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Review of The Alien Legacy

Note: This column has been revised since original publication due to the release of the Alien Quadrilogy box set on DVD.

Alien, written by Dan O'Bannon and Ronald Shusett, directed by Ridley Scott, 1979, 110 min.

The movies of the Alien series have created a lasting impression on science fiction film, for the better in terms of their own achievement, and, generally speaking, for the worse for their less-talented imitators. The first two movies are masterpieces, demonstrating what can be accomplished in the genre when an idea is lavished with creativity and care, vivid characters are ably cast, and all elements of a sprawling task like moviemaking come together perfectly. I'll talk in greater detail about what went wrong in the third and fourth movies in my separate reviews of them. I'll also be mentioning some of the spin-offs of the series and what might be next.

Alien is a movie that casts a long shadow: startlingly original, well-written, shocking, held together by a strong female lead, and surprisingly good science fiction to boot. Many other movies have used its tricks without understanding them, and many attempts have been made to follow it. Of all the sequels and add-ons, only the second movie matches Alien in impact. Otherwise, it's all downhill from here, but perhaps that was inevitable, perhaps the filmmakers in the cases of the first and second movies were extraordinarily lucky to have not dropped the ball on any of the elements, all of which needed to be pretty much perfect to achieve the effect that they do.

Alien tells a simple story: a nasty monster is killing people one by one. It has not gone into the obscurity of most other monster B-movies for a number of reasons. For one, the trappings of science fiction are applied scrupulously in order to justify what is happening and to give the story a feel of authenticity lacking in a movie about, say, giant locusts attacking Los Angeles. Secondly, the acting is all top-notch, especially Sigourney Weaver in her debut role, a role which has been quite definitive over the course of her career. Thirdly, the movie is genuinely scary, which is due to brilliant writing, precise pacing, and some innovative design work. And lastly, the movie can take some enormous risks due to its relatively straightforward story, and it makes the most of that opportunity.

The space freighter Nostromo is on its way back to Earth, carrying a crew of seven in deep sleep, when its journey is interrupted by computer. The crew are ordered by the Weyland-Yutani company to investigate an unusual signal from a deserted planet. Under protest, they do so, and of the three who go down to the planet, a man named Kane comes back with a strange organism attached to his face. Once the organism dies, Kane seems ok, but not for long. All of the building suspense has a terrifying catharsis early on in the movie, when Kane suddenly goes into convulsions, and an embryo that was laid inside his chest bursts out through his rib cage. On its own, the scene is both edge of the seat and disgusting, but itís also designed to prey on our minds. What the devil was that and what will it do next? What will it grow into?

We donít get much of a view of the alien, although some aspects of it are clear. Itís fast, itís vicious, and itís smart. And it also looks like a vision of a nauseous yet elegant nightmare, possessed of a certain kind of purity that appeals to the darker side of humanity (as happens over and over again in the series). The alien was famously designed by H. R. Giger and much has been written about his effect on this movie and those that followed. Giger designed all of the alien aspects of the movie and his esthetic forms the basis of the meaning of the movie. More on that in a minute.

Ripley becomes the authority figure by default, as her superiors are killed off. And as far as I can tell from the supplementary material, the role of Ripley was written gender-blind, but then cast as a female as a bit of a lark, another way of playing with audience expectations. It's the second movie that develops Ripley in her own right, but the development here is still not too bad. That is, not too bad if the egregious disrobing scene at the end could be ignored, the only serious flaw in the movie.

