One of the most despairing factors of the horror genre is that no concept stays scary forever. Today's innovative shocker is tomorrow's campy B-grade cinema on its 15th sequel. A long time ago, people were really scared of Dracula, the Wolfman and Frankenstein's Monster. Now look at 'em -- selling kiddie cereal. Being the object of affection in romance novels. They've been completely and thoroughly humbled.
Let's see if we can analyze the process through one of the most recent examples. In 1979, people were really scared of this guy:
Alien is, and always will be, one of the greatest movies ever made. I had more than one teacher stop lessons to reminisce about Alien when the subject came up, and how they'd never been so scared in a theater before.
The genius of this film is that it's "alien" in both senses of the word. You get the creature you paid for, but you are also thrown into a mysterious, captivating other world along with the ship's crew. Not every question is answered and some things keep you wondering after the film is over: who was the "Space Jockey" piloting the original spaceship? What does the Alien do to Lambert? Why is the egg crack on the poster shaped like a V? Why are robots filled with milk and pasta? And why are they using IBMs in the future?
Until this point, monster movies were thought of in terms of the cheesy paper-mache gimmicks the 50's popularized. No one had seen anything like H.R. Giger's crazy twisted creations, the gritty down-to-earth take on science fiction, the relatable characters despite the fanciful setting, or Ridley Scott's tight directing before. And if that wasn't enough, screenwriters Dan O'Bannon and Ronald Shusett had an ace in the stomach.
It was 3 in the morning when
Ronald called Dan up and shouted excitedly that he'd figured out
a "dramatic way" for the Alien to make his entrance.
"I'VE GOT IT! LISTEN TO THIS! HE SCREWS A GUY!!"
This is how Ronald recalled it on the DVD. I hope this was the actual conversation.
Ridley Scott knew not to tip this secret too early, but there are a couple of subtle hints in the Space Jockey's skeleton and Kane's X-ray, things he must have been grinning with sinister glee as he put in.
Alien is so well-made that you can watch it 500 times, know every single line of dialogue, and yet still be scared. People who have seen Spaceballs first were still rattled by that dinner scene. The alien himself is only on screen for five minutes at the most, and during the tensest scenes of the film he doesn't even appear -- but that's why those scenes are so tense. The movie taps into the primal fear of being hunted like no other.
But wait -- there's more! Alien had one of the best marketing campaigns of any movie; a deliberately subdued series of ads that showed nothing but a chicken egg yet sold the film more effectively than any amount of strobe lighting or screams could have. This included the GREATEST TRAILER EVER MADE FOR ANYTHING EVER.
Smashing first effort, you drooling freak! Now let's see what happens to you from here._
N O V E M B E R _1979: _G I A N T _A C T I O N _F I G U R E
The first sign a movie monster has that his boo-power is waning is when he starts getting marketed to children. This only took six months for the Alien. Within that time period, word of mouth had spread from naughty kids who snuck into the drive-ins. It was all over the schoolyard -- he comes outta a guy's stomach! That's even cooler than smoking!
Yeah, it was an R-rated film, but scruples be blasted, there was cash to be made. The biggest mistake here is that until this point, all marketing in regards to this creature had been to avoid showing it, and for good reason. Here he is in full-frontal view now, tail and all, just in time for Christmas. Once you see him for more than a few seconds, and in good lighting, he doesn't look so bad. He looks kinda cool and profitable, actually. Darn!
A promotional flyer given out to those who might potentially invest in Alien devoted a paragraph to the figure, proving it was in production before the film was even out. They mention "kids" specifically as a target. Couldn't do this today...
A L I E N S : _S U M M E R _1986
James Cameron was a big fan of Alien and wanted to take a whack at making a sequel. Fox initially refused, but then told him "if Terminator is a hit, then we'll greenlight Aliens." Of course it was, but Fox was also so impressed with the script-in-progress Cameron showed them, they gave him extra time to complete it.
In most cases, a movie monster's only good movie is its first. With every appearance, the monster becomes more and more familiar and predictable, and thusly, less scary. Cameron's idea was to go in a different direction. Instead of trying to duplicate the frights of the first film, why not use them as backstory for a gigantic action movie?
It worked. Many were so satisfied by the genre change that this is their favorite film in the series, not Alien. This is despite the fact that Fox cut out a lot of scenes from the theatrical run crucial to the plot because they feared the action wasn't coming quick enough. That included a scene where Ripley finds out her daughter is grown and dead, laying out her motive for latching onto Newt, nay, the entire POINT OF NEWT BEING IN THE FILM. YOU FOOLS!
Aliens proved the world of the first film was broad enough to handle a completely different kind of tale and do it well -- a rare quality for anything. Plus, an intense struggle locked in a room with two Facehuggers proved the Alien franchise still had the power to spook (though all the Facehugger got to do in the first movie was sit on Kane's face, and nobody had seen one in action yet). If Alien is about fears, Aliens is about overcoming them. They complement each other like peanut butter and jelly, and the resulting effect is the best one-two punch cinema's got. There was one big flaw, however.
