Reel Rumbles: “The Martian” vs. “Alien”
Hitchcock had his icy blondes. Capra had his decent, all-American heroes. Ridley Scott has his solitary survivors in space. The two involved in this Reel Rumble are Ripley, who fends off facehuggers and chestbursters in Alien, and Mark Watley, who survives months of isolation in The Martian by “farming in [his] own shit.” Which of Scott’s resourceful space adventurers can help their movie survive the Flickchart challenge?
T-minus 4: Special Effects and Art Design
The art of H.R. Giger, once seen, cannot be unseen. It is often grotesque, sometimes NSFW, but usually captivating. We do not, thankfully, live in the world he depicted, one in which biomatter is lost among fractals of aluminum piping, hearts are trapped in steel ribcages, and faces are wreathed in “hair” of mechanical snakes. Yet ever since the Industrial Revolution, it is not been difficult to relate to the idea of a world run by mechanical monsters. Adapting Giger’s art for Alien in 1979, Scott downplayed the mechanical aspects (though he has recently revealed that the xenomorphs were “created” by an intelligence) and focused on the primordial, skeletal horrors conveyed by Giger’s more inhuman inventions. The xenomorph on the ship Nostromo is not fully seen until the climax of Alien, but its elongated, bony frame is terrifying enough to make good on the fear that Scott builds throughout the film.
The Martian landscape that Matt Damon’s Mark Whatley calls home probably looks a lot like the real thing, but that doesn’t make its realization in The Martian any less impressive. Ridley Scott’s Mars is like a space-age successor to John Ford’s Monument Valley as seen in classic Westerns like The Searchers: towering mesas, vast expanses of arid sand, and choking dust storms. The dust storms look especially neat in 3D, though 2D is probably better for The Martian’s earthbound scenes. Perhaps the neatest effect in The Martian is the spaceship Hermes, with its 2001-like rotating donut and a long, thin body that glides across the screen. It doesn’t look like the worst place to spend a few hundred Sols.
Winner: Alien — For futuristic horror, H.R. Giger can’t be beat.
T-minus 3: The Crew
The Hermes boasts the most talent-packed, A-list spaceship crew since… well, probably since Alien! Jessica Chastain is Captain Lewis, who makes the tough decision to leave Watney behind and spearheads the even tougher decision to go back for him. Watching her fly weightlessly down the Hermes‘ long corridor is one of the film’s most cheer-worthy moments. Kate Mara as Beth Johannsen also gets a lot of screen time, much of it in front of a computer monitor, but Michael Peña’s Martinez and Aksel Hennie’s German crewmember, both of whom have families at home, are more richly characterized. Sebastian Stan rounds out a crew that, strangely, includes no Russians. There are no Russians to be seen back on Earth either (it is the Chinese who are ascendant in this film’s near-future timeline), but the NASA staff is no less impressive than the Hermes crew, featuring the likes of Chiwetel Ejiofor, Sean Bean, Jeff Daniels, and Kristen Wiig. This is one of the most diverse and entertaining casts in the annals of sci-fi.
When Alien begins, Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) is just one of the Nostromo crew. She isn’t singled out like Watley for some special hell; there’s no way to predict that she’ll be the last one standing at the end of the film, or that Ripley will go on to star in three sequels with a fourth currently in development purgatory. That becomes clear only when the rest of the stars are offed, beginning with John Hurt and carrying on through Harry Dean Stanton, Yaphet Kotto, Veronica Cartwright, and Tom Skerritt. Ian Holm as “Ash” is in a category of his own — he is secretly an android, planted by the Nostromo’s parent company and programmed to transport a xenomorph back to Earth with or without the ship’s human crew. This sweaty, glowering, untrusting crew is well-suited to the needs of a thriller-horror or a mystery, which is in fact how Scott described Alien to Stanton.
Winner: The Martian — Among spaceship crews, maybe only the cast of the USS Enterprise (NCC-1701 or NCC-1701-D) is as likable as the Hermes’s.
T-minus 2: The Heroes
Mark Watley is the kind of confident, do-it-yourself professional that NASA really does employ for its manned spaceflight missions. He’s a believable near-future astronaut, and the way he overcomes the obstacles Mars throws in his way is also believable. Damon keeps up a running monologue that is humorous in a wry, corny, astronaut-y way, both to keep his sanity and to record his efforts for posterity (and to keep the audience in the loop.) He also has quirks, which all great characters need: he has a habit of signing his name on things, leaving little notes for future Martians to find. When he “phones home” he uses profanity to express his displeasure with bureaucratic decisions, and he doubles down when he’s warned that his every word is broadcast live to an anxious world. Watley is funny, likable, and smart, and most importantly he seems real.
Ripley has a first name, Ellen, but she’s badass enough that all she needs is one, and that’s usually how she’s referred to. Where Watley survives by virtue of his botanical and technical know-how (and lots and lots of potatoes), Ripley survives mostly by strength, speed, and her ability to use a fight off a near-indestructible foe using whatever is near at hand. She is not technically alone on the Nostromo for most of the film, but it often feels as though she is. Every member of the crew seems to be in his or her own head, and when the going gets tough, survival is an individual effort. Only Ripley is coolheaded enough to meet the challenge, and the fact that she does so with very little help from men and even less screaming was revolutionary in the eyes of critics and viewers in 1979.
Winner: Alien — Ripley was one of the first female action/sci-fi heroes, and she is still one of the most iconic.
T-minus 1: Influence
The Alien franchise got less inventive, the xenomorphs got weaker, and critical reaction went from glowing to downright angry, but Ripley’s star remained undimmed. It’s no wonder they cloned her in Alien: Resurrection (1997) and that director Neill Blomkamp secured Weaver’s participation for a now-shelved continuation of the story. Despite a perceived decline in quality (the first sequel, Aliens, is beloved by many), Alien has inspired video games, novels, crossovers, and a prequel that may become a prequel trilogy. It is by any standard one of the most successful and self-perpetuating films of all time.
It’s early days for The Martian, but there is already one area in which it can surpass Alien for prestige: the Oscars. Alien received just two nominations at the 52nd Academy Awards, one for Art Direction and one for Visual Effects. The Martian is contending in seven categories, including Best Picture, Best Actor, and Best Adapted Screenplay. (All that and no Best Director nomination makes Scott one of the most prominent snubs.) If it wins even one, it will tie Alien, which received the Visual Effects trophy. Whether a big Oscar haul for The Martian would lead to more science-based space survival procedurals remains to be seen.
Winner: Alien —The Martian hasn’t had time to leave a legacy, but few films will ever be in Alien’s league when it comes to long-term success.
Alien wins the rumble. Don’t bother shouting about it, The Martian; in space, nobody can hear you scream.
Flickchart’s global chart also prefers Alien, at least for now. Here are the stats:
- Global rank: 20
- Wins 63% of matchups
- 778 users have it at #1
- 12184 users have it in their top 20
The Martian (2015)
- Global rank: 370
- Wins 63% of matchups
- 18 users have it at #1
- 103 users have it in their top 20