It’s time for a monster mash.
This will be a first for The Series Project. My own self-imposed rules have dictated that any film series I cover must run, at the very least, five films. What with Ridley Scott’s Prometheus opening in theaters in a few weeks, the Alien franchise will finally hit the golden number. The Predator franchise, however, only has three parts to its name. But, in addition, there is the matter of the two Alien vs. Predator feature films that were released in the 2000s. And while some may not consider those two to be within the exact same cinematic canon as the other five Alien films, I will, for reason of critical completion, include them in this Series Project. May as well, right? Of course, if I’m going to go so far as to include the crossover films from the Predator franchise, then I may as well tie in the Predator films in with the same article. So, yes, this will be the first multi-series Series Project.
I will write about the films in the order they appeared chronologically; that is: in the order of their theatrical releases. I understand that there were no plans to make any crossover films until four Alien films and two Predator films had already been made, so I’m not going to nitpick any inter-series continuity until the crossover films themselves. It’ll be hard to nitpick anyway, as the Alien films take place in the distant future, and the Predator films take place mostly in the present.
I am, I should perhaps point out, a frothing fan of the first Alien film. With its slow pace, moodiness, downbeat tone, and workaday approach to the alien and grotesque, it can be considered a legitimate genre classic. However, I did not see Aliens or Predator (easily two of the most celebrated sci-fi/action films there are) until I was in my 30s, so I was not, like so many of my peers and probably like so many of you, in the frothing cult of the ‘80s action hits. Indeed, looking back, it’s strange how many mainstream action hits I didn’t bother to see as a child and teenager. I – and perhaps I shouldn’t openly admit this – didn’t see Die Hard until I was in my 30s. Ditto Lethal Weapon, Beverly Hills Cop, and 48 Hrs. Heck, I didn’t even see Star Wars until I was 18, having been raised in a Trek household. What the Hell was I doing with my movie-watching time? Probably re-watching Batman, The Wizard of Oz, and whatever obscure Mel Brooks film I was into that week.
My point is, if I sound a bit lukewarm in my coverage of Aliens (1986) and Predator (1987), that would be why. I didn’t see them until pretty much just now, and haven’t spent my youth re-watching them like so many of my peers have. I don’t have the decades of contemplation to put them in their place. I have, however, now seen them, and will report openly on what I saw.
Here’s a rundown on the two series for the uninitiated. The Alien series follows, for the most part, a hard-working miner named Ripley (played by Sigourney Weaver) who along with her co-workers discovers an alien creature on a crashed space ship. The creature is a violent and horrible menace, possessed of only animal intelligence, that kills pretty much whatever humans it comes into contact with as a matter of course. Ripley spends four films encountering various creatures of this species, and trying to do away with them. The tone of the Alien films is desperate and, as a general rule, rather dark. The Predator franchise is similar, in that it features a killer alien creature, only this creature is an intergalactic hunter of some kind that likes to kill humans for sport, and collect trophies from the hunt. The locations change in each Predator film. As we go along, we’ll see what we learn about each of the Alien creatures and the Predator creatures.
The two franchises first crossed over in the world of comic books back in late 1989, when a company called Dark Horse, who owned the comic book rights to both franchises, decided to do a mashup. The creature crossover took on a mythic quality in the minds of certain comic book readers, and it became, at least in some pop culture circles, largely accepted that the two creatures inhabited the same universe. One species is a hunter, and the other is a killer. Good combo, right?
The germ entire began in 1979. Let’s start with one of my favorite sci-fi movies.
Alien (dir. Ridley Scott, 1979)
The future. AD 2122.
Why do I like Alien so much? I think a lot of my enjoyment has to do with the pacing. Alien is 117 minutes long, and takes it sweet time. The music is quiet and spare. Ridley Scott seemed to spend as much time as he could on creating a very life-like atmosphere. Movie spaceships had previously been along the lines of the Enterprise, which were comfortable and plush military vessels. Or they were like in Star Wars, which featured quick-flying dogfight planes. Alien was the first movie, to my knowledge, that turned the notion of the spaceship into a kind of complex and dull workplace environment. The panels were all complex and detailed, and felt like it could work, and we saw people living in that place, bored and put down by everyday workplace drudgery.
That’s another thing. The characters in Alien aren’t clean-cut hero types, flip teenagers, or grunting military bozos (wait until Aliens for that). They are, instead, adult working-class stiffs. When we first see our human characters, they bicker about their level of pay, and have plain, everyday conversations over a meal. This may be the future, and we may be on a complex space-faring vessel capable of towing hundreds of thousands of tons of ore, but the miners are just plain blue-collar types that we could see in any mining town in America today. This means when a mysterious creature appears, our protagonists will be unprepared, and will have to discover what they’re up against using the means at their disposal. No big battles here. Just a quiet and panicked and resourceful attempt at escape. I like that a lot. The ship our intrepid crew is traveling in is called The Nostromo, by the way.
