Friday 28 October 2011

ALIEN ANTHOLOGY: Alien (1979), Aliens (1986), Alien³ (1992) & Alien Resurrection (1997)

Friday 28 October 2011

The Alien saga spans four canonical movies from four talented directors, who each put their own spin on its core themes of sex, loss of identity, motherhood, and feminism. It's a respected quartet of films that have delighted scholars just as much as they've thrilled moviegoers and obsessed geeks, with design work that's influenced SF and horror cinema since first frightening audiences back in 1979. Below I take a look at what, for me, is one of cinema's most interesting franchises...

ALIEN (1979)
directed by Ridley Scott; 
written by Dan O'Bannon
(story by Dan O'Bannon & Ronald Shusett)

In space, no one can hear you scream. Ridley Scott's masterpiece took B-grade material and gives it A-star treatment; forever changing sci-fi horror in the process. It also took George Lucas's "used future" aesthetic of Star Wars to an industrialized, nightmarish extreme. For those who've been under a rock for decades, Alien begins with deep space towing ship The Nostromo receiving a distress call from an unexplored, inhospitable planetoid. The crew investigate and are astonished to discover a crescent-shaped alien ship, containing thousands of large eggs—one of which releases a crab-like "face-hugger" when disturbed by crewman Cain (John Hurt), attaching itself to his face. After the creature later releases its head grip and dies, it soon becomes clear Cain's been impregnated with the creature's offspring: a penis-shaped critter that tears free of his rib-cage and escapes into the Nostromo, where it quickly grows into a terrifying monster with acid for blood...

"It's got a wonderful defense mechanism. You don't dare kill it."

Alien is an unequivocal classic, taking an incredibly simple storyline and filling it with phenomenal designs and compelling actors. Swiss artist H.R Giger was the perfect man to create a cutting-edge "bio-mechanical" look that hadn't been seen before, achieving perfect synergy with Scott's mastery behind the camera. The whole movie swims in a foreboding atmosphere, while the story's subtext and extra-terrestrial threat carries potent sexual connotations.

The face-hugger disgusts us because it's effectively having oral sex with an unwilling "mate", and the adult creature this unholy union creates behaves like an unstoppable, predatory rapist. The alien has a phallic head, its slathering mouth resembles a vagina dentata (itself containing a toothed tongue-penis), and it has no eyes to sympathize with its prey. In one scene, there's a shot of the alien's jagged tail creeping upwards between the legs of Veronica Cartwright's petrified character. The meaning is clear. Alien is shot through with allusions to sex and motherhood elsewhere, too: the ship's computer is known as Mother, the Nostromo's landing craft detaches from an "umbilicus", and the hull of the mysterious alien craft is studded with portal entrances resembling welcoming vagina's.

Alien, famously sold as "Jaws In Space", remains a giant of modern horror sci-fi. A perfect cocktail of concept, story, tone, design, theme, character, and subtext. It's a movie that gets under your skin by stoking male fears of female reproduction, and both gender's fear of sexual violation. It also created one of cinemas most unforgettable screen heroines in Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver)—quite by accident, as the character was intended to be just another grease monkey. The surprise of having a newcomer like Weaver become the sole survivor has been lost to time, now the name "Ripley" is synonymous with action movie feminism, but that's just one trick of a hundred this movie accomplished.

ALIEN - Director's Cut (2003)
The changes to Ridley Scott's Alien aren't substantial enough to alter my feelings toward this excellent film. It's actually a shorter cut than the original, meaning it's imperceptibly tighter, and now includes the legendary deleted scene of a cocooned Dallas (Tom Skerritt) being turned into an egg. It's worth remembering that when this scene was filmed, the lifecycle of the creature, later established in Aliens as a matriarchal hive, hadn't been decided on, so I'm not sure if this director's cut is canonical. Maybe an alien, in lieu of a Queen, uses this transformative cocooning of prey to create a replacement queen egg? Yeah, let's go with that.

ALIENS (1986)
written & directed by James Cameron (story by James Cameron & David Giler)

This time it's war. James Cameron's gung-ho sequel imaginatively continued the Alien storyline, while transforming it from "claustrophobic horror movie" to "sci-fi war movie", heavily inspired by author Robert Heinlein's novel Starship Troopers. It could have been a feeble excuse for mindless carnage in lesser hands (exploiting H.R Geiger's stunning creature and just boosting their number for a violent bug extermination), but Cameron's script also offered clever development of Alien's mythos and added a theme of motherhood—thus giving Aliens a solid emotional anchor. This decision to balance action with emotion worked brilliantly: Aliens marks a rare occasion when the lead of a sci-fi movie (a woman, too) was nominated for a 'Best Actress' Academy Award.

