Which is a better film, 1979's Alien or its sequel, 1986's Aliens?
We'll have no wishy-washy "they're apples and oranges" talk here. Yes, Alien is more of a horror film, and Aliens more of an action movie. We're not here to take the mature path, however. I (Danielle) love Alien, Ben Kuchera prefers Aliens, and we're going to duke it out.
I'm not afraid, because I have the power of truth on my side.
Alien outclasses its sequel in every category. It's better shot, better directed, it has better art-direction, a better-cast and is better written. It's moody and terrifying and launched a genuine star in Sigourney Weaver, who played a woman protagonist in an action-horror film in an era and a genre that 35 years later still lacks for strong, interesting leading women. Every beat in every scene feels emotionally honest and contributes to an overall aesthetic that builds from mundanity, mystery, terror and eventually, horror.
It contains the single most gruesome and fascinating scene in cinematic history, a scene that speaks deeply to our deepest, darkest fears about pregnancy, birth and bodily harm. A scene that not even the actors saw coming; those reactions are said to be real.
Let me say now that I enjoy Aliens. It's on the list of my favorite movies of all time (though Alien sits firmly in the number one spot). I think it's one of the best action movies ever made, and it features everything a steroidal 80s action movie should - great lines, memorable moments, and a whole lot of over-the-top violence.
It is undoubtably a well-made movie. But Alien is better crafted.
In Alien, each character is well-realized. They each have a backstory and a real relationship to one another. Each is a flawed human being, someone we can get behind and get to know. They even look like rough necks, featuring an older cast that lacks movie stars but features plenty of character. You'd never see these people starring in a horror film now, they're not young enough. Not conventionally attractive.
There's nuance to each person. Parker is a loudmouth working stiff that doesn't like taking orders long before there's a vicious monster onboard. Later in the film, when he acquiesces to Ripley, there's a real, if subtle, weight to the moment. She's a true leader, not a caricature of one. Kane shows curiosity long before he dares to touch the egg that brings so much doom and gloom to the Nostromo crew. Everyone behaves consistently with their character, and there's a richness and depth to each of the seven crew members that's never present in the paper soldiers of Aliens.
In Aliens, everyone but Ripley is basically an archetype, or cannon (Alien?) fodder. We have a slew of gung-ho space marines, a slimy corporate douchebag, a pure-hearted do-gooder and a little girl. The only reason Ripley feels real is because we already know her story. From the better movie.
I think you're falling into a trap here when you talk about Aliens, and it's the same trap most people don't see when they discuss the movie. As action films go, it's relatively sedate. The film opens with a salvage crew finding Ripley's ship from the first movie, and we're introduced to a character who is now nearly 60 years out of her element, traumatized by the events of the first film, and trying to start a life knowing that her daughter lived a full one without her.
The first 30 minutes are more domestic tragedy than horror film, and they center on the character coming to terms with not only surviving, but living in a world she barely recognizes.
Let's be clear: No gun is fired until an hour into the film. People love to dismiss Aliens as nothing more than a well-shot action film, but there's way more subtlety and grace in how it's paced than in any other action movie before or since.
Aliens is a story about hubris, and Cameron has said that he wrote it as a critique of the Vietnam war. We have a technologically advanced fighting force moving into an environment where the enemy uses the environment to dig in and fight back, overwhelming the invaders and making their weapons and technology nearly useless. It's a movie that takes a giant dump on the idea of the military industrial complex, and shows how weak and ineffectual an overwhelming show of force can become against the right enemy.
No gun is fired until an hour into the film
Watch the body language and tone of the soldiers through the middle of the film. On the drop ship it's 100 percent confidence and swagger. The guns are loaded, the men and women are ready to fight and it's one long joke. This is little more than another training exercise to them, and they have no doubt that they can handle anything thrown their way.
The tone changes when they land on LV-426, and now it's time to get to work. They move in formation, by the book, and secure the area. They're professionals, doing a job. The time for jokes is over. The speech is clipped and to the point. This is what they do. Then they open the facility and the tone changes yet again.