The crew is made up of recognizable actors. Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) will turn out to be our main character, but she’s only third in command, and seems like a button-down, by-the-books type; when one of her co-workers is potentially contaminated, she refuses him entry onto the ship. The captain of The Nostromo is Dallas (Tom Skerritt). Also on board are Lambert (Veronica Cartwright), the doctor Ash (Ian Holm), the nervous Kane (John Hurt), and a pair of wiseacre grunts named Parker and Brett (Yaphet Kotto and Harry Dean Stanton). The crew is overseen by a HAL-like, yet silent, computer nicknamed Mother. Watch all of these actors carefully. They are all masters of conveying character and situation by their mere look and attitude. Subtle and great.
The Nostromo is on its way back to Earth from a mining mission, a mission that takes so long that, evidently, the crew needs to be put into “hypersleep,” which is, I’m guessing, a kind of cryonic freeze intended to keep them alive yet unconscious during months-or-possibly-even-years-long sojourns. The crew is prematurely awakened when they receive a random distress call from an uncharted planet known only as LV-426. They go to investigate. Watch the scene where the crew takes a shuttlecraft to land on the mysterious windy planet from where the distress call was emanating. This is not an easy task. Landing on planets from orbit is, in this universe, dangerous and difficult. No Star Trek transporters here.
It’s here that we see the ship from where the creature will eventually spring. Just as the human ship looked functional and lived-in, the alien vessel looks, well, alien. I think the title of the film is more an adjective than a mere noun. The ship and the creature were designed by a Swiss surrealist named H.R. Giger. If you are not familiar with Giger’s work, steel yourself for creepy airbrush paintings of bondage, creatures, and a disturbing blend of the organic and the metallic. Giger’s ship is mysterious and offers no answers. There is a gargantuan human-shaped figure sitting near a large telescope-like object. The crew never figures out what this being is or what it was doing there.
Here’s something odd: The humans have received a distress call from a perhaps extraterrestrial being, and they treat it as a chore. It’s an unusual thing to be sure, but they seem largely nonplussed. This implies that humans have come into contact with alien species before. However, the series will never visit any of them. Well, I can’t speak to Prometheus as yet. There will, however, be mention of “Arcturans” in Aliens.
While on board the ship, Kane discovers a steamy warehouse-like space full of leathery eggs. One opens, and a spidery, fleshy beast leaps out and attaches itself to his face. The biology of these creatures, by the way, is unusual, but will remain consistent throughout the series. The face-hugging monster will be taken back on board (over Ripley’s objections) and Dallas and Ash will attempt to remove it. They learn a few things: That its tail will strangle Kane if they pull on it. That the thing has a proboscis of some sort down his throat. And that when they cut it, it bleeds a bright yellow fluid that eats through matter. Yikes. After a time, the creature drops off Kane’s face and dies on its own. Kane seems okay, and seems to have had dreams of smothering. Mysteries. Creepy, creepy mysteries.
What follows is one of the most famous scenes in genre history. If you haven’t seen Alien, you probably still know it. If you don’t know it, I implore that you stop reading immediately and see this tense, weird and great film first. At a dinner, Kane has an attack of some kind, and his chest explodes outward from inside, releasing a phallic little creature with many teeth and no eyes. It will soon grow to human size and terrorize the crew, killing them off one by one.
The creature doesn’t seem to be eating its victims, though, so I wonder where it got the calories and energy needed to grow. It looks like it’s made of bone, and it has an elongated aspic mold for a head. It has a small set of extending jaws inside its mouth. The design of the creature is truly alien. It’s rare that movies produce a monster so striking. I’m guessing that it absorbed all the nutrients it needed from its embryonic host, and that it doesn’t live very long. I don’t think the creature’s natural life span is ever discussed over the course of the series.
Eventually it comes to light that Mother, the ship’s computer, was sent to the darkened planet on purpose, and that Ash is secretly an android that has been trying to transport the creature back to Earth on behalf of the company. The company, by the way, is never named. It’s only ever referred to as “the company.” This is a detail that James Cameron will exploit to great extent in the sequel. Ash the android, by the way, is another masterful piece of design. Ordinarily, movie androids are a pile of circuits covered in a layer of easily-breakable rubber skin. When the skin gets broken, you can see sparks and diodes underneath. Ash seems to be made up of plastic tubes, and is full of an odd, milky substance that sprays all over the walls when he is damaged. When Ripley discovers his plan (as she inevitably must), he knocks her out. He then does something truly baffling, by rolling up a nearby magazine and shoving it in her mouth. She escapes this bizarre torture, but what the Hell was he doing?
