So, why did the Alien series succeed so well (except for the fourth one, which doesn’t exist)?
Here are a few elements I’ve found, especially for the first movie:
Having a strong female lead was unusual in the late 70s. They pulled that off quite well. They didn’t try to make the hero a fearless superhuman but she was still a hero. In the first movie, the characters were a group of space-truckers. Having everyday people helped the audience identify with them and immerse themselves in the story and setting.
The combination of beyond-all-comprehension distances in the clean cold void of space combined with the warm, dark, dirty, industrial, claustrophobic feel inside the ship/base/prison.
But, most of all, it’s about the alien. The alien is a black skeletic snake ninja that hides in the shadows. He is accompanied by a spider/snake/skeleton hand that rapes and impregnates you and then you give birth to the foetus by having it burst out of your belly and kill you.
It’s like somebody opened the Textbook of Primal Fears and Childhood Trauma and said “Let’s see how many we can fit in there”.
The first two films - I’d disagree with your implication that the third movie was any good, because it sucked - were so different in style that it’s hard, really, to explain why the series worked. Really, the question of why Alien worked is a different one from why Aliens worked.
Alien worked as a straight up monster flick in part because, as you’ve pointed out.
The monster was unbelieveably terrifying. At the time “Alien” was made it might well have been the scariest monster ever put on screen.
The movie was extremely well set - the dank, industrial spaceship really worked.
Otherwise, it’s just a straight up monster-kills-them-on-at-a-time flick. Really well done as such things go, though. most notably John Hurt’s stomachache.
Aliens is a different sort of film, more of an action movie that also happens to have a heavy horror element. In the case of “Aliens” I’d agree that the character of Ellen Ripley is a big deal. I don’t think she’s as important in the original - she’s a strong female lead to be sure, but shares a lot of time with Tom Skerritt and company; in a sense, she’s just the last person standing when the Alien’s done eating everyone else.
In Aliens, however, she carries the movie and is a wonderful, multidimensional protagonist.
Both movies are simply well written. They’re paced well, have great atmosphere, logical stories, and have good characters. It’s hard to go wrong if you get the basics right.
Like Star Wars, I think really good visual design played a huge part. People would see the monster in a magazine and be chilled to the bones just by how freaky it looked. Not only the monster - the weapons, the marines´ uniforms, the spaceship - everything just worked so well together to build an atmosphere.
Really good direction played a part too. The first movie was an excellent horror film, and the second one an excellent action flick. Also, they both dared to take a concept often played for laughs - the scary alien monster - and play it bone-chillingly straight.
Now, why is it that directors and actors become household names after a good movie, while art directors (what´s the term in the movie business?) and special effects designers never do?
I believe directors can get known because they’re usually alone in their role, not a team. It’s easier for the general population to know and remember their names. They’re also in charge of the whole thing.
Actors are better known by the general population because they’re the ones who are seen.
I’m pretty sure the great photography directors (is this what you meant by art director?) and special effects designers are quite well known within the business. I remember on Charlie Brooker’s show, he said that there was one guy who was known throughout the advertising business as The Guy Who Can Make Pizza Cheese Look Appetizing In That One Shot Where They Cut Off A Slice. You and I don’t know him though.
You’re right that I and II were leagues ahead of the rest and that I and II were different kinds of movies. My perception is surely biased because I saw Aliens III first.
What do you mean by good characters (yes, a broad topic)?
I rememeber an interview (maybe on some special features) where James Cameron made it pretty clear that he was trying to make a Vietnam movie in space. I only recall him making that reference regarding the style of the marines, but I think the whole idea of being trapped behind enemy lines with an unseen, poorly understood alien enemy that crawls through a network of tunnels and could show up anywhere must have resonated with the viewer.
Simply put, inthe case of movies like this you need characters who are recognizable and have clear motivations. In an action movie they don’t all need to be deep characters.
“Aliens” has one complex character; Ellen Ripley. She’s not a natural heroine; for much of the movie she’s very frightened, but she’s also brave and intelligent, and finds herself in a position of leadership because of her smarts, and acts accordingly. Cameron (who for all the criticism of the flatness of his films, makes great female characters) cleverly combines maternal instinct with a character who’s otherwise playing against type - a woman who’s not especially attractive, not an elite anything, just s smart working chick who’s scared as hell but uses her brains to beat the nasty aliens.
The other characters aren’t as complex but they serve the purposes of the story; the inept lieutenant, some tough-ass marines, the whiny idiot, the clever NCO, the corporate weasel, the android, and the frightened little girl. All are well done, though; none are so one dimensional as to take you out of the story. The inept officer dies bravely, the frightened little girl is useful without being a Wesley, the whiny idiot goes down bravely, and so on. You know who each person is and you get a sense of who they are.