42 years after escaping her encounter with the drooling alien, Ellen Ripley's escape pod is retrieved from deep space and she's revived from prolonged stasis. The universe has changed in the half-century she's been asleep; not least with the terraforming and colonization of "LV-426", the planetoid where the alien ship and eggs were discovered by her crew mates. When contact with the colony "Hadley's Hope" is lost, Ripley suspects the worst and agrees to lead a troop of bellicose colonial marines back to the windswept planet, where they discover an outbreak of aliens have infested the facility—leaving only one survivor, Newt (Carrie Henn), a traumatized little girl Ripley takes under her wing.

"You're going out there to destroy them, right? Not to study. Not to bring back. But to wipe them out."

The most crowd-pleasing entry in the saga, Aliens is a tour de force of machismo and exhilarating set-pieces that have you gripping your seat. Its real triumph is how it's different to predecessor, while still feeling like a plausible companion piece. While most sequels are content to recycle or amplify the previous movie, Cameron also chose to restyle and modify. It loses the shock and surprise of Alien, but broadens and embroiders. This time, the aliens were given a hive-like society with a giant Queen at its centre; Cameron subverted the original's use of a traitorous android, by making his own automaton Bishop (Lance Henriksen) into a selfless hero; and the notion of an immoral Company manipulating events in Alien were given prominence through corporate slimeball Burke (Paul Reiser), who works for Weyland Yutani. Burke becomes arguably a bigger monster than the aliens, in trying to manipulate the situation for his own greedy ends.

Aliens is unashamedly macho; pitting the merciless aliens against the most potent testosterone humanity has to offer—and that largely includes the buff women. Guns are phallic symbols, the Sulaco spaceship itself resembles an enormous firearm tipped with a bayonet, and its most memorable female (beyond Ripley) is butch Latina grunt Vasquez (Jenette Goldstein)—a woman introduced on equal terms with the boys, who famously joke about her being mistaken for a man. But it's ultimately a mother's compassion that saves the day (perhaps the most feminine of traits), leading to an inter-species smack-down between the universe's two greatest females: the ferocious Alien Queen and Ripley in an evening-the-odds "Power Loader" suit.

ALIENS - Special Edition (1990)
This Special Edition was one of the first such re-edits, although it's become commonplace for theatrical movies to be re-released in an alternative form for video. Hell, these days fans can re-cut their favourite films and post the results online! Aliens: Special Edition offers a collection of pleasurable changes and embellishments, the three most famous being: a preamble on LV-426 with Newt's family, who discover the alien craft (demystifying the colony's fate much too early), a sequence featuring automated Sentry Guns (that should give weapon fetishists an orgasm), and the reinsertion of a scene where Ripley is told her daughter died of old age while she was in stasis (a welcome inclusion that Weaver had criticized the original loss of, revealing the source of Ripley's maternal feelings toward Newt as a "surrogate" for her dead child).

Aliens was filmed on notoriously grainy high-speed negative, which has now been de-noised and colour-corrected under the supervision of director James Cameron for Blu-ray. The result is a remaster that looks gorgeous in the less-forgiving HD format, and won't upset purists who hate filmmakers tinkering with past work. This is, simply, an improvement in every respect. There's more clarity to the image and details are sharper, but nothing looks noticeably enhanced or artificial. It's just a crisp cleaning of the negative that will have fans salivating like a xenomorph. Incidentally, it amused me that Cameron also took the opportunity for George Lucas-esque revisionism, by fixing a blooper I used to enjoy. Now you can't see actor Lance Henriksen's body beneath Bishop's fake-torso in the climax, in the shot where he reaches back to grab Newt as she's dragged towards the Sulaco's airlock. His torso's been digitally erased for this release. I'm glad it's been fixed because it was such a dreadful oversight, but also disappointed because it was a fun mistake to point out to people.

ALIEN³ (1992)
directed by David Fincher; written by David Giler, Walter Hill & Larry Ferguson

The bitch is back. By the time Alien³ was tardily released in 1992 (ironically delayed because of the ending's similarity to that of Aliens director Cameron's Terminator 2), the previous films had become classics and amassed a fanatical audience desperate to see the saga continue. Sky-high expectations didn't help matters, but Alien³ also did itself no favours by indifferently killing three popular characters during the opening titles, and taking such an opposite approach to Cameron's exhilarating thrill-ride. Reducing the threat back to a sole alien, in an environment devoid of guns, was perceived as a backwards step for those expecting the militaristic punch of Aliens to continue. Music video wunderkind David Fincher (making his feature debut) even defeminized Sigourney Weaver by shaving her head, which didn't go down well with the actresses male admirers, despite being a prime way Fincher endeared himself to his female lead. Thankfully, as time has distanced us from its creative maladies, Alien³ has ripened with age—but only to a point.

