Bloody alien mayhem. That's why we go to the movies.
To reiterate: The Alien franchise and the Predator franchise were once, sometime around the late 1980s, blended together in a cult comic book put out by Dark Horse Comics. It wouldn't be until 2004 that the creatures from their respective franchises would appear in a feature film together, but in certain pop culture circles, it was widely accepted that these two monsters inhabited the same universe. As such, this Series Project will trace the two franchises chronologically, from 1979 until 2012, covering each chapter and each crossover as they appeared in theaters.
I noted this in last week's installment of The Series Project (wherein I reviewed Alien, Aliens, and Predator), but I'll make it explicit here: The Alien franchise is about a strong-willed woman doing battle with a creature that looks like a penis. The Predator series is about various groups of ultra-masculine men doing battle with a creature with a vaginal face. Watching the films back-to-back will have this imagery juxtaposed in great relief. One could be tempted to draw a greater sexual parallel between the two series, and perhaps imply that both films are, from their gender-respective viewpoints, about a fear of sexuality. Women see men as violent, unstoppable monsters who must be avoided and destroyed. The creature from Alien represents rape. Men see women as invisible tricksters who want to kill them. The creature from Predator represents potential sexual enslavement.
Okay, maybe I'm just going a little loopy from all the monster mayhem. But, to be fair, the creatures in all these movies are wet and sticky and drippy; they seem to copiously sweat Astroglide. Not that I want to draw any parallels between sex and violence, but the violent monsters all seem prepared for a weekend monster orgy. Jus' sayin'. There will be some outright sexual imagery this week, but we'll have to wait for Alien: Resurrection for the crazy stuff, and I can't say for sure what any of that movie means, as it's pretty bonkers.
Last week we let off with Predator, which I called one of the manliest films ever made. The next film in the chronological lineup is none other than…
Predator 2 (dir. Stephen Hopkins, 1990)
Hopkins is a Hollywood blockbuster man, having made films like Lost in Space and A Nightmare on Elm Street 5. I can't really point to him as an auteur, but he does have a somewhat bizarre sensibility that make his films, no matter how bad, fun to watch.
Predator 2 doesn't resemble the first Predator so much as it does Robocop (1987). It takes place in the big city rather than the jungles of Central America, and takes place in the not-too-distant future of 1997. If the monster had been altered slightly, this film wouldn't even have been a Predator film. It could have easily been an alternate universe version of the 1990 sci-fi actioner I Come in Peace. That's the tone we have here: Over-the-top dystopia, peppered with creature mayhem.
Predator 2 doesn't have the same over-the-top quality of the first Predator, but it's still cartoonishly bonkers in its own subtle way. The film takes place in L.A. in 1997, when gang wars have ruined the streets. The police, like in Robocop, are either corrupt or merely overwhelmed by the overpowering violence around them. The world feels like a carnival, and the film's production design is boldly artificial. Green light emanates from cracks in the walls. Our main character is a tough-minded and incorruptible policeman named Harrigan (Danny Glover) who tends to shoot first and ask questions etc. Harrigan is surrounded by a posse of reliable cops, and I like that this film was, in a small way, about a group dynamic. On Harrigan's team are a sassy Latino (Panamanian jazz heartthrob Rubén Blades), a tough lady (Maria Conchita Alonso), and a skirt-chasing funnyman played by Bill Paxton. Paxton was, if you'll recall, also in Aliens, implying that his character in Predator 2 may be a progenitor to his character in Aliens. This film takes place in 1997. Aliens in 2179. That's 182 years. How many generations is that?
Our hero cops are flanked in the streets by a Colombian drug lord on the one side, and a goofy, Jamaican voodoo priest drug lord named King Willie (Calvin Lockhart) on the other. And while the cops, much to the chagrin of their superiors (represented by Robert Davi) often charge into crime scenes recklessly, they seem to be getting the job done. They have been finding a mysterious spate of skinned criminals, hanging from the ceiling. Hmm… Looks familiar. They also find a mysterious chunk of unidentifiable metals stabbed into the wall, and each of them has seen an invisible something lurking about the shadows.