Contrast this with the favourite whipping boy of such comparisons, “Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace.” Who was the protagonist? There really wasn’t one. Without referencing any other work, what was Obi-Wan like? He had no personality at all and no motivation at any time during the film except to do what Qui-Gonn said. What was Qui-Gonn’s character like? Queen Amidala’s? Nothing. They were ciphers. What was the character or motivation of the noseless aliens who were doing Palpatine’s bidding? Nothing at all - that’s never explained and they were given no characterization of any kind.
I have only seen the original Alien so I can’t comment on the others. Here are the three things that really struck me about it:
They didn’t use computer graphics for the special effects. It was all done by prop designers. So it looked more “real.” When Ash’s head exploded, they used a mixture of caviar, glass beads, milk and spaghetti for his “brains.” This is much more startling and unique than just having wires and circuitry inside him; the idea that there could be semi-organic material inside the android, but you’re not really sure what it is. The Alien was played by a real human actor wearing a bodysuit; the facehugger was an actual model that was built to look real. Everything was physically “there” on the set, and it felt much more real than having CGI.
There was an interesting mystery in the movie: the space crew responds to a distress signal and investigates a derelict spacecraft, where they find the remains of an alien “pilot” who looks like a giant humanoid fossil. But it isn’t explained where the spaceship came from, what kind of creature was the pilot, or why they had aliens on board the ship. And it’s not clear whether, at the time in the future the film is supposed to be set, whether the humans have actually discovered aliens and are aware of their existence. The reaction of the crew is somewhat nonchalant, rather than “oh my God, we found a real alien”, which would suggest that they are, in fact, familiar with other life forms. Yet it’s never explicitly spelled out. So the viewer’s imagination is stimulated a little.
Ripley actually seemed like a tough woman. Not like the kind of sexed-up vamp who is tough because the script calls for her to be tough, like Quentin Tarantino keeps making movies about - Ripley actually seemed convincingly tough, but not in an over the top way, like she is a superhuman vixen who can dominate everything. She was just tough enough to be a good lead but not tough to the point where the Alien stopped being scary.
I completely disagree with you here. Ripley in the first one was a great character (like most of the crew, except for that fucking hysterical bitch, I dont remember her name), she was rather smart but not “I’m the main character here” smarts, but she was also quite a bitch (in refusing to let her teammates climb back aboard when Hurt’s infected). That was a brilliant move because it made her character more remote than what’s usually allowed for “heroes”. She was pretty but the film didnt try to play on that. (This complexity in characters in a SF action movie is something I wouldnt find again in a movie till I saw Pitch Black, that had those same, rather rare, qualities).
In short, it was a great female character because it wasnt written as “let’s make a good female character”. That kind of things usually end up with a female with all the attributes and skills of traditional male hero, but “with a heart too”. Ripley didnt have that big a heart. Contrast that to the hysterical mother that Ripley becomes in Aliens. Cameron was always very very bad with characters, especially female ones (usually gung ho amazons, I’m sure Cameron thinks he’s paying tribute to women all around the world, in truth, he’s just putting some boobs on average male hero character set).
The same bad characterization is at work with the Colonial Marines team. WTF, they’re supposed to be top notch pros, yet they ceaselessly complain and bitch about their orders, they seem to have the discipline of a third world army, and on top of that, are commanded by a complete noob (and the worst battle jargon I heard in my life, they all sounded like 12 years old playing some kind of FPS. “Stay frisky”, for fuck sake). Where’s the sense in that?
Aliens has some interesting developments in that the siege situation is really well set up, the way it tells the story opens up the Aliens universe, in the sense that it’s way easier after Aliens to make movies or other stories in that same universe than it was with only the first which featured a much more confined situation, Aliens expanded the bounds of that universe.
And I disagree for the 4th, I think it had some qualities and was quite watchable. Still, 3rd and 4th are really not in same league as 1 and 2.
I still think they should try to relaunch the series in a more concerted manner, instead of let’s make another one and see where that leads us to.
A huge part is the creature itself. Unlike a lot of the monsters past, the xenomorph has a lot going for it in terms of scare factor.
It is biological, it’s real. We see it impregnate a host by clinging ferociously to the face of a human and forcing something down it’s throat. Not only is it disgusting, but it plays upon fears of claustrophobia, choking, and an unsettling form of violation.
Once it is born, it does so in the most violent manner possible without going over the top into toilet humor. It chews it’s way out of your chest. It gnaws through bone and flesh in your most vuneraable sections, (internally speaking) and kills you in it’s emergence into the world. It is baptized in death.
It grows fast, nearly supernaturally so. This is when we really begin to feel the “otherness” of the creature. It isn’t killing for fun, it is doing so because it needs calories to fuel that incredible metabolism.
