Alien vs Aliens. This debate has been going on in my mind for quite some time now. Even though it might sound like a futile discussion, but it regularly pops up in my thoughts whenever I watch one or the other movie.
I think the point of contention is also the change of directors from Alien (1979) to Aliens (1986). And the general change of direction the story took with Aliens.
So I thought of clearing up this Alien vs Aliens debate once and for all. Basically, by comparing the two films in clear-cut areas, I hope to reach an opinion. At least, in my mind.
1. The Setting
One of the major differences between Alien and Aliens movie is its primary setting. And setting is such a big part of these movies anyways.
In Alien, the majority of the time we are on Nostromo – a spaceship equivalent of a large truck. Basically, the crew of Nostromo can also be seen as space-truckers. It is in this dilapidated and industrial setting that the Alien Xenomorph wreaks havoc.
However, even long before we see the Xenomorph hunting down the crew members, the spaceship appears eerie. All credit goes to Ridley Scott for his excellent camera work in the opening scenes as we experience the claustrophobia of the spaceship up close.
Nostromo is no USS Enterprise from Star Trek. Dark, murky and industrial are better works to describe the spaceship. As we are introduced to the ship, we could already feel a sense of foreboding.
This really notches up the tension manifold when the Alien finally appears on the scene. The dark corners of the ship act as perfect hiding spot for the Xenomorph. Shadows play tricks with the mind of the crew members as well as the viewers.
As the crew members are consumed by the creature one-by-one, the loneliness of the ship increases manifold. In fact, the ship itself seems like it’s own organism determined to destroy the crew forever.
Contrast this to Aliens where the setting is basically a terraforming colony on LV-426 – the exomoon where they first find the Alien egg. While the design of the colony is heavily inspired by Nostromo, it doesn’t imbibe the same sense of fear as the spaceship. It also doesn’t help that Aliens doesn’t play out in a fixed location. And it has a far higher number of characters as compared to Alien making it not-so-scary from a setting point of view.
WINNER – Alien
2. The Characters
Both the movies have some great actors playing great characters. The biggest credit to Alien could be that when we first meet the crew, their talk and behavior appear so natural. They sound like real space-truckers, forced to work in the harshest environment known to mankind.
Even throughout the movie, their situation and the horror feels real. Suffice to say that the performances are really convincing. Ian Holm as the secretive Android would perhaps have been the most scary character had it not been for the Xenomorph.
However, in my opinion, the characters in Aliens are far more interesting. This is also because each character seems to have its own backstory. There is a surprising amount of depth to the characters considering that most of them are soldiers. Their banter is realistic, their behavior is quite apt to the situation. In fact, Bill Paxton probably gives the performance of his career as the shit-scared Private Hudson.
Michael Biehn as Hicks is splendid with the right amount of heroism and vulnerability to his character. Paul Reiser as the sneaky representative of the evil company is spot on.
However, the biggest difference is with regards to main character of the movie – Ripley.
Sigourney Weaver as Ripley simply rocks in Aliens. She is bad-ass in her portrayal, vulnerable and scared at the same time. Basically, she gets a lot to play with and she doesn’t disappoint. Even though she was the primary character in Alien as well, she never starts off as the focus of the movie and only in the last half-an-hour, we see her in the primary role.
On the other hand, in Aliens she is the undisputed star. And Cameron makes sure to portray her as such. Over the years, I have seen that you can basically trust James Cameron with great character portrayals. And here as well, he doesn’t disappoint.
WINNER – Aliens
3. The Pacing
Alien and Aliens are strange movies. Had they been made today, it would have been interesting to see how audiences reacted to them. Basically, both the movies choose build-up over spectacle. Both prefer to show more and tell less.
Simply put, they don’t make movies like these anymore.
In Alien, it takes more than half the movie for us to even get a glimpse of the Xenomorph. And then as well, the film follows the approach of a slow moving murder mystery. Never does it let your attention drift away. Not even for one second.
