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A (Not So) Brief Conversation About the Alien Franchise

From the Ridley Scott original to Prometheus and everything in between.

Alien

The following e-mail dialogue between Grantland staff writer Alex Pappademas and Sean Witzke (who blogs at Supervillain and contributes regularly to The Factual Opinion) began two weeks before the release of Ridley Scott’s Prometheus and ended on the Sunday after its opening weekend. It’s important to note here that this is a nuke-it-from-space kind of conversation in which just about every aspect of the original “Alien Quadrilogy” is spoiled, as are some fairly crucial plot points from Prometheus. The Alien vs. Predator movies are neither spoiled nor discussed, because that would mean acknowledging their existence. Some people will undoubtedly view this as curatorial negligence on our part, but we welcome their scorn.

I. DARKNESS, FLAMETHROWERS, BLOOD (ALIEN)

PAPPADEMAS: OK, so: The Quadrilogy! One movie, three sequels, each of which transplants the core concept (Ripley and her crew meet the Alien, the Alien kills everybody) into a different genre.

Aliens is a war movie.

Alien3 is a prison movie.

And Alien: Resurrection is — well, it has Sigourney Weaver as clone-Ripley playing sexy space-basketball with Ron Perlman at one point, and draining what was apparently a non-CGI-assisted, no-look, over-the-shoulder 3-pointer, so I guess it’s a sports movie, kind of?

But let’s start at the beginning, in 1979, with Ridley Scott’s original Alien. I should note here that part of the reason I wanted to rope you into this project was that you’ve recently finished watching all the slasher movies, and there’s a case to be made that Alien fits into that tradition, intentionally or not — and yet it’s also a body-horror movie, and a ’70s working-class sci-fi movie. So I guess that’s my first question to you — where do you file this in the metaphorical video store? 1979 is two years after Star Wars, a year before Friday the 13th — what’s the more relevant context, movie-history-wise? What are the influences this movie’s processing and how does this movie get processed as an influence itself, in the slasher genre or elsewhere?

And at the risk of rendering the rest of this conversation sort of anticlimactic — this is pretty clearly the best one, right? It stands apart from the rest of the Quadrilogy, and not just because it’s the only one that isn’t a sequel and isn’t defined by preexisting expectations, and in a lot of ways it feels like a road largely not taken for movie sci-fi as a whole, too.

Feel free to tell me I’m wrong, or to discard these talking points entirely and give me 1,600 words on the genius of Yaphet Kotto as Parker. He just wanted to go home and party! WHY WILL THESE XENOMORPHS NOT LET PARKER BALL?

Also, to steer right into the Big Issues right away: Where do you stand on Ripley going back for the cat?

WITZKE: There’s no way Alien isn’t the best of the series. That said, Aliens is maybe the best sequel ever made. It’s better than Godfather Part II and Sanjuro, and maybe even Cannonball Run 2, although that’s a tougher call, because that’s kind of a whole movie about Richard Kiel and Jackie Chan hanging out together. Nothing comes close to Alien, though. It’s this strange, unrepeatable perfect storm of a movie where the script is smart, the direction is great, the acting, the effects, the production design — most good movies have one or two of those things, at most.

As for my personal genre distinctions, I’d say that it’s a sci-fi movie, but with a lot of slasher DNA mixed in. Ridley Scott is good at world-building because he’s not interested in “showing his work,” which is what trips up a lot of sci-fi movies. The sci-fi elements aren’t the story. They’re just the setting.

The story is that Scott came to the script obsessing over Texas Chainsaw Massacre and wasn’t interested in sci-fi films at all. There’s a little bit of Texas Chainsaw in the finished movie, especially in the scene where Harry Dean Stanton dies, but there’s a ton of Halloween. Beyond the whole final girl thing — and this movie is kind of where that idea really exploded — there’s the scene where Ripley is in the closet, putting on the spacesuit, which is so close to Laurie Strode and Michael Myers. The opening scene, where air pumps into the ship and we see the camera lay out a lot of the architecture, it’s almost shot-for-shot like the end of Halloween, where Myers is nowhere and everywhere in the house.

I love that she goes back for the cat. It might be the most manipulative screenwriter trick in the book, but once she does it, it’s panic on every level. And people thought for almost a decade that there was a chestburster in the cat until Aliens came out!

PAPPADEMAS: Cameron, in a letter to Starlog in 1992: “By the way, it’s not in the goddamned cat and it’s not in Newt, either. I would never be that cruel.”

Yeah, I’m pro-cat-saving, too. I’ve heard people complain that it’s a false note — like, oh, of course, the girl does the girly thing and goes back for the kitty cat — and although I’ve never seen this movie with an audience, I bet it’s a don’t-go-up-the-stairs yell-at-the-screen kind of moment in a theater. In his DVD commentary, Scott says she goes back to save Jonesy because she’s been isolated from the crew all along and the cat is the only real relationship she has. And when Cameron decides to make her a mother in Aliens (a character beat that becomes more and more important to the mythology as the series goes on), it doesn’t come out of nowhere, because we’ve seen her do a selfless, compassionate thing under incredible duress.

