The year is 1979, and film audiences are about to discover that in space, no one can hear you scream. Seven years later, the terror returns, and this time – it’s war.
The two films – Alien and Aliens – were unlike anything audiences had seen before, or were likely to again. Each was groundbreaking to its specific genres – the first to horror, and second to action. While most have been able to agree the two are terrific, the real conflict comes when asked to pick the superior film.
Now in this, the inaugural edition of Flickchart’s newest blog feature, Reel Rumbles, it’s time these titans stepped into the ring and finally decided, once and for all, which is the better film.
While most film series suffer from formula and convention, the first two films in the Alien series succeed because they are distinct from one another.
Alien is a horror film through-and-through. It is the story of the ill-fated Nostromo, unaware of its impending doom after answering a possible SOS call in space. Once there, the seven members find a strange creature, which quickly attaches itself to crewman Kane (John Hurt). After a nasty revelation at dinner, one is dead and the rest are in a race against time to capture the creature before it is too late. Alien is defined by its slow, ominous pace, and shocking bursts of violence. While it delivers one of the most frightening creatures of the silver screen, thanks largely to the biomechanical designs of Swiss surrealist artist H.R. Giger, it is really more about mankind’s fear of the unknown. The story mainly consists of seven people crammed into a claustrophobic spaceship with something they can neither understand, nor prepare for. It is a recipe for carnage that allows the audience time to create a horror in their minds that is far worse than anything they will see on the screen.
The second film takes an entirely different approach. In Aliens, the audience knows exactly what they are up against: dozens of hideous creatures that are intent on full colonization at the expense of human lives. For 57 years, Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) has been floating in limbo, the sole survivor of the Nostromo. In her time away, Weyland-Yutani, her employer, has attempted to settle a colony on the planet her ship was originally sent to investigate. Not long after she comes out of hyper-sleep, Ripley is persuaded back into service by a seedy representative of the company named Burke (Paul Reiser). Together, Ripley, Burke, and a crew of heavily armed soldiers return to the planet to discover what happened to the colonists. There, they find the grisly truth, a little girl named Newt (Carrie Henn), and a hive of acid-bleeding monsters. Aliens is a straight-up action film. It focuses not on fear but awareness. Even though the creatures are no less deadly or frightening, the awareness and preparation of the protagonists in the story completely takes the franchise into new territory.
These two films succeed where most genre entries fail. A typical action movie or horror flick chooses genre and plays to those conventions. Alien and Aliens start with genre and then create their own rules. As such, they are equals in the realm of story.
Scorecard: 10-10, Even.
Dan O’Bannon starts the Alien franchise off quaintly. His characters are not flashy, loud, or boisterous, and beyond Parker (Yaphet Kotto) and Brett (Harry Dean Stanton) take themselves much more seriously than do those in the follow-up. Ripley is wound tight and a stickler for protocol. Dallas (Tom Skerritt), the ship’s captain, appears confident at first, but slowly begins to let fear and uncertainty unravel him. Kane is the sacrificial lamb, the unwitting host of a rapidly growing beast that has two purposes in its life: killing and breeding. The script uses dialogue sparingly and falls back on the mood and atmosphere of the Nostromo, a sterile mining ship with cramped quarters, eerie sounds and silences, and an at-large force that is more powerful and capable than any of its prey. In other words, most of what works about Alien has nothing to do with brilliant dialogue or characterizations.
James Cameron’s continuation takes an opposite approach. Corporal Dwayne Hicks (Michael Biehn) is immediately likeable and capable, sage enough to take Ripley’s advice without letting it affect his instincts as a soldier. The android Bishop (Lance Henriksen) is a meek one-eighty from Ian Holm’s cold, impersonal interpretation in the original. Burke is the kind of slime that makes viewers uncomfortable by how much they wish an alien would take hold of him and do its worst. Hudson (Bill Paxton), with his nasally whining and less-than-optimistic outlook, delivers frequent comic relief. Private Vasquez (Jenette Goldstein) is fierce, fearless, and every bit as tough as the boys. And that’s just the supporting cast. At the heart of the film is the relationship between Ripley and Newt. Both are survivors. Ripley faced and defeated the first alien that wiped out her shipmates. Newt watched the creatures destroy her family and evaded them until Ripley and the marines were able to rescue her. Alone in the world, they have found each other at the right moment in their lives. Their bond rings true and gives the film its heart and soul. “Get away from her, you bitch,” remains one of the most iconic lines in movie history and is a testament to Cameron’s success in developing this relationship.
Scorecard: 10-9, Aliens.
The performances found in the original Alien are much like the Nostromo crew – utilitarian, blue-collar, workmanlike. Skerritt, Kotto, Stanton, Hurt, Holm, and Weaver are genuine in their roles, but they play more to the situation rather than existing free from the confines of story. They seem to be created for no other purpose than to keep the plot functional. Any idea of their existence outside the narrative is hard to fathom. Whether as a result of script or the actual performances, there aren’t many distinguishing characteristics. The characters of Aliens benefit from the bravura supplied them in the action-packed script, but they are no less deftly handled by a matured Weaver and her strong supporting cast. Henn shares a respectable amount of spotlight with Weaver, and the two ladies balance their roles among surviving, nurturing, and completing one another. The stars of Aliens deliver laughs, chills, and heart, giving Cameron’s follow-up the nod over its predecessor.
Scorecard: 10-9, Aliens.
Though trailing on the cards, Alien gains ground in the hands of its director Ridley Scott, a highly skilled craftsman, who had previously shown chops in the Keith Carradine war drama, The Duellists. Despite solid handling of a cast, which included Carradine, Albert Finney, and Harvey Keitel, Scott’s work in Alien is leagues more accomplished than his previous effort. In Alien, Scott refuses to insult the audience with cheap gimmicks and timed scares. Throughout most of the film, the only things you will hear are the sounds of the ship and whatever it is hiding in the shadows. Scott does not tell viewers when to jump or feel afraid. He allows the events to unfold and frighten on their own merits. Even today, the typical horror film director takes the easy way out resulting in watered-down entries that are quickly forgotten. Thirty years after it first seized audiences, Alien has not been forgotten. While Cameron’s film matches, and even bests Alien in some categories, Scott wins the day by giving audiences a chilling mood that resonates through the whole of the picture, an unstoppably terrifying antagonist, and an overall film package unlike anything that came before it. While Aliens drew the blueprint for most largely budgeted action films that followed, Alien is more in a league of its own. Cameron’s style can, and has, been duplicated by scores of other directors. However, Scott’s is more difficult to reproduce. To successfully pull off what he accomplishes in Alien, a director must trust his material enough to let it stand on its own. For that to be entertaining, a director must have material worth trusting and the wisdom to recognize it. Scott has both.
Scorecard: 10-8, Alien.
“Alien vs. Aliens” is one of the most difficult fights to score in filmdom for a reason. Both films do what they do pitch perfectly, and the preferred disc you pop into your player on a dark and stormy night relies largely on what kind of movie you’re in the mood for. These two could go head-to-head in ten different bouts and have ten different outcomes. Dissatisfying though it may be, the hard truth is that this is one fight, which ends in a DRAW.