What's remarkable about the first film in the series, Alien, is that, on a plot and character level, it's essentially a B movie, a haunted house movie set aboard a spaceship with an Alien. What makes it an A movie is Ridley's Scott direction, which slowly builds up tension, then giving us a great payoff that never feels just like a jump scare- but he never really relieves us of the tension. The film is also benefited by strong performances from the cast. While the characters are not super complex, the actors make them feel like real people. Who come to sympathize with them and all their deaths really hurt- especially when the captain of the Nostromo, Dallas (Tom Skeritt) is taken by the alien. Once that happens you feel the rock of the film is gone. What also elevates the film in to A film level status is how terrifying the Alien is. Based off designs by H.R. Giger, the alien is never cheesy or lame. And like the shark in Jaws, only a few years prior, Scott doesn't show the alien all at once but slowly shows us more as the film goes along. The fact that we don't always see the alien adds to the terror of the film- by hardly ever seeing it, we feel it can just jump out of nowhere.
The dread in this film just keeps escalating as we realize nothing can stop this monster. What also enhances the dread is that the real villain of the film is never seen. It's the corporation that sent out the ship and which views the crew as expendable- all that matters is getting the alien back to Earth. It's a theme that's present through all the alien films. The alien is a killing machine but what really causes the trouble is Weyland-Yutani. I think that's what makes this film so disturbing. The faceless villain that has doomed the entire ship.
After Dallas is gone, Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) emerges as the main character of the film. At the time I believe people believed Dallas was going to be the hero of the film. What's also interesting is that supposedly Ripley was the only character written specifically to be a man- but with Weaver in the role, the film takes on feminist undertones. What I like though is that Ripley never really becomes a traditional hero in this film. At the end, left alone, she's scared shitless as she tries to blow up the ship and escape in the hatch pod. They don't make her "tough"- that comes later. She's strong though, scared, but strong.
Aliens, the second film, does what most sequels never have the leisure to do. Most sequels are the same genre of the previous film. Aliens, despite still having the ingredients of a horror film, is actually more of an action film than horror. James Cameron, who had made his name with the first Terminator film, didn't want to remake the first film so he essentially made his own riff on the concept. But while Aliens is very different from Alien, Cameron does a great job of expanding upon the universe Scott created in the first film. In the first film, it was a lone alien in the shadows, stalking the crew. This time, it's war, as the film's tagline declared. Things are no longer just contained to a spaceship, and it's not just one alien.
I think Cameron's main interest in this film is developing the character of Ripley. Ripley has been in hypersleep for 57 years after escaping from the Nostromo. Weyland-Yutani find her but don't believe her story. In the special edition of the film, which Cameron says he prefers, there's a scene where she discovers her daughter has died- she sees a picture of her, a grandmother and recalls she promised she'd be back home for her 11th birthday. This scene, cut for the theatrical cut, provides a great deal of subtext and emotional weight to her relationship to Newt (Carrie Henn). She wants the mother-daughter bond she can no longer have with her real daughter- and by protecting Newt, somehow may want to redeem herself. Cameron makes Ripley a woman out of time, with every one she ever knew dead or old. She's also plagued by nightmares every night. Only by confronting the aliens with the marines can she be at peace. I think the arc Ripley goes through in this film is the strongest out all the films.
Aliens, I think, is the warmest of the Alien films, the one in which I'm most attached to what's happening on screen. But while it has it's tender moments, it's not overly sentimental. Cameron deftly combines and switches between tenderness and real terror. This makes the stakes higher as we know this young girl, and Ripley's redemption, lies in the balance. The film also develops the "Alien" universe's fear of American bureacracy, personified here by Paul Reiser's Carter Burke. At first Burke seems like a decent enough guy- but we learn what he'll do in order to get an alien specimen.
Also- on an action movie level, this film is spectacular. Cameron stages intense sequences of action without losing any of the suspense or fear needed in a movie like this. This feels almost non-stop- but it never becomes overbearing.
Alien 3 is where the franchise started to lose its way. It was a troubled production from early on. There was trouble settling on a script and on landing a director. Renny Harlin,was hired on as director but left to direct Die Hard 2 once the production wasn't coming together. Vincent Ward, who has a story credit on the film, was called on to direct but was fired due to disagreements with producers. Eventually, directing duties fell to David Fincher. At the time, Fincher had never directed a feature film before- only music videos. Fincher, from my understanding, was not treated well by the studio (20th Century Fox) during production- and there were constant re-writes on set. Fincher is one of the things that makes Alien 3 worth watching. Even on his first film, and a troubled one at that, one can see his directorial talent, his eye for great visuals, shining through.