Cameron had to come up with more information on how the Aliens live and behave. He decided they form colonies and are mostly drones serving the Queen Alien, who creates the eggs the Facehuggers hatch from. In other words, Aliens are giant bugs.
Okay....they're bugs. Well.....we already know about bugs. Bugs are familiar. And now Aliens are familiar, and less mysterious. And less scary. Ridley Scott's idea was that Aliens reproduce by coccooning humans and stabbing them with some kind of chemical that morphs them into Alien eggs. That's strange, but more importantly, it's alien (adjective). The coccoons were still used in Aliens, but only as food storage. That's only Alien (noun).
While Aliens is certainly one of the best sequels ever created, it couldn't avoid cursing its title monsters the same way every other sequel has.
M A R C H _1987: _N O R W E G I A N _M A D _M A G A Z I N E
S P R I N G _1992: _P E P S I _E N D O R S E M E N T
If I had to mark a definitive point of no return for the Alien, it's GOTTA be the point when he accepted a large wad of dough to stand in front of the cameras, smile with both jaws and express how much he loves Pepsi. As if his blood wasn't acidic enough.
You lose a lot of respect for any monster that would do this. Once you've sold out, you've lost all cred. Game over, man, game over.
M I S L E A D I N G _A L I E N _3_ T R A I L E R : _W I N T E R _1991
This trailer, a remake of the first half of the Greatest Trailer Ever Made, did a good job stirring up hype for the third Alien movie. It's too bad it had to, you know, lie about it.
"In 1979, we discovered that in space, no one can hear you scream. In 1992, you will discover that on Earth, everyone can hear you scream!"
What the narrator actually meant was that Alien 3 was supposedly so scary that anyone watching it would scream loud enough for the entire planet to hear. What everyone heard was that Aliens were coming to Earth, and fans got psyched for an event that never took place. Further trailers that used real movie footage were equally misleading, as lines of dialogue like "We have no weapons of any kind??" stirred the imagination full of possibilities that weren't exploited.
A L I E N _3, _A L I E N3,_ O R _A L I E N_ C U B E D :_ S P R I N G _1992
Sigourney Weaver wanted to stop at Aliens. The reason she gave was that if Ripley just keeps waking up from cryosleep and having to deal with the same species again, which somehow always respawn in the exact same spot she travels to....it would just get more ridiculous each time. She had a point. But on the flipside, Ripley had become the series' human emotional core. As monster movies go on, they become about the monster instead of the people. And once that happens, they lose their soul and just become rock-em-sock-em Godzilla films. Y'want to delay that as long as possible.
That wasn't the reason Sig returned sans hair for Alien 3, it was because they'd offered her more money. But this was a troubled production from the beginning, and the result shows it. It went through four completely different drafts over the years, and the final finished product was a stapling of two of those. Remember how nice and tidy Aliens left things? Ripley has conquered the Queen Alien, and she's finally heading home with a surrogate daughter, a new friend and half a robot. Oh, wait. The opener to this film KILLS THEM ALL. James Cameron called that a slap in everyone's face (especially his).
Alien 3 isn't a horror movie. It isn't an action movie. It's a nihilistic emo cut-yourself movie. For the rest of her life (or the rest of her first life -- more on this later), Ripley is stuck on a cloudy dark planet that's intended as a prison for the most despicable people in the galaxy. The only good fortune she has here is that most of them are followers of some kind of space religion that forbids touching girls. And they all wind up dead anyway thanks to another incarnation of the titular creature. BUT guess what? When the Queen Alien was on the escape vessel, she had time to lay an egg, despite being completely detached from the part of herself capable of laying eggs. That egg hatched and hugged ONE face -- but which one? Ripley is thinking it was Newt, but no, it's her, and worse yet it's a new Queen. So Ripley throws herself into an open furnace. The End. Satisfying, huh?
The bigger problem is that from this point on, there's nothing you haven't seen already, aside from Weaver's scalp. When a monster's bag of tricks runs out, and the audience knows what to expect, he gets less scary, for the known is easier to deal with than the unknown. And the unknown was what made the original Alien so good!
As mucky as this movie is, it actually could have been worse. In one of the discarded drafts, no one survived from the first two flicks except the Alien species. The escape pod crash-landed into a small-town space colony, where the Aliens multiplied, inexplicably grew fifteen feet tall, and gained the ability to spread an "alien virus" that turned anything it infected into an Alien, including stationary matter. By the climax, the entire station itself had transfrormed into an Alien creature. The guy who wrote this was shortly fired.
