Worst to First: Alien Franchise

Author: Brett Gallman
Submitted by: Brett Gallman   Date : 2017-05-18 00:27

Most franchises tend to slip into a certain inevitable formula as they progress. Studios tend to remain content to deliver what works from a profit standpoint and are typically unwilling to allow for experimentation, much less complete upheaval. However, for nearly four decades now, Alien has been famously resistant of its own status-quo, opting instead to shift and contort with each new entry, leaving it with one of the more unconventional franchise evolutions. Starting as a haunted house movie in space, Alien became the medium for a spectacle-fueled action movie, wacky dystopian sci-fi, and dopey crossovers before eventually returning to its roots (somewhat) with a prequel that was barely a prequel after all. With the release of Alien: Covenant, the franchise looks to move back even closer to those roots, though it certainly wouldn’t be a surprise to learn otherwise. Before peeking too far into the future, however, let’s have a look back at this wild, weird, but wonderful series—including a pair of movies that have been subsequently retconned out of existence. You’ll always be in the canon of our hearts, Alien vs. Predator!

7. Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem (2007)

    Of course, given just how awful this second stab at a crossover is, it’s easy to see why everyone’s eager to blast AvP right out of the fucking airlock. Most franchises inevitably decline, and Alien is no exception. What is exceptional is just how far it fell. Don’t get me wrong: it’s admirable that the franchise shifts and contorts with each new entry, but maybe it should have never sunk to the stuff of teenage slasher movies. Because that’s more or less what this is: for 30 years, the doomsday scenario involved the Xenomorphs making it to Earth, as mankind’s destruction would be inevitable. What Requiem supposes is that the Xenomorphs not only arrived in 2007, but they were also thwarted by the combined might of a moody ex-con, a pizza delivery boy, the latter’s vapid crush, and an on-leave soldier. Oh, and I guess a Predator tasked with cleaning up the mess from the previous AvP factors in, too.

    Still: what is this shit? It’s so far beneath both the Alien and Predator franchises that writing it off as non-canon doesn’t suffice. Nuking it from orbit would be more appropriate. Aside from its reckless schlock impulses, nothing about it works: the characters are uniformly forgettable, the production feels low-rent, and the story is basically non-existent—not that there needs to be much of one for a movie titled Aliens vs. Predator, but even this is stretching it.

    There’s a temptation to leave your brain at the door and just enjoy this as a big-budget take on something like Alien 2: On Earth, but even it’s thwarted by the fact that you can’t see a damn thing. This is not an exaggeration: despite being lensed by the legendary Daniel Pearl, Requiem is often unintelligible because it looks like it was shot inside of a vacuum cleaner bag that’s sitting inside of a closet. If that makes you mad, imagine what it must have felt like to be a member of an effects crew who (presumably) crafted some terrific practical creatures, included the long-awaited “Predalien” hybrid teased at the end of the first movie. For this alone, The Brothers Strause should be barred from the director’s chair in perpetuity. Helming one of the most incompetent studio movies in years deserves the harshest level of director’s jail.

6.Alien: Resurrection (1997)

    Please keep in mind that this is the tie-breaker I’m utilizing between Requiem and the much-maligned Resurrection: I can at least see the latter, so it’s a notch above thanks to utter competence. Nothing else quite speaks to the depths to which this once-proud franchise sank, and this is the nadir of the proper series by a long shot. Not even the legendary development hell endured by Alien 3 yielded anything this lackluster. Despite their best efforts, the Fox’s micromanagers on that film couldn’t wreck the outcome as thoroughly as director Jean-Pierre Jeunet filming Joss Whedon’s script as a black comedy for no apparent reason. It’s no wonder this came out as the most half-baked entry the franchise has to offer, as it’s a film that’s always posturing about being something but can’t figure out whatever the hell that is. Something like Alien 3 is an ambitious misfire; Alien: Resurrection, on the other hand, is a dud.

    Obviously, it surely didn’t have to turn out this way considering the talent involved. Whedon’s presence should have been on obvious boon, and while you faintly sense some proto-Firefly vibes here in the fast-talking mercs-with-mouths, they’re snuffed out by the utter nonsense surrounding them. In the franchise tradition, it boasts a hell of a cast, including 90s It Girl Winona Ryder, Ron Perlman, Brad Dourif, and Michael Wincott. Weaver was also coaxed back to play a different sort of riff on Ripley, who’s now been cloned 200 years after her death so the reigning military-industrial complex can experiment on her bond with the Xenomorph. It’s a concept that feels totally (ahem) alien to the series, though it’s right in line with the franchise’s refusal to retrace steps—to a point, at least.

