The initial set-up of Alien is deceptive in its simplicity, with the crew of interplanetary miners coming across a perceived distress signal, and getting more than they bargained when a creature picks them off one at a time. Scott's retro-fi depiction of space as a blue collar business was an altogether different beast from the advanced and more stylized likes of the time, intentionally built to be worn down and grungy, oftentimes very shadowy and cramped to create a pervading sense of claustrophobia, creating an always potent air of suspense as the viewer tries to imagine where the creature could be at any moment. Said creature casts an always intimidating presence in spite of spending most of the movie off screen, a true gruesome horror looming over the ship like a phantom, built with unnervingly sexual connotations to its creation and its duplication, including the facehugger that bears ties to aggressive and forceful rape and impregnation.
But the threat of the alien isn't the only thing spreading paranoia and tension throughout the ship. The central cast of seven human characters makes for a widely varying batch of personalities, each with their own established set of bonds, and having been molded as jaded due to their long time spent in space. Even before the gory bumps in the night start rearing their ugly head, a feeling of tension and closely guarded secrets between crew members is still quite apparent, with some characters visibly skeptical of other key figures, feelings that only get worse as the cast grows slimmer by the minute. This soon becomes more than merely a mission to capture or kill the looming monster, but a fight for survival driven by pure primal instinct, as conversations between the crew planning and weighing their options in logical ways play out, to growing increasingly terrified between each new plot development. It's that key attention to character interactions and natural progression that make the most of the wildly different crew members, and a superbly formed cast that in addition to Weaver, includes Tom Skeritt, Yaphet Kotto, Veronica Cartwright, and a gruesomely ill-fated John Hurt.
But the main reason that any of these qualities pay off as well as they do are thanks to Scott's impeccable eye and knack for suspense. Alien is a masterclass of visual storytelling, crafting at once fascinating and horrifying revelations that raise a high rate of mysterious questions, and a lingering sense of dread formed by unnerving long takes, startling ambient sound with lack of music, and Scott deliberately cutting away and minimizing from more graphic violence and alien appearances to ratchet up the intensity, knowing full well that the imagined can be just as horrifying as the visible. With modern mainstream horror having mainly devolved into jump scare factories, Alien's palpable sense of mood, atmosphere, and quietly building paranoia makes it still stand tall above the rest.
For my own thoughts, it firmly stands as one of my top five favorite films of all time, managing to frighten and entrance me every time I watch, as the tightly wound precision of Scott's work heightens the terror like a nicely tuned clock. As far as I'm concerned, it's what defines a perfect film.
***** / *****
Actually, if I can have an aside here, I often find it somewhat unfair that Aliens is labeled "the action movie" in comparison to Alien, considering the fact that Cameron, while pumping up the adrenaline and the pacing (in spite of a longer running time), still manages to retain that tightly wound terror and tension that has become a staple of the series. His level of suspense and horror is merely delivered in different fashion, taking more influence from the bloodshed of the Vietnam War, with the ragtag band of Colonial Marines packing all sorts of guns, rifles, grenades, and flamethrowers. One would think that overpowering the characters with all that weaponry would undermine the suspenseful tone, but it really doesn't. If anything it's only made it necessary for the titular creatures to adapt and grow fiercer than ever.
The same sense of danger and hostility is held to the same high degree, and even with the heat the group is packing, they still have to cope with dangerous defenses like acid blood, as well as skills and maneuverability that far overwhelm the Marines. It requires the same commitment to that aggressive game of keep away, as the mere imaginative thought of where the Xenomorphs are still proves terrifying to think of, but no less scary is the hostility and breakage of sanity experienced on the human side, with headgames and vicious agendas pulled from unsuspecting areas, and a band of humans reduced to their basic animal instincts of survival and alliance as they fight to stay alive.
And what a testy alliance it is, led superbly by Sigourney Weaver's Ripley. Ripley is brought on the central mission as something of a consultant, acting as the film's logical anchor once more, but having also devolved into a wildcard figure, entering the fray with the aggression and horror of a PTSD victim. The push behind Ripley's transformation into the action heroine we know and love her as today isn't as straightforward as some may think, being brought aboard with a great deal of reluctance with a deliberate wish to hang back until unavoidable, but eventually hurling herself into the action and growing increasingly confident when her own protective and maternal instincts start up, best showcased in her suicide mission through the deepest levels of the LV-426 facility. She's nothing without the help of her team, though, this eclectic group of soldiers and grunts with ties and bonds not too dissimilar to her allies aboard the Nostromo, armed with personality and rejoinders to match their massive weaponry. The characters all make great use of their respective actors, including Michael Biehn as a similarly reluctant leader to Ripley, Lance Henriksen as the tactical Bishop - a much less threatening Android compared to Ash, and Bill Paxton as big-talking, hysterical Hudson. "Game over, man!"