Each time our heroes get close to something like an answer, though, they are impeded by the gruff FBI guy, played by Gary Busey. The FBI seems to know that there is an alien afoot, but they are not forthcoming to the local cops. It's not until late in the film that Busey points out directly that this is indeed an alien, and that it likes to hunt people, collect trophies, and pick off its victims in wars zones. I guess that's Predator 2's big comment: street crime has escalated in the modern world to something that is indistinguishable from outright combat. The creature, then, represents chaos.
The first two thirds of Predator 2 are a mere investigation to a conclusion that we, going in, already knew: that there is an alien in our midst. There are so few references to the first film that Predator 2 could have easily been the debut of the monster. The final third of the film is a giant and elaborate chase scene through the city as Danny Glover manages to corner our critter, it manages to kill a lot of our heroes (including a team of FBI guys) and our hero chases it back to its space ship. I liked the scene where Glover had to climb hand-over-hand across a drainpipe that was suspended over an alleyway, only to chase the monster through someone's apartment.
This is, by the way, a decidedly different monster than in Predator. It's the same species, and still has the Klingon forehead and vaginal mouth, but no attempts are made to imply that this is the same creature that blew up at the end of the first. The filmmakers could have brought back the original killer, like in a slasher film, but elected not to. Wise. Evidently this species is either devoted entirely to hunting, or the hunting subculture is the only one that comes to Earth. Predator 2 does, sadly, succumb to the sloppy slasher film trope of the teleporting killer. No matter where our heroes are, for no matter what reason, the monster is handily there to murder them. How does it know, for instance, that Bill Paxton was going to be on that particular subway car? Sloppy, guys.
The film's finale takes place on the alien spacecraft, where we get to see not only the monster's trophy room (it has a bunch of skulls), but also other members of the species. Glover is, at the film's climax, surrounded by monsters. There does, however, seem to be a professional hunter-to-hunter regard between Glover and the creatures, so they don't kill him. Indeed, in a bizarre twist, the monster presents Glover with a pistol from the early 19th century as (I assume) a token of esteem. The creatures then leave Earth. I guess the only way to fend off an attack is to, well, fend off an attack. You get the sense that these monsters, like Klingons, value skillful hunters and battlefield honor. Not that they come across as rich characters or anything, but you do get a vague sense of this corner of their culture.
Oh yeah, that trophy room? It has the skull of a creature from Aliens in it. At the time, that was a cute little tease for fans. No one ever imagined in 1990 that the series would ever crossover properly. I like little references like that. The promise is always more fun than the delivery.
The Predator series will now take a hiatus for 20 years, allowing the Alien franchise to remain in charge for a bit.
Alien³ (dir. David Fincher, 1992)
How do I pronounce that title? Is it “Alien Three,” “Alien to the Third,” or “Alien Cubed?” I think I like Alien Cubed.
I indicated last week that the Alien series rotates through a new genre with every installation. Alien was a horror film. Aliens was an action film. And while the films are all tonally downbeat, Alien³ is easily the most downbeat of the series. Indeed, it's a straightforward tragedy, really. A major downer. Seriously. Many people die, and the film is about being cornered and trapped and fearful and hopeless. There is not a drop of levity. If we had already been familiar with David Fincher's Seven we may have seen it coming, but many audiences weren't expecting an Alien film to be quite this depressing, and this film was not as big a hit as its predecessors.
The downer beginning: Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) is in hypersleep following the events of Aliens. She is with Newt, the girl she rescued, and Bishop (Lance Henricksen) the android. In a credit sequence, we see that a face-hugging alien had snuck on board, impregnated Ripley with an alien embryo, and forced her escape pod to crash on a nearby planet called Fiorina 161. Her crewmates all died. Yeah, that kind of colors the victory from the last film. Again, we have yet to see Earth in this universe, and we still don't know the wicked nature of the vague “the company” that has been wanting to harvest an alien creature for nearly 60 years.
