This article originally ran in the ancient days of this website, back in 2010 when we were still Badass Digest and when I suspect many of you hadn't gotten hip to us yet. It was conceived as the launch of a regular column that never quite took off, which is sort of too bad because it's a good idea for a discussion starter!
This same topic was broached on my podcast, The Canon, during a special live show featuring the great Kumail Nanjiani as a guest. You can listen to that episode right here.
WIthout further ado, here's the old content... repurposed for LV-426 Alien Day!
One of the greatest things about the Alien franchise is how different each film is from the last. While some franchises are just endless retellings of the same original story, the Alien series has changed it up from entry to entry, and even a film like Alien 3 - which goes back to the haunted house feel of the original movie - has a unique spirit. There’s something in the Alien franchise for everyone, and I’ve even heard of weird souls who claim Alien Resurrection as their favorite.
But for the rest of us it generally comes down to two films: Alien and Aliens. This is where the battle is fought. I’d love to hear someone make a reasoned argument for why Alien 3 is the best in the series, but until that brave soul comes along we must continue waging the war between Ridley Scott’s groundbreaking original and James Cameron’s redefining sequel. But how much of a battle is it, really? After all, the winner is obvious:
Look, let’s set aside bullshit like “I like action films better than horror films.” This isn’t about what you like. You like bad things. I do too, lots and lots of bad things. Liking something is easy, and it’s a matter of personal taste; that said I’m prefer you had something more in your head than ‘I like it,’ but that’s a debate for another day. This day I’m going to tell you how Alien is, objectively speaking, the best film in the franchise.
Alien has some. Or more specifically, Alien has people in it. One of the great breakthroughs in Ridley Scott’s film is the way it features characters who are just regular people, something rarely - if ever - done in spaceship scifi before. Spacemen were always astronauts of some sort, brave and clean cut types. Even 2001: A Space Odyssey, which presented commercial spaceflight in a very non-idealized manner, puts two recognizably Right Stuff types in command. But Alien has a bunch of blue collar yahoos, the types who might be working on a cargo ship plying the waters of the Pacific.
Their humanity is achieved by going the exact opposite of what Cameron does in Aliens; each of the crewmembers of the Nostromo are just people, not tic-filled types. Cameron’s generic group of space marines aren’t human beings by any stretch of the imagination, they’re just characteristics. Alien is the kind of movie that introduces you to the characters by having them seated around a breakfast table, just being themselves. Aliens is the kind of movie where the camera glides across the line up of Marines, each poses and utters a line that is supposed to sum them up. They’re free of dimensions.
And that’s fine for Aliens, because the movie doesn’t need them to be people, it needs them to be fodder. Alien presents a more complex and nuanced vision of its doomed crew; just look at Yaphet Kotto’s Parker: he has a slight anti-authoritarian streak in the beginning, trying to get Dallas to up his share. There’s a little class warfare between he and Ripley early on. And then as the shit hits the fan, Parker continues to act in ways that feel real with that established character. He doesn’t want to follow orders, he wants to be in charge, which is what has been fueling his initial unhappiness. But this is quietly given to us, not spoken in a posed moment of “I don’t like taking orders!” And then when Parker acquiesces to Ripley’s plan we see her truly as a leader, because this guy - who doesn’t want to be led - follows. Again, this is so quietly sketched in scenes that Parker’s arc isn’t the kind of blazing obviousness that script teachers insist upon.
Then there’s Lambert. What a pain in the ass character. But even with all of her crying and whining, she’s still miles better than Bill Paxton’s Hudson. Putting aside the ubiquity of Hudson impressions, this character is a nightmare of shittiness. Yeah, Lambert breaks down pretty much right away, but there’s a realism there that comes from the Nostromo crew being just working stiffs. Hudson, though, is a grafted on Lambert type (a couple of characters in Aliens seem to be just transpositions of characters from Alien; Hicks seems to be New Dallas in many ways, and we’ll get to the corporate heavies next) who is so grating, so over the top, that he’s kind of embarrassing to watch. The different pitches of performance here show the differences between the films.
Finally there are the corporate heavies - Ash, the secret robot and Burke, the not-so secret douchebag. Aliens redoes the ‘Corporation wants the xenomorph’ storyline, but much more obviously and not as well. I chalk some of this up to the composure of James Cameron’s personality - he just can’t see the suit guy as a real threat. Burke’s a joke, just being a weasel, and that means the Corporation is a joke as well. But Ash is not a joke, and his sinister actions make the Corporation feel much more real as a threat. I guess it’s the 70s vs the 80s at play here - in the 70s the conspiracy crushed Robert Redford while in the 80s the conspiracy got taken out by the machine gun-wielding hero who burst into the conference room.
