No. 44 – Alien (1979) and No. 59 – Aliens (1986)

So this is the first post that attempts to get all conceptual on your collective asses. Over a week I decided to watch the first two films in the ‘Alien’ series, and not only look at their individual claims to belong in the IMDB Top 250, but also look at what they told us about the future directions the two director’s would take in their career.

The Alien series is a very interesting, and pretty rare, example of different directors being able to work with a consistent source material – but also get to put their own personal stamp on the end result. Unlike the recent Mission Impossible series (which gave these opportunities to a couple of very experienced directors in Brian De Palma and John Woo), the Alien series has helped to really launch the careers of directors who had only made one or two films before their shot at an Alien film.

Alien was Ridley Scott’s second feature (after The Duellists), James Cameron got the Aliens gig before The Terminator was released (it was his third film), and Alien 3 was David Fincher’s first feature (after which he went on to direct Se7en, Fight Club, The Social Network, and the vastly underrated The Game).

And while Jean-Pierre Jeunet had already made Delicatessen and The City of Lost Children before he made Alien: Resurrection, it was still only his third feature and came four years before he would make Amelie.

So, Alien then.

The film opens with a long sequence looking around what appears to be an abandoned space ship. We soon discover that the crew are not missing, merely sleeping. They are woken early by the ships computer to investigate a distress beacon coming from an uncharted rock. The sci-fi equivalent of the ramshackle house on the hill, or the forest where all those teenagers died 25 years ago…this very day.

The first thing that strikes you about this crew is how many bloody great actors they’ve got on board this ship. I kept having to remind myself that Sigourney Weaver was pretty much an unknown as this time – and she had to keep up in the acting stakes with a laconic John Hurt (who just makes acting look so easy), an ice-cold Ian Holm, and a demented as ever Harry Dean Stanton.

The fact that she emerges from this film not just as the fictional last-person-standing, but also as the last actor standing is the reason this film is so successful in everything it sets out to achieve.

Groupon were struggling to shift their 'futuristic facial' vouchers

I love everything about this film. The steady drip-drip of the building terror. The fact that things aren’t explicitly spelt out to the audience (clues are mentioned to the audience, and then left for the audience to decode). The design of the set, the SFX, and most importantly of all, the HR Giger Alien creation just wow you in every frame. This is the second 10/10 I have given to a film on the list so far.

Which probably explains why I didn’t love Aliens as much as I remembered. James Cameron’s crack at the Alien franchise is the only instalment that was written and directed by the same person. But Cameron isn’t an auteur in the true sense of the word, and I honestly think he needed someone with a little distance from the project to at least tidy up some of the clunky dialogue and exposition we get in the first hour or so of Aliens.

I also found it harder to empathise with the characters, and in one particular case I would have fed him to the Alien myself if I had been on-board the ship. Whereas Aliens had genuine acting talent, with each actor portraying a fully-rounded individual with hopes, dreams and fears – Cameron’s marines lack the vulnerability of the Nostromo’s crew from the first film, as well as being meat-heads with few redeeming features. It doesn’t help when (no offence to the actors involved) you replace the likes of Hurt, Holm, and Stanton with Michael Biehn, Bill Paxton, and Lance Henriksen. They do a good job, but they just haven’t got the gravitas of the Alien cast.

The other big difference between the two films was in the special effects. And the is the film that was made 7 years earlier that surprisingly comes out better in this comparison. I watched the original theatrical release for both films, and far too often during Aliens I was watching effects that looked like out-takes from Flash Gordon. I know it’s unfair criticising a 26 year-old film’s SFX – but Scott managed to completely suspend my disbelief for Alien despite having a smaller budget and less technology available to him.

I can only conclude that Ridley Scott knew the technological limitations of making a film set in space, and thus used more traditional film-making craft to work within those constraints. Whereas James Cameron was more ambitious and was determined to show massive explosions, and ships crashing, and didn’t mind that they didn’t look very believable.

It might sound like I didn’t enjoy Aliens, but I honestly did. That’s mainly because the last hour of the film is popcorn-eating, ass-kicking action of the highest calibre. There are three or four timeless action set-pieces which ratchet up the tension, before paying off the build-up in spectacular style. We also actually give a shit about Ripley and the abandoned child Newt, and we are desperate for them to survive.

When the film finished I was elated, and it was only after I started to analyse what I had seen that I realised how weak the first half was in my opinion.

And that I think is the difference between the two directors. Ridley Scott has gone on to direct a lot of very different films, and is able to work with different budgets and actors to make interesting stories. He can produce brilliant performances from his actors, and realises that his best work is done from behind a camera – and is happy to leave the writing duties to people who do it for a living.

The James Cameron we saw making Aliens has gone onto to make films where the budget seems to increase with every movie. He seems to see actors and scripts as important parts of the film-making process – but no more important than SFX or his overall vision for the film. Everything good about Terminator 2, True Lies, Titanic, and Avatar can be seen in Aliens, but everything horrible and clunky, sentimental, and down-right awful can trace its origins back to Aliens as well.

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