One of the big summer tent poles is the official Alien prequel Prometheus. At least, I think it’s meant to be the official prequel. The trailers I’ve seen include many of the iconic imagery from the first film (like the ship the Nostromo crew found the eggs on), but does not include the xenomorphs. Still, it’s an excuse to look back on the franchise that officially includes two great films (the first and the James Cameron directed second) which have inspired every single sci-fi action picture since their release, and two terrible films (the third and the fourth) which were the result of too many cooks trying to hard to recapture the success of the first two.
And, as usual, the official story is wrong.
Admittedly, Resurrection is a bad movie, and the absolute worst of the four Alien films, but it’s not quite the cinematic train wreck that its reputation would suggest (you can read my review here). And there’s no point in going over the original film. Everyone has done so, and everyone is correct – it’s one of the greatest horror films ever made.
Instead, I want to focus on the middle two films, and how the lower quality one managed to win with the public, to the point there is no longer any serious discussion as to the flaws.
When Alien was released, it was a harrowing, cynical critique of Carter’s America. Everyone in the film was presented as a blue-collar worker who was almost afraid to take any extreme measures, even though that was what was needed to defeat a growing threat. Everyone was seemingly broke, and was unable to process the technology they were using that could change the human condition. And no one was safe from consequences – even from celebrated activities (at least, celebrated in the glittery world of Studio 54) like sex.
It was also a film that acknowledged women could officially do everything that men could do, and in some ways, could be more resourceful in a crisis. Ripley was important because she was treated as an equal as opposed to the typical screaming blonde slasher victim. This was the most revolutionary aspect of all and it paved the way for pretty much every female action hero ever crafted.
The point is, Alien was anything but positive. It set the stage for a sci-fi franchise that could address the horror of modern life using a giant monster to symbolize so much more than a carnivorous beast.
So what did that celebrated auteur and official “best filmmaker ever” James Cameron do when he got his hands on the franchise and directed Aliens?
He ignored all of the bleakness of the first film and made a movie that Reagan and the neoconservatives of America would embrace.
This is a perfectly legitimate approach to take (any approach to any subject can be a legitimate one, if it is done correctly). But it betrays pretty much everything that the original film stood for.
Think about it. The strong female character is regressed to the point where her only worthwhile activity is surrogate motherhood (to the most annoying character in the franchise, no less). Marines are celebrated rather than criticized. A potentially strong statement about the unfeeling conglomerate (which was another point of the original film, in which a corporation’s goals are viewed as more important than human lives) is reduced to a subplot that is resolved long before the film is over. Nuclear weapons are presented as a positive use of force. Robots (and technology) can be just as human as us (which was also something the original film went out of its way to debunk). And finally, Aliens did not really possess any thought, and could be boiled down to “man, it would be AWESOME if we could film something like this.”
I know that pretty much everyone has seen Aliens, so they know exactly what specific elements I am talking about. What has always been surprising to me is that no one seems to realize just how out-of-place these moments are in a sequel to Alien. Alien
is not supposed to be a positive film about triumph. It is deeper than that comic book mentality.
And that’s why I prefer Alien 3 to Aliens – it restores the bleak atmosphere and the sharp critique of modern society that Aliens so desperately needed. The creatures were actually frightening again (rather than just video game enemies) and the people were flawed creatures that were trying to be good. Indeed, the third actually fully embraced the flaws of humanity that the first film only hinted at – and actually had a point about religion, which makes sense after America emerged from the time in which Jerry Falwell was treated as a serious commentator rather than as a sick joke.
Either way, the film was a reflection of what was going on upon its release – the cynical Generation X coming of age and rebelling against the values of the previous decade. So of course, it fits nicely with the original film and its predictions of those values and how bizarre they would seem.
Alien 3 also re-introduced Ripley as a strong female character, who is able to take charge amongst a group of men (something she never really did in Aliens). It also acknowledged the fact she was a woman (I believe this is the only film in the franchise that shows her in a sexual relationship with another character) something that even Ridley Scott seemed unwilling to do. (Admittedly, the first draft of the first film’s script stated Ripley was a man, but…) Ripley is the strongest she has ever been in the franchise, able to confront her fears and stand up properly to those who would oppress her. Gone is the Ripley that was almost killed by Ash (the company) in the first film. The ending of this one is the greatest sort of visual insult that Ripley could give those who had tried to control her life and treat her as a commodity.
I am not sure why Alien 3 was not embraced by the public. Well, yes I am sure, actually- it’s because James Cameron essentially lead to an expectation of “less thought, more stuff blowing up.” Also, the troubled production history (which was well publicized) certainly did not help the film. But Alien 3 is the real “sequel” that Alien deserved – one that did not go out of its way to please the establishment, and did everything it could to make the audience uncomfortable and afraid of their surroundings.