Anyway, to speed things along, the crew attempts to capture or kill the creature, and it kills them off one by one. It’s scary and spooky. It’s like a haunted house picture. I’m not sure how smart the creature is, but it seems to me to be no smarter than a mid-brained chimp. Eventually Ripley is the only one remaining, along with the ship’s cat Jonesy, and she has to blow up The Nostromo, and then blow the creature out into space with an airlock. She goes into hypersleep to go home.
I’ve figured it out. I love Alien because it’s weird. Even though I’m familiar with it all, the film still feels spooky and odd and the creature seems out-of-place next to humans. The creature is a unique creation, and Alien is a weird-ass and scary and smart film. I could go on, but I’ll curtail my praise here. Alien is a legitimate classic.
The next film in the series will be a straightforward shift in genre.
Aliens (dir. James Cameron, 1986)
This is one of the most beloved action films of the 1980s. Dare malign the film to a fan, and be prepared for frustration and wrath. I came late to the game on Aliens, having seen it fourth out of the current four, and it took me three tries before I saw it without falling asleep (I watch it at midnight shows, so I was already drowsy). I have now made it all the way through, and I can certainly agree with the enormous cult on this point: The film kicks huge amounts of ass.
Yes, James Cameron, the master of gigantic mainstream spectacle, made a pretty kick-ass action flick. And while the tone of the film is still a bit dour and dark, it’s largely a thrilling shoot-‘em-up with military action heroes firing a lot of bullets. Gone are the previous film’s slow pace, everyday characters, and outright weirdness. What we have now is just a great-looking action film. I’m not sure how I feel about this. I liked the last one so much, it seemed like a step back to turn Alien into pretty predictable action ‘splosions. True, they are awesome explosions, and I can’t, for a second, fault anything about the film’s look, pacing, and skill. But I miss the subtlety and the oddness. I guess you can only be fresh once.
The premise of the last film was a bunch of miners who are unprepared for something truly beyond their experience. This time, a team of thumb-headed marines in helmets, sporting enormous phallic guns, return to the planet from the first film to check on a human colony there. But I’m getting a little ahead of myself.
Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) is found in hypersleep by a salvage vessel. She is awakened on a station orbiting… maybe Earth. It’s strange that in the Alien universe we actually never visit Earth. She is informed in a dream sequence that she overshot Earth, and wound up in hypersleep for 57 years. She then dreams that an alien is bursting from her own midsection. It’s commonly held by Aliens fans that she did indeed hypersleep for 57 years, but that information was given to us in a dream sequence. It could have been a nightmare. The only other note of the passed time is that a human colony was built on LV-426, and has been there for 20 years, terraforming the planet. When humans go there later, they can breathe without helmets (which they required in the last film). I have a theory: that Ripley didn’t sleep for 57 years, that she was only having a nightmare, and that the human colony on LV-426 was already there during the course of the first film, only on a different part of the planet. Okay, maybe that’s farfetched. I was actually informed that in the director’s cut of the film (which was released in 1992, and had a full 17 minutes more footage) that Ripley actually had a daughter back on Earth who died of old age while she was in hypersleep. I guess that clears that up.
But I did hope that my it’s-not-really-57-years-later theory held water. It would, after all, make more sense to the subplot: that the mysterious company (represented by a corporate sleazeball Paul Reiser) is concerned with the whereabouts of their expensive ship, and how pissed they are that Ripley lost so much money. If it’s been 57 years, wouldn’t they have launched a search party? Perhaps written off the ore shipment when it didn’t get back to Earth on time? That was a lot of ore, sure, but why would they be so mad about it now at this late date? What do they need the ore for anyway? It seems that the company is only concerned with capturing alien monsters after all.
James Cameron has, in all his films, a distinct anti-corporate tack. Skynet in The Terminator. Giovanni Ribisi in Avatar. And each time, at least in Cameron’s eyes, corporate malfeasance can be solved by direct, simple, violent military action. Odd that Avatar should have such a simplified anti-military note to it, when Aliens and the Terminator films are full of military fetish. Seriously, Aliens is about its marine characters just as much as it is about Ripley. The characters are brash, crass, callow, violent and, kinda dumb. They talk like truckers (which Cameron was early in his life). Again, I miss the blue collar guys from the first film.