I do like this element of the premise: Fiorina 161, nicknamed Fury, is the site of a prison for dangerous criminals. The criminals had been abandoned years before, and have been left to operate an ore refinery. Rather than succumbing to their murderous urges, they have actually transformed the prison into an ascetic, monastic place, where they rely on faith and hope. We know a creature is going to eventually appear in these circumstances, so I like that we're once again forced to contend with an alien menace in a setting that is unprepared for violence, and, indeed, fears that exposure to violence may turn it animal. Indeed, the very appearance of a female on this planet drives a few of the prisoner monks a little wild; they don't like the temptation. Many of them are admitted rapists. The prisoners are led by the stern Dillon (Charles S. Dutton), who is, in many ways, the series' greatest badass. Seriously, when a creature mounts him and starts tearing through his ribcage, his response is to yell at the creature, “Is that all you got!?”
So Ripley is alone on a planet of wild criminals. Unbeknownst to all of them, one of their pet dogs was impregnated, and soon Ripley is explaining to all the men that this is a dangerous creature that must be destroyed. The creature, by the way, is slightly different from the ones we've seen. It's faster and seems to walk on all fours, whereas before the creatures stood upright like humans. I guess they take the shape of whatever they incubate inside of. Fincher, like Ridley Scott before him, doesn't give the creature a whole lot of screen time. In Scott's case, it made the creature more remote and scary. Here, it turns the monster into something vague and abstract. It seems that the creature represents hopelessness.
Ripley has to shave her head (there's lice on board), and is baffled as to why the creature didn't kill her when it had the chance (there's a famous scene where the alien gets up close to her and hisses, but then flees). She learns that she is actually impregnated herself, and is playing host to the next egg-laying mother creature, as seen in the climax of Aliens. This leads to not one, but several scenes of Ripley weeping and screaming wildly that she wants to die. She reiterates her suicidal despair several times, and asks an inmate to murder her. Did I mention that Alien³ is dour and depressing?
Eventually the prisoner monks, their numbers dwindling, have to lure the creature into a smelting crevice to melt it. There is a time limit, too, as the unnamed company has gotten wind that a creature is on Fury, and Ripley has predicted (correctly) that they'll only send soldiers to kill the prisoners and harvest the monster. Why does the company want the monster again? Something about a weapons division? It'll be made slightly more explicit in the next film, but for now, the company is still a vague entity.
So we have a prison full of desperate souls, fighting a powerful evil creature of death, who have suicide on one side, and murder by corporate greed on the other. Dear me, but this is dank. Ripley herself, previously so strong, is a wispy entity here, and only manages to find some hope in the bed of a fellow named Morse (Danny Webb), a slightly cynical fellow. As Peaches once said, f*ck the pain away. The film is just as disturbing as that song. The only real bright spot is Dillon. Dillon is the only character with positivity. A fellow who uses his faith to give him hope and the inspiration to move to badass action. But then he's rended by the creature, and all is lost. Sigh.
Lance Henricksen appears in this film as a company stooge, and it's unclear if he is an android, or the person on whom the androids were cast. He tries to convince Ripley to let the creatures live, and to come with them. They want the egg-laying queen inside of her, you see. And just as all the hopelessness culminates, and the creature begins bursting out of her, Ripley throws herself into a vat of molten ore. The end. Who wants some ice cream and a teddy bear? 'Cause I could use those things.
Downer beginning, downer middle, downer end. Fincher seems to have taken the downbeat tone from the first two movies and expanded it, while offering little in the way of new additions to the series' myth. Like I said: I like the idea of setting the alien loose in a monastery, forcing non-violent people to resourcefully capture or subdue a monster. But all the film's cleverness and style were only used to contribute to a suicidal, apocalyptic dearth of hope. As summer blockbusters go, this one is more depressing than Watchmen.