WITZKE: How do you feel about the acting? All these really great character actors, but nobody’s giving an obvious star performance. You don’t really know Ripley’s the star until Skerritt gets grabbed by the Alien, because you see that Kotto and Cartwright are just not going to be able to hack it. They seem scared (and rightfully so) and Weaver is the only one who seems to have it together enough to take charge.

PAPPADEMAS: It’s a pure ensemble movie, yeah. I mean, who’s the biggest star on this boat, at this point in time? You can’t even go by that. Weaver had been in Annie Hall for like five seconds. I feel like Skerritt’s always been famous, but at that point he was just the dad from Ice Castles. Maybe it’s actually, technically Kotto — he’d been the heavy in Live and Let Die, he’d been in a couple of Blaxploitation movies — but you know right away that he’s not our focus character, that he and Harry Dean are going to be the grousing Greek chorus, the guys who aren’t getting paid enough to deal with this shit. (“Shape up — what are you, some kind of parrot?”) I guess, out of all of them, John Hurt post–Midnight Express was kind of a big deal, maybe? He’s the first crew member we get a good look at, when they’re waking up out of their cryo-pods. He’s also going to be the first of the gang to die. He looks like Shane MacGowan in this — it’s awesome.

So for like 45 minutes it’s about the group. I’ve seen Alien knocked for being light on character, but c’mon, by the time everybody gets up from that table — starting with Dallas, who we find out has access to Mother, the computer, and by extension to the Company, and is therefore sort of different from everybody else — we have a sense of who these people are, and who they aren’t. We know this isn’t the Enterprise, there’s not really even an implied sense of mission beyond the job. They’re space-miners, but this could be a bunch of truckers or lumberjacks or oil-rig guys in a break room. They probably wouldn’t be friends if they weren’t on this ship together. It’s this great blue-collar workplace movie where being in space is a job. People don’t rip off this aspect of Alien often enough.

WITZKE: Yeah, there aren’t really a lot of working-class sci-fi movies. Lots of soldiers, lots of cops/detectives, tons of scientists, not a lot of mine workers. There was a little boom in the ’70s — aside from Alien, there’s John Carpenter’s Dark Star (which is the proto-Alien), Silent Running, Outland. Moon is a really impressive recent throwback to that approach.

The dinner/breakfast scenes always felt like the heart of the movie — they’re less like sci-fi and more like Reservoir Dogs or California Split or something, or that great John Milius scene where they talk war wounds in Jaws. You spend enough time seeing them interact as a group that once they start doing things, you understand the dynamics immediately. Lambert and Kane bickering on the planet works because we’ve seen them at that table.

PAPPADEMAS: I love that breakfast scene so much — we’ve had that symbolic-birth-from-the-pod moment, which is as Kubrick-y and soft-white-light futuristic as this movie’s going to get, and then, yeah, you’re right, suddenly we’re dropped right into Altman, with the overlapping dialogue and the camera sort of hanging out and taking everybody in. We’ve seen them bouncing off each other and getting on each other’s nerves, and then pretty soon after that, we get the landing sequence, where we’re reminded that this is space and everything is life and death and their survival depends on working in harmony. I love how the sound design during the landing echoes that — the same voices we’ve heard yammering at each other over bad coffee suddenly become this chorus calling out numbers and orders, blending with Jerry Goldsmith’s score like some kind of avant-garde tape collage.

WITZKE: The way this movie came together is interesting — Dan O’Bannon was coming off working on the destined-to-fail Alejandro Jodorowsky version of Dune, where he was head of the art and design department. He and Ron Shusett write the script together because they want to do a movie with the same team Jodorowsky had put together for Dune, so Moebius, Syd Mead, Chris Foss, Ron Cobb, and H.R. Giger are all in the mix as the ideas for the script are being developed. Walter Hill and David Giler buy it, maybe do a massive rewrite — pretty much everyone says they added the Ash-attacks-Ripley/android-bukkake scene. So by the time Ridley Scott comes into the situation it’s already been developed by this team of stylists with strong sensibilities. You’ve got the Euro-comics visuals from the designers, this amazing Freudian/biomechanical creature design from Giger and built by Carlo Rambaldi, O’Bannon and Shusett bringing in hokey ’50s sci-fi tradition, Hill’s trademark no-bullshit leanness, and then Scott comes in with this lush commercial-trained style.

It was a smart decision on Scott’s part to use Giger’s designs for the derelict alien ship and the Cobb/Moebius ones for all the human technology. The Alien really does look alien in the context of the film. Two different looks for two different planets — it’s a simple solution, but how often does it happen? The robot suits in Avatar look like they were designed by the same guy who did the blue people. Everything in the Star Wars movies looks like something Ralph McQuarrie drew.

It does all feel like a direct response to Star Wars, right? Ash watching the degraded video on the screens when they’re entering the Space Jockey’s ship on LV-426 is a George Lucas trick from THX-1138 and the first Star Wars, as is the overlapping sound design — those voices coming through fuzzy speakers. But pretty much everything seems like a 180 from Star Wars — giant pressure suits, crash edits, darkness, flamethrowers, blood, unwholesome sex. Scott says in the Blade Runner commentary that he wanted to follow Alien with a Dune adaptation as a play to beat Star Wars at its own game, but it never happened.

