It has recently come to my bewildered attention the sheer volume of people I know that haven’t seen any movie in the Alien franchise. Due to Alien: Isolation‘s release date growing closer, I’ve heard this from close friends and industry veterans. This is staggering on many levels that I won’t go into here. But what I will say is how confused I am that this has happened. These movies are so legendary, so important to cinema, science-fiction and games that it comes as a shock to see how many people allowed this travesty to befall themselves.
Considering how inherent the Alien movies have become in my life, it is difficult to look at them from any other viewpoint. But I can try to understand that it may be a little daunting for people to just dive in headfirst without knowing how to go about it. Because there is a method to these movies. A cadence, a flow. Claustrophobic as they may be, each movie contains its own dance that belongs to each director that allows the characters to breathe, grow and become legend.
Another important point to make is that 90% of video games wouldn’t exist in their current form without the Alien movies. Space marines, derelict outer space, future weapons, insect-like aliens and countless other little influences lie within every scene. They are seminal masterpieces. Well, almost all of them.
But I wouldn’t want anyone unfamiliar with them to watch them incorrectly. To get the most out of this universe, you need to do it right. So let’s begin. We’re in the pipe five-by-five.
ALIEN (1979) THE HAUNTED HOUSE
There’s seven people on a mining ship in deep space. They encounter an alien and everything goes to hell. It is an exceedingly simple story but thanks to the style, acting, atmosphere, visuals and suspense, it goes from B-movie to mind-shearing cinema. Nothing like this happened at the movies before. The reason it works is partially because HR Giger’s Alien design is such an uncomfortably bizarre creation. Its body, reproduction process and behaviour burst into people’s faces two years after Luke Skywalker’s adventure into the stars and to this day, is still so…alien. Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley isn’t a hero. None of the crew members are. Which makes the creature all that more threatening. It’s a quiet, sweat-numbing experience.
Preferred version: Ridley Scott released a Director’s Cut in 2003 but to be honest, it doesn’t make much difference. He adds some scenes and shortens others but it makes no impactful variations. Even a scene featuring characters being cocooned doesn’t really add to the film. The original is still perfect.
ALIENS (1986) THE WHITE-KNUCKLE ROLLERCOASTER
The first movie could almost be seen as an arthouse film compared to James Cameron’s sequel but that doesn’t make Aliens a bad movie. In fact, it’s totally goddamn awesome. Ripley is deeply traumatised from the events of the first film, there’s hundreds of aliens and it introduces the most iconic and badass platoon of marines ever committed to the screen. If you’re watching this for the first time, every second line will stand out as something that somebody has referenced to you in the past thirty years. Some reviewers in 1986 could barely watch the film due to the unrelenting adrenaline that most of the scenes deliver. In amongst this thrill ride, Ripley finds a connection with a young girl named Newt that she uses to try to fill a void in her life. And it works. Every character brings something special to the table and it’s no wonder Weaver was nominated for an Academy Award for the movie. She’s incredible. Just like the entire movie.
Preferred version: In 1992, a ‘Special Edition’ was released which restores seventeen minutes of deleted scenes. This is the one to watch. Not only does it include a great action scene with sentry guns but it explains Ripley’s complete motivations for her actions for the rest of the movie. It seems insane that this wasn’t the original theatrical release.
ALIEN 3 (1991) THE STRANGE LAST GASP
Alien 3 is really weird. A lot of people still don’t like it, it was directed by a first time director whose only previous experience was music videos and it is depressing as hell. Ripley accidentally lands on a prison colony in deep space and in trying to put her life back together, discovers that one final alien might have hitched a ride with her. Alien 3 had mixed reviews for two reasons. 1: Everyone just wanted another James Cameron one and 2: the original theatrical release is a poor imitation of the 2003, far superior ‘Assembly Cut’. In both versions however, the acting is superb. A mostly English cast and Charles Dutton accompany Ripley in her final adventure. Charles Dance (Tywin Lannister!), Paul McGann (The Eighth Doctor!) and Pete Postlethwaite (Pete Postlethwaite!) are all excellent. The entire movie is such a departure from the 1986 action thriller but it creates something new and bold. It takes a lot of risks and is one of the bleakest sci-fi movies ever made. It all comes down to Weaver’s resigned and despair-filled performance as Ripley as the backbone of the film. Ripley is so mentally destroyed by this stage in her life that on some level, a prison filled with rapists and murderers is a fitting locale for her final confrontation with the xenomorph. The only real problem with Alien 3 is some of the CG effects are god awful by today’s standards.
Preferred version: The 2003 Assembly Cut is insane. It changes the intro to the movie, some characters’ relationships, how the alien is introduced and tons more. It is very nearly a whole new film and an entirely better one than the 1991 theatrical version. Go with this one.
ALIEN: RESURRECTION (1997) THE HUGE MISTAKE
I’ll makes no bones about it. Alien: Resurrection is a big pile of shit. Set 200 years after Alien 3, Ripley is cloned by an evil company who have aliens in captivity and blah, blah, blah. You’d think the combination of a Joss Whedon script directed by the guy who made Amelie would be a hell of a movie. But nah son. The script is terrible, the actors wholly miscast (Winona Ryder is an android!) and the entire tone of the film is way more comedic than it has any right to be. Seriously, just…UGH. That alien at the end. Christ, what were they thinking.
Preferred version: Don’t watch this movie. Or if you must subject yourself to it, wait a few years after watching Alien 3 as to not sully the trilogy with this abomination. Not even Brad Dourif or Ron Perlman can save this crap. You wanna see Ripley hug an alien or win at basketball because she’s half-alien? Yeah, you heard me.
Well, there you have it. Good luck to you if you’re about to watch these movies for the first time. You’ll never forget them.
There’s been talk for years about a proper Alien 5 but I personally think it’s unlikely we will ever see it. The Alien trilogy holds a very special place in my heart because of its dedication to its universe, nerve-jangling suspense and the simple story of a mother who never got home for her daughter’s eleventh birthday.
I really hope Alien: Isolation is good.
Update: Alien: Isolation was great.