The Alien fanbase is very sharply divided amidst the first two entries of the titular franchise. There are those who admire Ridley Scott’s 1979 masterpiece, and those who applaud James Cameron’s 1986 game changer. But which one is the better film? Let’s take a look.
Alien was released in 1979 as Ridley Scott’s attempt to create “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre of science fiction”. And I think we can all agree he succeeded. The movie became one of the most influential science fiction films ever made, helping popularize the genre alongside the success of the first Star Wars film. It also popularized the concept of mixing horror and science fiction genres together, and a spree of imitations quickly followed.
However, it wasn’t until James Cameron came about that a sequel was even considered. He came up with the concept for Aliens during production on The Terminator, and planned his sequel to have “more on terror, less on horror”. The movie eventually became inspired by the Vietnam War, and focused on Cameron’s desire to show that superior firepower wasn’t always the best weapon against less advanced enemies.
So, there you have it – one film mixed science fiction with horror, while the next threw action into the mix. But was using action really the right choice for the franchise?
Many would say that Aliens is one of the most innovative sequels of all time for doing so. And why wouldn’t it be? It kept away from rehashing the concept of the first film, and followed a path of logical succession. We get to see Ripley evolve and overcome certain conflicts, and we get to see more of the aliens and their evolutionary process. But how does this effect the original film and where do these concepts fit in?
Let’s begin by talking about the aliens. In the original film we only ever see one alien. It all started when the characters explore an abandoned alien ship on an equally abandoned alien world, and locate a batch of fleshy organic eggs. One of the characters named Kane happens to stumble too close, allowing a small beast to jump out from one of the eggs and attach itself to his face. It continued to lay an alien embryo into his lungs, and when the embryo grew, a small alien burst from his chest. This alien then grew up into a 7 foot tall monster and that was the last of its life cycle shown in the film.
So where did the eggs come from? The sequel tried to explain this by introducing an alien queen. This would suggest the aliens are eusocial life forms with a caste system ruled over by a queen. Makes sense, and a lot of fans would say the alien queen is one of the scariest monsters ever put to film. It towers over the rest of the aliens and seems to be the big bad that we’ve all been waiting for.
But there was no queen in the original film, so where could the eggs have come from? It’s actually explained in a deleted scene which is a lot more terrifying than any queen could be. The scene shows our heroine Ripley finding the ship’s captain Dallas in one of the ship’s lower levels after he was thought to have been killed. He’s stuck to a wall and begging for Ripley to kill him. And we realize that beside him is Brett, another character thought to have been killed. Except Brett isn’t quite alive, either. He’s slowly melting down into one of the fleshy eggs they found on the ship.
Yeah. The alien was taking the ship’s crew and slowly mutating their bodies into organic alien eggs. Now that’s more horrific than any queen could ever be. You can watch the scene and decide for yourself below.
So that sums up the alien part of the films – we have the original where the aliens comprise this eldritch species capable of turning any organic life into one of their own, and then the sequel with a queen controlling her society of what is essentially oversized ants. No longer are the aliens this species beyond our comprehension but just mere insects. So, maybe the sequel isn’t the big successor we all thought it was?
And the rest of the film could easily be dissected and proven inferior to the first. For example, it might have a bigger cast of characters and thus body count, but you don’t have that much time to get to know them and so their deaths don’t really have any impact. But in Alien? You’re with those seven characters from the very beginning, and when each one goes, you actually feel how dire of a situation this really is. And yes there’s a few characters like that in Aliens – but not all of them are.
I’m afraid that Aliens just isn’t the timeless piece of cosmic horror that Alien is. It doesn’t make you ask questions about the dark corners of the universe, and it doesn’t make you feel that sense of universal dread. It’s only a big action piece, and although that can be fun to watch, it just isn’t Alien enough.