But like his predecessor Ridley Scott, it's James Cameron's tightly wound precision that makes the film tick so well. Say what you will about Cameron's ego or stressful working conditions, but his perfectionism to the tiniest details are to be envied, and no one (save Spielberg) directs action as well as he does. His film follows in perfectly synced rhythm Scott's earlier template of lulls between beats of adrenaline, taking careful time out of the film to build character bonds and atmosphere inbetween each new piece of suspense, as the characters converse and weigh their options following every new plot development, before hurling them into the next set-piece. But even then, Cameron is smart to still keep the Xenomorphs a mystery, even as hordes of them mow the crew down one by one, leading into that fiery and thrilling escape from the facility, capping off with a final showdown brought to life via Stan Winston's stunning animatronic and puppetry work.
To my knowledge, Cameron has openly declared Aliens the best film that he's ever directed, and it's hard not to see why. While maybe falling just short of what its predecessor had accomplished, the pure bone-chilling, heart-pounding, and shockingly quite touching impact and influence of Aliens can still be felt to this day. Between these two fantastic films, it's no wonder why the franchise had such an inevitable decline.
***** / *****
What truly sparked Alien 3's most ardent hatred is the opening scene itself, wherein fan favorite characters Newt, Hicks, and Bishop all met untimely demises following a catastrophic crash. I don't find myself nearly as upset about this plot development as I feared I would be, even though I still find it distasteful to James Cameron's earlier film, as the very first scene completely undermines the entire journey of the last film, and makes it feel as if all of Ripley's actions were for nothing. But to be fair, the reason why I'm not as upset about it is because that's essentially the point of Ripley's character.
Since the very beginning, Ripley has always been the logical center, always reluctant to play the leader and only doing so when completely unavoidable, as her encounters have created a continually worsening feeling of PTSD, and the relative anonymity of the creature and the Weyland-Yutani company's convenient sweeping having turned her into a pariah. It's at this point that it becomes clear that no matter how far Ripley goes, no matter how valiant her efforts, and no matter how many of these things she destroys, she is ultimately destined to fail, never to have a normal life again, all as an unfortunate victim of cruel fate and circumstance. It's a lot of prolonged weariness to ask returning star Sigourney Weaver to deliver on, but she once again carries the film with tremendous strength and commitment, in a way that completely blurs the line between her and her character.
But as far as the Theatrical Cut goes, it's unfortunate then that everything surrounding her isn't as compelling. At the very least, the film features the same great attention to atmosphere that was present in the previous films, with the maximum security prison being a very interesting expansion to the universe, even if thematically it feels as it it comes from an entirely different movie. Despite some truly terrible and dated blue-screen techniques that almost makes you forget Terminator 2 had come out just last year, the actual puppetry and animatronic work on the titular creature still impresses and intimidates, which is sorely needed for a film where suspense and fear are lacking. Ripley also comes across interesting new figures such as Clemens, an empathizing and candid doctor played by Charles Dance, and moral center of the prison's religious believers Dillon, played by Charles S. Dutton, but even these two aren't as engaging as some of the best characters in this series... at least in the theatrical cut.
After that, I have absolutely nothing complimentary to say of the film... at least in the theatrical cut. Despite the intrigue of the maximum security prison planet and their religion, the entire set-up is an incoherent mess that feels like a badly cobbled Frankenstein's monster, almost feeling as if it were taking part in a completely different universe, not helped by the cartoonishness of Brian Glover's stuffy British warden. This entire prison is populated by a bunch of nameless and uninteresting faces, all of them lacking anything distinguishable from the others - including the inexplicable presence of Pete Postlethwaite, so when they inevitably become fodder for the Xenomorph, it's hard to give a crap for any of them. What's even worse are the hackjob scissor slices in the editing room, giving way to idiotic gaps in logic, pacing that actually makes the shortest movie so far feel longer than the previous films, and edits so appalling you wonder who approved this footage. And the third act is a trainwreck, full of unintentionally hilarious moments that once again raise the question of who approved this, including atrocious moments in audio where sound exists when it feels like it. Any good to be found in this edit is in no way able to offset the flaws, making for a miserable and utterly boring experience.
There is no way in which I can recommend this film to you... Unless you choose to watch the extended Assembly Cut. Aside from just adding new footage to the film (clocking in an extra thirty minutes), the cut also goes to great lengths to reconfigure original flaws in order to tell a stronger narrative. This edit fixes major pacing issues, much more naturally integrates the prison set-up and religious themes, gives far more attention to character development, motivation, and differentiation - including more time spent with Paul McGann's violently fanatical Golic, and altogether makes for a much more fascinating, scarier, and much more involving piece of work. It even takes out or fixes a few of those really stupid moments present in the third act. The issues of the original film are still present, including Brian Glover, the aforementioned third act, and an over-reliance on Elliot Goldenthal's score now that I think about it, but it's a vastly improved presentation of the original film.
However, regardless of which edit you watch, the fact still remains that Alien 3 doesn't even stand on the same level as the previous entries. In fact, I wouldn't be one to blame you if you insisted on stopping after Aliens, but while the Theatrical Cut was comparatively a disaster, the Assembly Cut still makes for a solid follow-up, and would have been a fitting conclusion to the Alien series... So what's Resurrection's excuse?
Theatrical Cut: ** / *****
Assembly Cut: **** / *****
And so concludes part one of my coverage of the Alien series. Join me back on Wednesday when I'll be taking on Resurrection, and giving the franchise's single most dividing entry, Prometheus, a second look.