PAPPADEMAS: Yeah, it’s absolutely the anti–Star Wars. Which is weird, because Pauline Kael actually compares it unfavorably to Empire Strikes Back in her essay “Why Are Movies So Bad? Or, the Numbers.” When I started doing research for this correspondence I was really surprised how many big critics hated Alien when it came out. Kael said it was “like an entertainment contrived in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World by the Professor of Feelies in the College of Emotional Engineering.” David Denby: “Occasionally one sees a film that uses the emotional resources of movies with such utter cynicism that one feels sickened by the medium itself. Alien … is so ‘effective’ it has practically turned me off movies altogether.” Dave Kehr (who singled out the “disco-inspired art direction”). Michael Sragow, John Simon, Leonard Maltin, Sight & Sound, even Cinefantastique.

WITZKE: I saw the same thing looking up Halloween reviews. There might have been a bit of pushback after four years of Jaws, Star Wars, and Halloween just dominating the box office — I can see critics going in wanting blood (and not in the horror movie sense). But nowadays it’s seen as such an austere classic, it’s strange to think there was a time where it was considered trash.

What’s the part that sticks with you the most? The chestburster is an obvious highlight. So is Ian Holm attacking Ripley with the porno magazine. There are a lot of really interesting details in that scene, like the toys hanging in the doorway. I’m a pretty big fan of everything on the derelict. And Brett looking for the cat is the most gorgeous 10 minutes Ridley Scott ever shot.

PAPPADEMAS: Harry Dean washing the sweat off his brow in the rain! This should just become a 45,000-word conversation about the use of rain in the Ridley Scott filmography.

(Also, of course the dickhead cat runs and hides in the Dark Rainy Chain-Storage Area and not in, like, the lab or the breakfast nook. Way to get Brett killed, Sylvester.)

Yeah — it’s funny, the chestburster just doesn’t stop being shocking. It’s weird — I’d definitely heard about it long before I saw it. Like, I didn’t see Alien until college. I saw Aliens first. But way before that, when I was a kid, I’d read all about it in a picture book about special effects, how John Hurt had to crouch under the table with his head through a fiberglass chest, all the blood and KY jelly squirting out. Technically, the first chestburster scene I ever saw was the one in Spaceballs. I had these points of reference, I’d seen the parodies and studied the diagrams and pumped like $40,000 in quarters into this, and I’d been imagining the actual scene forever.

And yet when I finally saw it, it was still totally horrifying. It was actually worse. The monster looks MAD CHEAP and it’s still scary! Something about the monster’s cheapness amplifies the nightmare, for me — those little jaws, like something from a sewing kit.

We could talk about Dan O’Bannon all day. The story about him being homeless after Dune collapsed and living on his buddy’s couch and writing 12 unproduced feature scripts and then a 13th one, which became Alien. Also, the rumor that at USC film school, “he was given the nickname of ‘The Towel’ because he spent most of his time in his room with pornographic materials and was accustomed to greeting visitors wrapped only in a towel,” which Wikipedia says is “dubious — discuss.” I really want to do that, Wikipedia. But these other three Alien movies are not going to nerd out about themselves.

WITZKE: Dan O’Bannon, masturbator {citation needed}.

My favorite thing about Spaceballs is that John Hurt was game to play the chestburster victim again. And that scene is even set in a truck stop! John Hurt gets it.

II. BILL PAXTON FREAKS OUT (ALIENS)

PAPPADEMAS: So, Aliens: Like I said, I didn’t see these movies in order. I watched Aliens at Matt Kahn’s house in the seventh or eighth grade, probably as part of a double feature with Kentucky Fried Movie, because for me and my friends, basically everything was a double feature with Kentucky Fried Movie in those days.

Family lore: My dad took his mom, my grandmother, to see Aliens in the theater. Hey, why not, right? And he couldn’t handle it and walked out halfway through. My grandmother managed to sit through the whole thing, but he had to dip out to the lobby. So it had this mythical quality already: It was a movie that even scared the shit out of my dad. That’s powerful when you’re 13. That was a William Castle–grade sales pitch for the total mind-altering scariness of Aliens.

WITZKE: I saw Aliens for the first time on TV when I was 4, or maybe 5 — too young to understand what I was watching — on a Sunday afternoon, starting in the middle. I think I rented the first two when I was 12. I saw three and four with my dad because we had an unspoken “see every sci-fi movie that hits theaters, no matter how crappy” rule until I was like 15. We gave Sylvester Stallone so much money.

I was always more of an Alien-over-Aliens guy, but recently it’s gotten harder to make that decision. About a month ago I saw a midnight showing of the director’s cut in a theater. It’s just a beast of a popcorn movie. It has a slow build like the first film, but instead of it putting you on edge, then easing off, and repeating and increasing that tension for effect, horror movie-style … once guns start getting fired in Aliens, it’s a relentless action movie for a good hour and a half.

Cameron as a writer/director is maybe stronger on character than Scott, but not as great on atmosphere. So Aliens is really more of a movie about family dynamics than anything else, while Scott was more about conveying themes through images. He does lose the working-class element for the most part, though Ripley still has the truck driver DNA in the power-loader scenes. It’s a movie about soldiers and colonists, which is a more traditional sci-fi angle. It’s a Vietnam movie in space.

