With “Prometheus,” the prequel to the “Alien” franchise, debuting in theatres last week, I decided to watch the first two films again. Having not seen the original in many years, I was struck by how well Ridley Scott’s original film has aged. James Cameron’s sequel “Aliens” holds up as well, though I might be inclined to see the first as the superior film now.
Released in 1979, “Alien” is clearly influenced by the zeitgeist of 70s cinema. Premiering two years after “Star Wars,” the movie taps into the Apollo-era interest in space exploration(http://popculturemeetshistory.blogspot.com/2012/03/50th-anniversary-of-john-glenns-flight.html. Unlike its sequel, “Aliens,” (1986) which was more of a traditional action film, the original is a “Jaws,”-like suspense movie, as we rarely have a clear view of the monster, just as we rarely got a full view of the shark.
A post-civil rights era film, the crew of the Nostromo, the space freighter in the movie, reflects the diversity of the period with its mix of whites, blacks, and women. After the emergence of a vibrant woman’s movement in the 1970s, sci-fi/fantasy films featured feminist heroines like “Star Wars’” Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher), “Superman’s” Lois Lane (Margot Kidder), and “Raiders of the Lost Ark’s” Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen). These characters seemed a bit forced, often exhibiting an aggressiveness that sometimes bordered on excessive to demonstrate their strength. Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley, the lead character in “Alien,” is the most subtle and layered of these characters. “Alien” launched Weaver’s career and Ripley became the lead in the three sequels, making it the first film franchise headlined by a woman.
In the aftermath of Vietnam, Watergate, and the exposure of the misdeeds of American intelligence agencies, distrust of government grew and conspiracies became a central element of 1970s movies such as “The Conversation (1974),” “The Parallax View (1974),” and of course, “All The President’s Men (1976).” “Alien” is no exception, as the amorphous “Company” sends the Nostromo to investigate a mysterious signal on another planet, using the crew as as bait to find the dangerous alien, with hopes to bringing it back for its weapon division. “The Company” deemed the Ripley and her comrades “expendable” and its chicanery would continue into the sequels. It represents nefarious corporate interests and/or the CIA (often referred to as the “Company”), whose excesses were exposed by the media and the congressional Church Committee in the mid-1970s.
Though “Aliens” maintains some of the claustrophobic horror of the original, it is more of a conventional action movie. After drifting in suspended animation in space for 57 years, Ripley is revived and accompanies a group of futuristic Marines back to the planet. Opening at the same time as 1980s action franchises like “Rambo,” Reagan-era Ripley becomes a full-scale action hero by the end of the film, fighting the aliens with high-tech weaponry, as opposed to simply evading them as she did in the original. Directed by James Cameron, “Aliens” is very similar to his “Avatar,” (2009) with the alien/military backdrop and insatiable corporate demands for profit. Grace Augustine, the scientist played by Weaver in “Avatar,” strikes me as an older version of Ellen Ripley.
Given the mediocrity of the last two films, “Alien 3” (1992) and “Alien Resurrection,”(1997) the franchise has been somewhat forgotten. As a result, the ads for “Prometheus” made the film sound like something fresh and new, rather than linking it to the older movies. I’ll try to catch “Prometheus” this weekend and report back.