One of my favourite sequences in Alien is the whole Ash-gone-rogue segment. For a monster on the loose movie, this is a delightful and deliberately gruesome left turn. In one sense, this is only another step in a carefully calculated escalation of tension and isolation -- not only is the science officer a bit too interested in the alien, he is literally not human (something that is set up subtly early in the movie where we see him drinking a liquid that looks like milk), in addition to the fact that he is complicit in a plan to preserve the alien for exploitation at all costs. Aliens a few years later puts some clever spin on the whole synthetics/Company as evil theme, cementing the shape of alien stories to come: the aliens are ferocious killing machines, and this is matched by the greedy rapacity of entities like the Company. I call this the greedy human plot, and it has been repeated over and over again, in the movies and literally every add-on, tie-in, sequel, novelization, and computer game. But it begins here, with the synthetic named Ash, and a startling confrontation with a machine who looks like a man. It's no wonder Scott was attracted to the Philip K. Dick material that would form the basis of his next movie, Blade Runner.

Another subtle moment in Alien is the question of how much of the host does the alien take on. On this viewing of the four movies, I didn't catch the point at which the aliens began to be referred to as xenomorphs, but the term refers to their ability to adapt the best bits of host DNA (like the speed of the dog in Alien 3). There's not much material in the first movie about this subject, but at one point the crew is discussing how humanoid the alien is, and Ash mutters under his breath, ďKane's son." Nicely played.

What does Alien mean? My first answer would be: not much! The movie is meant to scare us, and it succeeds, case closed. But why does it scare us when other movies have failed so consistently at doing so in an intelligent manner? Still in the reductionist sense, the answer, partly inherited by the sequels (the third and fourth movies more so than the second), is only a functional byproduct of scaring us. In other words, if the movie could get away with being 100% scare-by-sting -- stings being those jump moments when a squirrel or a friend's hand or, in this case, a cat bursts onto the screen with an accompanying crash of loud music -- it would go the easy way. Many horror movies do this. But they also often fail, and so Alien has to give its material a psychological edge, a psychosexual foundation that gets under our skin in order to succeed at its job. With Giger in the works, the movie immediately becomes something about the frightening intersection between sexuality, death, and machines -- biomechanoid as it has been called. The whole idea of the facehugger and chestburster cycle was designed to avoid letting the men in the audience feel comfortable or even complicit in the woman-in-peril clichés of most monster movies (OíBannon talks about this a bit in Alien Evolution). The first victim is a man, so no one is safe from the physiological violation (itís also psychological in the subsequent movies for those who know what will happen to them once the facehugger has done its work). So the movie not only plays on the fear of death but also the desecration of the body for alien purposes.

DVD Note: The Alien Quadrilogy box set dedicates two DVDs to each movie in the series. For Alien, the box includes both the theatrical version and the recent director's cut and a second DVD with nine new documentaries and some deleted scenes.

Aliens, written by James Cameron, David Giler, and Walter Hill, directed by James Cameron, 1986, 150 min.

Aliens is a remarkable sequel, building on the strengths of the first movie, yet displaying its own sense of the Alien universe. The two movies are like a complementary set, mirror images yet still distinct. James Cameron's achievement here is really quite astonishing: a sequel that not only stands its own ground in the face of an overpowering original work, but also brings new life to that work. Baldly categorized, the two movies would be suspense and action, which makes sense structurally; viewers of Alien knew nothing about the creatures, whereas Aliens viewers would be less surprised so new techniques of captivating interest were required. Of course this process has left subsequent iterations out in the cold, especially those not quite so adept at re-imagining the material.

Aliens follows quite directly from where Alien left off. Ripley's escape vehicle is discovered floating in space and she and her cat are revived. Understandably upset at the loss of a huge space freighter, the Company wants to know what happened, and Ripley is debriefed, judged, and removed from her rank. But she has nightmares, nasty in the extreme, and when the colony on the planet is not heard from and she is approached to help a mission of Marines figure out what happened, she agrees. She goes with a Company representative, Burke; a synthetic, Bishop; a new officer, Gorman; a cowardly Marine and a brave one, Hudson and Hicks; along with the rest of the squad of Marines. In a bit of excessive foreshadowing, Ripley helps the Marines load up their ship with a power loader, a type of exoskeleton or motorized suit that gives a human great strength. They get to the colony, only to find it mostly in ruins. There is also a laboratory full of facehuggers, two of which are alive. Bishop finds that the PDTs (personal data transmitters) of the colonists are all clustered in one area, so Gorman sends in a squad to find out what is going on. Despite all of Ripley's warnings, the Marines really have no idea what they are about to face.

