The Alien franchise, while one of the oldest and influential franchises in Hollywood, has gone through its share of ups and downs. What began as a simple haunted house movie set in space, has evolved into a billion dollar film franchise that has spun off into two crossover films, comic books and video games. Its influence is far reaching in the world of cinema and beyond.
But is it any good?
Sure the first two films are highly regarded, and the other have had some interesting ideas and angles to take on the universe, but is this a franchise that has any further longevity? Is the Alien franchise the titular creature who will burst onto the scene with future films that will wow everyone in attendance, or is it the poor corpse on the table with a hole in its chest making everyone around it wonder what the hell happened to it?
In order to get to the bottom of this, we are going to examine each film from the core franchise, which means we will ignore the two Alien versus Predator films, as most people probably already have. The franchise can be conveniently broken down into three phases, which brings us to…
Phase 1: The only two that people care about
Alien was released in the summer of 1979. It only cost $11 million dollars to produce, and it is basically a monster or haunted house movie set in on a space ship. When phrased like that, it doesn’t sound all that exciting, but make no mistake, Alien is an incredible film. It set the stage for one of the best monsters to ever appear on the silver screen, which was born from one of the most famous scenes in cinematic history.
It is masterfully made by Ridley Scott who manages to constantly build the tension from the moment that alien emerged from Kane’s chest and scurried off into the bowels of the ship. In traditional horror movie fashion, the characters will begin to be picked off one by one as the alien hunts them down. Along the way, what is left of the crew learn of the real reason for the alien’s presence on their ship, which would end up becoming a trope that would live on in three sequel films; Ash, the medical officer, was actually a synthetic whose mission was to ensure that a biological sample of the creature was delivered to the Weyland corporation so that they could examine and weaponized it. Get used to this idea, as it will become annoyingly familiar.
This being the first film, that didn’t matter, and it led to a mad dash to escape the monster and blow up the entire space ship with it trapped on board. Two more victims and a quick detour to save the most vital crew member on board the ship, Jones the cat, and the stage is set for the dramatic conclusion where our protagonist, Ellen Ripley, is confronted with the alien on board the escape craft with her. Her solution is to blow the beast into space, which will also become a running theme.
Alien followed sci-fi juggernauts such as Star Wars, and Close Encounters of the Third Kind with 2001: A Space Odyssey still being relatively recent, having come out 11 years prior. Despite that, it ended up becoming as influential as each of those films, and depending on who you ask, it the best sci-fi film to come out of the 70’s. Even its trailer is considered one of the greatest ever made.
The film earned a visual effects Oscar for H.R. Giger for the design of the alien, and is rated as the 51st best film of all time on IMDB. The story was complete once Ripley tossed the monster into space and no sequel was necessary. Only something that could build off the first film, work as a natural progression of the events that took place in Alien, and that build on the mythology of could be a worthy sequel.
Aliens came out 8 years after Alien, and was a worthy sequel that built off the first films mythology and worked as a natural progression to the events of Alien.
The first sin of the franchise is committed by James Cameron in Aliens: it follows many of the story beats of Alien, and in many ways is just a remake of the first film. Fortunately, it is so well made that no one really cares about that, and it is different enough to get away with it. While the first film was a tense horror film, Aliens ended up being more of a tense action film with some horror elements.
Taking place 50 years after the events of the first film, Aliens sees Ripley having to travel once again to the planet LV 426, this time in an advisory capacity alongside some space marines investigating colony that had stopped communicating. The planet, of course is the very same one that the Nostromo landed on years earlier in Alien and where Kane had an unfortunate encounter with a face hugger. Weyland Corporation set up a colony on that planet with ulterior motives, as they once more wanted to get ahold of an alien for the purpose of weaponization. Rather than a tension filled escape from a single creature, Aliens takes a more action packed approach as Ripley joins the space marines in fending off the aliens before she decides to march into the nest on her own to rescue Newt. This sets the table for boss fight-esque finale against the alien queen who is vanquished by a piece of construction equipment and, you guessed it, thrown into space!
There are obvious differences in terms of tone and the use of action sequences, but as stated earlier, Aliens feels like a natural progression from the first film. Many elements of the universe are established in this second outing: the name for the aliens (Xenomorph), the expansion of the life cycle and introduction of the queen, and best of all, the dramatic conclusion where the most effective weapon against the alien enemy is a piece of construction equipment. But the real addition that Aliens makes to the franchise is the growth to Ripley. She may have been the protagonist of Alien but she became a bonafied hero in Aliens. She goes toe-to-toe with the Xenomorph queen, first with a gun and flame thrower after having mowed down countless Xenomorphs, and second with a power loader exoskeleton while uttering the most famous line from the entire franchise:
(Special commendation to second place here.)
It is in Aliens where the legacy of Ripley is cemented. She is one of the most influential action leads in history, as she is one of the very few that have risen to a level of great significance as a female. Her importance has not gone unrecognized, as she is one of only two women in the American Film Institute’s list of greatest film heroes, coming in at No. 8, just behind Clarice Starling at No. 6.
The influence of Aliens in many ways is equally as strong as its predecessor. While the universe and many of the key elements had already been established, Aliens was able to take what had already been created by Alien and build on it in such a way that many people view it as the superior film. It comes in at rank 65 on IMDB’s top 250 movie list, just behind Alien at 51, but it has a higher metacritic score, both professional and user scores. If the first one didn’t need a sequel, then why would this one? It also had a complete ending with no hang ups, and no real need for continuation. This is the perfect ending for the franchise; there is no way it can get any better from here.
In Part II, we will take a look at what happens when studio heads don’t pay attention to the above statement, and decide to push a franchise and an idea far beyond the point where it should have stopped.