With Prometheus coming out later this year, and as part of my general aim to get more ‘cultural education’, I recently watched Alien (1979) and Aliens (1986). They were directed by two respective giants of the field — Ridley Scott and James Cameron — and each is special in its own way.
I was a fairly nerdy kid growing up in the 90s, so science fiction movies and games were nothing new to me. The Alien franchise was always a part of my consciousness, the eerie green on black background affixing on me in the DVD section of video rentals and department stores. For some reason I never got around to watching them. This is a shame, I think it would have been such a visceral and momentous experience to see it at a younger age. Still, watching them today I can definitely appreciate just how revolutionary the movies were to popular culture.
Alien is a suspense/horror film. I love how believable the premise is. Humans are colonising space and there are ships used for the gathering and transporting of ore. The crew travel large distances in suspended animation. They share meals around a communal table. The android Ash is really creepy. Maybe my expectations are just really low, but I’m super-impressed at the level of thought and detail that went into creating this futuristic universe in 1979.
The effects are excellent for its time and the facehugger/chestburster sequences must have been a sight to behold for original movie-goers. The Alien itself is one of the most recognisable creatures in cinema history and its designer H R Giger (he looks creepy himself!) deserves full props for dreaming up such a spine-tingling beast, in all its cylindrical-headed glory. The idea of being stuck in an enclosed space having a monster hunt you is nothing new, but the film managed to keep me riveted the whole way through. This is no small feat for someone who’s pretty cynical and spoilt for choice in 2012.
Despite being a direct continuation of the previous film, Aliens takes a completely different approach. It ditches the moody suspense of the original for a no-holds-barred, roller-coaster ride of action and tension. From about the halfway point, once our intrepid band of adventurers are on the colonised planet, the film begins to ratchet up the pressure. I seriously could not take a proper breath until the very end when the Alien Queen is expelled out of the airlock. A truly exhausting but exhilarating ride. Also, it was so refreshing to see a strong female character tearing it up. Ripley is tough, smart, articulate, brave, with a hint of vulnerability — not your typical weak, hysterical damsel in distress.
It began dawning on me as I watched Aliens just how influential it would become to the science fiction genre. I mean, this is the movie that popularised the concept of space marines. The idea was explored in great detail by Robert A Heinlein’s seminal book Starship Troopers (1959) and Star Wars (1977) had stormtroopers. But I think Aliens was the first movie to show, in nitty gritty detail, human soldiers deployed across space to fight an enemy. The movie even had mobile sentries! I think that this is such a cool concept that gamers in the 2012 now take for granted.
Just off the top of my head I can think of a lot of games that either indirectly or directly would’ve been influenced by Aliens. id’s Doom and Quake franchise, the Halo and Mass Effect series, and of course Blizzard’s Starcraft and Starcraft II. Starcraft holds dear childhood memories for me and the inspiration of Aliens is blindingly obvious. The basic unit of the human Terran faction is the Marine, and another infantry unit is the flame-throwing Firebat. For an especially eery homage (?) to the movie, check out this in-game cinematic.
So, to conclude: Alien rocks. Sigourney Weaver rocks. Can’t wait for Prometheus!