At this point, we get the first of many action sequences in the movie. But before discussing Cameron's acumen at creating incredible action setpieces, I would like to point out that an hour and ten minutes of the movie have already passed by the time we get to the first such setpiece. By this time, heroic Ripley, slimy Burke, and the others are firmly established in our minds, the squad has discovered the only human survivor of the colony, a young girl named Newt, and all the pieces are in play to make us emotionally involved. We also have a clear main character to cheer for.

And then the action kicks in, and I sometimes still find the last hour and a half of this movie too tense to watch in one sitting. The squad of Marines takes a beating -- especially since they were ordered to remove their ammunition! -- and requires a knuckle-biting rescue by Ripley. The dropship pilots get their heads chomped, so the survivors have no way off the planet. Next up is a dramatic nail-biter scene, where Ripley and Newt wake up locked in a lab with the two live facehuggers. They survive, but only just, and Ripley immediately realizes that they were the ideal smuggling devices for Burke to get alien DNA off the planet and through any quarantine. Newt and Ripley in the lab is probably the best showing or illustration, as opposed to telling, in the Alien series of the greedy human plot; characters we cherish have their lives in danger in a semi-self-contained episode. And best of all, directly afterwards Ripley confronts Burke and vents some of her rage. More philosophically, she concludes, "I don't know which species is worse." To me, that is a keystone of the series, because as bad as it can get in conflict with the xenomorphs, there's always somebody from the Company looking to sacrifice you.

But Cameron isn't through with wrecking our nerves just yet. Still to come is a scene of retreat, Newt in peril, Ripley putting together an uber-gun for herself, and perhaps best of all, the power loader! Anyone who has seen the movie will know what I'm talking about. Anyone else, go see it immediately!

Why would Ripley want to go back into such a nightmare? It's a problem: how to create a convincing reason for Ripley to head back into such a scenario. Any enticement offered by the Company would mean nothing to Ripley, from money to recognition to the backhanded reward of restoring her license to go into space. Very credibly, Ripley's nightmares of helplessness and fear cause in her the desire to fight back, to overcome, to rescue her own sense of self from the damage done by the xenomorphs. This plays out in a direct line through all of Ripley's actions in the movie, actions like choosing to go along, rescuing the Marines in the face of Gorman's incompetence, confronting Burke about his duplicity, or going back to rescue Newt. This is very much Ripley's movie, unlike in Alien where her centrality was deliberately accidental. Two famous lines of dialogue illustrate Ripley's character: when the company won't believe her, she says, "Did IQs drop sharply while I was away?" and when the alien queen threatens Newt, she snarls, "Get away from her, you bitch!" Much has been made of the theme of maternalism, as evidenced by the latter line, in Aliens, with good reason. Ripley loses a daughter and fights to save an adopted one, while the alien queen has her own brood to protect. A large part of my sheer admiration for this movie comes from the canny construction of the climactic fight between Ripley and the alien queen. I don't know if I can recall any other movie with a struggle between two such powerful female figures, protagonist and antagonist, and such as the careful working out of such complex ideas of loyalty, competing interests, survival, and of course pure excitement.

Like the first movie, Aliens has some good sequences with a synthetic character, in this case Bishop. I like the role he plays at the end of Aliens, not to give too much away. The technology of the synthetics may be a bit out of line with what else we see of this future (especially IT-wise), but I find that it gives it a little more science fiction credibility.

DVD Note: The two DVDs for Aliens include both the theatrical version and the special edition (which adds 17 minutes of footage). The second DVD has eleven new documentaries and James Cameron's original treatment.

Alien 3, written by Vincent Ward, David Giler, Walter Hill, and Larry Ferguson, directed by David Fincher, 1993, 110 min.

