’s ‘good’ terminator in Terminator: 2 and Joan of Arc.

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Waste of a perfectly good character...

For me, the movie was pretty much over at this point.  I was disappointed.  Ear-bleeding Bishop is disappointed.  Weyland Yutani is disappointed.  Anyone expecting a sliver of hope from this dark, dull movie is disappointed.   It is clear to me that this movie was the fulcrum on which the ALIEN movies have listed steadily downward ever since.

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ALIEN Resurrection sends in the clones… there ought to be clones…

With Ripley really-most-sincerely dead, the next movie in the series would have to find a way to bring Ripley back (since when does a minor triviality like death prevent a popular character from returning?).   They did bring Weaver back, in ALIEN: Resurrection (1997) by means of that favorite sci-fi storytelling chestnut, cloning.   Ripley came back as a clone crossed with xenomorph DNA that makes her a badass, warrior-queen version of the original character.

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In fairness, ALIEN Resurrection isn’t a bad movie; it’s just a very mediocre one.  But after the nest of hemorrhoids that was the overly artsy and misguided ALIEN3?  I found ALIEN Resurrection to be a comfortable return to basics.   Not particularly special perhaps, but with slightly more interesting characters.  There is a female android mechanic (irony much?) named “Call,” played by waif-ish Winona Ryder.   We have the muscle-bound moron “Johner” (played by “Hellboy” Ron Perlman), and a wheelchair-bound little badass named Vriess (Dominic Pinon).   The screenplay was written by “Toy Story”/”Firefly”/”Avengers” screenwriter-turned-geek-icon Joss Whedon, and a few seeds for his future “Firefly” TV series’ mythology were clearly  planted here.  Call the android mechanic would become the irrepressibly optimistic Kaylee in “Firefly.”  The braindead musclebound Johner would become Adam Baldwin’s “Jane.”  Ripley’s warrior-woman version of herself reminds me of warrior-woman first mate “Zoe” (played by the imposing, attractive Gina Torres).  Even the crew’s small, ungainly transport ship “The Betty” is clearly an inspiration for the Firefly class ship, “The Serenity.”   There are numerous blogs and message board threads which explore the similarities between the Betty/Serenity crews in-depth.

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“Just stick out your tongue and say ‘Ahhh’…”:  Brad Douriff, doing the mad scientist like nobody’s business…

There is also a typically mad scientist played by “Child Play”‘s Brad Dourif (this actor has insanity down to an art form; check out “Exorcist III”), who is trying to ‘train’ his genetically engineered xenomorphs to do his bidding (don’t ask; you’d think after one or two centuries of trying to domesticate this monster, the company would’ve just given up by now…).

There is a bit more humor this time around (Ripley’s clone trying to pronounce ‘fork’ for example), and a basketball game sequence that smartly uses Weaver’s tall, athletic build to good advantage (she also plays a bit of basketball in “Avatar” as well…).

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Just when you thought it was safe to take a swim on a spaceship…

Perhaps the biggest reason I enjoyed this film more than ALIEN3 was that it felt like it was not trying to supersede the original ALIEN’s ambition; which is basically a monster-loose-on-a-spaceship story.   That is the skeletal premise on which ALIEN was founded, and (for better or worse) that’s the relatively modest goal this movie sets for itself.

There are some nice little set pieces, including a chase through water that reminds me of Newt’s abduction in ALIENS with a bit of JAWS thrown in.   I also enjoyed Call being somewhat embarrassed to be revealed as an android, and it leads to some nice exploration of her android ‘culture’ (some of her kind rebelled and ‘burned their modems’).  The crew is soon locked on a collision course to prevent the aliens from reaching and infecting Earth; it’s during this final act where the movie begins to fall apart a bit.  The ‘birth’ of the human-skull faced alien alternates between creepy and silly (below).

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And it’s a bit of a shame we don’t see the xenomorphs arriving on Earth; that would’ve been something as-yet-unseen in the franchise (we do see Call & Ripley reach a devastated Paris in the director’s cut, but it’s disappointingly rendered).

We eventually see xenomorphs reaching Earth in the “ALIEN vs. Predator” (AVP) movies, and those went to hell very quickly.  Perhaps it was wise of the Resurrection team not to try.   The AVP movies followed, and to be honest, I’ve only seen the first of these and it was so unmemorable that I won’t bother listing whatever thoughts I can only dimly recall of it.

