Alien Franchise Retrospective

Recently I watched the first 4 movies in the Alien franchise.

…Boy, am I sure glad they stopped after the 2nd movie! Can you imagine how bad that could have gone if they kept making more movies after the 2nd? Dang, what a great duology that was!

Alien_Logo

Ahem.

If your sarcasm detectors didn’t explode there, I’d love to explain what I mean in more depth.

I’m not going to assume you’ve all seen these movies, because until last weekend, I sure hadn’t, so be forewarned: I will go into some spoilery detail in this piece, so if you don’t want anything spoiled for you, then feel free to not read this.

Alien_movie_poster In the first movie, we follow the crew of a commercial ship, the Nostromo, as they receive an odd communication signal and investigate, as per company instructions. They find some very weird stuff, including a whole bunch of phallic imagery, which prompted me to make a crack about H R Giger before finding out that Giger actually worked on the design for the aliens, so, uh… good signature piece? One of the crew finds fleshy eggs/pods, one of which opens up, launches a weird scuttly thing, a facehugger, at his face, which can’t be detached without killing him.

Until later, when it falls off, dead, and the crew member is fine again.

Until he’s not, and a baby alien bursts from his ribcage. As you do.

The alien grows quickly, is violent and deadly, and pretty soon the crew is dead except for Ellen Ripley, whom you’ve probably heard about even if you haven’t seen these movies. Ripley barely manages to escape the creature before the movie ends.

Aliens_posterThe sequel, Aliens, takes place over half a century after the last movie. Ripley is rescued from stasis, and tries to warn people about what happened to the Nostromo after they visited the moon where they first encountered the fleshy eggs. Nobody really believes her, though, since that moon now has a colony on it and they’re working on terraforming it, so how could something so deadly possibly be there without any of the dozens of people living there encountering it? Haha, what a ridiculous prospect!

Until they lose communication with the colony. Then they start taking Ripley more seriously, pulling her in as part of the recovery team.

During the investigation, it’s revealed that there many of the aliens, now commonly dubbed xenomorphs, who have killed everyone except for a little girl, Newt, who survived by hiding and being understandably paranoid. The body count rises, and the stakes raise when Ripley encounters not just a particularly large xenomorph, but a queen, laying eggs that will eventually repeat the process for any unlucky beings who happen on by.

Once again, Ripley barely manages to escape with her life at the end, but she does manage to save Newt.

~*~

I want to take a break here to discuss some of the things I thought about the franchise at this point. The 1st movie was freaking brilliant. The attention to detail was fantastic, making everything feel so believable. I liked the 2nd movie a little less, but only a little, and honestly, it was mostly in the way the xenomorphs became sort of a horde to be gunned down toward the end. Like one wasn’t threatening enough, so now there had to be a few dozen.

But there is so very much to love in these first two movies.

Ellen_ripley Obviously, there’s Ripley. People praise this character all the time for being a badass woman in sci-fi and horror, and yeah, she is, but it’s not just because she survives or because she uses bigass guns or any of that.

It’s because she’s competent.

I mean, the first time we really get to see much of her, she’s reminding crew that hey, don’t quarantine rules say that the guy with the unknown organism attached to his face maybe can’t come back on the ship without isolation procedures, I don’t care if you outrank me, maybe follow the damn rules, huh?

Only here’s the thing. You see all that “female softening language” I did in that previous paragraph? Phrasing it as a question, a request for confirmation, using “maybe?” She does none of that. Ever. Ripley’s dialogue is written like she’s a man. And I don’t mean she’s written as a macho butch stereotype. I mean, you could have all of her dialogue spoken by a man and none of it would seem odd, not a bit of it would demonstrate anything but authority and certainty. Two entire movies of this sort of dialogue, and it’s awesome to see, because it puts her on a level playing-field with the men around her. No posturing, no chest-beating, just no-nonsense authority and competence, and I effing loved it.

Remember that. Hold onto that image. Because the third movie apparently didn’t give a damn about that version of Ripley in the slightest.

Alien3_poster After the events of Aliens, the escape pod that Ripley and Newt were in crashes down on a prison planet. Newt dies. Ripley is rescued. A facehugger is seen scuttling out from the wreckage.

This prison planet is a lead foundry, and is currently being maintained by a skeleton staff of only a few dozen. All religious men. All who have a genetic mutation which makes them predisposed to antisocial and violent behaviour. None of them have seen a woman in years, so, tension.

The facehugger attacks a dog, and a short amount of time later, a quadrupedal xenomorph bursts out, killing the dog. It starts to terrorize the prisoners.

