The Alien series of films is one of the best ever made; it gets weaker as it goes along but the first two are up there with the very best of sci-fi films. In the last post, I wrote about the importance of Alien as an attempt to re-frame the horror and sci-fi genres as less gendered, less exclusively male. As a result, he made one of the most forward-thinking and important sci-fi films ever. And you can’t stop at one, obviously; watch one, watch ’em all.
So, what happened to Ripley in all the follow-ups? The next three films in the series (we’ll deal with the final film, Scott’s own Prometheus, separately, if I get around to it!) were made by James Cameron, David Fincher and Jean-Pierre Jeunet. That’s quite a line-up, and it opens up some interesting questions about whether these directors (all men, obviously) managed to maintain Scott’s basically feminist ideologies or reverted to genre norms. Equally, it might be possible to interrogate some ideas about auteurship in mainstream American genre cinema; is it actually possible for a director to pursue an individual vision whilst working within such a commercially driven cinema and within such clearly defined genre conventions?
When James Cameron came to make the first follow-up, Aliens, in 1986, he was straight off the back of 1984’s The Terminator. That film bore some resemblance to Scott’s Alien in that it was a relatively low-budget sci-fi film which went on to turn an enormous profit. The similarities end there, though – while Scott’s sci-fi tends towards horror, Cameron’s is most definitely action-based. So, we might expect Aliens to be more of an action adventure than a sci-fi horror, and we wouldn’t be disappointed, because that’s pretty much what it is. (Note how the taglines on the posters change. From ‘In space no-one can hear you scream’ to ‘This time it’s war.’ The change from horror to action is pretty clear there.)
The plot continues from the end of Alien. Ripley has been floating, frozen, on the Nostromo for 57 years. She finds herself sent back to LV-426 to investigate the disappearance of the colonists sent there by the company for whom she works, Weyland-Yutani. This time, however, she takes a company of particularly gung-ho marines with her, so we’re quickly into action-adventure mode. The planet is crawling with Xenomorphs and there is only one human survivor left – a young girl nicknamed Newt, who quickly becomes a surrogate daughter to Ripley (her own daughter died while she was in stasis.) The battle against the Xenomorphs culminates in an encounter with their Queen.
So, the plot owes more to action adventure than horror. What of Ripley herself? Has Cameron turned her into an action star? Well, she becomes a lot handier with a gun, and the guns, the primary index of the action film, are a lot bigger.
But even as she appropriates the gun – the primary (phallic) index of masculinity in this genre – she is once again defined as powerfully anti-masculine; the men show themselves to be variously incompetent, cowardly, deceitful or just plain insufficient. As in the first film, the action really starts once RIpley, exasperated at male indecision, takes charge. There is another female character, Private Vasquez, who is actually the most boorish and macho of the marines. With her short hair, defined muscles and very large gun, she is in effect a woman who is presenting herself as a hyper-masculine man.
It is telling that, as the film proceeds and male responses to violence are shown to be useless, she becomes a lot quieter, more observant and more effective. In effect, she becomes more like RIpley and less like the other Marines, and that makes her more sympathetic.
So, Ripley does indeed become more like an action hero, but Cameron has most definitely taken on board that she is not simply a female version of a male action hero. One of Ripley’s most obvious traits is compassion – specifically, motherly compassion. We saw her care for Jones, the ship’s cat, in Alien. In Aliens, we see her reaction to the news that she has missed her daughter’s entire life whilst in stasis; then, she quickly steps up to act as Newt’s mother and it is here we see her at perhaps her most iconic and her most free of gender limitations; wielding a hyper-masculine pulse rifle in one hand, protecting a child with the other.
Indeed, by the end of the film, the men do not matter at all. It’s Ripley against the Queen, fighting for Newt. Two women – two mothers – fighting over a girl. The only man of any importance to the plot by the end is Bishop, the executive officer, and he’s not a man at all, but an android. So, almost unimaginably for an action movie made in the mid-eighties, this is a wholly female-centric plot.
Cameron does an excellent job of taking the franchise further, adapting it according to his own action-based strengths, and understanding the gender representations which make it so important; his film is often regarded as the best of the four, and though I don’t quite agree with that – Scott’s Alien is, for me, by far the best – it maintains the intelligence of the original whilst being one of the most exciting action films ever.
Could it last? David Fincher was up next, in 1992, for Alien3. (One of the taglines this time: ‘The bitch is back.’ Oh dear.) This was Fincher’s debut feature, his previous experience having been with music video. Stories about the making of the film do not exactly inspire confidence; Fincher was brought in at the last minute and had no time for pre-production, the cinematographer had to be replaced, Sigourney Weaver was reluctant to be involved and the studio would not permit Fincher to make the film he wanted to. To this day, Fincher refuses to have anything to do with the film: in 2009 he said, ‘No one hated it more than me; to this day, no one hates it more than me.’
So all that doesn’t bode well. The film starts like Aliens – RIpley’s in stasis again, returning to Earth after the events of the previous film, and a fire breaks out on the ship. She is ejected in a pod and crashes on Fiorina ‘Fury’ 161,a prison planet reserved for ‘YY chromosomes’ – murderers and violent sexual criminals. Unsurprisingly for those of us who’ve been following the series, an alien is on board with her and it proceeds, in best horror film style (because we’re now back to horror again, after Cameron’s action adventure) to start picking off the inmates. Eventually, we find out that Ripley has one of the aliens gestating inside of her, and she ends up contending with both the Alien and the company, Weyland-Yutani, who consider the alien to be of more importance to their research than the health or lives of their human employees.