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The characters of Sir Ridley Scott’s “Prometheus” (2012)

Next came “Prometheus” (2012), and that movie was a beautiful mess.
Sir Ridley Scott came back to the director’s chair, and he had a solid cast which included “Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” movies’ star Noomi Rapace (the Swedish versions, not the American remake), Charlize Theron, Guy Pearce and Idris Elba.  Wonderful cast… horribly misguided movie.   This film is a prequel that tries not to be a prequel.  An origins story that not only attempts to explain the xenomophs, but also the original ALIEN movie’s ‘space jockeys’ (the giant dead aliens found aboard the derelict in that first film) and of human beings as well.   It’s ambitious to a fault, in fact.   By taking on the origins of life on Earth as its mission statement, it automatically sets itself up for failure on two fronts:

  • In over analyzing the xenomorphs and ‘space jockeys’ of the earlier ALIEN movies, you destroy their sense of mystery and awe.  Those creatures worked best as dangerous vanguards of an inscrutable, hostile universe.   You over-explain the mystery and you’re left with extraneous information you didn’t need for good scares.  As to whatever pretentious ambitions “Prometheus” adopted, the ALIEN movies were primarily a horror franchise; and they work best as horror movies.
  • Such an overly ambitious setup cannot possibly be adequately explained in such a movie.  Much like Star Trek V: The Final Frontier’s “search for god” at the center of the galaxy.  We, the audience, know we’re not going to find ‘god’ in a science fiction movie, so it’s automatically anticlimactic.   “Prometheus” with its grand ‘origins of life in the universe’ premise is equally doomed.

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Thus, “Prometheus” tries to straddle a line somewhere between ALIEN and “Chariots of the Gods” and fails miserably at both.   It’s ‘big questions’ are largely unanswered and only lead to more questions.   I wish they’d leave the ‘big questions’ to Carl Sagan’s COSMOS (or Neil deGrasse Tyson’s terrific continuation), and get back to making a good, honest, pee-your-pants monster-in-space movie.

And “Prometheus”‘ characters (save for the android David, played by Michael Fassbender) sometimes act too stupid to chew gum and walk at the same time.   They’re supposed to be top scientists in their fields, yet they continually make “Friday the 13th” movie victim mistakes (“Hey, alien atmosphere with possible unknown toxins and bacteria… so, let’s take off our helmets, okay?”).

“Stupid minds… stupid! STUPID!”

And the hero, Dr. Elisabeth Shaw (Rapace) is a cross between Ellen Ripley and Joan of Arc; a woman of faith who can also perform her own alien abortion (!).

Shaw is (of course) betrayed by Weyland Yutani and the Space Jockey (who turns out to hate the very humans he created).   As everyone else in the movie is dead and/or dying (an ALIEN movie staple), Shaw gathers up David’s disembodied head, seeks refuge aboard the alien derelict and sets off in search of the planet of “God” (aka the guys who created the albino basketball team…).

The End (?).

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The improbable but chestburster-rivaling self performed-abortion scene…

The ending of Prometheus was wide open for a sequel, and Covenant may be that sequel (I’m not entirely sure, to be honest; though Noomi Rapace is listed in Covenant’s cast list on IMDB, so I’m guessing that it is…).   Also included in Covenant is Michael Fassbender’s android character as well (or characters; he is playing two androids, David and a newer version named Walter).

Anyway, here’s a trailer and a preview of ALIEN: Covenant (SPOILERS!):

ALIEN Covenant Trailer

ALIEN Covenant preview

Nothing in these previews really strikes me as new or reinventing the ALIEN wheel, but at this point, my expectations for ALIEN Covenant are fairly low.   I haven’t been blown away by an ALIEN movie since 1986, yet I still cling to the increasingly fading hope that one day an ALIEN movie will come along and truly knock my socks off once again… here’s hoping, anyway.

I honestly don’t know if the ALIEN franchise can ever be as good or surprising as those first two movies: the ALIEN concept was paper-thin to begin with, and the first two movies really wrung it out for all it was worth.   I loved the first two movies precisely because they worked so well within their ambitions.   ALIEN is “Ten Little Indians” in space and ALIENS is a Vietnam story (hi-tech, overly confident marines get their asses handed to them by a low-tech enemy).   With a monster-on-the-loose-in-space story, you really have two options: one monster, or many monsters.   Anything else is variation, and not much else.

So to answer my own question,  I believe that ALIEN3 was where the franchise went off the rails for me.  It was an obviously troubled production, as it was booked in theatres for the summer of 1992 before it even had a workable screenplay.  It became a release date in search of a movie.   The end result is a choppy, languidly-paced, wholly unsatisfying mess.  And every ALIEN movie since then has been an increasingly uphill race to try to recapture some of the luster and glory of those magnificent first two films.

Will ALIEN Covenant do the trick?    I suppose we will all find out after May 19th…

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