    Because, honestly, this is the first Alien movie that feels a little bit like a retread—it’s essentially Aliens, only it’s grafted onto this bizarre premise involving Ripley’s clone. It’s an especially empty retread too, as the most noteworthy thing here outside of the cast (Perlman especially rules) is the gruesome effects work. While it’s guided by the same sense of spectacle that drives Aliens, it’s not in the service of anything. Where Cameron threads violence and gore through a lean, ferocious plot, Jeunet deploys them in an attempt to outrun the film’s absolute nonsense. Watching an alien burst through two chests at once is a neat trick, but it’s ultimately just a hollow distraction.

5. Alien vs. Predator (2004)

    After the runaway success of Freddy vs. Jason in 2003, it was only a matter of time before Alien vs. Predator—which had already been brought to life as a comic book and a video game—followed suit. Not only did it predictably arrive, it did so nearly a year to the day Freddy vs. Jason bowed in theaters. Unlike New Line, Fox wasted no time in bringing in Paul W.S. Anderson to helm their crossover, which also never felt nearly as tall a task as the one facing the legions of FvJ screenwriters over the years. As soon as a Xenomorph skull popped up in the Predator’s ship in the second film, it felt like a natural enough crossover—which makes you wonder just why AvP feels so convoluted.

    Of all the possible concepts, Anderson concocted some Chariots of the Gods nonsense that supposes the Predators helped build ancient civilizations in exchange for sacrifices and hunting grounds, with the Xenomorphs serving as their prey. For whatever reason, the premise never quite clicked with me, though I have to admit its wackiness kind of appeals to me these days (it probably helps that AvP is now out of continuity and is easier to appreciate as a “What If?” scenario). In many ways, AvP succeeds in the same manner as FvJ: whenever its delivering its advertised bout, it’s quite fun despite the lackluster characters surrounding it (not that anyone cares about them anyway, of course—though it is nice to have Lance Henriksen around).

    Watching it again after all these years also lends a newfound appreciation for how practically Anderson realized this long-awaited showdown, too. While the decision to aim for a PG-13 rating will always a source of frustration, there’s a bounty of cool effects and an appreciably tactile dimension to the production design. CGI has become so ingrained during the last decade that it’s easy to forget it still hadn’t quite become so ubiquitous in 2004. If Anderson’s more recent Resident Evil movies are any indication, Alien vs. Predator arrived at just the right time. Combined with a brisk running time that overcomes some early pacing issues (eliminating 2/3rds of the Predators right off the bat feels like a bad move), the terrific effects and dynamically staged action sequences make AvP a worthwhile diversion, even if it doesn’t measure up to the premise’s potential.

4. Alien 3 (1993)

    Arguably the most divisive film in the franchise, David Fincher’s follow-up to Aliens was infamously mangled by Fox during a tumultuous production that often saw the director working without an actual script. As such, it’s no surprise that the film—in either its official theatrical version or its “Assembly Cut”—just never quite works. While you have to respect its refusal to simply recycle the same old shit (a mandate set by original director Renny Harlin), it sags under its own ponderous weight and never comes to life. Even the Assembly Cut’s attempt to clarify narrative and tonal coherence means the film clocks in at a preposterous 140+ minutes that begin to drone on about halfway through.

    Which is not to say Alien 3 is a total dud. Certainly, its alienating approach is admirable: nothing announces a sequel’s intentions to thoroughly fuck you right up quite like killing off two beloved characters during the opening credits. Fincher further rubs the audience’s nose in this nastiness with a full, on-screen autopsy of the beloved Newt, whose remains are unceremoniously gutted and ripped apart, forcing viewers to come face-to-face with the film’s confrontational nihilism. Regardless of how it turned out, there’s no argument that Alien 3 at least attempts to return the franchise back to its horrifying roots: just as the working-class crew of the Nostromo is faced with little possibility of escape, so too must the defenseless prisoners in Alien 3 confront the grim reality that nobody gets out of life alive. Death—be it just or unjust—lingers throughout the film, haunting each character, including the previous untouchable Ripley, here delivered a death sentence via Xenomorph impregnation.

    And to its credit, that grim inevitability does slowly creep up and crush you under its weight, perhaps justifying that immense runtime (almost). Maybe Alien 3 was never meant to come to life after all: if Aliens was the franchise’s raucous celebration of clinging to life by any means necessary, this is the sobering, inevitable comedown, a bleak descent into the horror of self-loathing, redemption, and martyrdom. Weaver’s performance is a sublime throughline for these themes, which are similarly woven through a motley prison crew boasting the likes of Charles S. Dutton, Charles Dance, Holt McCallany, and Pete Postlethwaite. In a perfect world, these performances would be in the service of a unreservedly great trilogy capper. Of course, it’s perhaps appropriate since Alien 3 has no time for perfect worlds.

3. Prometheus (2012)

    After the debacle that was AvP: Requiem, it’s not hard to see Prometheus as an aggressive stab at course correction. Not only did it return Ridley Scott to the franchise, but it did so with the explicit purpose of illuminating events that unfolded before the original film. But in true franchise fashion, it did so in the most oblique manner possibly: calling Prometheus an “Alien prequel” is charitable, if not slightly misleading. Scott's insistence that the two films merely share DNA is more apt.