Ripley befriends the prison’s doctor, who also has the same mutation but has learned to overcome it. Ripley also finds out that she has one of the alien embryos growing inside her, which we saw glimpses of during the opening credits where a screen showed a facehugger attached to a face, but it was all in wireframe and I legit missed that it was Ripley and not just some explanation image for the watching audience, so… Anyway, this embryo is a queen, which means that the xenomorph running wild in the foundry won’t hurt her. She and the inmates come up with a plan to capture and kill the xenomorph, which eventually works but not without a whole load of fatalities, and in the end, Ripley throws herself into a vat of molten lead to prevent the queen xenomorph from being born and creating more eggs.

~*~

Okay. So what’s wrong with this movie that wasn’t wrong with the first 2?

For starters, remember how I talked earlier about how Ripley was essentially written like a man? Yeah, throw that stuff out the window. The writers of this one clearly thought that Ripley needed to be seen more as a woman, and so chose to do that by a) having her sleep with her new doctor friend after having known him for about 24-48 hours, and b) having her be the target of an attempted gang rape.

Because that’s part of the female experience, right? Sex and assault? Right? Right guys? Ripley’s a woman, so let’s show her doing woman things so nobody forgets she’s a woman! Right? Am I right, guys?

I mock, but really, that is entirely how that all came across to me. Gone is the competent woman who is written like a man and behaves on par with men and considers herself just as qualified to do things as a man. In her place is a softer Ripley who wants physical affection and literally backs away from a couple of guys who leer at her, which is step 1 of herding her into a trap. Because we can’t forget that Ripley is a woman. More than a competent person, more than a survivor, more than a godsdamned officer on a ship, she is, above all else, Female.

females

2nd gripe, the whole prison planet thing? The genetic abnormality the inmates have is that they only have 2 Y chromosomes. Which, uh, is impossible. Outside of them being experimental test-tube babies, essentially, and if they are, this is never brought up in the movie. They are always men, and they’re genetically predisposed to being violent assholes.

Okay. Sure. I’ll buy that maybe in the future, violent criminals will be DNA tested and found to have 2 Y chromosomes. I’ll suspend my disbelief a little bit here. But… an entire prison planet specifically for them? Is the movie trying to say that all violent criminals have this mutation? Contextually, it doesn’t seem so, because these people are entirely defined by their mutation. It seems to separate them from other non-mutated violent criminals. So then why an entire prison devoted solely to people with that mutation? Do they need to be kept far from men without that mutation? Why?

The prisoners there all seem to have found religion and generally keep to their vows of celibacy and nonviolence (except for punishments, I think, though again, this isn’t super clear), so why can’t they use those same skills in typical daily life around others? Clearly one guy could overcome his more violent tendencies and get a job as a doctor, so violence isn’t a sure thing, so again, why the entire prison separate from all other prisons? What makes these people so different other than a genetic mutation?

The movie can’t be bothered to answer the questions it makes me ask.

3rd gripe, the xenomorph. Actually, all the xenomorphs in this movie, from embryonic to “running around killing people.” This one is quadripedal where the others were bipedal, and in later movies there are increasing hints that the xenomorphs pick up DNA from their hosts which affects what their adult forms will be, but at this point, that isn’t explained, so the change in form looks entirely random.

The thing also basically goes from chestburster-size to full grown in a matter of seconds, because reasons. Unless it was meant to be that size all along, occupying most of the dog’s body before exploding outward, but there is absolutely no sign of that, so I’m not buying that explanation.

The development stage of the embryos is never fully made clear. Seems to be anywhere between half a day to multiple days, depending on how convenient it is to the plot, and by the time movies are tweaking biology to create plot-conveniences, I start rapidly losing interest.

A lot of people handwave this by saying that Ripley’s alien implant took longer to grow because it was a queen, and okay, maybe that’s the case. But if so, the movie ought to give some indication of that. Reading between the lines can be fun, but if it becomes necessary to explain something that otherwise looks like a plothole, then it’s no longer “reading between the lines,” but “fans trying desperately to make something make sense.”

Gripe 3.5 – Okay, the facehugger that attacked Ripley broke into her hypersleep pod, did unspeakable things to her face, left the pod… all without breaking the enclosure that allowed hypersleep/stasis to function for the organism inside in the first place. It’s not something where you’re hooked up to wires and tubes and stuff to keep vital functions going. Everything we’ve seen states that you get in the pod, it activates, and whatever’s inside goes to sleep when the access hatch closes.

But the facehugger didn’t go into any torpid state. And Ripley didn’t wake up when her pod was broken. Okay. Sure.

The third movie is where the internal consistency of this franchise starts to break down. There are too many questions left unanswered, too many things that seem to exist only for plot convenience, and too many random changes for me to just suspend my disbelief.

But oh wait, because we haven’t even gotten to the 4th movie yet!

~*~

220px-Alien_Resurrection_poster Do you remember how I joked, early in this article, that the Alien franchise was a great duology?