By this point in the series, whoever was chosen to make the third entry had the unenviable job of following up two of the greatest science fiction movies ever made. Perhaps it was inevitable that the Alien movies would simply run out of steam, the initial novelty long since gone, Giger's designs no longer able to shock, and all interesting character development for Ripley exhausted. It also may have been inevitable that the studio, with a lucrative franchise at risk, would interfere with whatever creative talents may have been hired to further the story.

So Alien 3 faced an uphill battle before any work was done on it, and it didn't much help that mistakes were made nearly every step of the way once the process was started. Script-by-committee seldom leads to quality work, and in the case of a fading franchise, it's an invitation to disaster. Whatever Vincent Ward's original ideas may have been, his work was extensively rewritten, a polite euphemism for hacked to pieces. David Fincher was hired here for his debut as director, perhaps so that the studio would have someone easy to control, but whatever the reason, creative differences, another polite euphemism, cropped up consistently. And while Fincher has gone on to direct many admirable, beautifully-shot movies, his work sometimes lacks a sense of joy in the proceedings; to my mind, Alien 3 and other Fincher movies like Panic Room are a little on the glum side, with a certain inbuilt disdain for the material. Even if Fincher had proceeded on Alien 3 without interference, he may not have been the right director to inject some verve in the franchise.

The movie also suffers from a number of serious structural problems, some inherent in the story. The escape shuttle from the end of the second movie crashes on a prison planet, Fiorina 161, somewhere in a remote system. The movie makes it pretty clear that an alien is onboard and is the cause of the crash, although how that could have happened at the end of the second movie is never addressed. The basic storyline of Alien 3 is Ripley trying to survive on this new planet when there's an alien loose among the scarcely-rehabilitated psychopaths who have no weapons and have no idea what is attacking them. The first half of the movie introduces the situation: Hicks, Newt, and Jones are all dead; Ripley is stuck among a bunch of unpleasant characters; a facehugger has implanted a prisoner's dog and the resulting drone has different characteristics than the xenomorphs in the earlier two movies; Ripley finds out some unpleasant information from the brain of Bishop; and people start dying. The second half of the movie drops off sharply in interest, if this is possible. How can this disadvantaged crew possibly fight an alien? Ripley comes up with a few plans but she has less-than-stellar help, and is leader by default. The Company has been notified and is on their way with better equipment, but it's pretty clear that they are willing to sacrifice all of the prisoners and Ripley in order to get their hands on a xenomorph.

There are two main problems with this story. All of the characters, apart from Ripley, have to learn about the deadly abilities of the xenomorph, most of them the hard way. But the audience already knows the majority of what the hapless prisoners are giving their lives to find out. No surprise is left. What remains is only some senseless gore, and Ripley acting as Cassandra to a bunch of doomed nincompoops. Plenty of exciting, interesting stories could be told in the Alien universe, and structurally, by the fact of the audience's pre-existing familiarity, those stories should not rely on the same bloody revelations. I'll discuss this further in my review of Aliens: Berserker, one of the graphic novel sequels to the second movie.

The second main problem has to do with the role of Ripley as a woman in this movie. Alien and Aliens both featured a casual, unspoken equality between the genders; the women were competent and in the case of Ripley, superior enough in brains to survive and help others survive. Neither of the movies dealt with human sexuality in any profound way, apart from a general fear of violent interspecies rape. The equality between men and women, however, was a matter-of-fact positive much to the series' credit. That changes with the third movie. Alien 3 presents much the same point, namely that equality is a good thing, but here the story works by the negative instead of the positive. Ripley is the lone woman in a group of predatory men, and at one point she requires rescue from impending rape (the threat comes from humans, not aliens). Yes, inequality is bad and equality is good, but stories that follow from the latter seem to suit what we know of Ripley much better. The situation is exacerbated in Alien 3 due to a quite gratuitous sex scene; Ripley tells the doctor that she still has urges and they jump into bed. My description of it may seem laughable, but the scene is really that meaningless. It's small consolation that the doctor is the only other sympathetic character, because as soon as he has finally revealed his past to Ripley, he gets his head chomped off.