But it’s the complexity of Ash - a robot! - that shows the difference between the way the two films deal with their characters. Burke is just a type, the greasy corporate guy, and he’s just there to be a pain in the ass. You can’t ever understand where that character is coming from because he’s simply not a character. Ash, on the other hand - if you’ve watched Alien enough you can get where Ash is coming from, because Ian Holm plays him with magnificently subtle regard for the xenomorph. He is truly impressed by the beast. There’s a layer to him that’s more than ‘I’m here to cause trouble for our heroes at the worst time possible,’ which is Burke’s entire character motivation. The fact that the villain of Alien is a character you can understand is just the final proof that Alien is a film where characters matter, where they’re more than catchphrases and cool guns.
For an action film Aliens is paced like shit. If we’re talking about the Director’s Cut it’s even more turgid, with the pointless opening on LV-426 and the heavy handed nonsense with Ripley’s daughter. But even the theatrical cut feels like it takes forever to get where it’s going, with the first act filled with tons of unnecessary set up. The film isn’t a slow burn, which is what Alien is, but rather a very long pause interrupted by a very loud series of bangs and then a very long, kind of poorly paced conclusion.
Alien, on the other hand, builds slowly and keeps adding elements all the way up until the chest burster scene. The ghost ship opening is spooky, the crew awakening is paced perfectly to set us up and get everybody introduced without slowing things down too much (Mother calls Dallas away just when it seems like the breakfast scene is going too long). Then we’re on the planet and it’s perfect - the introduction of the ship in the distance, the walk through the vaginal corridors, the mystery of the massive Space Jockey, Kane rappeling down into the egg chamber, all building incredible tension. It’s the series of reveals that make it so great - we’re presented with all of these pieces of the puzzle, never lingering too long on one.
And then Kane takes it in the helmet; suddenly we’re in a new gear. The film’s sense of discovery is magical, even on the thousandth view. Even first screening audiences knew that little crab on John Hurt’s face was going to grow into something bigger, but Scott doesn’t play his hand too quickly. Every moment is earned, and is building towards something. Then the chest bursting happens - yet another fascinating moment in the life cycle of the xenomorph - and the film changes gears again. Shit gets real, and it just keeps ramping up, getting realer and realer. You feel the tightness of the Nostromo in the way you can’t see around corners, in the way that the texture of everything could be hiding the alien. Scott paces the kills perfectly, playing out Dallas’ scene in the ducts just long enough that you think the director was faking you, taking out Bret after spending what feels like a full minute watching the guy luxuriate in dripping water. Scott knows his pacing, and he plays with it.
Cameron, however, doesn’t seem interested in that. There’s very little discovery in Aliens (especially in the Director’s Cut, which gives away every element of LV-426 in advance); the film’s big reveal is the Queen but that takes forever to get to. And even then, the pacing is bloated compared to the tightness of Alien. Cameron redoes Ripley in the escape pod in Aliens, except he has to go bigger, and so it’s Ripley in a shuttle craft and it’s Ripley defending friends and it’s Ripley going hand to hand in a power suit. That doesn’t change the fact that it is exactly the same ending as Alien, just pumped up on coke and steroids. And with an irritating little girl involved. It’s also interesting to note the things that Ridley calls bitch in the films - in Alien it’s Mother, part of the movie’s semi-dystopic relationship with technology. In Aliens the technophile Cameron makes not only a mechanical suit part of the climax and the robot a good guy (the best guy, in fact!), he makes the alien the bitch.
I find the entire finale of Aliens to drag, from the attack on the nest to the lengthy wait for the elevator to the way too long final battle with the Queen. Obviously Cameron was consciously going for MORE, but that doesn’t always mean better. And in this case I don’t think it means better at all.
Let’s make one thing clear: I think Aliens ruined the xenomorph. The idea of having an army of aliens is, on paper, cool. But what it does in reality is cheapen the beast. ‘You thought one of them was bad, how about a thousand of them?’ Aliens is asking. And how about it - it reduces the xenomorph to cannon fodder, making the thing that it took Ripley and friends an entire movie TO NEVER EVEN KILL into a thing that can get offed in passing by a minor, doomed character.