PAPPADEMAS: Cameron said all the slang is basically Vietnam slang.

WITZKE: And it picks up on the “corporation screwing the little guy” theme from the first one, with the one Weyland-Yutani officer bossing around Marines.

The effects in Aliens are still just amazing, right? The first Alien is more of a triumph of design than effects, but the second one practically announces onscreen that Stan Winston Has Arrived. [Thing I just learned from DVD extras today: Blade director Stephen Norrington designed and puppeteered the (way more gory than scary) chestburster in Aliens.]

The fight between the Alien Queen and Ripley in the power-loader is a stunner. But there isn’t much in this movie that doesn’t up the stakes on the first movie — more facehuggers running around, swarms of Aliens coming through the ceiling in clusters like the ninjas in Zu Warriors or something. Even the android dies more spectacularly. But it doesn’t feel like overkill because the human element is so strong. Have Bill Paxton freaking out in your movie and people will let you get away with so much. People love that guy, pretty much on the back of his performance as Hudson in this.

PAPPADEMAS: I always liked how, for years, until they tied the franchises together, Paxton was the only actor who’d fought both Aliens and Predators onscreen.

Alien gives us Sigourney and the design and the chest-bursting and all that crucial stuff, but Aliens is arguably more crucial to the series’ pop-cultural profile, because it gives us Hudson and Hudson gives us “Game over, man,” which is the “I’m going to make him an offer he can’t refuse” of the Alien movies, the one line that even people who haven’t seen them can quote.

WITZKE: Important question: Paul Reiser, yes or no? My favorite thing anyone ever said about Avatar is, “Giovanni Ribisi is no Paul Reiser.”

PAPPADEMAS: I wasn’t actually mad at Ribisi in Avatar! He does some really good putter-and-stress-ball acting in that movie, don’t front. But I like Reiser as the friendly face of corporate fascism, yeah. It’s as if when he read for the part, Cameron saw in him the cynicism that would one day give us seven seasons of Mad About You and a giant pile of dumb-ass books about how Relationships Are Hilarious.

WITZKE: Reiser is so good at being a really human corporate shit. He flips it around — he’s a bad guy who thinks he’s a good guy. That Reiser–does–Curb Your Enthusiasm sitcom would have worked if he’d just played it as Burke.

PAPPADEMAS: My favorite minor character is definitely Colette Hiller as Ferro, the dropship pilot, just for the “annoyed hipster coffee-shop employee” look she gives when Spunkmeyer doesn’t answer her (because he’s dead). By this point, everyone else in the movie is running around screaming, and she’s like, “I’m not even supposed to BE here today.” She’s, like, inventing the Aubrey Plaza eye-roll in that moment.

III. A LITTLE BIT OF CHILD AUTOPSY GOES A LONG WAY (ALIEN3)

WITZKE: Something I never caught until watching this again: The opening credits are so different from the main titles in the rest of the series. Important story stuff you need to know is slammed at you before you have any time to get settled. The only other movie I’ve seen do that is John Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness, and even there it is done very slowly so you get the rhythm immediately. It’s kind of a great introduction to a louder, faster movie than the one we’re about to watch.

PAPPADEMAS: It’s cut the way you’d cut a flashback, or an expository dream sequence designed to remind the audience of things they’ve already seen — just these split-second glimpses of horrible things happening onboard the Sulaco — but it’s actually plot. We’re still figuring out where to put our popcorn, as it were, and Newt and Hicks are dying!

(Everybody was pissed that David Fincher killed off Newt and Hicks in a montage, that these people we’ve seen survive the second movie and have come to care for die off-camera, without even a heroic-sacrifice scene. But it actually increases the emotional impact of killing them off, in a way — we’re thinking, They can’t be dead, and then they are, which is how it works in real life, more often than not. Plus we find out they’re dead at the same time Ripley does, and seeing her get gut-punched with that information makes us feel that much more gut-punched, too.)

And on some level the credits-as-first-act thing — and the general visual skittishness of this movie — are Fincher the MTV guy, skipping over stuff in quick cuts because he’s nervous about the audience getting bored. And yet he spends a ton of time on atmosphere and character and, like, just showing us the grubby pseudo-medieval men’s colony and how totally brown and rusty everything is. We don’t get the expository “Let me get this straight — they’ve got acid for blood and they’re going to lay eggs in my what?” conversation in this one until just before the one-hour mark. That’s a long wait. At this point I guess they’re assuming that everybody in the audience knows the rules.

WITZKE: One thing you pick up from all the making-ofs and commentary tracks is that Ridley Scott and James Cameron have a real respect for each other and each other’s movies. (Cameron says he “went to school on Ridley’s style of photography” before making Aliens.) But whenever they get the chance, they talk about how David Fincher is a great visual director, but he ruined Alien3. Fincher is a massive fan of those guys, too — he’s the reason we have the Blade Runner special edition without Ford’s voice-over, because he and his producer took a day off on Alien3 to go see a revival of Blade Runner and the studio had accidentally sent the theater a print without the narration, and Fincher made some noise in Hollywood to get it released. What’s it like to have your hero kind of hate you, even though you redeemed his masterpiece? This may be why Fincher doesn’t like to talk about Alien3 so much.

