Alien: 40 Years of Scares

I sat my son down and told him we had to have “the talk.” Son, I told him, life isn’t worth living without the movie Alien in your life. Oh? He says… obviously wary of me and my various “this movie will change your life” proclamations. But I held firm in spite of my past track record well fixed clearly in his mind. With the coming of May 25th, 2019, we were fast approaching the 40th anniversary of one of the greatest movies ever. And so, after his eventual agreement, the glorious, theatrical release version of the movie Alien, was reflecting against the back of my son’s eyes, and traveling its way to his brain…

40 years ago, a new movie genre was born. It was set in a future decades after humanity had already swarmed out into space to get the resources that humanity was desperately in need of back at home. We join the crew of a refinery ship on a long-haul mission that is about to make the first contact with an alien species…and as you might expect, things don’t work out very well. By the end of the film, all but two of the eight crew members (including the cat) were still alive, crumbling under the pressure of the horrors hidden behind the veil of stars we see when looking up to the sky. The film was bashed by some critics and praised by others, it jump-started the career of a great director, and spawned a franchise that spans across four decades. It was called “Alien,” and since its first scary release, it was followed by three direct sequels, two prequels, video games ranging from shooters to movie-based slot machines, countless novels, short stories, and comic books, and most recently, an excellent series of short films released online. And the story of “Alien” doesn’t end here: Disney, the new owner of the franchise, has promised to continue the story in the future. But today, let’s take a brief look at this groundbreaking movie franchise:

Alien (1979) 

The seven astronauts (and the cat) on board the Nostromo, a long-haul refinery spaceship, land on a remote moon to investigate a mysterious signal. One of the crew members, Kane, is attacked by a mysterious creature that, unbeknownst to the crew, lays an egg inside his chest. When it emerges (in a gorily, downright gruesome way, of course), it turns out to be a member of a raptorial species with acid for blood that grows very fast and ultimately kills all members of the crew (except for the android, the protagonist Ellen Ripley – played by Sigourney Weaver – and Jones, the cat). 

The total worldwide gross of the first “Alien” movie was around $200 million, weak by today’s standards but strong if you do the math (close to $700 million in 2019 dollars), all this with a budget of around $11 million. The movie won an Oscar for its visual effects, a Hugo Award, three Saturns, and a bunch of others. 

Aliens (1986)

It took seven years for an “Alien” sequel to be born, but it was worth the wait. James Cameron, fresh off the set of the first “Terminator” movie, was eager to write and direct the film, willing to create a new world and a new direction for the franchise, focused “more on terror, less on horror.” Sigourney Weaver reprised the role of Ellen Ripley (the character she called “Rambolina”) because Cameron insisted. The shooting took ten months, and the budget was barely bigger than for the first film – $18 million. The results, in turn, speak for themselves: “Aliens” was a universally acclaimed blockbuster keeping its #1 spot at the box office for four consecutive weeks, gathering over $85 million in the US alone (about $190 million today). 

Where Alien was slow, and deliberate, Aliens was fast and frenetic. “We’re alll gonna die man!!!” Aliens went on to win two Oscars, a pile of other accolades, and ultimately, it created a genre that would be copied for years, and emulated by B-movie film makers around the world.

Alien 3 (1992)

Six years after Aliens, we were finally blessed with another sequel. This time, Alien 3 was directed by David Fincher, the genius behind movies like “The Game” and “Fight Club”. The film ran into a variety of problems, switching directors and screenwriters, often shooting without a script…and to be honest, it shows. Still, it is one of the most pressing entries in the franchise, praised by many for its atmosphere. Although it received many nominations, it didn’t win any major awards.

Alien: Resurrection (1997)

The fourth Alien film is mostly unrelated to the previous three: it takes place 200 years after Alien 3. What?!? How is that possible you ask? Well, A blood sample left behind by Ripley in the previous film is used to clone her – and the alien queen in her chest – by a bunch of military scientists on a space ship. That’s how. 

And, as you might expect, as the aliens escape, they wrought all manner of havoc across the ship and its inhabitants. The movie was directed by French director Jean-Pierre Jeunet and it was based on a screenplay by Joss Whedon. This was perhaps the most divisive entry in the franchise, with some fans loving it while others hating it thoroughly. It wasn’t nominated for any major awards except for Saturns – and it didn’t win any. Actually? Personally? Resurrection is possibly my favorite entry, mainly because of its truly dark atmosphere, and mindjob storyline that only becomes clear late in the movie’s denouement. And heck, it’s the only movie in the franchise that stars Winona Ryder! 

Prometheus (2012)

Fifteen years later, Ridley Scott – the director of the original, now with a long and fruitful career behind him – returned to the helm of the Alien series…and made a gloriously controversial movie – mainly due to how difficult it is to place in the original timeline. It is the first prequel in the Alien series and tells the sordid tale of the beginnings of our favorite xenomorph. And instead of focusing on our favorite alien, instead it focuses on the “Creators.” The creators are the species that created life on Earth and the monsters to destroy it. Prometheus required the audience to know an enormous amount about the entirety of the Alien universe, and most couldn’t be bothered with this challenge. And more importantly, it forced the audience to have faith in Ridley, which was a bridge too far really. 

Alien: Covenant (2017)

Prometheus – the prequel – was followed by a sequel called “Alien: Covenant”…a title finally looping back to its origin story. And this time, the story had a much more familiar feel to the original Alien series. We have the xenomorphs and the standard film setup.  A planet to give the humans respite from the horrors of space, only to have the rug pulled out from under them. I mean, truly? How many times can you tell the same story, over and over again, and still make it fresh again? And yet, it’s a credit to the original story that five movies later, we are all still biting our fingernails and throwing our popcorn when the xenomorphs take the screen again. 

The Alien Future

After 40 years, is the story of our lovable alien friend at an end? Will Covenant be our last entry? Back in 2015, Neil Blomkamp (the amazing creator of District 9) publicly pitched his ideas to the interwebs in a set of now mythic posts talking about a possible new Alien on planet earth. The now removed Instagram posts showed visits to Weyland Corp., presumably here on earth. Which, would be like having Jurassic Park’s dinosaurs reach the mainland. If you stop and think about that for like a millisecond you’ll realize what a crazy idea that would be. If you’ve read the book The Passage you probably have a good idea of what that movie would be like. But we now know that Ridley walked away from Blomkamp’s sketches and ideas. 

But the other big news was the purchase of the Alien Franchise. Oh? Who was it purchased by, you ask, as I chuckle to myself. Yeah, Disney now owns the Alien Franchise. Yes, it came with the acquisition of the various Fox film studio family tree. Here’s what Ridley had to say about Alien’s future at Disney: 

“It looks to me that the Fox deal is certainly going to go ahead with Disney, and I’ve been with Fox for a number years now. I’m hoping I’ll still probably be there so whether or not they go ahead with such a dark subject, being Disney, as aliens remains to be seen. I think they should because I think, when people have a hard and fast franchise which has ongoing interest, it’s crazy not to do something with it.”

More importantly, what did my son think of the original Alien movie? After the movie was over he said to me – “The movie wasn’t scary, it’s just that the movie was scary. You know? The alien wasn’t scary, but the alien was scary. I didn’t know where it was or what it was doing.” Yes, you are right Ashton. You couldn’t be more accurate. And I for one, right now am very scared with what that lovable creature is up to, and what it is doing! Regardless, happy 40th anniversary Ridley and the Alien team. 

Edited by, CY