Opening with eye-catching glimpses of a hatched facehugger's presence causing the Sulaco to eject its occupants after a fire, Ripley awakens on Fiorina "Fury" 161, a barren planet that's home to a male-only maximum security prison for murderers and rapists. As the only woman the inmates have seen in years—including the kindly Dr Clemens (Charles Dance), who takes a shine to this woman who fell from the sky—Ripley's presence poses a threat to the jail's religious order, according to brusque warden Andrews (Brian Glover).

In keeping with the saga's reliance on extreme bad luck, it transpires that the facehugger saboteur likewise hitched a lift aboard Ripley's escape pod and attached itself to a guard dog. The resulting alien (born during an ironic montage involving a funeral for Hicks and Newt) thus takes on a few canine traits—most noticeably a propensity to scurry about on all fours. Initially reticent about explaining her unbelievable past, Ripley is eventually forced to when the adult alien starts killing stray prisoners. And with The Company's so-called "rescue party" en route to Fury, intending to capture the beast for study in their bio-weapons division, Ripley must help the ragtag group of convicts vanquish the alien using humble resourcefulness.

"Let me see if I have this correct, Lieutenant: it's an 8-foot creature of some kind with acid for blood, and it arrived on your spaceship. It kills on sight, and is generally unpleasant. And of course, you expect me accept all this on your word."

There is enjoyment to be had from Alien³, which takes the saga back-to-basics in a story that has plenty in common with Scott's original. As a teenage boy I was bemused and mostly bored by this movie, but that's clearly because it's more of an adult think piece and my adolescent expectations weren't ready for it. But the reason Alien³'s still not as gripping as its spiritual twin Alien, even viewed from an adult perspective, is simple: it can't compete in terms of surprise (the mystique of the alien was low), and the characters don't develop very well. There's masses of potential in the idea being presented, but it keeps going unfulfilled because of a very spotty script.

Dance makes a good impression as the mild-mannered physician with a fondness for Ripley, but he's slain way before his time. Dutton tries his utmost to wrestle the script into shape, but he's just a slightly more recognizable goon to the hodgepodge of TV actors who fill out the two-dimensional cast. Considering the fact these are all hardened criminals, you'd think the idea of pitting killers and rapists against the universe's ultimate killer and rapist would see sparks fly... but the film's frustratingly inert, at least until the feisty finale arrives to provide emotional closure. Alien³ is best described as an interesting failure. But even if you dislike its creative direction, it undoubtedly contains the saga's best performance from Weaver, and a beautiful climax that still marks the spiritual end of this tale, for me. If only 20th Century Fox agreed...

ALIEN³ - The Assembly Cut (2003)
The turbulent, painful, development of Alien³ is an eminent piece of film-making legend, and perhaps a more compelling story than the resulting movie. There were dozens of abortive screenplays produced in the early-'90s for another Alien sequel, but Fox were unhappy with all of them, and the resulting Alien³ bears the scars of ideas from many abandoned drafts. One popular screenplay by Vincent Ward had the movie take place on a wooden planet full of devout monks who've turned their back on technology. We eventually ended up with a "prison planet" full of criminals with no weapons, although Alien³'s "Assembly Cut" proves Ward's religious theme did exist, but was largely cut from Fincher's movie.

Of all the alternate versions available with this saga, Alien³ is the film that could most benefit from modification, considering its turbulent production history and notorious studio interference. Compiled without director Fincher's participation or blessing, 2003's "Assembly Cut" restores various scenes and an entire subplot excised from the theatrical release. Mainly, these provide additional character moments and push the religious angle more blatantly, but with such extensive changes the Assembly Cut is a lumbering beast.

