Alien

1979, Brandywine Productions

I still (uncomfortably) recall seeing Alien in the theater with some friends. It was the first—and so far remains the only—time I've been genuinely frightened by a movie, although in hindsight I suspect this was due as much to the environment as the film itself. Funny story: My father had always insisted he was immune to the effects of scary movies. When Alien came out on video, I suggested we watch it together. And when the chest-burster made his appearance, my father literally leapt out of his chair and hollered, "MY GOD!"

For what it's worth, Alien stands as one of the few horror films I've voluntarily watched (I'm loathe to even acknowledge horror as a legitimate film genre), which makes my positive opinion of it all the more singular. In truth, though, Alien is a crossover film, straddling both science fiction and horror categories, which may be the source of much of its brilliance—as well as its saving grace. As such, it was the first of its kind, and its success is clearly evident by the countless sequels, prequels and knock-offs it inspired. High production values and stand-out performances across the board didn't hurt, either. The result might have qualified for a top score were it not for so much blood and gore. I know some people are into that... honestly, they need some couch time.

     

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Aliens

1986, Brandywine Productions

After Ridley Scott left his indelible mark on cinema with Alien, it was only a matter of time before someone took the bait and made a sequel. Enter James Cameron, a filmmaker as subtle as an 800-pound gorilla. His greatest strength is tapping the vibe that keeps popcorn-eaters firmly planted in their seats, which often relies on the more-is-better philosophy: if one alien was scary, how about dozens of them?

Like Scott, Cameron is an admirer of strong women, so Sigourney Weaver's role was safe, and wouldn't be sullied by sexism. At the same time, he didn't shy away from high body counts, maintaining the film's sci-fi/horror crossover status, although he was more into overkill than gore. Aliens has enjoyed wide critical acclaim, a rare accomplishment for a sequel; indeed, it remains one of the highest-grossing R-rated films of all time. I believe part of its success lies in the fact that it (barely) avoided becoming a clone of Alien, with some welcome plot twists such as good android instead of evil android.

That said... my beef with Cameron's take on the franchise comes back to the more-is-better philosophy; the thing is, more aliens are not necessarily scarier than one, particularly since Cameron presents them in full, clear view, whereas Scott kept his shadowed, which was more effective. Worse, Cameron succumbed to the irresistible urge to go beyond MORE with BIGGER, too, this time with his giant queen alien. While her fight with Ripley was certainly memorable, the queen made Cameron's tricks all too transparent, which for me let all of the remaining air out of the film's tires.

   

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Alien 3

1992, Brandywine Productions

I've warned readers that I tend to buck trends... and perhaps nowhere is this more evident than with this generally reviled entry in the Alien franchise. Why on Earth, you're likely to moan, have I granted it such high praise?

For starters, it breaks out of the predictable Alien mold—not entirely, granted, but enough to make it more refreshing than most sequels/prequels. It also maintains Sigourney Weaver's strong character while adding a surprising, subtle dash of sexuality that's entirely absent from the previous entries, and which provides some leavening for an otherwise excruciatingly dark film. But most of all, it's that crushing darkness that makes Alien 3 such a standout for me. The utter bleakness is so pervasively oppressive that it threatens to strangle the viewer, and that it has such power is exactly what impresses me. Ripley's plunge at the end tears your heart out more effectively than a chest-burster.

Great casting, rock-solid performances from all involved, good production value up on the screen, and (especially for me) a score that absolutely works with the film's grim tone of futility make this a worthwhile motion picture, either as part of a franchise or on its own. I understand and fully accept that I don't have much company in my opinion of Alien 3, but hey, that's what makes the world go 'round, right?

     

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Alien Resurrection

1997, Brandywine Productions

Unquestionably the most forgettable entry in the Alien franchise. The only thing saving it from the worst score possible was Winona Ryder's near-breakout performance—that, and the shot of Sigourney with a flamethrower, which gave rise to Internet memes about killing [fill in the blank] with fire. And that's all I have to say about that.

Except that... how awesome is it that two actresses share top billing all by themselves?

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Prometheus

2012, Scott Free Productions et al

Ridley Scott's return to the franchise was highly anticipated; everyone waited breathlessly for his next masterwork—which instead turned out to be a massive turd! I'm sorry, I don't care that he was responsible for some of the finest films in the history of cinema... Prometheus is to Alien what The Phantom Menace is to Star Wars. I'm tempted to call it the Scott/Lucas Syndrome.

That it remains even somewhat polarizing (meaning it has some fans) is a pure mystery, and proof there's no accounting for taste. Whereas Alien totally worked as a crossover between sci-fi and horror, Prometheus failed at every turn, and Scott only dug his hole deeper when he insisted it wasn't a remake. In reality, the two films follow along nearly in lockstep: Spaceship is drawn to mysterious planet by mysterious message, check. Corrupt corporation is pulling the strings, check. Evil android is on board, check. Crew discovers face-hugging, body-bursting aliens, check. Crew is picked off one by one, check. Strong female is sole surviving human, check. Surfeit of blood and gore, check. What Alien fan could possibly claim they weren't disappointed? J.J. Abrams caught all kinds of crap for the parallels between The Force Awakens and the original Star Wars, while Ridley went, um, scot-free.

There was a slim chance this POS might have redeemed itself—if only a little—until the moment the female lead (having just endured abdominal surgery) starts running away from an enormous rolling object along its trajectory, instead of at right angles to it. That for me was an inexcusable brain fart to end all brain farts. Awesome, flawless visual effects were nothing more than lipstick on a pig, and couldn't hope to save this 100-megaton brown bomb.

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Alien Covenant

2017, 20th Century Fox et al

Once again, the great Ridley Scott followed George Lucas' lead and delivered yet another monumental disappointment, even down to it being marginally better than the brown bomb known as Prometheus. Hopefully he won't bother with a full prequel trilogy, lest the Scott/Lucas Syndrome is fulfilled in totality.

Long, brooding shots of frowning actors supposedly ruminating on deep philosophical conundrums predicate yet another entirely shock-free Alien clone. Spaceship is drawn to mysterious planet by mysterious message, check. Evil android is on board, check. Crew discovers face-hugging, body-bursting aliens, check. Crew is picked off one by one, check. Strong female survives, check. Surfeit of blood and gore, check.

In the making-of documentaries, everyone practically creams their jeans going out of their way to shower Scott with praise, as if he's the second coming of Christ. When is Scott going to stop masturbating over his inflated self-image as the world's greatest filmmaker long enough to come up with something new? The only thing that saves this exploding retread from totally bottoming out, aside from great visuals, is that two humans survive at the end, instead of just the one strong female. Wow! Did not see that one coming...

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