The last half-hour as Ripley tries to escape Nostromo after setting it to self-destruct is a sequence of genius. In that moment, you are also basically on the ship, experiencing Ripley’s dilemma on whether she should let the ship explode or give herself more time. When Ripley finally escapes, you also breathe a sigh of relief. Just like her.
Aliens also follows a similar approach. At least, in the first 45 minutes or so. The soldiers take a long time to even encounter the first Alien and it is during this initial phase that the movie is breath-taking. The deserted terra-forming colony keeps the viewers on tenterhooks.
However, the consistency in the pacing drops a bit in the second half as the film turns more towards an action-oriented approach. As guns start blazing, the tension inevitably reduces.
Therefore, in this category, there is a clear winner to the Alien vs Aliens battle.
WINNER – Alien
4. The World Building
This is the area where our Alien vs Aliens debate gets most interesting.
The Alien movie’s approach to world building is minimalistic. Basically, we only get limited information about the wider world. All we know is that the crew members are a bunch of space travelers working for the Company. We don’t even get the name of the company.
The goal of Alien was definitely to work with a minimal script and focus only on the characters and their interaction. This lends the movie a much more personal feel drawing the viewers in.
Aliens, however, has a different approach altogether. The movie takes the minimal world from Alien and greatly expands it. We get to know first-hand information about the Company (now named as Weyland-Yutani). We also get to know about how humanity has progressed in the years and how colonization has become the norm. The soldiers in the movie also serve a great deal to showcase the technological advancements that have happened.
The biggest addition, however, comes to the Alien organism itself. Where there was only one Xenomorph in Alien, we get to witness the organism in its own hive-type of society in the movie Aliens. Moreover, we also witness the Alien queen – the central force behind all the individual Xenomorphs and the big bad of the movie. Basically, Aliens was the one that added all the elements that have become so common in subsequent Alien movies. For good or worse. But it cannot be doubted that James Cameron greatly expanded the world of Alien and made it multi-layered and as a result, far more interesting.
WINNER – Aliens
5. The Alien Xenomorph
No matter how many great human characters you pile up in an Alien movie, ultimately it all boils down to the Alien itself.
The Alien Xenomorph is one of the most iconic creatures ever created on film and it is the primary reason these movies exist. This is fact that the newer movies in Alien series (such as Alien versus Predator, Prometheus, Alien Covenant etc. etc.) seem to have forgotten.
In the original movie, we only had the one Alien Xenomorph. And yet, it was downright creepy and unsettling to watch it hunt each crew member one-by-one. The concept of the perfect-organism was what made Alien amazing. The Alien wasn’t simply an animal. It was a character. A mysterious character that kept the audiences at the edge of their seat.
Even with a hundred such organisms, Aliens could not evoke the same sense of terror that Alien inspired. In fact, the presence of so many Aliens greatly diluted the terror turning the movie into more of an action flick. Sure, they introduced the Alien Queen in the last segment. However, no way did it replicate the same uneasiness that the single Alien in the original movie managed to do.
It was mostly Cameron’s genius direction and production-values that made the movie such a great success. But it definitely lacked the suspense and spine-chilling fear of the first movie.
The latter movies in the series chose the action approach probably due to the amazing box-office success of Aliens. But I think that is what has turned the Alien franchise into a mediocre and bloated action series.
WINNER – Alien
Though it is still pretty close but I think the Alien vs Aliens debate can be settled. The original Alien movie edges out Aliens. Only slightly though.
Basically, both the movies are superb to watch even today. But if you are really looking for what made Alien such an important influence in pop-culture, the 1979 Alien is the way to go.
I personally wouldn’t miss a chance to watch either movie. However, if given the chance to decide the direction of upcoming Alien movies, I would definitely like them to follow the 1979 movie more. Imagine what could be achieved with the technology available now.
What do you think about these movies? Do you enjoy one over the other? Put your thoughts in the comments section below.