In Alien the acid blood of the xenomorph is part of its chilling otherness, and a stunningly effective defense mechanism. In Aliens it’s a minor inconvenience - xenomorphs get splattered with reckless abandon and the blood only presents a problem when it makes a scene more interesting. In Alien the xenomorph is a terrifying creature of the shadows, but in Aliens it’s pretty common - nothing more than an insect, honestly. The xenomorph, post-Aliens, ceases to be a threat in and of itself. Like the zombie the xenomorph is pretty much only a problem when encountered en masse. But that’s the point of the zombie and it wasn’t the point of the xenomorph.
But most of all there’s the fact that the xenomorphs die. I kind of hate that. It’s a nitpick, I know, but look at the end of Alien - a wash of space thrusters still can’t kill the fucker. It just keeps ticking along, and we might assume that it will keep ticking along, floating in space, for all eternity. That’s amazing! A bug that can take a shot to the head and fall over dead… that’s mundane.
I don’t understand why Aliens is so ugly. I imagine the budget differences between the two are a wash, although Cameron’s budget had to go a lot farther than Scott’s. Comparing the cinematographers isn’t terribly helpful, especially since I imagine that Ridley Scott was really the cinematographer on Alien. But nonetheless there is such a marked difference between the two films. Alien has an elegant, timeless look. Watching the Blu-Ray you see a film that could have been shot this year. Aliens, on the other hand, has a flatness to it, an almost 80s music video blue lights and smoke look that’s simply ugly.
In fact Aliens is weirdly dated in almost every way. I don’t generally like critiquing a film for being dated; as an element of the time when it was made a film should be dated. I want to watch a 70s film and feel like I’m watching a 70s film, and Alien is dated in the way that many 70s films are, with mumbling conversations and great long silences. But Aliens is dated in the way that only certain films ever are, and those are the films that are trying to push the envelope. Those are the kinds of films that Cameron makes. The FX work in Alien is sparse and what there is looks incredible still. There is much more by way of FX in Aliens, and a lot of it looks bad. Bad blue screen work especially haunts the movie. But beyond that there’s an attitudinal thing that’s aged poorly about Aliens; the whole thing just feels kind of quaint, the way a certain kind of good vs evil Western programmer from the 50s might feel today.
I suppose that this should have been put in the ‘Characters’ section, but I feel like Ripley deserves her own spotlight. Who, I must ask, is the Ripley in Aliens? If we’re going by the Director’s Cut she’s a bad mom, which doesn’t at all feel like it gibes with what we saw of her in the first film. The inclusion of the daughter was obviously intended to help soften the butch Ripley that Cameron created (he really has a thing for butch women), and to mirror - in the most groaningly obvious, Hollywood way - her relationship with Newt (I feel like adding a section here, a blank one, with the heading of Alien Has No Moppets In It. That feels self-explanatory).
Despite the fact that no time has passed subjectively for Ripley between the end of Alien and the beginning of Aliens, she’s an almost totally different person. She’s hard, and kind of unpleasant. This isn’t the woman who slipped into the space suit on the escape pod and, almost whimpering, shot the xenomorph into space. That’s too bad, because that Ripley was a real person, a person shoved into a bad situation who stepped up to it but who remained identifiably human throughout her ordeal. Cameron immediately stripped that humanity from her, turning her into another grizzled vet who has seen it all. Ripley in Alien was a by the books member of the crew, refusing to allow Kane back on the ship with the facehugger on him, but that character is gone in the sequel. That’s too lame for the kind of hero James Cameron wants.
Yeah, the character has to change and grow between films, but couldn’t she stay the same character? I liked Ripley in Alien - a lot. There’s a vulnerability in that character which is so endearing; Sigourney Weaver manages to bring some of that into Aliens, but the script is conspiring against her at all times. The movie just wants to turn Ripley into a machine, a stock action hero.
To me the answer is obvious. Alien is better on just about every single level than Aliens. The film looks better, it works better as a whole (who doesn’t want to fast forward through everything leading up to the first fight in Aliens?), it’s got real human characters, and it’s simply got a better alien. Aliens was impressive for its time, and we should always remember that, but I do feel like eventually we’re going to have to realize that James Cameron’s macho posturing, filled with paper soldiers and tough one liners, can never match the elegant terror of Ridley Scott’s original.