PAPPADEMAS: And Scott claims that when they decided to make a sequel to Alien, he didn’t even get the courtesy call, right? So it’s pretty big of him to say anything positive about what Cameron did with it. I guess we can assume he really hated Alien3.

WITZKE: I kinda dig Alien3 a lot, even though most people don’t. Considering how messed up the process of making it was, I think the finished movie turned out as solid as a third sequel gets to be without featuring Roddy McDowall as a time-traveling ape astronaut.

PAPPADEMAS: I think up until I rewatched this one last week — it had been at least 10 years, not counting times I caught the last hour on cable or whatever — I would have said it’s the beginning of the end, but watching it this time I was surprised by how good it seemed. Obviously at the time a lot of people went in expecting even more action than Aliens — which is kind of what rendering the title as “Alien cubed” implies — and it’s remembered as a disappointment because it’s actually sort of slow and dark and grubby and nobody has guns. They broke the sequel rules by going smaller.

It’s one of those movies that’s been diminished by how much we know about the circumstances of its making, because now there’s an Internet, so we know there were like 50 different scripts and what they shot was basically a made-up-on-the-day hybrid of all of them, and you’re three clicks away from reading all about the straight-up-medieval Vincent Ward version while looking at all the concept art of the wooden planet. There’s trace elements of that stuff in the final version, like the fact that the prisoners are a kind of religious order, but I kinda wish I could watch the Ward version right now. I’m not even a big fantasy guy, but dude, wooden planet.

WITZKE: In the DVD extras, they talk about how all the design people hated the idea of a wooden planet, and just wouldn’t work on it because it didn’t make scientific sense, which is just crazy considering that this is a series about a monster with acid for blood. But yeah, knowing so much about the making of it does kind of ruin it. There was an Eric Red script! And a William Gibson script! I love both of those guys!

Fincher’s more of a stylist than anyone who’s directed one of these so far. Today we know him as this powerhouse, micromanager director. But back then he and Michael Bay and Simon West all shared a studio, and were all considered part of this “music video” trend. These guys were supposedly destroying moviemaking for a while there.

PAPPADEMAS: You reminded me that Simon West existed. Which in turn reminded me of The General’s Daughter. I kind of hate you for reminding me of that movie.

WITZKE: Oh, man, The General’s Daughter. I saw that, but seem to have blotted it out of my memory completely. Con Air is still the ’90s Character Actor Olympiad and I love West forever for that. And then he’s done nothing good since. It is crazy that those Propaganda guys were considered each other’s peers for a while, and then half of them went the Bruckheimer huge-action route, and Jonze and Gondry went on to be these patron saints of indie movies. Alien3 looks great, but it does kind of look like every other sci-fi movie or music video from the ’90s, from Screamers to “Express Yourself.” A lot of big industrial sets with great lighting.

PAPPADEMAS: Steam pipes and spiral staircases, just waiting for a dance number to break out. Do we notice that stuff because it’s ostentatious or because Fincher’s omnipresence as a music-video director back then made those tics really familiar? Ridley Scott had made a ton of commercials, but the “Ridley Scott look” wasn’t a thing people could identify when Alien came out.

WITZKE: The cross-cutting between Newt’s funeral and the Alien being born, important moments happening on punched words — that’s MTV. He repeats that trick a few times — when the xenomorph shows up in the infirmary, when Ripley is running to the mess hall during one of Dutton’s speeches.

PAPPADEMAS: One of the really interesting things about these first three movies is that they’re all first or second features for the people who directed them, so you’re watching three different major directors in the process of defining their style within the same basic story template. In a way it’s like “Xenomorph movie with Sigourney Weaver” is the genre and they’re each interpreting that.

So yeah, you get Fincher doing nervous, show-offy things (upside-down Alien-POV shaky-cam!), but watching it in 2012, you also see hints of what he’s going to become — the Project Mayhem shaved heads but also all the nasty detail work in Newt’s autopsy sequence — shiny tools, blood in the drain, bone-saw sounds, fluorescent light. That sadistic specificity. Apparently he shot that way more graphically and then someone gently suggested to him that a little bit of child autopsy goes a long way.

WITZKE: Fincher’s been moving toward more and more realistic procedurals ever since, to the point that now, if someone gets on a train in Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, he shows the time passing, and then he shows the guy getting off the train and getting in a car and driving somewhere. “No cheating” is a big thing for him now, and I think it comes from everybody seeing this movie and going, “Slick MTV director David Fincher.” Alien3 is his Piranha 2 — it’s a career footnote for the future director of Zodiac.

PAPPADEMAS: I think it’s cool how in each of the first three, Ripley is sort of moving down the socioeconomic ladder of a corporate-ruled universe. She starts out as an independent contractor, a citizen, and then in Aliens she’s basically a soldier — one of the people the Company sends in when colonialism fails — and now in this one she’s at the bottom of the food chain, with a bunch of prisoners. They’re living on the planet where this futuristic über-capitalist society dumps its scrap; they’re scrap, in some ways.

Somebody, I forget, to Ripley: “This whole place is a basement.”
Ripley: “It’s a metaphor.”

