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Trilogy Review: Alien (1979-1992)

June 24, 2011

A trilogy is tricky business, no? Three films that form a single arc should be easy, considering that the typical screenplay follows a three-act structure. Furthermore, the Campellian monomyth divides into three parts, so a trilogy merely has to follow the hero’s journey. So why are they so often ineffective? In some cases, the trilogy plan is not conceived until the writing of the sequels, so the arc feels forced upon the original film (see The Matrix, Pirates of the Caribbean, and yes, even Back to the Future). Other trilogies accomplish too much or too little in the first entry, thus resulting in an underloaded or overloaded final chapter (see either Star Wars trilogy).

Even so, some trilogies, even ones that are not planned out at all, come together effectively. The Star Trek trilogy (The Wrath of Khan, The Search for Spock, and The Voyage Home) developed as it went along, with each chapter intended as the final entry in the franchise, and yet the results are quite satisfying. A similar development occurred with the Alien films, although the arc of the first three films did not fully become apparent until the 2003 release of the Assembly Cut of Alien 3. Once the superior version of the final chapter became available, much of the fanbase finally embraced the maligned sequel and started to speak of an Alien trilogy rather than a duology.

The Trilogy Review category will look at a three-part film arc as a single piece rather than as separate films in a franchise. As such, one review will suffice for all three movies. The original Alien will receive its own article soon enough as part of a different review category.

Alien Trilogy (1979/1986/1992)

  • Dir. Ridley Scott/James Cameron/David Fincher
  • Released by 20th Century Fox
  • Created by Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett
  • Rating: ****

“In space, no one can hear you scream.” So reads the tagline of Ridley Scott’s classic sci-fi/horror film Alien. It and its sequels secured Sigourney Weaver’s name in movie heroine history, an odd development considering that her character, Ellen Ripley, was originally written in the script without a defined sex. The growth of her character from career woman to maternal warrior to female savior figure results from a combination of talented storytellers and active lobbying from Weaver to grant her best-known cinematic person increasing depth.

In the first chapter, Ripley is the rational and incorruptible character, the one who can keep her fear in check and not let her sympathies get in the way of her survival. That is not to say that she is cold-hearted; rather, she attempts to serve the needs of the larger group as well as herself. This strong-willed devotion to her crewmates contrasts with the emotionless robot Ash, who will disregard the safety of everyone for the sake of the next great weapon of mass destruction, the Alien. Ripley will not be the victim of corporate greed or an extraterrestrial rapist, and she manages to defeat the monster without any support from the male characters, who are incapable of protecting themselves, let alone the women on board the Nostromo. Her independence and competence as a leader make her very much an embodiment of the 1970s feminist ideal.

However, with age comes the draw to the more conservative maternal role, and Aliens sees Ripley longing for the life of normalcy that she had sacrificed by pursuing her career. The corporate suits have no interest in her fortitude because of her favoritism of people over product, and her life becomes a meaningless, trauma-shattered mess until company man Burke devises a way to capitalize on her again. She agrees to participate in order to exorcise her demons, but she discovers in the subsequent session of history repeating itself that meaning now manifests itself through motherhood. She protects both Newt and the colonial marines much as the film’s antithetical mother, the Alien Queen, guards and avenges her own. Notably, the film’s attempt to provide a love interest via Corporal Hicks rings false, and Ripley feels far more like a single mother taking up arms to fight off threats to her progeny. Thus, she now serves as a symbol for the single mother–not a passive matriarch, but just as much an empowered fighter as she was in her single life, if not more so.

The final film brings on a post-maternal stage of self-evaluation and spiritual/philosophical awakening. Her experiences have granted her wisdom, and her grief has granted her the ability to sacrifice herself for a greater existential purpose. No longer is she fighting to survive or to preserve; she is fighting to die in lieu of everyone else. In this way, she still has the needs of the larger group at heart, but she can now take on the role of activist-protector for humanity as a whole. Confronted with men struggling with their faith, she unites them to a cause that is above their own selfish needs and embraces the reality that death is inevitable while still holding to the need to give life value through rational action. As always, she refuses to be a victim, and she leads the convicts to reject victimization even when confronting their inescapable demises. As such, she is the female legacy-creator, one who can reflect upon past mistakes and make bold actions that were not possible in the days of her youth, when her own safety was deemed necessary to promote her cause and protect her loved ones. With nothing to lose, she can finally stop running.

Although Ripley continues on a dynamic path throughout the trilogy, the surrounding universe thankfully stays consistent. The dirty, lived-in look of the locations, the Joe Nobody approach to the supposedly-expendible supporting characters, and the practical, recognizable technology prevents the sci-fi from overwhelming the story and keeps the whole universe believable. Also, the beautiful orchestral scores by Jerry Goldsmith, James Horner, and Elliot Goldenthal grant a shared lyricism to the three films, even if each composer’s approach is unique.

The directors also strive for a standard of quality for the visuals, and even if Cameron’s film comes off as the weakest of  the three in terms of cinematography, it still has a memorable and appealing appearance. The stories too succeed at cohesion through recurring motifs and parallel plot points that stop short of rendering either sequel a mere rehash of what came before. Each movie has its own perspective, but each perspective complements the other two to form a trilogy of artistic discourse between three auteurs.

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From → Film Criticism

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