Why ‘Aliens’ Killed the Alien Franchise.
Before Ridley Scott had his melt-down
Sgt (Mad) Jack McAtkinson and Colonel S.S. (Warmonkey) Godwynn
Alien, by Ridley Scott, came out in 1979 and shocked the world. The surprise wasn’t that it was a good film, since Scott was still making those then. The surprise came at just how good it was. Also, it was undeniably pretty shocking!
Alien very cleverly took a simple story and came at it in a completely new way. It took the horror genre staple of a haunted house slasher movie and entirely uprooted the setting, pitching the story on a space-ship, silently drifting through space. That would probably have been enough to make the movie commercially successful but there was more…
They hired H.R. Giger to design the alien creature. Giger was a man even more horrifying than his designs, an artist who enjoyed drawing skeletons and penises, but unlike every 8 year old boy he had made a career out of it. His designs were groundbreaking; they took creature-design off in a completely new direction, adding technological symbolism to the creature’s body, creating phallic design-cues that subtly foreshadowed the brutal violations it represented and embedding a real human skull into the actual prop.
It was the stuff of nightmares and completely shattered the cinematic mould. The creature itself could have just walked onto an empty sound-stage and stood there for the full length of the movie, just shrugging it’s bulky shoulders, smoking a cigarette and occasionally scratching its arse and people would have been enthralled by it.
It was a fantastic example of thinking outside of the box. Instead of hiring a burnt-out Hollywood hack (offence intended) they reached out to a much cheaper and infinitely more talented artist who delivered something completely beyond what they could have dreamed.
The movie would have still been a fascinating film, even if the alien had been a man in a gorilla suit with a pink horn sticking out the top of its head, but it would never have achieved the same legendary status without it.
Another way the movie broke out of the usual cliches set up in both the horror and sci-fi genres was by establishing an unarguable quality. The sets were claustrophobic and filled with dark symbolism. Snapping metal doors slammed on them like the jaws of a predator while watchful eyes peered out of the darkness.
The ship the film was set on had cables and equipment running along it, visually almost identical to the creature, subliminally implying that the technology the crew relied on to survive was literally coming alive to devour them.
The story had layers and nuance; a nasty undercurrent ran through the plot, suggesting that the characters had been sacrificed by a corrupt agenda, a corporation who put profit before the lives of their workers. You could even argue that the real antagonist of the movie isn’t the alien at all, but their own ignorance and the betrayal it allows to happen.
The movie was filled with clever symbolism, layer upon layer of fascinating icons to discover and discuss, and people still find and talk about them to this day.
Alien was a huge success, both financially and critically, and a sequel was more or less a certainty.
7 years later, Ridley Scott handed over the reins to an up and coming young director, James Cameron. He created ‘Aliens,’ the movie that killed the franchise in the best possible way.
James Cameron took the very wise decision to not go in completely the same direction as the previous movie. A sequel has to be bigger and better, it has to take the pieces of the first and expand upon them in a new and interesting way, and he did exactly that. Instead of a horror/slasher set in space, where a group of victims are hunted down one by one, the second film took the fight back to the monsters and borrowed from military and war movies.
Aliens took the one remaining survivor and expanded on her story, taking everything we knew of her and logically fleshed out her back story, without crippling our imagination in the process. It then took her back into her nightmares—and ours, by proxy—by returning to the planet where the story began. No amount of poorly-conceived prequels can ever change that!
A team of marines escorted them, ready and equipped for everything they might encounter, so long as they don’t encounter hoards of murderous aliens with acid for blood.
The movie didn’t fully abandon the horror aspects, it just pushed them down to become a secondary theme. The war and conflict took centre-stage in a story that made absolutely perfect sense as it expanded on everything that made the first film great.
‘Aliens’ is, quite rightfully, considered one of the best sequels ever made because it showed complete and utter respect for the source material and cleverly added to it, setting the dramatic bar even higher, while taking the same central character on the same journey that continues exactly where the first one left off. It did everything absolutely right and delivered a dramatic, engaging and emotional movie that was still entertaining and fun to watch.
But why did this kill the franchise?
It did so by being a great movie that was simply too tough an act to follow for a studio that never really understood the material.
‘Alien 3’ made the horrible mistake of trying to retcon out some of the details of the second film. It murdered two of the main characters, needlessly condemning them to an ignominious end that cheated the audience out of the happy ending we’d already earned. It tried to simply reinvent the first film without learning the lessons that the second film had tried to teach it.
Where ‘Aliens’ had taken everything that worked and gave it back to us, bigger and better and with a fresh new spin, Alien 3 tried to take us back to the winning formula of the horror/slasher but with characters we’re not given any good reason to care about. It tried to take the original and just move the pieces around, hoping we wouldn’t notice.
It might actually have worked if ‘Aliens’ hadn’t existed. A reinvention of ‘Alien’ would still be an entertaining movie, and ‘Alien 3’ did have a lot going for it, but it failed by not building on what had gone before, not respecting the expectations of the audience and by being smaller and less satisfying than the film it was trying to follow.
Alien 4 failed by being Alien 4.
In this case, they changed the setting but only very slightly. They ramped up the gore and body-count and brought in the fake blood by the truckload. They mashed a comedy treatment into a horror movie and wondered why the result looked like they’d fed a pen and paper to a donkey and expected it to crap out a script.
This is exactly the mentality of Hollywood sequels and exactly why ‘Aliens’ was so successful – it avoided all of these cliches and did something far better than was expected.
Every subsequent variation has either been a cynical cash-grab or derailed by its own hubris.
Aliens killed the franchise. It did this by being one of the best sequels ever made, and by raising the bar set by one of the most intriguing science-fiction films of all time. It did so well that it guaranteed more sequels and studio-sterility inevitably set in, where the same corporate greed the first two movies mocked, eventually took over.
‘Alien’ and ‘Aliens’ are both fantastic movies with their own unique identities, and that’s why they survive. You can watch ‘Aliens’ without ever having seen the first movie and it will work perfectly well. That’s the mark of good writing. The rest of the movies relied on fans buying into them because they existed solely for profit and not for the art of telling a good story.
There’s a lesson here that Hollywood just isn’t smart enough to learn!
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