The ending confirms my sense that the movie has not much clue of what to do with a strong heroine. The much-discussed final scene features Ripley throwing herself into molten lead, sacrificing herself in order to kill the alien embryo in her chest. At one level, this is a suitably dark twist on theme of maternalism from the previous movie; as her chest bursts open during the plunge, Ripley cradles the nascent alien queen in her arms, not to nurture but to ensure its destruction. At another level, this isn't qualitatively different than any of umpteen other movies where the woman dies at the end, as if there were no other conceivable character arc for a smart, competent woman. And if this ending was due to Sigourney Weaver's desire to kill the series, it was about as successful as Doyle killing Sherlock Holmes at Reichenbach Falls. Doyle could bring back Sherlock with an explanation as simple as a ledge on the cliff; resurrecting a character in a science fiction movie, especially someone immolated in molten lead, can necessitate convoluted plot developments. Which is just what happens in the next movie, Alien Resurrection.

DVD Note: The Alien Quadrilogy box set includes the theatrical version of Alien3 as well as a working print version of how the movie could have been different. The second DVD goes into great detail about the problems of the movie.

Alien Resurrection, written by Joss Whedon, directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet, 1997, 105 min.

Alien Resurrection is a considerably better movie than the third entry in the franchise, although it doesn't come close to matching the first and second, and it runs out of steam in the final quarter. French director Jeunet, who has directed some of my favourite movies like Delicatessen and Amelie, tries his best to create a successful Alien movie. In fact, he attacks the problem with gusto, and his answer to the question of what to do with xenomorphs seems to be to provide as much gore as possible. Ripley is also given a makeover of sorts, with somewhat more worthwhile results.

Many years after the events depicted in Alien 3, some experiments are being done aboard USM Auriga, a military vessel funded in secret. DNA has been recovered from the vat of molten lead at the end of the third movie, and the military scientists are busy trying to clone the tissue as best they can. Soon they have a viable clone of Ripley from which they can extract an alien queen at the beginning of its lifecycle (for some reason, human and parasite DNA were mixed). Once the queen begins laying eggs, the next requirement is to find proper hosts for the facehuggers. That's where the crew of the Betty comes in; a ragtag group of space pirates supplies the Auriga with humans in stasis, mostly stolen unaware while in transit. Incredibly, the captain of the Betty asks for a few days R&R for his crew aboard the Auriga, and before you can say lickety-split, the aliens are loose and are busy chomping heads. The crew of the Betty have to escape the doomed vessel, and they do this with the help of Ripley. That is, Ripley 8. The Ripley clone is not supposed to have memories of her previous life, but she does; she was not really supposed to recover either, but she does. Her blood is slightly acidic, and a few other signs make us question just how human this Ripley really is.

The story is once again some hapless humans caught between a rock and a hard place, namely alien ferocity and company duplicity. In this case, the Weyland-Yutani company has been replaced by the United Systems Military, but the effect is the same: unscrupulous and greedy, but at the same time, unwise and unprepared. It's a story that gets a bit old told four times in a row (and further repeated in the graphic novel sequels). Worse, the United Systems Military seems to be even less prepared than Weyland-Yutani ever was, and several major problems about the movie proceed from this lack of foresight. You would think that a major military operation bent on weapons research and understanding the most vicious species in the universe would have more precautions than, say, someone cloning poodles or fighting an infestation of tribbles.

That is not the case! First of all, the military scientists put three alien drones in one non-acid-proof cage, so a group of aliens escape almost right away. Once things go wrong, the only contingency plan is evacuation, and this too is done incompetently. While I was watching the movie, I timed how long it took from the point where the aliens escaped to the point where all the military were dead or jettisoned. Only four minutes! This occurs about 40 minutes in, so the remaining hour of the movie is about Ripley and the crew of the Betty and their struggle to survive. Unfortunately, the USM left one last ticking time-bomb of stupidity: when something goes wrong, the Auriga goes on an autopilot course to Earth. Huh? Wouldn't a more appropriate emergency course for a spaceship infested with xenomorphs be the centre of the sun?

