This week, 20th Century Fox reissues Ridley Scott's Alien for the film's 25th anniversary. The director's cut has a remastered soundtrack and a tightened pacing (even with some extra footage, it's still two minutes shorter than the original cut).
It's a perfect Halloween viewing experience: Scott's second feature is a deft combination of science fiction and horror, an old-fashioned haunted house story that just happens to take place on a space ship and feature an alien instead of a ghost. It's the blueprint for countless films that followed, and widely considered a classic. It launched the careers of Scott and star Sigourney Weaver, who went on to appear as Ellen Ripley in three sequels (1986's Aliens, 1992's Alien 3 and 1997's Alien Resurrection). It's scary, smart, well-acted and just as effective now as it was in 1979. Go see it.
And then rent the sequelsall of them. The fascinating thing about the Alien series is not just the way Scott crafted a creepy and socially relevant film around a homicidal creature aboard a spaceship. It's also James Cameron's action-movie excess that takes on the "greed is good" ideals of the 1980s in Aliens; David Fincher's nihilistic interpretation of alien infestation as the AIDS of the future in Alien 3; and Jean-Pierre Jeunet's surrealistic deconstruction of motherhood in Alien: Resurrection. More than any other Hollywood franchise, the Alien movies are distinct artistic and social visions of their respective directors, each of whom is a filmmaker of unique talent.
It's easy to see Scott's film as serendipitous: an unproven director and inexperienced actress team up to film a fairly basic horror script and somehow stumble upon a classic. And indeed, at first glance, Alien may appear as nothing more than a well-made scary movie. But the cast's performances are far better than you'd expect. The alien, which has become as much of a pop-culture icon as Freddy Krueger or Dracula, is a design marvel created by artist H.R. Giger. And underneath the surface are themes that carry through the Alien films and makes them cultural touchstones as well as popular entertainment.
The most obvious one, and the favorite of film students, is the fear of reproduction and motherhood. The aliensespecially the queen that shows up in Aliens and again in Resurrectionare manifestations of the destructive power of procreation. They implant their embryos in humans, and the infant aliens then burst forth, killing their hosts. The sole victim of this in Alien is male. While in the later films, Ripley's role as a mother figure becomes more prominent, in Alien all of the charactersmale and femalefear the deadly impregnation.
Even the ship's computer that ultimately betrays the crew is known as Mother. (Later, in Resurrection, when Ripley has reversed the roles and become mother to the alien, the ship's computer is known as Father.) Like most sci-fi stories, Alien also has a healthy distrust of science and technology. The Company, the all-encompassing corporate entity that rules the first three films, wants to capture the alien and study it, at any expense. Ash (Ian Holm), the ship's science officer, turns out to be an android, and along with Mother, works to sabotage the efforts to neutralize the alien.
Ripley never gets beyond the standard horror-movie heroine in Alienshe survives mostly by luck. By the time Cameron takes over for the sequel, Ripley is as important as the creatures she fights.
While Scott's film is undoubtedly better, Cameron's has a purity of vision that none of the other film's directors achieve. He's the only series director to work from his own script, and he turns Ripley into a sort of prototype of the bad-ass, uber-mother heroine that he'll perfect with Sarah Connor in 1991's Terminator 2: Judgment Day. Like Sarah, Ripley is a once-soft woman hardened by her experience fighting an unstoppable killing machine.
Emerging from stasis years after the events of the first film, Ripley has lost everything she once cared for, including her daughter. It's the beginning of the odyssey she'll continue until her death and beyond. Cameron takes Scott's distrust of science and turns it into an indictment of corporate greed. The Company, personified by smarmy Carter Burke (Paul Resier) still wants to study the aliens, and this time they're willing to sacrifice a planet full of colonists to do so.
Burke is every corporate weasel climbing the ladder in the Reagan era, doing anything necessary to succeed. And Ripley, who in Alien was simply trying to survive, is now a social activist, crusading for the eradication of the alien plague. More importantly, she's now the personification of good motherhood to battle the alien queen's evil motherhood. Cameron gives her a surrogate childthe famously annoying Newt, only survivor of the aliens' massacre of the colony. The only other prominent female character is the butch Vasquez, just one of the boys in the company of Marines that's sent in to eradicate the aliens.
In the end, Cameron can't resist creating a surrogate family for Ripley, with Newt and apparent love interest Hicks (Michael Biehn, who also bedded Sarah Connor). Having assumed the traditional roles of mother and wife, Ripley can finally rest, in stasis, again, at the end of the film.
Fans of Aliens tend to hate Fincher's follow-up, Alien 3, which starts by summarily disposing of Newt and Hicks off-screen, and stranding Ripley on a penal colony inhabited solely by men. If Aliens was about men's fear of the reproductive power of women, then 3 is about men's fear of women, period (no pun intended). The men of Fiorina 161, religious converts who've taken a vow of celibacy, don't take well to Ripley's arrival. They see her as a bringer of disease, and they're not far offshe's carrying an alien queen inside of her, and her ship crash-lands with another alien already onboard.
Though Fincher has Ripley shave her head and dress androgynously, she's more clearly female here even than in Aliens. Her sexual power is something to be fearedthe only man she sleeps with (in any of the films) is killed minutes later by the alien. Her presenceand thus the potential for sexual activityis the catalyst for the onset of disease. Released in 1992, with AIDS a national concern, Fincher's film is unrelentingly bleak and pessimistic, which may turn off some viewers but makes for a fascinating study. The director has gone on to make nihilism a haunting art form, with films like Seven and Fight Club. Here, Ripley can't defeat the alien without sacrificing herselfthe film ends with its heroine plunging into an inferno, the alien queen bursting from her chest.
If Cameron and Fincher saw femininity as frightening and destructive, Jean-Pierre Jeunet builds it back up in Alien: Resurrection, making explicit what Cameron and Fincher had hinted at: that Ripley and the alien are really the same. Two hundred years after her death, Ripley is cloned to bring back the alien queen that was gestating inside of her. But some of the alien's chocolate gets into Ripley's peanut butter, and she ends up with her own corrosive blood, super-strength, and a full-blown nihilistic attitude that she only showed signs of in 3.
Jeunet's best known for the sunny French film Amelie, but before Resurrection (his first and only English-language film), he'd co-directed two surreal and dark fantasies, Delicatessen and The City of Lost Children. A sense of unreality pervades Resurrection, as a feral and detached Ripley helps a motley crew of space pirates track a cadre of aliens that military scientists have bred from the initial queen.
No longer the loving mother figure she was for Newt, Ripley is now much closer to the ruthless alien queen, reclaiming her gender for its power, not its need for domesticity. "I am the monster's mother," she tells one crew member when asked who she is, and it's not without a measure of pride. While Newt was unceremoniously taken from her, here Ripley essentially has to sacrifice her own offspring, killing the sort of alien-human hybrid birthed by the queen at the end of the film.
The progression and exploration of Ripley's relationship with the aliens is what keeps the series fresh, and each director's vision of that relationship makes them unique. Whoever signs on for the rumored fifth film has big shoes to fill, but will certainly find no shortage of rich material to exploit in the symbiosis between the deadly creature and its reluctant mother.