My main problem with Alien 3 is that it feels too much like a franchise movie- and I think this is when the series started to be seen in those terms by the studio. When I say it feels like a franchise film, what I mean is that the script essentially finds a new location to put Ripley in, surrounds her with a bunch of characters to be killed off by the alien, and lets the alien run loose and do its thing. Now to be fair, that description fits the first two Alien films. But with Alien, it was okay to have a straightforward plot and Aliens had a larger scale and a different emotional centre. Alien 3 seems like it takes the basic ingredients for an Alien movie and puts them on screen. The scale of the film also feels too small after Aliens. While I wouldn't want a sequel to Aliens to just replicate that film, I feel this film should have gone to the alien homeworld or bring the aliens to earth- two ideas which were tossed around in the early development stages on Alien 3. By having Ripley crash land on Fiorina "Fury" 161, the film also feels it has crash landed in a story that's not the one the series needed to tell.
Now, I'm not a hater of this film. I can't say I like it because it is such a cold and distancing film- but I do admire some of its elements. I said it feels like a franchise film but there are elements of the film which make it unique. I like the idea of these prisoners "finding God at the ass-end of space," as Ripley puts it. Redemption is a big theme in this film and finds an interesting outlet through these prisoners. My favourite sequence in the film is near the end when Ripley and the prisoners have the alien chase them through the tunnels, locking a door at certain check points. I also like the relationship between Ripley and the doctor Clemens (Charles Dance). It's the closest thing the film has to an emotional centre. Unfortunately, the alien kills Clemens pretty early on- particularly in the 2003 Assembly Cut. The Assembly Cut, which was the cut I watched when I was revisiting the series, does feel a little more developed than the theatrical cut- but it does seem to drag a bit. The Assembly Cut does restore an interesting subplot involving one of the prisoners, Golic (Paul McGann), who releases the alien after Ripley and the others have captured it. Golic worships the alien like a God because the alien did not kill him when he encountered it. Golic meets his end at the hands (or mouth) of the alien. Golic's subplot fits well with the theme of religion in the film and it's an fascinatng reaction from a character to the alien.
The main criticism people have of Alien 3 is the killing off of Newt and Hicks (Michael Biehn). While I can see why their presence wouldn't have worked in this film, I do feel killing them off killed off the possibilities to develop them further as characters as well as their relationship to Ripley. There is an unshakable feeling that their deaths makes the emotional arc of Aliens, not so much pointless but pointless to this film- and I feel the film should have continued their story. The android Bishop (Lance Henriksen) also gets the shaft. It's a shame he gets reduced to a pile of scrap metal and gets only about a minute of screentime.
The most important element that raises this film above the franchise film label is Ripley's suicide at the end of the film- she chooses to kill herself and the alien inside her to stop the Weyland-Yutani from getting it. It's an appropriate ending to the film- and at that time-the franchise.
Of course, a franchise like this never stays dead for long. Alien Resurrection is the fourth and last (in the standalone Alien series). It's my least favourite film of the franchise. It feels very soulless and pointless. The only really interesting thing about the film is having Ripley being cloned and having her come back as a human with alien DNA. Can she be trusted? How human is she. I wish the film had gone a little bit further with these ideas. They seem be there mostly as subtext that's slightly on the surface but it's not taken to the extreme levels it could have reached. There's also no emotional centre for the audience to get attached to. No Newt, no Hicks, not even Clemens. There are a few nice moments between Ripley and Annalee\Call (Winona Ryder), the android who wanted to kill her due to her alien DNA, but it's not developed enough to be something we find ourselves getting involved with. My favourite moment of the film is when the ship enters earth's atmosphere. Call asks Ripley what's going to happen and Ripley says she doesn't know- "I'm a stranger here myself." It's a very poignant moment that acknowleges how epic Ripley's journey has been- it's been 200 years since Alien 3, and 57 years passed between the first two films, making it 257 years since Ripley left earth on the Nostromo.
I also like the scene where Ripley finds the failed Ripley clones and proceeds to destroy them all. If the film had been as haunting and compelling as that scene, it would have been a stronger film. The director of the film is Jean-Pierre Jeunet and like the previous three directors, he has a great visual eye, creating a very good looking film. This is the only film of his that I've seen and I'd see a film where his direction is paired with a stronger script. Joss Whedon wrote the script for this film. In an interview he says in terms of direction and casting, the script wasn't treated that well. I feel even with a different director and cast, the script is where most of the problems lie.
So, those are my thoughts on the Alien series. I should also say that Sigourney Weaver gives consistantly strong performances through the franchise. She and Ridley Scott created a terrific female action hero and it's a testament to the character that we remember her as vividley as the alien.