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Alien xenomorph full body shot

Stupid, annoying people being chased by a monster

Seven-minute read

Alien may be one of the most influential movies ever made, but the actual plot of the movie could not be more simple.

It’s the stuff of many a B-grade monster movie. The crew of a space tug Nostromo brings an alien creature on board their ship that proceeds to kill them all. That simplicity is a strength.

Alien is so good because of how the story is told. It’s why it’s such an enduring and timeless 1 masterpiece. The claustrophobic setting, the tension and the groundbreaking production design alone are enough to define it as a classic.

But the creature itself in design and concept is the real reason the movie endures. It’s disturbing somewhere down in our lizard brain. From its face raping initial appearance to its eyeless-skullfaced remorseless killer adult form, it’s a nightmare being. In a world of Predators and Terminators and Freddys and Jasons, the Alien xenomorph reigns supreme.

In 1979, Alien was tense and disturbing in a way that few audiences had seen up until then – with the exceptions of maybe Jaws or Halloween. But Alien upped the ante by locking its characters in with the murder creature that has a head shaped like a penis just to fuck with the audience’s psychosexual phobias.

The franchise was revisited in 1986 by a then-up-and-coming James Cameron in Aliens. He kept the claustrophobia but in true sequel fashion ramped up the more! more! more! Unlike the “haunted house in space” of the first film he went with balls-out war movie – Zulu in space. Aliens is one of the greatest 2 action movies ever made and certainly one of the most relentlessly intense.

Sigourney Weaver’s imposing screen presence is used to great effect, as her Ellen Ripley is not only the best female action hero in screen history, she’s one of the best ever of any actor. And who could forget the late Bill Paxton as “game over, man” Pvt. Hudson.

Aliens is among the rarest of things: A sequel better 3 than the original.

Some film franchises took awhile to gain speed – James Bond, Star Trek – but Alien kicked off with two all-time classic movies, seminal films that became a foundation of one of film’s enduring movie series. Perhaps only Star Wars had this same one-two punch of masterpieces.

How do you follow that? They did’t.

There has not been a good Alien movie in theaters since 1986. Yet they continue to make them. Worse, the franchise has become just another entry in the “stupid, annoying people being chased by a monster” genre.

It isn’t like they haven’t tried to make a good movie. The history of the Alien universe is littered with missed opportunities. On paper they sound like the most amazing marriages of subject matter and talent since George Lucas considered Steven Spielberg to direct Return of the Jedi.

Consider these pitches 4

  • An Alien movie directed by David Fincher, who you may remember from such films as Seven, Fight Club and Gone Girl. OMG! It’ll be great!
  • An Alien movie written by Joss Whedon, a master of melding lightweight pop culture ideas with deep-seated human emotions, horror and action, eg, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Cabin in the Woods. Holy shit! I can’t wait!
  • An Alien movie with franchise originator Ridley Scott returning to the director’s chair and written by Lost mastermind Damon Lindelof. Mind. Blown.

The results are:

  • Alien 3, a long, boring mess that still somehow gave us the most iconic image of the entire franchise.
  • Alien Resurrection a long, boring mess that still somehow gave us this amazing shot of Sigourney Weaver making an over- her-shoulder three-pointer on the first take.
  • Prometheus a long boring mess that nonetheless gave us the awesome phrase “the Prometheus school of running away from things.”

Unfortunately the foundational idea of Alien isn’t that complex – that simple plot of the first film. There’s no real Extended Universe of story options. Marvel keeps it fresh by making genre movies with superheroes in them. Iron Man 3’s buddy cop movie. Captain America: The Winter Soldier’s ’70s paranoid thriller. Guardians of the Galaxy’s sci-fi romp.

Every Alien movie is roughly this: Humans stupidly bring the xenomorph on board – hey look, it’s a big scary egg chamber! Let’s have a closer look! The xenomorph gets loose because the humans underestimate its danger and then it goes around feasting on the humans’ delicious nougaty centers for most of Act Three.

Prometheus was this except with black slime.

They also continue the tradition of various body horrors, to diminishing returns. Alien: Resurrection gives us a room full of malformed Ripley / xenomorph clones going “k-k-k-kill me. Every moment I’m alive is agony.” The baby squid monster5 extraction of Prometheus is cringey and memorable. But these read like setpieces.

Face it, the xenomorph isn’t that scary any more. The body horrors of the Alien spawning cycle are so well known that you can buy a hand knit facehugger to keep your head warm in the winter. Or a xenomorph plushie. Here in Boston there’s even an Alien: Convenant train car with xenomorph pics everywhere.

Thanks to cultural osmosis and copying, the alien larvae bursting out of John Hurt’s chest looking like the universe’s most toothy and terrifying stiffy has a blunted impact at best.

Based on clips of Alien: Covenant we’re in for a whole new cavalcade of dismemberments a blood squib explosions.

Like the Jurassic Park movies, the Alien series can have whatever first-act setup seems fitting – a mix of human stupidity, failure to recognize danger, greed and a dollop of corporate malfeasance so the audience can learn that we were the real monsters all along. But at the end of the day the creatures have to escape and chase everyone around because that’s what the movies actually are.

Prometheus went for “what’s it all mean” grandiosity and wedded At the Mountains of Madness mythology to the franchise. But it ended up being just a bunch of half-explained Damon Lindeleof mystery box hooey with a group of stupid and annoying humans being chased around for the entire third act. Personally, I was rooting for the aliens.

We’ll probably continue to get Alien movies. We as an audience set expectations of recapturing the visceral fear of Alien or the intense, unrelenting action of the Aliens. Movie studios like nice reliable franchises.

But capturing the greatness of the originals it’s not possible any more than recapturing a first kiss.

  1. I saw it recently in a one-night theater screening and I have no doubt that it could debut today virtually unchanged – perhaps a few special effects tweaks – and still be seen as a masterpiece. Or not. It’s been so copied down the years that critics would condemn it as derivative.
  2. The others are Die Hard and Mad Max: Fury Road.
  3. The others are The Empire Strikes Back, Toy Story 2, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, From Russia With Love, The Dark Knight, Spider-Man 2, Mad Max: Fury Road and Captain America: The Winter Soldier. There are no others. And yes, I’m aware of The Godfather II and Terminator 2: Judgement Day.
  4. Alien vs. Predator and its execrable sequel are not on this list as they are not canon. I once watched Alien vs. Predator at 6 a.m. while heavily hung over in a Times Square hotel room. Don’t ask why. The movie was dreadful.
  5. While this is certainly the most effective scene in the movie, it’s hampered by the fact that the baby squid monster is kinda cute. Just a little.