Why are there marines? Well, the company has hired them (are the marines a private company themselves?) to investigate the human colony on LV-426. We’ve lost contact with the colony you see, and the military is called in to make sure there are no creatures there (even though the company has scoffed at the idea of such a creature even existing). Ripley goes along to consult. Weaver is the spine of this movie. She has all the passion, all the soul, all the strength. She does have a friendly near-romantic regard for a character named Hicks (Michael Biehn), but the film is not about their romance. The romance is nice, as it adds some texture to the film, but no, this is her story. Indeed, when Ripley pokes through the ruins of the wrecked colony (of course it was wrecked, there are creatures everywhere) she finds a young girl named Newt (Carrie Henn, in her only film role), and Ripley finds herself instinctively looking after the girl. The whole surrogate-parent thing is an action film trope older than John Wayne, but it’s nice to see some depth from Ripley. Given the dead daughter subplot from the director’s cut, we have a film with a theme of motherhood. It’ll be a bit more pronounced when Ripley is, perhaps bafflingly, doing battle with a giant version of the alien critter while wearing an impractical robot suit.
The film is essentially one long, taut chase scene wherein soldiers are killed, and the survivors must regroup constantly to find a way off the planet (they came down in a shuttle that gets destroyed, and there’s no one on board in orbit to send another). Again, well paced and kick-ass action. I was just a little put off by all the machismo. Even the women are manly, and there’s a muscle-fetish Latina soldier named Vasquez (Jenette Goldstein) who is, no doubt, a dominatrix idol for sub men everywhere; when she comes out of hypersleep, her first action is to do chin-ups. The only gentle character is an android named Bishop (Lance Henricksen) who, in a funny bit of dialogue, apologizes for the antisocial behavior of Ash in the last film. Older models, he says, were twitchy.
Oh yes, the planet is overrun by creatures. They are still reproducing in the same way, but now they creatures also kidnap people, wrap them in cocoons, and let their young gestate in a nest-like environment. In the first film, I got the impression that the creatures were lone animals. In Aliens, they are depicted as a roach colony. They look more bug-like too.
They even have a queen. Yes, Cameron took Giger’s designs from the first film and hypercharged them, making an enormous and disgusting and rather cool-looking alien queen that lays the leathery eggs we’ve seen before. It’s like the evolved Pokémon version of the last creature. Its teeth are longer, it has four arms, and its elongated head is an enormous crown-like growth. It’s pretty damn scary. Especially for a guy like me with a phobia for beetles and bugs.
Aliens is full of first-rate chases and effects. The puppeteering on the alien queen is about as impressive as practical effects get. But I’m one of those nutcases who often complains about “too much action,” and Aliens is, ultimately, in my humble and unpopular opinion, too much action. The final 30 minutes is climax upon climax and it becomes a bit dull after a while. Not an assault or anything, but just a big impressive-looking fight. It’s not sophisticated like the first. Unprepared workers dealing with a fresh new beast is interesting. A buncha marines going in guns first, less so. When pressed, I would say Aliens is the lesser of the two.
But! But! But! (Before the Aliens fans jump on me and beat me with reeds.)
But I can tell you for sure that I’m just nitpicking. I can assure you that if I had seen Aliens when I was 13 or 14, I would have memorized it. I would have likely held it dear to my heart like so many of its fans do. It is, in short, awesome. It’s just that I’m so fond of the quietness and fear of the first, I was slightly put off by the series’ mutation into something so huge and action-packed.
This is, however, common of the series. Each film will be of a slightly different genre. The third Alien film, we’ll find, is a tragedy more than anything. So there you are.
I will not, however, dive straight into the third Alien film right now. I’m saving that for next week. This is a two-fer, if you recall, and the next chronological film in that series is then…
Predator (dir. John McTiernan, 1987)
Okay. I whined, like a little bitchy girl, about the explodey machismo of Aliens. Now is my chance to shut the Hell up, for you will find few films more macho and manly and explodey than Predator. Seriously, if Aliens was macho, then Predator is a beast made entirely of sperm and chest hair. Indeed, the film is, according to those in the know, a satire of the Reagan-era badass films of the 1980s. It’s a fun action film, sure, but the characters are so over the top, and the violence so bombastically bloody, that Predator does play like a joking prod of many action films. Ironic that this satire is often held, by its fans, to be an exemplary example of machismo. Sorry, fellas. The film’s making fun of you a little bit.
I just saw this film for the first time for the purpose of this essay. I had seen snippets before, back when it came out, but I was only 9ish, and was too scared to look at it in its entirety. I have a clear memory of watching it with a group, but sitting next to the TV, far more fascinated with the faces of my friends watching it than the actual movie. For many years, that was my only memory of Predator.