And that's not even the bottom of the pit, as I also forced myself to endure…
Alien³: The Assembly Cut (dir. David Fincher)
The production of Alien³ was notoriously troubled, as the producers, according to Fincher, pulled a lot of his budget, and were constantly meddling in the filming process. The original cut that Fincher submitted to the studio was over 30 minutes longer, and, according to many Alien fans, markedly different. With that much extra footage, I figured it was worth a look, and demanded a comment.
Sadly, this longer cut is actually largely the same. The extra footage does allow for a slowed pace and a moodier atmosphere, but the story and the themes of despair remain in place. Some details have changed. Notably, the alien bursts out of a feeder cattle instead of a dog (although I like the idea of the dog better). Ripley washes up on a shore, rather than being salvaged from some wreckage. There's a lot more talk of faith, which I would have liked to have seen in the final cut, as it allowed for small bits of hope in a universe devoid of any. There was also a scene wherein the creature was captured, but then later set free by a nutty prisoner. But, like I said, these are all small tonal additions, and do not effect the film's overall story.
Also, at the film's climax, in the original cut, we did not see the creature already bursting from Ripley's stomach. Some fans have said they prefer the ending where they don't see the monster, implying a sort of nobility to Ripley's suicide, rather than a desperate action sacrifice.
Fincher has notoriously disowned Alien³, embittered by the fighting he had to do just to make it. His name is still on it, and it's still a very well made and good-looking film (it was nominated for an Academy Award for its visual effects), but there's a lot of bad blood. I think that's why I bothered to watch this longer version. It didn't offer too much to the series, but it's fascinating to see the chaos of controversy come across in the film. Which you kind of can. Certain films, especially genre films, you can just smell the studio interference on. Try watching Spider-Man 3 sometime. Or the two versions of the fourth Exorcist movie. It'll give you a good view as to how studios think, and what they demand over what auteurs demand.
I'm assuming this was intended to be the final film in the franchise. Sadly, it was so disappointing to everyone, other sequels were put into the works.
Sadly, we had to get…
Alien: Resurrection (dir. Jean-Pierre Jeunet, 1997)
This was a bizarre turn for the series to take. I did say I would have wanted some levity in Alien³, but not like this. Screenwriter Joss Whedon, now so famous amongst his frothing cult, and bizarro director Jean-Pierre Jeunet, who had previously made quirky indie genre films like Delicatessen and The City of Lost Children, put together a film that vacillates wildly between dark violence, flip humor, an odd premise, and outright surreal gooeyness. I would say that they should have, perhaps, played it safe with this entry, but the Alien franchise is, we all must admit, hugely inconsistent. This was a new way of doing an Alien film. And while it's cool to look at, it's a bizarre and oddly lightweight film that I can't really pin down.
Alien: Resurrection is also the gooiest film in the series, putting it in the running for the gooiest film of all time. Seriously, not a scene goes by without a creature dripping, bleeding, or secreting some sort of horrible ooze. The human characters are often strayed with blood, acid, spit, or whatever that KY Jelly is that the creatures seem to be coated in. By the time we get to the climax, and an alien hybrid is ripping its way through a membranous sac, spilling viscous alien amniotic fluid all over the floor, while slime-covered humans, encased in scab-like alien cocoons look on in sexual glee, you'll feel like you yourself are coated in a patina of syrupy grime.
Oh yeah, about that sexual element. This is a frighteningly sexual movie. And not between the characters. Ron Perlman plays a blustering smuggler who flirts with Ripley (still Sigourney Weaver), but the outright eroticism seems to stem from the creatures themselves. The only sex scene is (gulp) between Ripley and a creature. Brad Dourif, creepy as usual, plants wet kisses on a creature's glass cage. I did notice that there was a sexual element to the monsters in both the Alien and the Predator franchises, but it was never anything this nonsensically explicit. Not only is the film gooey, but it's icky and pervy as well.