At least Alien Resurrection knows what to do with Ripley, or has a unique approach. How human is Ripley? Not very, but enough human qualities remain to let Ripley feel emotion, struggle to survive, and supply lots of snappy one-liners. This Ripley is a little more ruthless than the human one from the previous movies, as is appropriate to a mix of xenomorph and human DNA, but she also has a vulnerable moment later in Alien Resurrection when she comes across a lab filled with the massively deformed first seven versions of herself. The lab scene is a nice bookend for one of the key introductory scenes for Ripley: early on, she's playing basketball by herself when the crew of the Betty comes in. Some macho posturing follows, and Ripley walks off, throwing the ball behind her without looking, for a perfect swish! As a side note, I'd like to point out that no special effects were involved in the shot; apparently, Sigourney Weaver did it on the fourth take, and it was all the other actors could do to stay in character.

Unfortunately, the conceptual flip side of Ripley's human/alien mix is the alien queen's alien/human mix. We don't find this out until the final quarter of the movie, and this is precisely where Alien Resurrection runs out of steam. Ripley's human DNA has changed the lifecycle of the alien, so now the queen has a second reproductive cycle, resembling that of humans, in which she gestates the infant inside of her, but she dies as it bursts out of her womb. In theory, this change is precisely what the xenomorph species is all about, adapting DNA as necessary from the host, but as it is played out in the movie, the sequence reverses nearly all the sense of fear that the Alien series created along the way. The resulting man/alien seems to fit in with the esthetic of the fourth movie, and its actions definitely do; if the movie was not full of gore before this point, it definitely becomes so after. The man/alien is a pitiful creature, despite its violence, which is in one sense a logical extension of its hybrid nature, but in another sense a clear misunderstanding of how the alien takes only the strong and helpful traits from a host species.

My review so far of Alien Resurrection seems to be a lot of complaining, but it's a decent movie in some ways. It is definitely impressive to look at, with gorgeous visuals and nifty special effects from beginning to end. The movie makes good use of a synthetic person in its story line, which is something I also enjoy in the first and second movies. And it's also extremely efficient in the way it capitalizes on alien mythology in the framing sequences. For me, however, the movie is still a mix of disappointment and frustration, tinged with a small dose of admiration.

DVD Note: Like the first three movies in the series, the DVD of Alien Resurrection has two versions, the theatrical and a recent special edition.

Extras Note: The Alien Quadrilogy box set has a ninth DVD with some leftover material including an hour-long British TV special named Alien Evolution.

Aliens vs. Predator, Fox, 1999

Aliens vs. Predator 2, Monolith, 2002

These might be the world's shortest game reviews. I have played both the original game, and its recent sequel; that is, I have tried to play them, both Aliens vs. Predator (AvP) and Aliens vs. Predator 2 (AvP2). They were simply too scary for me.

That might seem like an odd statement from someone who has played and enjoyed games like the survival horror System Shock 2. But something about these two games got entirely under my skin, to the point where I couldn't even take my character down a hallway without my heart racing. The games are really effective at capturing the tension that Ripley undergoes in the second movie; specifically, when she straps together her uber-gun and heads back for Newt, into claustrophobic hallways, strobing lights, and the threat of an alien at any corner. It's interesting because one of my strongest reactions at initially seeing Aliens was to observe that Ripley's journey into the hive would make a particularly hair-raising virtual reality game. Now that someone has made a version of it, even for the relatively non-immersive medium of the computer game, my comment has come back to haunt me. Both AvP and AvP2 were just too hair-raising.