What looked to be a routine assignment becomes anything but. The facility is a horror show. The people are gone, there is evidence of a struggle and they see a facehugger kept in a glass container. "Is that what you…?" Burke asks, pointing to the creature. Ripley nods. Her crazy stories are no longer crazy, and the soldiers are spooked. The tone of respect and almost reverence as they move through the structure and see how thoroughly it has turned into an alien environment.
Suddenly they're in over their heads, and they know it. Then they're told that gunfire would risk a nuclear meltdown, so their weapons are disengaged. If you want to make the case that Aliens is a film about masculinity while Alien is a film about a woman rising to the occasion, keep in mind that the script neuters the soldiers almost immediately. It's not a celebration of the military, it's a message of how limited an armed, on-the-ground response can be.
I also get pissed off when you say the film is visually boring, because the set design is one of the film's best aspects. The movie opens with the white, clean lines of a Company ship, moves into the steel and antiseptic design of the military ship, we drop into the ruins of a science facility, and then move into an organic, dripping alien hellscape. Aliens has a sense of place and texture that most modern films lack, and it was filmed before every color had to be blue or orange. It's visually striking throughout.
Cameron was careful to make the tragedy of the film land with the audience. He filmed the introduction scenes with the Marines last, so the sense of community is real. The actors had spent months in grueling conditions at that point, and the chemistry they build during that time shows on the screen. Each actor customized their own weapon and armor, and the many names and sayings are references to real things from their lives. These characters feel comfortable, and lived in.
This isn't an action film in the way we understand them today, and it's not a celebration of the use of force. It's a study in overconfidence, a two-hour meditation on how traditional power can quickly become meaningless. The Marines underestimate everything around them, from Ripley to their mission, and they pay the price.
On the other hand, Alien remains a haunted house in space, nothing more, nothing less. It's a great film, but it doesn't transcend its genre or origins. Cameron turned expected tropes on their head for Aliens, while Ridley Scott simply made a beautiful movie with a few good, tense scenes. Aliens does more with the material, and the material is more interesting.
Here's my question Danielle, which film do you think has been imitated the most, and why?
Oh, there's no question. Aliens has been imitated more often and more effectively. There are exceedingly few movies that do terror as well as Alien, whereas the war movie tropes of Aliens translate more easily. Aliens is the inspiration for a huge chunk of the modern game industry, it gave us the space marine and the pulse rifle, after all.
But just because it's been imitated more often, that doesn't make it better. On the surface, it's just easier material to emulate.
I do agree with you that the slower pace of Aliens (particularly the first hour) helps the movie, and I like that Cameron is doing Vietnam war commentary here. It's a nod to the idea that great sci-fi comments on the current world.
But shot for shot, Alien is better-composed. There's a very specific aesthetic and style to Alien. The camerawork and framing are deliberate and artful. Think about the long shots at the beginning of the movie, introducing the Nostromo's cramped corridors, or the way the breakfast scene was filmed — including the clutter of food and those quirky bird-water things. Every element in the frame adds storytelling value.
Compare that to the scene where the marines breakfast in Aliens. There's no real decoration, no flavor. What you see the first time is what you see on every re-viewing, whereas I see something new every single time I watch the early parts of Alien. Aliens is competently shot, but there's no magic to the cinematography or art direction.
There's a very specific aesthetic and style to Alien
There's a tone problem with Aliens as well. In the first film, the alien is portrayed as an unstoppable killing machine. The perfect organism, as Ash says. It is scary because it acts alone, unpredictably, and damn near everything about it will kill you.
In Aliens, where everything is turned up to 11, the marines face off against countless hordes of the creatures. They aren't really scary anymore, when the ultimate killing machine is now a mass of easily-killed beasts. Sure, the marines get overwhelmed, but how many aliens are felled by simple bullets in the movie? The ultimate killing machine is reduced to a mob of nasty, but ultimately weak monsters.
Aside from the merits of pure craftsmanship, there is a more troubling reason I favor Alien. That has to do with the way Ripley is portrayed.
In Alien, Ripley is a survivor. Not a WOMAN survivor, but the smartest, most resourceful person on the ship. Her gender never mattered. In Aliens, she is a mommy figure. That's not inherently a bad thing. But it does flavor the film with connotations about the way a woman can be strong. Or the reasons why she should be strong - to protect her surrogate daughter.