Which is not to say that it isn't entertaining. I'll take Alien: Resurrection over Alien³ any old day. In comparison to the others, though, this fourth film feels a lot more trifling. Like there's not a lot at stake. The previous films, for whatever problems they had, did at least have a feeling of largeness to them; like they connected to a world outside the film. I didn't get that feeling with Alien: Resurrection.
The premise is this: It's been about 200 years since the events of Alien³. Whatever remained of Ripley after throwing herself into a vat of molten ore has been scraped up and cloned. The company, now actually given the name of Weyland-Yutani http://weyland-yutani.org/, a fitting name, has cloned Ripley in the hopes of also cloning the alien beast that was inside her. Oddly, this plan works, as a man surgeon (Dourif) manages to extract one from her at the film's outset. I'm no biologist, but I'm pretty sure that's not how cloning works. In addition to cloning Ripley, and getting an egg-laying creature out of her, Ripley's DNA is also kind of mixed up with the creature's. She now has monster fingernails, is more aggressive, and her blood eats very slowly through metal. How does she have memories? A quick line of dialogue implies that this psychic connection to the past is something the aliens have always possessed, so they can learn from each other. That sounds pretty cool, and I wish the series bothered to explore that without getting clones involved.
I'm hard-pressed to say if this is the same character we've been following through three films. It's a clone calling itself Ripley, but this is a new creature I think.
What is the story? It's hard to follow. A group of character-free ragtag criminal smugglers (led by Perlman, and including Winona Ryder, Dominique Pinon, and a few others) meets up with the ship where Ripley has been cloned, and creatures are being harvested. They have hyper-sleep tubes full of Leland Orser that they want to sell. Yes, the evil corporation has already impregnated some people (they strap people down in front of eggs), and they have 13 creatures in custody, including an egg-layer. Ryder's character, named Call, reveals herself to be some sort of spy who was sent to kill Ripley. Before that can happen though, the creatures escape (two rip a third apart, using its blood to escape through the floor) and begin wreaking havoc. It's then just a chase to flee the ship, although the goals aren't very clearly set, so it feels like one unconnected action set piece after another.
We do see the previous failed Ripley clones, all grotesque, and Ripley destroys them. Odd how we never get to know Ripley very well in this one. The only characters that stand out are… I guess Ron Perlman 'cause he's tough, and Brad Dourif 'cause he's creepy. Call, meanwhile, has no personality whatsoever beyond her skintight jumpsuit. Oh wait, Call does have something going for her: She's secretly an android. She'll later use her brain to hack into the ship's mainframe and subvert the army guy's (Dan Hedaya) orders.
Alien: Resurrection climaxes with Ripley's kidnapping. A creature mates with her, and then implants the embryo in the alien queen, which is a hugely impressive and really slimy room-sized puppet. Dourif explains from a scabby cocoon that the creature inherited a sexual reproductive system from Ripley, and now it wants to make a human/alien hybrid. To what end, one cannot say. But we do see the birth of such a hybrid which kills the alien mother, and bonds with Ripley. The creature does look like a halfway mark between an alien creature and a human. It's fleshy and white and has eyeballs. Eventually, though, the creature is blown out into space. That is, traditionally, the best way to kill these creatures. Although, instead of blasting the creature out bodily through an airlock, it's sucked through a tiny two-inch-wide breach in the hull. The creature is, essentially, extruded through a Play-Doh Fun Factory. It screams, and its guts pour onto the floor. A gooey end to a gooey creature.
The film ends with a shot of Earth. We're finally back home. This is the only time (Prometheus notwithstanding) that the series will go beneath Earth's atmosphere. A fitting end to a series that has now tried to end twice, and failed.
I haven't seen where Prometheus goes, but I will soon. Next week, I'll take a look at the true final film in the Alien franchise, as well as the two Alien/Predator crossover films, and the final Predator-only film. Be sure to join me for the third and final week in The Series Project: Alien and Predator.