A N I M A N I A C S_ A P P E A R A N C E : _F A L L _1993
Given my heavily sheltered childhood, this might've been the first time I ever saw this thing. I'm not resentful this time; I was very easily scared as a kid, to the point that I had nightmares about the Child's Play box. Not the movie, the box it came in. Alien would have given me post-traumatic stress disorder.
|1993 was a very lucrative year despite no Alien movie coming out. It really became a franchise at this point. A new universe of books and graphic novels began, most notably pitting Aliens against Predators -- a matchup that remains popular to this day. A new string of toys based on Aliens sold so well, Kenner had to start making up new versions of them, such as a Queen that could fly and the "Ultimate Space Marine" that came with a removable Alien camoflauge suit.|
S U M M E R _1998: _A L I E N _R E S U R R E C T I O N
If there was any doubt after Alien 3, this put it to rest. Technically, Ripley is in it (or a version of her) but it's obvious who the real stars are by now. The high budgets of the late 90's allowed for more slime and drool than ever before -- they've never been more moist, but they've never been so unscary. They mug for the camera, they bare their teeth, they do their song and dance, and none of it is surprising in any way. Resurrection, befitting its name, consists of nothing but stolen material from previous films -- except for one part. But go figure, the one time they attempt something original, it's the most ridiculous-looking thingamajig in the franchise.
Another problem: Joss Whedon wrote this. Joss is talented, but he's not an Alien kinda guy. You can't put wacky jokes or smartmouthed people in these films because it doesn't fit the tone. Cracked.com put it best:
According to him: "They said the lines ... mostly ... but they said them all wrong," he said, before going on to say, "They cast it wrong. And they designed it wrong. And they scored it wrong. They did everything wrong that they could possibly do." So according to Joss, putting Michael Wincott, Ron Perlman, Brad Dourif, J.E. Freeman and Sigourney Weaver in your ALIEN movie is horrible casting.
It's because of Whedon that in the time period Resurrection takes place in, the "Evil Company" of the Alien series, Weyland-Yutani, has been bought out by Wal-Mart. Somebody actually says it in a deleted scene.
A L I E N _V S._ P R E D A T O R: _S U M M E R_ 2004
The whole notion of Aliens vs. Predators had been around for fifteen years before this movie came out. It happened in comic books, video games and even action figures, before it ever happened as a movie. Also: Aliens have faced Superman, Batman, Judge Dredd, several Green Lanterns, and Terminators, but Predators seemed to stick.
Ridley Scott wanted to direct the next Alien film. Then he heard it was going to be Alien vs. Predator and he said, "Goodbye."
At this point the franchise has reached total Godzilla stage. Telling a relatable, empowering story or creating a haunting atmosphere no longer matter. It's just about monsters beating each other up; the people are mere cannon fodder. To make matters worse Fox insisted the first AvP be PG-13, even though everything an Alien does is R-rated, even its own birth. To fit within the limitations, the director had to make gratuitous use of cutaway shots and Predators had to be given Ganon's green blood.
Censorship, though, wasn't the main reason AvP stunk. After all, the original Alien has virtually no gore other than the single Chestburster. But Fox looked at the howling criticism thrown at AvP and determined the next one had to not just be R, but the arr-iest R yet. They took inspiration from the Saw and Hostel movies and made Alien vs. Predator: Requiem little more than nonstop torture.
As of this page's publication AvP:R is the last film released with an Alien in it. But Ridley Scott is back, and this time, he's definitely going to direct the next movie.....as soon as he gets finished directing a movie based on the Monopoly board game.
But not even AvP:R is the biggest sign Aliens are headed for endless mediocrity. This is....
F A C E H U
G G E R_ P L U S H I E : _F A L L _2007
PICS COURTESY OF X-E
This is the moment when you KNOW, as a movie monster, that your days of terrorizing humanity are DONE: when they make a plushie out of you. You can drool all you want, you can claw the stuffing out of Predators, you can even come back to your original movie 25 years later and coccoon Dallas to make it scarier -- but if you're a PLUSHIE, you will never be scary again. You have no choice but to resign to an eternity of appearances in cheesy Halloween cartoons, or become a Xenomorph puppet on Sesame Street that teaches counting, or star in young girl fiction as a big sparkly Alien that lives in Seattle.
And if you still don't think so: See the one on the right? That's a chestburster plushie.
Even with our old friend Scott at the helm we may never see the franchise's glory days ever return. No matter how many remakes Hollywood will inevitably try, they can't recreate the initial shock, mystery, or fascination captured in the first one. The genie's out of the bottle.
But there may be one thing he can do, if he thinks of it. I don't quite understand why these guys (and Predators) are the only two extraterrestrial species in the universe. The alien (adjective) could be put back into Alien (noun) simply by introducing some new creatures -- creatures we know nothing about. In fact, the entire franchise could have been fresh for sequel upon sequel just by adding new aliens each time, not just the same old celebrities.
Fortunately, that kind of series already exists; it's called Metroid, and you don't just watch the adventure, you LIVE it!
R E T U R N T O T H E M A I N P A G E