WITZKE: “It’s just down there in the basement” — that’s an Evil Dead 2 joke, isn’t it? Kinda? Ripley falling down the corporation’s ranking makes a lot of sense. It’s great how in all the wide shots, you see that the prisoners have Weyland-Yutani logos plastered on their backs. They’re barely people. Alien3 hammers hard on something Cameron toys with in Aliens — the idea that everyone Ripley gets close to eventually dies, which is a great character trait for someone in a prison movie, that guilt of having brought yourself to this place — but in the end it’s not the Marines who show up, it’s just clean-suited techs from the Company. It’s the Company’s fault.

(Sort of ironic that everyone who made one of these movies got screwed by a corporation at some point in their career — Scott had his next movie after Alien, Blade Runner, taken away from him, Cameron had the same thing happen with Piranha 2 and lost Spider-Man to studio politics, and Fincher had it happen on his contribution to the Alien series.)

Charles Dance (Tywin Lannister/Sweet Brother Numsi) is pretty good as the medic, and Sigourney is great, but this is Charles S. Dutton’s movie. He’s kind of playing a mix of Bird Man of Alcatraz, Duvall in The Apostle, and D-Fens; he’s all over this thing. “You’re the guy who made the deal with God to live forever.” He’s a brand-new kind of character in this series — the isolationist nutjob badass. The rest of the criminals could be played by anyone, but he’s really compelling to watch doing anything. Staring at people. Eating.

PAPPADEMAS: We should probably note that this is the first time in the series that there’s any romance and/or sex. Ripley — who’s spent the series up until right now being systematically stripped of every aspect of her femininity, from her hair to her capacity to be a mother to anything except a monster — totally hooks up with Tywin Lannister. Who’s actually kind of a boring character, truth be told. Why didn’t they just make Dutton the love interest? Did they think even a hip ’90s audience — probably full of dreadlocked white people in Cross Colours overalls! — would frown on Sigourney Weaver knocking boots with Roc in space prison?

I think Weaver’s really good in this one, too.

WITZKE: She plays Ripley as suicidal before Ripley announces she’s suicidal. In the first two, she spends the first half of the movie not acting, until she’s forced to — but this time there’s not a lot for her to hide behind, so there’s a lot of very visible fear. She feels less of a need to keep it together — I think the way the film is paced you don’t really notice how fast this happens, but she jumps right into bed with Tywin Lannister after seeing Newt’s body mutilated. But that might also be because she knows she’s dying. Ripley in 3 is the first character in the series since Kane to walk around carrying a chestburster. There’s a distinctly ’90s metaphorical AIDS aspect to that, which was probably played up a lot more in earlier drafts. Ripley having sex with a guy she barely knows, finding out she’s carrying something that will kill her, then later begging another man she barely knows to kill her — that all works, as part of that metaphor.

IV. A DUMB, SAD MONSTER WITH DUMB, SAD BABY EYES (ALIEN: RESURRECTION)

WITZKE: I had forgotten that Resurrection starts off with Ripley saying Newt’s line, “My mommy always told me there were no monsters, not real ones, but there are.” Which is, uh, a very Joss Whedon thing to do. They kind of end up treating Ripley as a cross between Snake Plissken (Perlman even says “I thought you were dead!”) and Val Kilmer in Top Gun. Alien3 was the prison movie, but this is the one where Weaver really plays one of those burned-out demolished wackos in the joint.

On the other hand, it’s a pretty interesting/weird cast. Ron Perlman and Dominique Pinon from Jeunet’s City of Lost Children. A couple of Coen Brothers repertory guys. The doctor from Deadwood. The guy from CSI. The skeezy manager from Strange Days. Tuco from Breaking Bad. The screaming guy from Seven. Oh, and Winona Ryder at her Reality Bites ’90s-est, playing the android. The xenomorphs talk to each other in screams, which seems like the kind of thing that would have gotten Fincher fired.

It’s a Bad ’90s Sci-Fi Movie Released Between Terminator 2 and The Matrix, which is almost a genre unto itself. (There are even a few really enjoyable ones — Event Horizon is one hell of a good bad movie. So is Demolition Man.) Ripley and the xenomorph are the only things that keep it from being Species III.

It’s like they really wanted to do a movie about hard-drinking space pirates, or about the sadomasochistic elements of Ripley’s relationship with the Alien, but they ended up with a director who doesn’t seem particularly interested in either of those things. Jeunet seems like he’d be way more into making a movie about Dourif and the other mad scientists rebuilding the xenomorph from scratch or a movie about Call, the Winona cyborg with a heart of gold. It’s tough to say if the problem is the script or the director, though — my understanding is that this was basically shot from a storyboard.

Oh, and that’s the end of Goldfinger, with the Alien hybrid getting sucked through the window, yeah? Which is — well, it’s a strange if inevitable place to go for this series, which has a long history of blasting monsters out of airlocks.

PAPPADEMAS: I feel bad for the poor stupid white xenomorph whenever I watch that airlock-purée thing happen, I really do. I can’t help it. Such a dumb, sad, shitty monster with dumb, sad baby eyes.