The story is as basic as they get. A group of super-marines are sent into a remote Central American jungle to kill some bad guys. And they do it. That’s it. Echoes of Grenada there. The super-marines are led by Dutch, played by Arnold Schwarzenegger, in his best shape ever, perhaps. When Dutch first sees a fellow officer (Carl Weathers) the first thing they do is arm wrestle. Still don’t think this is a satire? Well, by the time Schwarzenegger is shirtless, coated in mud, wielding a torch, primally screaming into the night sky, you’ll feel it.
Also on the team are an Indian named Billy (Sonny Landham), a “sexual tyrannosaurus” (Jesse Ventura), a jokey guy (famed screenwriter Shane Black in one of his few onscreen roles) and an intense guy who shaves to keep calm (Bill Duke). There’s a couple others thrown in as well. Their personality traits are all one-word descriptions. Frankly, they’re kind of hilarious. In the jungle, they complete their mission with the appropriate amount of brute force. I think Predator holds some kind of record for the number of bullets fired in a film. It’s an intensely violent and gory film. We get to see every gaping bullet wound, every blown-up head, and every skinned corpse (ew).
Once the mission in complete, they must trek through the jungle, now with a prisoner (Elpidia Carillo), to the chopper pickup site. But here’s the twist: they are now being hunted by a semi-invisible alien monster. It takes them a while (and a few dead compatriots) to figure this out, but they soon figure out what’s what. Bill Duke even sees it in its invisible state. The invisibility effect is pretty cool. You can see the shimmering outline of the creature when it’s moving, but not when it’s still. This creature is, like the creature in Alien, an odd and striking monster. This one stands about 8 feet tall, wears a mask, and spies on its prey with heat-vision goggles. It can fire lasers from a cannon mounted on its shoulder, it can camouflage itself, and it wears long, wicked-looking knives on its hand. It wears fishnet stockings. Seriously. This creature is also clearly intelligent. We don’t learn a lot about this species’ culture, except that it likes to hunt, and will actually bother to face down and perhaps spare prey it admires. Here’s an important distinction: in the Alien movies, the characters refer to the creatures as “it” or “those things.” In Predator, they refer to the monster as “he.”
So, yeah, the predator hunts the marines, and their numbers dwindle. Their response to any creature attack is to fire their guns unceasingly until the entire vicinity has been murdered. There’s a notable scene wherein they lay waste to an entire glade when they catch a mere glimpse of the creature. They do manage to, with about 10,000 bullets, merely wing it. It bleeds a glowing green ooze. “If it bleeds,” Schwarzenegger intones, “we can kill it.” Eventually the prisoner is set free, and Dutch, the last man standing, does one-to-one combat with the beast. The film is, overall, prodding at macho types, but the final fight is way fun in a ‘roided-out sort of way. The creature eventually removes its helmet, revealing a beady-eyed, slick-skinned, square-mouthed face. It doesn’t really speak except in a scary clicking sound. When it laughs, however, it sounds like a human. Although it was, perhaps, just imitating the laughter it heard earlier. This alien seems capable of imitating speech, although it most certainly doesn’t speak English.
The creature can only see people’s heat signatures. Indeed, we see a POV shot from the alien’s perspective, and its vision is cloudy and reddened and weird. That’s kinda cool, I guess, that the human eye can see better than the alien eye. When Dutch coats himself in mud, he is, essentially, invisible to the monster.
The closing credits feature brief shots of each of the actors, making eye contact with the camera and smiling, ramming home the campy, B-movie qualities that Predator possesses. The only one who doesn’t look at the camera is Schwarzenegger himself. I guess he wasn’t in on the joke.
This is a well-regarded action film in itself, and is often mentioned in the same breath as Aliens. It leaks great, roiling gobs of thick, viscous testosterone. It grunts, screams, and fires its guns in mad fits of masculine posturing. The film has not one, but two large vagina jokes. Odd that the creature from Alien should be the one to look so phallic. A penis monster would have been more appropriate from Predator. Well, the monster does have a very vaginal face. Maybe that was the film’s nod to machismo. The muddy, screaming übermensch must lay waste to the wicked alien vagina monster.
Maybe I’m just being pervy.
And that’s where we’ll leave it for this week. Sorry to be so long-winded, but there was a lot to say about these notable films. Next week, I’ll pick up with Predator 2, and then move back into the Alien series with Alien³ and Alien Resurrection. I have also decided to write up the extended workprint of Alien³, as, from what I understand, it’s a full 30 minutes longer, and has a decidedly different feeling. It’s also notoriously a problematic film, so it may require a bit more analysis.
Until next time, kiddos, stay mean, wet and bony.