The film is a shambles in many ways. Ripley immediately starts a sexual relationship with the prison doctor, Clemens, which is entirely unbelievable. The deaths of major characters, supposed to be shocking and unpredictable, simply feel random. The dialogue is cliched and wooden (‘Your ass is already on the line! What are you going to do about it?’) One of the most interesting parts of the movie is the strange religious fervor of the prisoners – their ‘apocalyptic millenarian Christian fundamentalist’ belief system – but it never really goes anywhere.
Perhaps most disappointing is the way the interesting aspects of Ripley’s character are abandoned. She has her head shaved and becomes yet more masculine; Alien3 was made 13 years after the original film and Sigourney Weaver looks tougher, older, leaner. She’s a lot more gung-ho this time, more ready and able to take on the alien. So, although we’re faced with a diegesis of dark, creepy horror (which FIncher would realise fully in his next film, Seven), Ripley herself has gone into full action-hero mode. There is little vulnerability, little in the way of depth or shade to her character. In a way, this is appropriate since Alien3 forms a natural end to the first trilogy of films and by this time it could be argued that Ripley has had all the vulnerability battered out of her. Still, it makes for a much less interesting film, and the one which is generally regarded as the franchise low-point. It’s still worth watching – you could hardly bring this cast and this director together and not get something at least decent out of it -but it certainly does not compare to the earlier films.
In terms of auteurship, obviously Fincher had little chance to exercise his own creative muscles. The studio, perhaps acting out their own Weyland-Yutani fantasies, interfered at every turn and thus we have what is basically a mess of a film. And yet, we can see his style in there; if Alien was terrifying and Aliens was creepy, then Alien3, more than anything else is creepy and disturbing, exactly like Fincher’s Seven would be a few years later. The autopsy scene, the creepy religious influence, the ever-present threat of sexual violence; all of these things create a diegesis which would become much clearer and more effective once FIncher was given some room to work. His editing style, presumably learned from working on all those music videos, is in place too; lots of fast cuts, so fast it’s hard to tell if we just saw the rather shocking thing we did, lots of cross cutting (notably, between the burial scene at the start and the birth of the alien elsewhere in the ship.) So, perhaps this offers hope for us that even within the most restrictive circumstances imaginable, a director can be an auteur with a recognisable style and tone.
Finally, then, Alien Resurrection from 1997, directed by France’s Jean-Pierre Jeunet. He was best known as the director of Delicatessen and The City of Lost Children and he had a well-established taste for the playfully macabre and grotesque, so we’d probably expect a more darkly humorous tone than Fincher created . We might also expect him to bring some of the French tradition of artistry and auteurship to play here. And we’d get it all, or at least an attempt at it. THe film is generally regarded as being better than Fincher’s but still far below the quality of the first two in the series. Reviews were mixed; many were relatively positive, but Roger Ebert in particular gave it a savaging, concluding that ‘There is not a single shot in the movie to fill one with wonder.’ That’s too harsh – there are many fantastic sequences, particularly the underwater chase – and Jeunet has done a good job of giving the alien a new face and a new character. He shifts our sympathies, in a process that had been ongoing throughout he series; like RIpley, we are torn between sympathy for the alien itself and the humans trapped with it.
The film takes place 200 years after the end of Alien3 and it opens, again, with a cloned Ripley being awoken from sleep (or reanimated.) The alien is still there in her womb from the end of Aliens3 and it is delivered in a pretty gruesome scene at the opening (it would be unlike Jeunet to shy away from disturbing imagery.) So, now we have the narrative complication that Ripley is actually the mother of the alien being chased – and it’s a queen, a breeder, so she quickly becomes grandmother to many more. Again, the struggle is between women, Ripley and the Queen, and the most significant other character is another women, played (without much effect, truth to tell) by Winona Ryder. All the male characters are caricatures – all, to different degrees, motivated by greed or machismo. Only the women really understand, actually and morally, the significance of what is going on.
RIpley herself has become as much alien as human by this point in the series. Carrying the alien has affected her to the extent that she is now stronger and faster (and better at basketball) than the men on the crew; being hit in the face with a metal bar doesn’t phase her. SHe is now, apparently, stripped of the affection which she showed earlier in the series for Jones the cat and Newt. She does show some interest in Call (Ryder’s character) but it actually appears more sexual than maternal. The only affection she shows is towards the alien she bore; it appears she has finally given up on humanity; particularly, the male part of it. Not only has she now transcended gender limitations; having died once and given birth to an alien, she has pretty much transcended all human limitations.
So, Ripley moves from reluctant heroine, to action star, to something which is ultimately not only not particularly feminine but not even entirely human. There is a logical progression here, and remarkably, all four directors managed to maintain this progression whilst also showing off, as far as is possible given the circumstances, their individual styles. Certainly, the first two films are leagues better than the last two, but none of them are bad and watched as a whole, they constitute perhaps one of the most artistically satisfying film franchises ever conceived.