Cinema Showdown: ‘Alien’ (1979) v ‘Aliens’ (1986)

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James Cameron’s amped up military sci-fi adventure, Aliens, turns 30 this weekend. Aside from Sigourney Weaver returning as our hero, Ellen Ripley, and the Xenomorph still a major issue for humans, very little is comparable between Cameron’s Aliens and Ridley Scott’s original Alien. One film is all high-concept action, the other a claustrophobic haunted house thriller.

Aliens broke new ground in 1986, becoming the first science fiction film to nab a Best Actress nomination for Weaver’s role. It was a major box office success, and it opted to increase just about everything that worked in the original for the purpose of action spectacle. But is it necessarily a better film than Scott’s seminal franchise starter? It probably depends on what you want from your Alien film.

The Case For Alien

Alien is an exercise in quiet tension, measured intensity, and Ridley Scott’s film has the distinct advantage of being the first. But beyond semantics and timing, Scott’s film is just about as close to perfect as a science-fiction thriller can be, and has ever been. While it borrows from sci-fi stories of the past (The Thing From Another World, Invasion of The Body Snatchers), Dan O’Bannon’s screenplay takes those influences and carves its own path of horror.

Alien

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There are three major (and even more minor) elements that make Alien a masterpiece. First is the cast and their characters, a group of blue-collar space workers. These aren’t Jedi’s or ship captains exploring the universe, they’re tired corporate lackeys reluctant to answer the distress call. And Weaver, Tom Skerritt, Harry Dean Stanton, Yaphet Kotto, John Hurt (poor John Hurt), Veronica Cartwright, and Ian Holm, all create a lived-in familial environment amongst themselves. It was, in 1979, a fresh perspective on space travel.

Secondly, H.R. Giger’s Xenomorph is one of the greatest Lovecraft-ian visualizations of pure terror ever put on screen. What’s more, the way it evolves through the film keeps the audience off center, enhancing the shocks. First, it’s hatched from an egg, then it’s a face hugger, then the chest burster (poor John Hurt), then the fully-formed alien. The evolutionary skill of this “perfect organism” is part of what makes it so terrifying.

And then there’s Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley. In most conventional sci-fi films, Tom Skerritt’s Dallas would be the clear hero. But not here, and the decision to have Ripley vanquish the alien at the end of the film and set her up as one of the first female genre heroes was a watershed moment for cinema. Alien was a crucial film, it remains vital and important, and will forever be one of the very best of its kind.

The Case For Aliens

Where Scott’s original film was a claustrophobic thriller with a small cast and one alien killer, James Cameron’s follow up seven years later took everything up to 11. Aliens isn’t the same sort of story, different in tone and scope, and it takes the intimacy of the original and replaces is with wild, kinetic action and thrilling set pieces. This is a military action thriller.

Aliens

The expansive cast holds its own against Scott’s original. Michael Beihn and Paul Reiser are the standout additions, and while Bill Paxton’s “Game Over Man” Hudson might be the most memorable soldier, he’s pretty annoying. The creation of the alien queen and the battle between Ripley and said queen – with Ripley in the robotic cargo machine – is absolutely thrilling. Aliens runs full bore through its plot and should be vaunted for the fact it earned Sigourney Weaver a Best Actress nominee.

The Verdict

Aliens might be bigger, louder, more exciting with wall-to-wall action, but those things don’t necessarily translate to better when held up to Scott’s original film. There are issues in Aliens that hinder the overall product. First of all, Newt is a beating. There, I said it. She’s brutal, and pretty unnecessary in the grand scheme. And despite the roided-up action in Aliens, the film feels bloated and overwrought at times. And again, when held up next to Alien, a film without a single ounce of fat on it, Aliens stumbles.

The action in Aliens is tedious at times, shooting and exploding and on and on, and the rules of the Xenomorph are pushed aside so the soldiers can blow apart dozens upon dozens of them. These aliens have acid blood, a single drop of which burned through several layers of the ship in Alien. This time around, Xenomorphs are blown apart over and over, their blood and innards flying every which way, and their acid blood does very little damage. There’s some, but given the amount of blood spraying everywhere, it seems the entire set should dissolve. That may be nitpicking, but its also a noteworthy omission for the sake of action.

Aliens is also a dreary and dark film to watch. Scenes are hidden in darkness, murky visuals, and one scene near the end of the second act is lit in a garish red light for far too long.

Cameron’s Aliens has its merits, and should be admired for a number of reasons. But when held up against the powerful Scott original, its flaws shine through. Alien is, hands down, the better of the two pictures.

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