And before you answer with "but... Vasquez!" I know. I think Vasquez is tough, she eschews conventional beauty standards and she's funny as hell. But she's not a principle character in the film. She has… two total minutes of spoken dialogue, at best. Ripley is the soul of the film, and the treatment of her character according to her gender is radically different here than it was in the first movie.
Well, in open combat the xenomorphs certainly do fall pretty easily to bullets, but I don't think that reduces the tension and sense of danger in the film. The Marines are quickly locked into a small area on the terraforming facility, and the aliens literally surround them, looking for ways in. Everyone knows that they're not safe, and they're living on borrowed time. Then the power is cut, and then … well, it gets worse. The crushing sense of hopelessness is a big part of the movie, and that's where I'm going to address your last concern.
You have to view Ripley through the lens of someone who is still grieving for their lost daughter. She was a mother when she went into cryosleep at the end of the last movie, and she wakes up 57 years later having missed the life of her daughter. That's a devastating thing for anyone to go through, and it informs the rest of the character's decisions. Of course she goes back for Newt, she doesn't want to lose another little girl.
Aliens is filled with characters who either crack under the pressure or lose hope. Every bit of good news is taken away, often violently. Think back to the crashing of the dropship, or the use of the automated guns in the scene added to the extended version of the film. Every escape route, every defense is useless. it just prolongs the inevitable.
These people trained together, worked together and ultimately died together. They weren't cardboard cutouts.
Ripley never gives up, she continues to keep a cool head, she takes over and she helps deal with the situations as they come. Count the number of times she comes up with an idea or plan to get them out alive. Even Newt is shown to be a resourceful character, having survived through the attack when no one else was able to. "Why don't we put her in charge?" Hudson says in a panic, but why not? He's losing his shit, and she was busy learning how to cope with the alien-infested environment.
Vasquez may not have many lines, but she's an effective soldier, and when she knows she can't fight any more she makes sure she takes down a few more on the way out. The moment with the grenade is a small, quiet moment in the middle of the firefight, and it reinforces yet another relationship. These people trained together, worked together and ultimately died together. They weren't cardboard cutouts.
Ripley is able, confident and she's the only character who respects the situation they're heading into and knows what it will take to get out alive. She just wants to wipe out the alien threat and hopefully escape with her life, and she makes sure both things happen.
Ripley wasn't reduced to anything, she grew and changed. She reacted to the death of her daughter by protecting another little girl and was willing to sacrifice her life for that child. She was always a roughneck, her work in the first film showed her blue-collar bonafides, so using a power loader to take out the Queen is a perfect way for her to deal with the threat. These two films are about a working class woman showing she knows better, and is more capable, than any of the men around her. That never happens in cinema, and that theme comes home just as strongly as the second film.
This is another reason why I feel like Aliens is inherently a stronger film, it builds on the momentum of the first movie, expands the scope, and allows the characters to grow and learn. Almost everyone who was influenced by the film missed the point: The soldiers failed. Every action scene consisted of death and slow, hard-won retreats. It's not just an action film, it's a horror film. It's a drama. It's effective. It's the best one in the series.
Danielle, you get the last word on this one. Take us home on why Alien is the better film. You're not going to convince me, but you may sway some of our readers from the one true answer.
You've fought a noble battle here - and genuinely made me look at Aliens (a movie I really enjoy, to be clear!) in a new light.
But, as I was watching Alien again last night, something dawned on me. I've seen this movie dozens of times, but I was rigid with anticipation in every scene. I shrieked, and in its tensest moments, I threw up my hands, as if to physically defend myself from a threat.
The fear that Alien provokes is internal. The intimacy of the violence - almost always one-on-one, and in the case of Kane, incredibly sexual in nature - simply scares me more than the more externalized horror of Aliens. Guns keep the battle at a distance. In Alien, the battle happens this close - and sometimes, inside the body.
For me, this kind of horror will always be more effective. And everything about the craft of the film supports this vision of utter, inescapable horror.
Aliens is a great film. But Alien is a masterpiece.