This movie made me want to add the 3rd movie back into my headcanon, just by how comparatively bad it is.

We’re now 200 years after Alien 3, and Ripley… Oh gods, it’s actually painful for me to type this out and I wish you could all see the look on my face, but… Ripley in this movie is the 8th hybrid clone of Ellen Ripley and the queen xenomorph, which scientists were able to do because they managed to get a sample of her blood from the wreckage of the prison planet from the previous movie. Only they also make the hybrid Ripley still have a queen embryo inside her, which they remove because the people in charge want an army of controllable hybrid xenomorphs at their disposal.

Cue the xenomorphs escaping because they always do, chaos ensues, yadda yadda, people excape and crash down on earth and bear witness to the rising dawn that signals a new day ahead and I wish I was joking about thatheavyhanded symbolism at the end.

Seriously, this movie is all style and no substance. The banter that existed between characters in previous movies, good for establishing personality and how people relate to each other and what’s going on, has been replaced mostly with one-liners to break tension, or setups for future one-liners to break tension, resulting in characters doing nonsensical things just to set up a joke that won’t see payoff until multiple scenes later.

And thank goodness I don’t even have to pretend this is the same Ripley anymore, because it really really isn’t. Not even biologically. But she sure doesn’t act the same. Half of the non-action scenes involving her have a threatening pseudo-lesbian vibe to them, and knowing what I know now of Joss Whedon, who wrote this one, I really shouldn’t be surprised. Dude is good at dialogue, but apparently he shouldn’t stray far from his niche, because this was not the movie to try showing that off in. As much as the dialogue was clearly written to be snappy and witty, it instead just came off as bland. Bland dialogue in a bland sci-fi action movie that would have faded into obscurity had it not had the Alien nae attached to it, because without that, all it would have been could be summed up in the phrase “90s action sci-fi movie.”

The xenomorphs in this are… Well. Okay. So they contain some human DNA, which naturally makes them smarter and better at communicating with each other and gives them the ability to form more complex plans, and… Do you remember the velociraptors from Jurassic Park 3? Yeah, this is the same thing. They movie the same way, they communicate the same way, they behave pretty much the same way.

But. Aside from human DNA making the supposedly perfect creature even perfecter, the queen that grew inside hybrid-Ripley not only laws eggs but has a mammalian womb, by which she gives birth to…

ALIEN_RES_newborn1280

I’m so sorry I made you all look at that.

But you want to know what problem I had with this movie that really grates on me in the weirdest way?

What the everloving hell happened to the setup with the Weyland-Yutani company?

Okay. For the previous 3 movies, the Weyland-Yutani company is slowly set up as something massive. It’s most often referred to as just “the company,” so some of the setup is easy to miss, but they have commercial interests. They have a weapons division. There are strong indications even in the 1st movie that they knew about the xenomorphs in advance and wanted to use them. They have a militaristic division. They have an entire godsdamn prison planet that they run!

They are, for all intents and purposes, the Shinra Corporation. They’re ostensibly a company, but they act essentially as a government, with their fingers in every pie, and they have goals that are further-reaching than you might think at first glance. It’s terrifying to contemplate a single company getting that much power.

In Alien: Resurrection? Haha, don’t be silly, Weyland-Yutani is just a business, we really answer to the United States government and their Congress, and people in the last 2300s walk around making references to 1960s crime dramas and whistling the theme tune to Popeye the Sailor Man.

Fucking hell, I hate this movie so godsdamned much!

The writing is atrocious, the movie the bland and impressively dull for an action sci-fi horror, and I wish I could strike it from my memory. I thought the 3rd Alien movie did a lot to dilute the promise of the franchise (and believe me, it did, in addition to the Development Hell it went through), but the 4th movie was something else entirely.

I think I’m going to hang on to my original statement: the Alien franchise was a successful duology of films. Anything that came after it were big-budget knock-offs, because I could see far too many problems with them far too easily. Unanswered questions, contradictory world-building, and an incredibly disappointing ending.

~*~

For the curious, yes, I will likely end up seeing the prequels if/when I can, and I also plan to watch Predator so I can see what Alien vs Predator ended up being, but I don’t have high hopes for either spin-offs, honestly. Not after the 3rd and 4th movies in the franchise were such a let-down. It’s morbid curiosity that drives my watching at this point, not a desire to see the franchise make a comeback, because honestly, it shouldn’t. It would get popular again, and then the cash cow would be overmilked and run dry, and I’d end up just as disappointed again. It’s not worth it. This, I think, is a good demonstration of why sometimes it’s best to leave a good thing alone.

One comment on “Alien Franchise Retrospective

  1. Pingback: February 2020 in Retrospect | Bibliotropic

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