Monday, January 13, 2014

Sequels: Alien and Aliens

Somehow, Alien and Aliens escaped the curse of the sequel (outlined in the last article). This is a surprise, considering that the sequel was written by different people than the original. That’s an obvious count against a movie because (again, as we discussed last time) money is a much more likely common inspiration uniting people than artistic vision. But, like I said, it worked. Alien and Aliens are both good (but different) movies for different (but related)
Ripley must face the enemies of mankind...

And one of the central things that distinguishes these two movies from other pairs is that nothing of the original is negated so that the sequel can proceed.

Alien is a complete story, it has a beginning, a middle, and an end which are unified by a common significance. Ripley is the only member of the crew who attempts to follow quarantine protocol, which makes her seem heartless to the others who, in their haste to help their friend (or do the Company's bidding), will not listen to her. But, because they don’t follow protocol, the ship is destroyed, and they all die.

There is a sort of neatly compact moral completeness here. It is a tragedy, in which a common fault of the crew leads to their destruction, and only the character without that fault is spared at all, and she is left nearly hopeless, unconscious, and drifting through deep space; a total isolation symbolic of her standing alone in upholding prudence (the quarantine protocols).

The sequel begins with Ripley being discovered. The events of the second movie build on what came before, but do not damage their integrity. Although, her discovery is significant, as it removes the ambiguity of the original’s ending. When she gets into the pod at the end of Alien (if we know about the sequel) we know she is not “nearly hopeless”. Whatever the chances of being picked up are, we know she does get picked up. Considering the stories together, she is spared at the end of Alien because of what will happen at the beginning of Aliens. So, we follow Ripley from one story to the next, but they are different stories. A single, contiguous series of events takes place, but Aliens has its own unified beginning, middle, and end.

...Horrible monsters with acid for blood...
The second movie is harder to call a tragedy, because it’s messier. Limiting our consideration to Ripley and her psyche, Aliens is kind of like a comedy (in the classical sense). Facing the monsters she fears, she ends up better than she began. By the end she’s in cryo-sleep again, but she isn’t afraid, and she isn’t alone. If we look at the events more broadly however, we are hard pressed to call it a comedy. Besides Ripley, Hicks, and Newt, Everyone else is dead, and the “Company” has simply suffered a set-back.

Another unifying feature of these movies is that they are primarily concerned with actions as opposed to words. Consider the amount of time spent in both Alien and Aliens without anyone speaking (excluding screaming and yelling). (Oddly enough, this is truer of Alien than Aliens, even though the second is an “action” movie.) This is because both stories are the unfolding of consequences of bad decisions and the characters’ responses to those consequences. The difference is that Alien, considered by itself, is primarily about the foolish decision of the crew, and Aliens is about the malicious decision of the Company. This means that while the first movie can be called a tragedy, the second is a sort of heroic tale; an epic struggle against powerful forces (corporations that span interplanetary space and vicious aliens with acid for blood) in which the hero’s comport themselves well (because they’re heroes) but which doesn’t have the completeness of a tragedy.
...And bureaucrats.

But, tragedies and heroic tales both have their place and, in this case, Ripley (and her opposition to the Xenomorphs and the Company) is the thread that ties a well-executed example of the first to a well-executed example of the second.


Before I end this, I’d like to mention the two sequels that came after Aliens, and which are not examples of sequels done well. Alien3 completely negates what was gained in Aliens by killing Hicks and Newt (and Ripley for that matter). This sort of thing really pisses me off. The writers of Alien3, like contract killers, killed off significant characters to which we (the audience, and Ripley) were attached  just so they could make another movie. And Alien Resurrection, what a mess; what exactly is the meaning of blending Ripley (the character who, in the first two movies, is defined by her resistance and separation from the Xenomorphs) with the disgusting, inhuman thing that is the enemy? Does it do anything but confuse and destroy what the first two movies say? Not as far as I can tell.

© 2014 John Hiner III

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