The alterations just aren't as compelling as you'd hope. Even the reinstatement of a subplot for Golic (Paul McGann), a crazy survivor of an alien attack who admires the creature so much he releases it from captivity (believing they have a bond), isn't as engrossing as it might have been with better writing. In fact, Golic still gets short shrift, despite essentially being this film's version of android Ash and company man Burke (a human traitor/deceiver, arguably more iniquitous than the alien). Bizarrely, the Assembly Cut involves a different host for the alien to gestate inside (a dead ox, rather than a live dog) and Ripley's suicide doesn't coincide with the infant Queen bursting through her chest. Both are changes that deliver less impact than the original version, in my opinion. That's true for the majority of extra scenes, too, as most are just longer versions of the movie's dialogue-heavy moments (often involving preaching to prisoners). The annoying thing is, Alien³ might have been something worthwhile if the story had embraced the religious angle more passionately, but instead this subtext feels like what it is: vestiges of previous drafts.

directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet; written by Joss Whedon

Witness the resurrection. The fourth movie is utterly unnecessary, given how Alien³ managed to accomplish a thematically perfect ending, by having Ripley dive into a container of molten lead as the last remaining alien burst from her gut, thus defeating the Company and eradicating the species in on fell swoop. It also, unintentionally or otherwise, provided added resonance because the erstwhile-trilogy had followed Ripley through the three archetypes of womanhood: maiden (Alien), mother (Aliens), and crone (Alien³). There isn't a fourth archetype, and thus no deep thematic reason for Alien Resurrection to exist.

Regardless, a clone of Ellen Ripley is created 200 years after the events of Alien³—using recovered DNA fused with the infant Queen's she was impregnated with. It's a creative way for the saga to resume, also allowing for an interesting theme of genetic experimentation and cloning—a hot issue back in the mid-'90s. And I love how every single Alien movie opens with Ripley motionless inside a glass capsule, like Sleeping Beauty constantly awoken to live through another nightmare.

However, Alien: Resurrection is an example of the old adage "be careful what you wish for, you might just get it"—with the return of multiple aliens, a spaceship, a Queen, smart-ass characters, and high-tech weaponry—all elements unjustly blamed for the failure of Alien³. But these inclusions did little to distract from the homogenized tone of the movie (the first to film outside of England), working from a snarky fanboy script by Joss Whedon (Buffy The Vampire Slayer), and shot by stylish French director Jean-Pierre Jeunet (Delicatessen, City Of Lost Children).

"You're a thing, a construct. They grew you in a fucking lab."

There are some decent ideas and visuals sprinkled around, but that's about all. Weaver gets to play a different character this time, essentially a reptilian uberwoman with incredible strength/agility because of her alien DNA. This delivers a few fun action sequences (such as her competitive basketball encounter with Ron Perlman), and the allegiance of hybrid-Ripley (who sometimes treats the aliens like naughty sisters) lends the film moments of uneasiness. But there's no escaping the fact having a "super Ripley" eliminates the core idea of the franchise that pure humanity/feminism can defeat such a vicious menace. However, I'm pleased Resurrection didn't abandon some core themes of the franchise (procreation, motherhood), as demonstrated in a standout scene where Ripley finds the seven previous clones of herself (effectively "abortions"), and how the climax rests on the idea the Queen develops a human womb and gives birth to a half-human "Newborn" that imprints on Ripley as its mother.

Jeunet and his cinematographer Darius Khondji also give us a satisfying visual milieu of slime greens and muddy amber, while the production benefits from late-'90s developments in CGI to create aliens that are less obviously skinny men wearing rubber suits. The puppetry is arguably the best of the saga (the sound of the aliens breathing and snorting creates a palpable sense of power, too), and while the CGI isn't seamless by today's standards, the balance of practical animatronics and digital FX is decent. The CGI-enhanced ships are also very nice—so much so that Whedon later appropriated this movie's aesthetic and designs for his space-western TV series Firefly.

It's just a pity Resurrection feels so horribly immature compared to the previous installments; the narrative too often resembling jokey fan-fiction. Aliens was funny, too, but its jokes felt like they were coming from the character's minds, not the writer's pen. Whedon's screenplay is just too self-aware, plagued by idiotic jokes (like the awful "fork"/"fuck" mix-up) and stupid flourishes: security access panels requiring you breathe on them, a mention that supermarket chain Wal-Mart are still trading? Please stop.

ALIEN: RESURRECTION - Special Edition (2003)
This so-called Special Edition is the type of flimsy re-edit that gives such releases a bad name. It offers no substantial changes to make you reconsider the film's intentions or value, as Jeunet himself practically admits in his pre-movie introduction. The new footage is just an assortment of off-cuts and extended scenes that have escaped the disc's extra features and been sewed into the existing movie—sometimes with decreased audio-visual quality. Nothing about it improves Resurrection (the alternative opening/ending are awful), it just gives you a mildly different viewing experience. With nothing here to make you reassess this pointless final entry, which wrongly believes the journey to Earth was the saga's long-term goal, it's a colossal waste of time.