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‘Alien’ vs. ‘Aliens’
Both are great, but less is more.
For a sequel, Aliens does just about everything right, and yet it doesn’t quite beat the singular original, Alien.
Aliens almost qualifies as a spinoff. One key character carries over, but the atmosphere, mood, and scope all shift. Even the genre scoots over from sci-fi/horror to sci-fi/action/war. The director is also new, as James Cameron picks up where Ridley Scott left off. Sort of.
(There will, of course, be spoilers.)
The sequel came out seven years after the 1979 original, but decades have passed in the world of the story. Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) pulls a Captain America and emerges from cryogenic preservation much later than she had expected. The time jump serves the story well and helps smooth out the transition from one director’s vision to the other’s.
The movie takes its time reestablishing the world, and it’s smart enough not to immediately turn Ripley into a flawless action heroine. She’s traumatized by the events of the previous movie, as anyone would be, and she has no interest in repeating the experience. Company man Burke (Paul Reiser) convinces her to join a mission as a consultant, and her role grows organically from there as circumstances dictate.
The addition of a child, Newt (Carrie Henn), raises the stakes and is a much better choice than the cat of the first movie. Newt is the sole survivor of her colony, just as Ripley is the sole survivor of the first alien encounter, which strengthens the bond between them. Wanting to rescue a child is believable enough, but wanting to rescue a child who’s endured similar hardship works even better.
Aliens has two climaxes, which initially seems like one too many. The movie reaches a perfectly natural stopping point, giving us the impression that this should be it. Game over, man. But then it keeps going. However, right around the point where Ripley enters in a robot suit and starts boxing out the final alien, the second climax is not merely forgiven but deemed 100% essential.
In the sequel, the aliens have strength in numbers, which enhances the overall danger but reduces each individual alien. Sure, the humans have greater firepower this round, but each alien feels more disposable—and worse, easier to kill. The movie almost gets away with this by finishing with a single big bad, the mother of all these aliens. Almost.
On the whole, going plural was the right call for the sequel. Aliens avoids feeling like a rehash of the first movie (aside from the reuse of death-by-airlock). Even so, the simplicity of the first movie, with its lone predatory alien, remains more effective.
Alien unfolds slowly, integrating us into this future outer space setting, establishing the ship, and giving the relatively small cast room to breathe. Aside from the alien, cat, and computer voice, a crew of seven constitutes the entire ensemble. There’s not even a clear main protagonist at first. Tom Skerritt receives top billing, so 1979 viewers may have assumed his character was going to be the hero of the piece.
The alien, in effect, hardly differs from a paranormal entity haunting the ship, and the way the species reproduces resembles possession. We know so little about this alien and where it came from. We don’t even know how intelligent it is. Is it a powerful animal or a cunning sentient being? Either way, it’s deadly, and our ignorance enhances the fear factor.
A complicated mythology or any backstory would have ruined the movie. It would have watered down the tension with meaningless information. Knowing what not to say is every bit as important as knowing what to say.
Another benefit of a single vicious alien is the implied threat of more. This lone creature causes so much death and damage, but it’s part of an entire species somewhere out there. Just imagine if we ever had to face more than one.
Aliens imagines for us. It may not be a necessary sequel, but at least it’s an excellent sequel that fills our alien-boxing quota.
Paging the Doctor
I first watched Alien long before I ever watched a single episode of Doctor Who. Now I’ve rewatched the movie after seeing every episode of modern Doctor Who and a significant sampling of the original series. And I couldn’t help but feel that Alien is essentially a Doctor Who episode in which the Doctor never shows up.
It’s the classic Doctor Who setup of a vessel or station under siege by a hostile entity. The crew forms the guest cast, and they’re lucky if more than a few survive. But no TARDIS arrives this time, so Ripley has to save herself.
(Now I kind of want to a see an Alien/Doctor Who mashup.)
I’m also reminded of an excellent episode from the first season of the modern series. “Dalek” introduces (or reintroduces) us to the Daleks not by showing any massive fleet or large-scale invasion, but just by having the Doctor and Rose encounter a single Dalek in captivity.
A single Dalek with nothing to lose proved far more threatening, formidable, and interesting than the groups and fleets of Daleks that showed up in later episodes.
A lone alien gets to be a character. Hordes, mobs, and armies of aliens become faceless cannon fodder.
I read Mary Queen of Scots and realized that I’m not all that interested in monarchies. But it’s still a high-quality, well-written book, so if you do enjoy reading about old kings and queens, this book is for you.
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