From Horror to Action Adventure
The story told in the Alien films, at least the first two—Alien and Aliens—is a fantastic tale that combines elements of multiple genres—Sci-Fi being the common denominator. I call the tale (and both films) fantastic because the story is imaginative original and outstanding science fiction, with bizarre and exotic elements we’d never seen before in Sci-Fi movies. Both films, one forty years old and the other thirty-five still entertain without feeling dated.
One point I find interesting—which prompted me to write this post—is that, unlike virtually all the other great science fiction sagas, this one begins life as a horror movie. Then, unlike virtually all horror movies, the sequel is something else–an action adventure.
The original is a great science-fiction film, with artfully designed space ships (human and alien) and believably futuristic high tech (albeit circa 1978)—including an android that passes for human. Did I mention the alien? Its prime antagonist—the creature designed by H.R. Giger—is arguably the most imaginatively and artfully designed and executed—and scary—alien ever brought to the screen, before or since.
That said—Sci-Fi takes a backseat to Horror as the dominant genre. The setting and devices are science fiction, but the story is a tale of progressive unrelenting horror. By thirty minutes in—at the end of Act 1—you know—you can feel—you are watching a horror movie.
It is edge-of-your-seat scary and suspenseful, set in a labyrinthine factory ship full of ducts, pipes, chain hoists, and venting steam valves. Most of it is claustrophobic with short sight lines, myriad openings on every surface, and blind corners from which something terrible might be—and often is—waiting to pounce.
Shocks and surprises abound—from the first eruption of a creature from an alien “seedpod” to clasp the first victim’s face—to its subsequent eruption from that victim’s torso at the dinner table. Between that shock and its final surprise appearance in the hero’s escape pod, the creature stalks its victims through one surprise attack after another.
It begins life as a little thing—scary but not awesomely so. It grows and morphs every time we see it, becoming ever larger (with each victim consumed) and ever more horrifying—with features like acidic blood that burns through steel, a talon-tipped tail, and telescoping fangs that extrude from its maw. As if one monster wasn’t enough, we are treated to the shocking surprise of a second—the ship’s science officer turns out to be an artificial being—with a surprising secret agenda—in which the human crew is expendable.
Every character but one—discounting Jones, the cat—meets a grisly disgusting end that fills the audience with revulsion. Did I mention the monster’s mid-story eruption from inside a living victim’s abdomen? Gross! That scene has become a movie archetype and people still talk about it forty years after the film’s release.
The sole surviving character emerges—over the course of the story—as one of the great Sci-Fi heroes in cinema and—surprise—that hero is a woman. Today we have heroic female characters all over screens big and small. In 1979—Ripley was an imaginative innovative surprise arguably breaking barriers and paving the way for characters like Jyn Erso (in Rogue One) and Rey (in Star Wars episodes 6-9).
ALIEN was a smash hit that made a ton of money and established Ridley Scott as an A-list director.
It was not surprising that there would be a sequel. It wasn’t even that surprising that Ridley Scott didn’t get to direct it—that happens all the time. What was surprising is that the sequel to a Horror Sci-Fi hit movie was not a Horror Sci-Fi movie.
ALIENS (1986) transformed archetypal Horror Sci-Fi into archetypal Action, Adventure, Sci-Fi.
Arguably, that has two likely explanations—STAR WARS (1977)—and James Cameron— the sequel’s writer and director.
ALIEN was a box office hit but STAR WARS was a box office phenomenon that grossed half a billion dollars in its release year. We are still seeing the effects of that phenomenon in movies and TV, so it would be naïve to think it didn’t figure into the transformation of alien from Horror to Action Adventure. STAR WARS was an Action Adventure Fantasy.
James Cameron had his breakout hit with THE TERMINATOR—an Action Sci-Fi movie.
Connect the dots.
Like most James Cameron films, this is a high-tech, heavy metal, hardware film—a city in space, a spaceship designed to look like a weapon, armored troop transports—flying and wheeled—a colony built around a fusion-powered plant that creates an atmosphere for a lifeless planet. The marines who accompany Ripley are armored and armed to the teeth with ballistic weapons, grenade launchers, and flamethrowers.
Images and terrific sound-design conjure a wealth of believable omnipresent technology—so much that, unlike the prequel, Sci-Fi elements almost overwhelm the primary genres—Action and Adventure.
Horror is largely absent. Yes, there are alien monsters—a slew of them—hence the plural title. Yes, there are some scary and suspenseful scenes and characters do meet grisly ends—but without the visceral impact of the first movie.
This is an action adventure tale. Ripley’s story is disbelieved until all communication is lost with the small colony established—during her half-century of castaway hibernation—on the planet where her crew first found the alien (and vice versa). Reluctant Ripley is persuaded to accompany a platoon of space marines on a search and rescue mission. Setting up and launching that adventure takes up the first half of the film.
The second half is one action set piece after another. The comfort taken by the audience from Ripley’s rugged warrior companions quickly dissipates. The platoon is decimated in its first contact with the aliens. Their ground vehicle is disabled and their transport back to space is destroyed. Worse, that initial battle damaged the fusion reactor, which is now on a countdown to detonate and destroy the colony. Surrounded and outnumbered, they must find a way off planet before it blows.
Desperation demands a hero, as does an adventure. Once again, Ripley reluctantly steps into that role. Lacking real leadership, the surviving marines look to her for direction as she devises a plan and puts it into motion.
A hero must do more than lead. Ripley takes up arms and joins the battle for survival. Having bonded with the colony’s sole survivor—“Newt”—a little girl who perfectly personifies Ripley’s “inner child”—Ripley goes to great lengths to keep her promise never to abandon Newt. Keeping that promise—and leading the escape of her steadily dwindling troop—sends Ripley beyond harm’s way—into the nest of a literal “Mother of Dragons”. That sequence is one of the most brilliantly executed action set pieces I’ve seen in science fiction and estalishes Ripley’s place in the movie-hero pantheon.
Like any good sequel, ALIENS includes homage “reprise” elements from ALIEN that also inject new twists—
- The crew emerging from hibernation—only this time they’re marines not civilian contractors
- Another android science officer—only this time it’s revealed up front and the surprise comes from his good-guy heroics
- A “bad apple” in the crew—only this time he’s human (more or less)—a corporate opportunist who nearly incubates Ripley and Newt as a way to smuggle aliens back to the company’s “weapons division”
- A countdown clock to doom—only this time it’s not a space ship, it’s an entire colony set to blow
- Ripley’s heroic action sequence—only this time she’s not escaping, she’s risking her life to save a child
Therefore, it should come as no surprise that the penultimate reprise comes when the “Mother” alien, stows away on the shuttle and Ripley must blow her out an airlock. This time however, rather than Ripley fearfully pushing some buttons, she “armors up”—augmented in mechanical robot garb—to do battle.
The final reprise is the final scene, as Ripley settles in for another round of hibernation—this time accompanied by her most loyal followers—a wounded marine and a wrecked android, and one little girl, who has come to call her, “Mommy”.
Ripley’s character—and her hero’s journey—is the spine that unites these two very different genre movies into a fantastic tale.