I think I like Whedon way more than you do, but this isn’t a proud moment for him. This is what he told the A.V. Club about it:

“In Alien 4, the director changed something so that it didn’t make any sense. He wanted someone to go and get a gun and get killed by the alien, so I wrote that in and tried to make it work, but he directed it in a way that it made no sense whatsoever. And I was sitting there in the editing room, trying to come up with looplines to explain what’s going on, to make the scene make sense, and I asked the director, “Can you just explain to me why he’s doing this? Why is he going for this gun?” And the editor, who was French, turned to me and said, with a little leer on his face, [adopts gravelly, smarmy, French-accented voice] ‘Because eet’s een the screept.'”

Then he went and punched a bathroom stall, he says. Unlike, say, X-Men, where only two lines he wrote made it to the screen, this movie really does feel “Whedonesque” in a lot of ways — clone-Ripley is now officially a superheroine, and the whole space-pirate subplot feels like community-theater Firefly, right down to the badass enforcer dude with a girl’s name.

WITZKE: Jeunet’s on the clock for this movie. There’s only a surface-level similarity between Krank in City of Lost Children and Dourif cranking it to 11 here, or between Call and Amelie, despite both those characters being whimsical plot hammers with secrets. Jeunet seems to have looked at it as a really lucrative commercial job he could do while he was putting Amelie together, which is a relatively sane way to approach working on one of these huge movies. You never saw him doing interviews for Micmacs and being forced to explain what happened on Alien: Resurrection, the way they’re still bugging Fincher even as he promotes his third or fourth Oscar contender.

The directors of the first three are all pretty similar, in the way they approach shots and move characters through a narrative — they’re all kind of post–Stanley Kubrick directors. Jeunet is coming from the Gilliam/Burton/Gondry school, that more dreamlike approach, where the characters are metaphors for Big Ideas and if there’s a world being built, it isn’t one where people say things like “The acid will eat through the hull!”

PAPPADEMAS: Right — he’s not overly concerned with consistency of tone, either. He’s not worried that having Dan Hedaya going super-broad — all sideburns and homina-homina spit-takes, basically rehearsing to play a cartoon Nixon in Dick two years later — is going to detract from the horror stuff. It does, though.

WITZKE: Winona’s performance is the biggest bummer of the whole film, because you can tell in certain moments that she would have been game to do all the crazy Ripley-in-Aliens material, but the script doesn’t give her much, other than that “Father’s dead, asshole” moment, which feels really unearned. (I guess if Father had been as much of a pain in the ass as Mother in Alien, it would have worked. But it’s such an easy move).

In that scene where Clone Ripley and Call sit and have their heart-to-heart, you can see that either Khondji or Jeunet is deliberately shooting/lighting Winona to make her look drastically better-looking than Weaver. Maybe they figured Clone Ripley shouldn’t look gorgeous, because she’s part-xenomorph, but maybe they just fell in love with her, like everyone who’s ever worked with Winona Ryder ever.

PAPPADEMAS: The other problem is that in the first three movies, Ripley’s been a normal person dealing with horrendous circumstances. Weaver’s joked about Ripley becoming “Rambolina” in Aliens, but she’s still uncomfortable with a machine gun in that. In this one, she’s a lab-grown alien-human hybrid who can bend steel and snuggle the Alien Queen without dying. It makes her into a more traditional sci-fi protagonist with a Very Special Destiny. And the more her Specialness is a given, the harder it becomes to care about the non-Ripley characters when they die.

WITZKE: There’s a lot of Very Special Destiny in everything Whedon does. It’s also really hard to care about any of these characters — or even to hate the bad guys — because we know there’s not a lot at stake. Not only because Ripley’s bonded to the Alien, but because we know she’s survived killing herself. You never think Hedaya’s going to outlive Ripley; you could at least wonder if Burke had.

PAPPADEMAS: Also: Most implausibly long holding-breath-underwater scene in a sci-fi movie since Kirk’s rescue of the whales in Star Trek IV?

WITZKE: It reminded me more of The Poseidon Adventure. So I guess Ron Perlman is Shelly Winters? That’s the big expensive set piece in this movie, that’s their showreel. And it is a weird choice — but when I saw this film in the theater, that was my absolute favorite part of the movie. That or Christie’s wrist guns, because I don’t think I had seen Taxi Driver at that point. The other big set piece is when Ripley finds the seven failed Alien-Ripley hybrids of herself, barely hanging together in a lab, and torches the place. Which is great on a Dan Harmon story-circles screenwriting level — she has to destroy all the old versions of herself to move forward — but it takes place at such a weird point in the movie, right before she goes to the Alien hive and watches the Queen give birth. If she’s accepting that she’s more Alien than human, why does she freak out when she sees the clones? More Eets Een The Screept, I guess.

PAPPADEMAS: I think it’s just a visceral reaction. “We made this clone of you that looks like a 150-pound pile of armpit-cancer with your face on it.” When the one Ripley clone that’s still alive begs her, “Kill me,” that’s the most genuinely horrendous thing this series has given us since the first chestburster.

WITZKE: How do you feel about what James Cameron said, about how all the things that derail 3 and Resurrection — Ripley being in a situation without guns, shaving her head, dying, becoming one with/having sex with the Alien — were ideas Sigourney Weaver pitched him on Aliens?