Now adult, it is the size of a human while not having much of anything human about it. Humans are generally comfortable around things are own size. This creature, while humanoid, has little to relate to. It has no eyes. It’s skull seems to be exposed. It is an insectile mammal that you cannot imagine nurturing it’s young. Even it’s mouth which grins in a death’s head rictus is altered to make it alien to us. The second set of extendable jaws, the copious saliva all drive you away. The hands are like our own, but joined strangely, a twisted version of ourselves.
It creeps and hides. It is not a rampaging beast, or an evil creature with diabolical motivations. It is an total other, bent on survival and reproduction at the cost of humanity. It doesn’t understand the cost, nor does it care.
It is an awesome critter, and deserving of it’s fearsome rep in cinema.
Trying to shoehorn Ripley into the sequels is what ruined the series. She was fine in 2, but 3 and 4 should have really gone in a different direction. She went from the equivalent of a space trucker, something she pulled off quite well, to bad ass soldier to basically a super hero as the movies went along.
First off, I believe the expression was “Stay Frosty”, as in, “Keep your cool.”, but requiring fewer words to say, because speaker is just so mother-freaking frosty he can’t be bothered to waste time with the extra word. This dude knows what he’s talking about. He’s gone toe-to-toe with Arnold Schwarzenegger and lived longer than most people do who do that in movies. If he tells you to stay frosty, you’re gonna endeavor to keep your thermostat set to “Revenge Serving Temperature”
Second: I’m curious, have you ever spent much time hanging out with military folks, at least American military folks? It’s a little-known fact outside the armed forces that the primary purpose of the Enlisted force is to bitch at length about the hardships hoisted upon us by our higher ups. Crushing our enemies, seeing them driven before us, etc. is more of a secondary mission for us. I dare say it would take me out of a war film if a soldier didn’t complain about his job.
Third: After watching Avatar, I’m thinking, Cameron needs to make another Aliens movie, with the space marines and the power armor and such. Who’s with me?
Alien was scary and suspenseful, not a little part of the set up for that was the realistic, “everydaydown to earth” environment on the ship made it more creepy when things happened .
Ripley was an o.k. character but could have been left out of the film without it suffering.
Aliens saw a severe degeneration in the threat posed by the aliens and so while a good action romp, was not scary, moody or in any way disturbing.
Totally watchable but not particulary memorable, unlike the first movie.
The one set on a prison planet was total tripe.
I think that I saw another one but I don’t remember it.
I think the second movie was less a horror movie and more a sci-fi action film (I mean, instead of the equivalent of an oil tanker crew we have a platoon of heavily armed Marines, to start with), but I dare say it likely had a similar cultural effect as the first one did, just in different ways. The first one made famous a lot of the things we associate with sci-fi horror films, I want to say it was one of the first movies that showed that the future was really dirty and worn out, although Star Wars tried to do that from time to time.
But honestly, Aliens? It’s just so much more quotable. It’s memetastic. You can’t even play video games nowadays without being inundated with Aliens references (seriously, watch Aliens, then play Halo. Or StarCraft. Even the Wing Commander games didn’t get away without at least one reference to nuking the shit out of an all-powerful alien threat from a safe distance.) 90% of the time someone quotes the movie, they probably haven’t seen it yet. I finally watched it a few months ago and realize that so much of my vocabulary was parroting a 35 year old action flick. I was about as original as saying “Ahhll be bahhk” and I had no idea. that’s the kind of affect Aliens has had on society.
Exactly what I meant, but as I love Biehn when he’s in Cameron movies, I’ll let this one pass. Still, all the fucked up military linguo used by all the other soldiers, and especially their sarge sounds exactly like every other character Cameron writes when he wants to make them sound badass. It always comes off as 12 years old schoolyards brags. Funny Cameron lambasts Americans and the US for their overbearing military leaning when he so embodies that US macho man bullshit.
No, I’m not gay :). Besides, I dont think it’s tolerable for anyone born outside of the US to listen to US soldiers’ brags or rants. But:
we’re talking about top notch pros, not your average grunt. Elite forces dont look well onto whiny bitches, especially when they’re on mission.
that’s another stupidity of this movie, though I like the concept of Colonial Marines, it was typical of Cameron to stick a US flag on said marines. What happened in the future? The US took over the world? If so, I want the Aliens to use me as genetic compost for their larvaes…
One thing that I liked was the multigender strike force. Preceding Starship Troopers in that respect (and both having a hot short haired redhead).
I would much prefer Ridley Scott making a comeback to the franchise. As long as there’s no Russell Crowe in it, except disguised in an Alien suit, though judging by his current size, he could onl fit in the Queen’ costume.