    The most obvious thread connecting Prometheus and Alien isn't the Xenomorph, but rather the presence of the once mysterious space jockey, here revealed to be a member of a race of “Engineers” that possibly produced humanity to begin with. Less an explanation of the Xenomorph’s origin and more an exploration of creation itself, Prometheus shoots for a big, ambitious scope. It’s perhaps the last thing you’d expect from an “Alien prequel,” as the Xenomorph doesn’t make an appearance until just before the closing credits, the eventual product of a mysterious black goo that wreaks havoc on an ill-fated crew hoping to make contact with their makers.

    Expectations can be a tricky thing: given the circumstances surrounding Prometheus, it’s fair to say nobody really saw this type of final product coming, so it’s a bit confounding upon a first watch. Just what is this movie trying to be? Heady, philosophical sci-fi? Brainless, schlocky horror? Five years later, it still feels like a film at war with itself, though I have to admit it goes down a bit easier once you embrace that, deep down, Prometheus is really just the latter: a gratuitous monster movie that’s mostly concerned with melting faces and squirm-inducing C-sections involving tentacle creatures. For all its posturing about weighty themes that go nowhere, it’s at its best when you can just enjoy its breakneck pacing, gorgeous scenery, ruthless violence, and fun character work (Michael Fassbender, Charlize Theron, and Idris Elba are all top-notch here since they get it more than anyone else).

    Yes, much of Prometheus’s plot feels like its internal logic, thematic coherence, and character motivations surgically removed to create a sense of faux-mystery. At no point does it ever approach living up to its lofty ambition to tackle the enormity of time, space, and creation. But it is pretty goddamn fun to watch, and, while I feel like this and Alien 3 could switch spots depending on my mood, I’m currently digging on the one that ends with Noomi Rapace blasting off to solve the mysteries of the universe alongside Michael Fassbender’s severed head.

2. Aliens (1986)

    After Roger Corman spent years ripping off Alien with various productions, it’s only fitting that one of his alumni would eventually helm a definitive, official sequel to Ridley Scott’s masterpiece. Aliens essentially feels like James Cameron—who actually worked on Galaxy of Terror—had enough of the nonsense and told everyone to hold his beer. Here’s what a follow-up to Alien should really look like: a boisterous, testosterone charged action movie that doubles down on the original film’s themes. A complete inversion of Scott’s reserved, quietly unsettling approach, Aliens bowls you over with larger-than-life personalities, relentless action sequences, and spectacular special effects.

    Cameron didn’t let his first studio-backed outing go to waste; if anything, he treated it as if it could be his last by squeezing out every dime and throwing it all up there on the screen for the world to behold. Aliens isn’t just in the discussion about great, effects-driven horror—it’s the alpha and the omega of it and has yet to be seriously challenged in 30 years. There’s a genuine analog texture to Aliens that’s still palpably cool to this day. Forgive the cliché, but it’s just a total blast to watch a kid go wild in a sandbox—especially when that sandbox is full of squibs, rad creature designs, goopy gore, and a host of badass action figures brought to life by Michael Biehn, Bill Paxton, Jenette Goldstein, Al Matthews, and Lance Henriksen. Throw in Sigourney Weaver coming fully into her own as Ripley, and Aliens is not only the best sequel for this franchise, but one of the best follow-ups of all-time.

1. Alien (1979)

    I’ve seen it mentioned that just about every movie-lover goes through a rite of passage where they finally realize Alien is the superior film in this franchise. If I were making this list about fifteen years ago, there’s little doubt Aliens would have topped the list; since then, however, I’ve come to the inevitable conclusion that this one actually belongs here. Despite its sci-fi setting, Ridley Scott’s film is an impeccably crafted masterpiece of natural horror. Everything from its lived-in production design to a ragtag cast of characters often described as “truckers in space” reads as wholly believable, even if it also boasts an 8-foot-tall H.R. Giger nightmare creature.

    Most of the horror derives from the fact that these are perfectly ordinary people whose bad luck forces them to cross paths with an organism engineered to ruthlessly eliminate them. Nothing they can do—whether it involves rigging up gear to protect themselves or making smart, logical decisions to avoid their fate—can save them. A far cry from the dopey protagonists that often populate horror movies, these are smart, cunning protagonists who are thwarted at every turn, outmatched not only by the creature itself but also a corporation that has deemed them expendable. It turns out that the Weyland-Yutani Corporation is the true villain of Alien (if not the entire Alien franchise), a revelation that allows the film to become the greatest capitalist horror movie ever made. After seeing Alien as a child, I spent better part of a year worried a horrible monster would burst forth from my chest; as an adult, I now realize that’s nothing compared to the horrors of late capitalism, a system that reduces us as figures on a company’s bottom line.
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