PAPPADEMAS: The actual Cameron quote, just so people can read it, is “[Sigourney] tried to have an influence on Aliens, but it didn’t work! She said, ‘I don’t want to shoot a gun,’ I said, ‘No, you have to shoot a gun.’ ‘Oh, well, can I get killed?’ ‘No.’ When I saw the third film I cracked up, because it was all the things she’d asked for on the second film.”

V. STEPHEN STILLS’S ACCORDION (PROMETHEUS)

PAPPADEMAS: OK. Prometheus. Let’s go.

WITZKE: I always liked the Richard Schickel thing where you don’t watch the movie you want to watch, you watch the movie that’s there. I think a lot of the reaction to Prometheus is people wanting Alien Zero but getting this combination of pre–Star Wars “Big Ideas” science fiction and the proto-Alien aesthetic of Heavy Metal magazine.

But it’s a Ridley Scott movie — weird light sources, smoke, a planet where the terraformed atmosphere gives us convenient indoor rain. You know whose hands you’re in right away. Visually, and also thematically — there’s a lot about “what makes us human” even in Scott’s non-sci-fi work, a lot of heroes getting pushed into allegiances that are counterproductive to their survival. And in most of his movies the only characters who survive to the end are those able to adapt to massive, life-destroying changes. There’s some cool Ridley-specific things running through the whole movie — Guy Pearce’s makeup is eerily close to the grandfather in Texas Chainsaw, and I can’t believe that’s a coincidence, especially with the scene where two of his (metaphorical?) children kneel at his feet to talk to him. And that scene where Ellie (almost Ellen) walks onto the crashed lifeboat and we see the glitching video screen looping a golden field, and the entire floor strewn with open books — that might be the Ultimate Ridley Scott Visual. Maybe if it had some rain, that’d put it over the top.

PAPPADEMAS: Parenthetically: It’s the afterlife from Gladiator, right?

WITZKE: There’s a good argument to be made that this is the first true post-Avatar movie, because it’s a massive-budgeted 3-D sci-fi movie that’s also about bringing the roots of the material forward in a way that movies made after Star Wars and Alien haven’t. (Well, maybe John Carter counts, in that respect, but let’s ignore John Carter the way the American public did.) The story of this thing could have been made in 1958 in black and white — but that’s the perk of it being Ridley Scott, because there is so much delivery on the ideas visually.

The design work! The thing that attacks the Engineer at the end of the movie is really close to Ron Cobb’s original pre-Giger design for the xenomorph, and the gigantic dome most of the movie takes place in is an unused Giger Dune design. The spacesuit designs are a smart in-joke about Mario Bava’s Planet of the Vampires (which people said was a huge influence on Alien, although neither Ridley Scott nor Dan O’Bannon had seen it) plus awesome Wally Wood glass helmets.

PAPPADEMAS: Which are so ’50s sci-fi, yeah. And then the Engineers themselves look like the Draags from Fantastic Planet.

WITZKE: Also, just for nerdiness’s sake — Benedict Wong showing up is just fantastic. On the Moon commentary, Duncan Jones jokes about how he only cast Wong because he was in Sunshine and now the movies are in continuity with each other. So I guess now Moon and Sunshine are in the Alien continuity as well. The guy’s a hell of an actor, too, and sells the shit out of his three or four lines. Charlize Theron’s Meredith Vickers is kind of a composite of all the James Cameron characters into one performance, which is pretty neat to see her pull off and not being a bunch of gestures. The auto-surgery is definitely the most harrowing moment in any of these movies, and Noomi Rapace sells the shit out of that scene. Also, Rafe Spall was definitely impersonating Damon Lindelof for the entire movie.

PAPPADEMAS: To your Schickel point above: There was definitely a gap between the movie I was expecting this to be and the movie I ended up watching. Which was OK with me — but I was actually primed to digest a bigger mess of philosophical gobbledygook, based on people’s initial reactions. That Tree of Life/Discovery Channel opening, the Chariots of the Gods setup — that’s a misdirect. It’s a monster movie! It’s a fantastic monster movie, too — I’m not mad at all. I think it uses the our-search-for-the-Creator mumbo-jumbo to make you believe you’re watching something slow and meditative and then slips the death-eel inside your faceplate.

So maybe it doesn’t hang together — I’ve had a few “fridge moments” since I saw it, beginning in the car on the way home, when the person I saw it with asked me why David spikes Dr. Holloway’s champagne with alien goop and I couldn’t come up with an answer aside from, y’know, symbols. And I love Idris Elba sitting around playing Stephen Stills’s accordion — how many people do you think took that as a Scott Pilgrim reference, by the way? — but the moment when he just suddenly intuits that the domes are a military installation and all the weird gucky things in them are Space Jockey WMDs just seemed way too convenient, like he’d sneaked a peek at the official movie tie-in novelization.

But that’s minor plot-hole stuff — the thing I don’t get is people’s dissatisfaction at the lack of “answers.” I guess maybe that’s nerd world’s knee-jerk response to anything written by Lindelof, but I thought we got just enough explanation of what the Engineers were about, where the Alien came from, and so on. Where are you on that last shot?

WITZKE: I’m of two opinions about it — part of me thinks it’s showing too much, but it was just plain awesome when it happened. I like how it only half-gave us what we wanted, but it was still new enough to be horrific and, well — alien.

PAPPADEMAS:
I’m probably a bad person, but I immediately thought of this.