Two classics of the sci-fi genre have always split fans right down the middle
In the long history of "sequels that are better than the originals", the very few examples that actually exist, one of the biggest asterisk's has hung over Alien and Aliens.
Some people will tell you that trying to compare the two is impossible - one being a pure horror movie, the other being a pure action movie - but those people are wrong, merely too afraid to face the task at hand.
April 26th is now being officially called "Alien Day" - named after the planet that both movies are set on, LV-426, geddit? - plus 2016 marks the 30th anniversary of the release of Aliens, so it's time to give these two a proper re-re-review.
In order to properly compare the two, first we need a little insight into them both.
Working from a script originally titled Star Beast, director Ridley Scott only had one other movie under his belt - the pretty but underperforming The Duellists - before being given this "haunted house movie in space". Of course, being Ridley Scott, who'd move on to Blade Runner, Gladiator and The Martian, this was never going to be your run of the mill horror movie.
At the time, Sigourney Weaver has a complete unknown, and was nowhere near top-billing in the movie, beneath the much-more-famous likes of Tom Skerritt, Harry Dean Stanton and John Hurt. Watching the movie, which slowly takes its time building to it's set up (it's 45 minutes before Kane is brought back on board with something attached to his face), letting us get to know these characters, and the uniquely designed world they occupy.
Scott's music-video origins can be found in just about every single frame of the movie, as there has probably never been such a visually inspired horror movie before or since, mixing the grime of the working-class space-truckers with the abstractly beautiful beast they've been boxed in with.
Psychologists have a field day with the Alien itself, with the long, phallic head and vagina-dentata mouth, the entire beast is a literal Freudian nightmare. Same goes with the gestation period of the monster, jumping from an egg to impregnate a man through his mouth, before exploding from his chest - those same psychologists will tell you the primary base of fear in Alien can be found at the fear of male rape.
Of course, if you don't feel like reading that deeply, there's still an expertly crafted, finely acted sci-fi horror movie above it all. Released in May 1979, the $11 million budget making a $105 million return, to almost unanimous critical acclaim, winning the Oscar for Best Visual Effects, and is still considered one of the best horror movies ever made.
In much the same way as Scott, James Cameron only had one movie under his belt - the low budget action horror The Terminator (nobody mentions his actual debut, Piranha II: The Spawning), before adding a plural to the title and multiplying the number of xenomorphs. The over-the-top bombast, strong female characters and unparalleled command of action sequences that fill the rest of Cameron's subsequent CV in the likes of Terminator 2, Avatar and Titanic can all be found be found here.
The idea of taking a claustrophobic horror movie and turning it into a big, bombastic action-thriller seems like a ludicrous thought now, but Cameron was merely playing to his strengths. Not that this is a thoughtless process in simply throwing more aliens at the screen and hoping it all works out; it's over an hour before anyone shoots a gun in the movie, and we're expertly re-introduced to a traumatized Ripley (Weaver got an Oscar-nom for the movie) and the new recruits she's surrounded herself with.
All of our expectations that the first movie set up are dashed to the wind, when the one-of-a-kind monster turns out to be nothing more than a worker bee for something much, MUCH scarier. When we're introduced to Bishop, our mind instantly goes to Ash. Ripley was the strong female in the first movie, but here she's surrounded by some of the strongest females in the universe, both human and otherwise.
Subtext is easily found here, as a highly trained military complex invades the home territory of their enemy and promptly get their collective asses handed back to them - Oh, hi Vietnam War!
Costing $17 million, the movie made $131 million at the box office, and won two Oscars - Best Visual Effects and Best Sound Effects Editing - and nominated for another five, including one for James Horner's seminal score.
ALIEN V ALIENS
Both of the movies have had huge influences on sci-fi, horror and action movies in the decades since their release, with every scary space monster movie (Event Horizon, Pitch Black, Last Days On Mars) or every soldiers fights loads-of-aliens movie (Starship Troopers, Edge Of Tomorrow, Battle Los Angeles, just about every video-game set in space you can think of) owing an unpayable debt to Alien and Aliens.
Even the franchise itself couldn't keep up with pace, with the misfire Alien 3 (subtext alert: fear of AIDS), the imagination-less Alien: Resurrection (subtext alert: fear of bad movies realised). The less said about the two Alien VS Predator movies, the better.
While Prometheus at least tried to re-inject some IQ into proceedings, it somehow felt a little too ponderous and a little too stupid (seriously, who tries to pet an alien snake??) for it's own good. 2017's Alien: Covenant could put the series back on course for a purer horror movie, but we'll have to wait and see.
So how do we pitch these two movies - so diametrically opposed, with just the alien and the survivor as the common thread - against each other?
Well, that's the thing, they're not all that different. Alien had the leg-up by introducing us to this creature we'd never met before, from egg to facehugger to chestbuster to fully grown monster. It had a small crew and no way out, it took it's time to prove to us just how relentless a killing machine this beast was, and how these humans had no way of saving themselves.
Aliens, on the other hand, started off on the back foot. We already knew the monster, so the horror of the unknown was taken away. Instead, Cameron replaced it with panic - a slow building dread that even with a larger cadre of fully trained, fully armed soldiers, it wasn't going to be enough. And once everything kicks off, and that panic kicks in, it doesn't relent until Ripley is in that power-loader, screaming at The Queen.
As a horror movie, Alien is almost unparalleled. However, Aliens starts off as a potential action movie, before stripping back everything that constitutes it as an action movie in the first place - the soldiers, the guns, the hardware - until it's back to square one, a horror movie about one woman doing anything to survive.
That, basically, is why Aliens is the better movie. Alien starts as horror, and ends as horror, albeit one of the greatest ever made. Aliens starts off as an action movie, becomes a psychological thriller (that scene in the locked medical bay??), before becoming an even better horror movie than Alien. It has a gestation period not unlike the monster in the movie, raising your BPM so steadily and so drastically it basically pops your heart right out of your chest.
To celebrate "Alien Day" on April 26th, there are several cinemas showing double-bill screenings of both Alien and Aliens on the day. Check local listings for times.