It can be easy to dismiss big-budget movie franchises as bereft of artistic merit. I’ve seen words like “bloated” and “formulaic” tossed around, and such disparagement is not always undeserved (although the most egregious entries in franchises tend to be presented with tongue quite obviously in cheek). Still, there’s something to be said for an imaginary world capable of sustaining 40 years of multimillion dollar investments as a sort of artistic achievement in its own right – particularly when that imaginary world has been crafted with an aesthetic that is immediately identified as its “trademark.”
The world of horror is filled with long-running franchises, varying widely and wildly in quality; many of the most successful of these could be loosely classified as “slashers.” However, I can only think of a handful of such franchises in the smaller, more specific category of horror science fiction. There is the Terminator family of products (films and comic books, primarily), the Predator series (which counts far too few entries to its name, in my opinion), and, of course, the Alien-verse. (In fact, there is a not-insignificant overlap between the worlds of Alien and Predator, dating back to an easter egg in Predtaor 2 .)
It is interesting and worth noting that of these three enormously successful horror sci-fi crossovers, two (Alien and Terminator) feature strong, take-no-shit female protagonists who aren’t afraid to blow things up or pump a couple of hundred bullets into an adversary. In fact, the most impressive horror-science fiction series to date was kicked off in 1979 with Alien, written by Dan O’Bannon, directed by Ridley Scott, and starring Sigourney Weaver.
The Alien-verse of films can be broken into three distinct chunks, separated chronologically and by scale and subject. The first four films– Alien (1979), Aliens (1986), Alien 3 (1992), and Alien Resurrection (1997)– constitute a gritty, nightmarish and very noir near future I call “The Ellen Ripley Saga.” These movies give us a semi-dystopian vision of grungy future tech and harsh corporate governance that shares more of its DINA with Blade Runner than Terminator or Predator. Indeed, the Tyrell Corporation and Weyland Corp are cut from the same grim, pessimistic cloth of corporation-as-government. Of course, such notions are merely outlandish sci-fi speculation. It’s not as though a website designed to rate college women’s physical attractiveness has caused literal, in-real-life genocide, right?
These were followed by two films that I consider “Alien Interregnum” films – Alien Vs. Predator (2004) and Alien Vs. Predtaor: Requiem (2007). The latter is an execrable cash-grab with little merit, and although the former – Alien Vs. Predator Original Recipe, let’s call it – could conceptually fall into line with the final phase of xenomorph films, it deviates from the timeline of the canon enough that I am willing to largely cast it aside. This final phase of Alien films, both of them prequels, began with Prometheus (2012) and concluded (or did it?) with Alien: Covenant (2017). This last iteration could be labeled the “Ancient Aliens” phase, as it perpetuates the pseudoscientific idea that humans were “seeded” on Earth, and (for good measure) perpetuates the false and frankly pretty racist idea that aliens “must have helped build” certain ancient structures crafted by non-European cultures.
However, the viral spread of “Ancient Aliens” as a quasi-religious belief in pop culture is a subject for another post: we are gathered here today to discuss the secret ingredient that made the first four films so vital to horror-science-fiction canon: the X factor that sets them apart from the mediocrity (Alien Vs. Predtaor), pompousness (Prometheus), or mediocre pomp (Alien: Covenant) of the latter Alien films. That secret ingredient is Ellen Ripley.
Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley is a rare gem in horror movies: a female protagonist with depth. Ellen Ripley is a great character because she is a fully fleshed-out, complex human. She’s competent, but she’s also capable of emotional responses. After the events of the first film, she has to process a tremendous amount of trauma and she does so imperfectly, which his exactly how real humans react to trauma. Ripley is tough as nails, but not inhuman: she’s subject to imperfections (like her temper) and prejudices (like her initial distaste for artificial humans in Aliens). Ripley isn’t a “final girl” – just like Sarah Connor, the badass protagonist of portions of the Terminator franchise, Ripley is an action hero in her own right.
Weaver deserves most of the credit for Ripley’s appeal, in my opinion. The character has been written with brilliance (Aliens) and written clumsily (Alien Resurrection), but Weaver managed to breathe complexity and life into the Nostromo’s warrant officer regardless of the quality of the script. Horror at large seems to finally be taking a page from this book, as Jamie Lee Curtis’ Laurie Strode has emerged in the Halloween franchise as a force of destruction in her own right rather than a shrieking near-victim. Some movement was made in this direction in Wes Craven’s New Nightmare, although “Heather Langenkamp” remained more of a “final girl” than an action hero throughout that film. On the whole, horror is still too prone to write women as scream queens and assign them one-dimensional identities. Perhaps the secret of the Alien franchise is the dream that in space, no one can hear the whisper of gender roles. If only that were really the case.
A Baptism for the Dead
Historical horror set in the mountainous West, in a landscape of death and madness.