Most of my reaction was due to the uncanny accuracy, or verisimilitude if that word applies to faithfulness to a work of fiction, with which the programmers replicated the world of both alien and predator. For example, I'm a lonely Marine, trapped inside an alien-infested complex by an explosion that separates me from my squad (as happens at the beginning of the second game), and I have a deeply-ingrained knowledge from the second movie that the pulse rifle in my hands, despite making a really cool noise exactly as it does in the movie, will not stave off my certain destruction for very long. Playing as the alien does not improve matters much, as the well-equipped squads of Marines make short work of any solitary alien, again true to Aliens.

There have been other computer games based on Alien mythology over the last few years, including Alien: A Comic Book Adventure, The Alien Trilogy, and Alien Colonial Marines. None have had the impact or sales of the AvP series. I will talk a little bit about how the matchup between alien and predator came about in the first place in my next review.

Aliens: Berserker, S. D. Perry, Bantam Spectra, 1998, 225 pp.

Note: This is an adaptation of a graphic novel previously published by Dark Horse Comics. The title page of Berserker credits the genesis of the book in this way: Based on the Twentieth Century Fox motion pictures, the designs of H. R. Giger, and the Dark Horse graphic novel: Aliens: Berserker by John Wagner, Paul Mendoza, and Andy Mushynsky.

The world of Aliens lives on in numerous Dark Horse comic series, some of higher quality than others. Aliens is used very specifically because most plot points follow from the second movie and contradict what was shown in the third and fourth movies. For example, the scientists in Alien Resurrection contend that Ripley (nearly) succeeded in wiping out the xenomorphs when she dove into molten lead at the end of Alien 3, whereas every Aliens graphic novel has an alien infestation in some corner of the galaxy or another.

It was in the Dark Horse series that the aliens were first matched up against the predators, and there has been no shortage of crossover conflicts since then. Aliens have fought against, among other luminaries, Batman, Superman, and the Green Lantern. The comics have been illustrated by a wildly varying group of artists, in styles that were sometimes more appropriate to the subject matter than others. One of the first is still one of the best, a trilogy under the titles Earth Hive, Nightmare Asylum, and Female War (all available also in novelization form). Berserker is a recent one, and I chose it because of how much I like the story as a candidate for what the third movie should've been like. More on that in a minute. Berserker also breaks the mold a bit; most of the sequels can be classified pretty clearly under what I have termed the greedy human plot, familiar enough already from the movies. Berserker is about a hunter killer team, trained in exterminating aliens. Yes, they run across the inevitably gruesome results of human greed, but the main part of the story has to do with their alien-stomping techniques in action.

Briefly, their plan is this: one squad member goes into the hive in a submissive pose. In the absence of attack cues, the drones bring him or her back to be cocooned and impregnated. The soldier's surveillance equipment gives an inside view of the hive, and in the meantime, the acid proof faceplate has hopefully not come loose! Not surprisingly, the character in Berserker whose task it is to go in first has escalating psychological problems. Next, a computer/cyborg-controlled, heavily-armoured and heavily-armed walking tank goes in with guns, flamethrowers, missile launchers, and other assorted weapons blazing, with tactical data from two points helping to triangulate targets exactly. The other soldiers are the mop-up squad. Berserker begins with an operation that, despite many tense moments, goes according to plan; the last two-thirds of the book concerns an operation that does not go so well. The story may be a bit skimpy, but it is both exciting and satisfying.

To me, it's the sense of satisfaction that makes the idea of a trained alien squad compelling. Alien had a crew who didn't know what they were facing; Aliens had a team of military personnel who knew of a threat but didn't have more specific details. I've always thought that the next logical step would be a story like Aliens: Berserker, where human ingenuity faces the well-understood menace of the xenomorphs. In this sense, the most disappointing aspect of Alien Resurrection was the military who were not prepared and couldn't even evacuate competently. I suspect what happened with the movies as the franchise progressed was that the threat of the unknown was such an alluring premise that it was reused even when it no longer made sense. This ties in with my earlier complaint about the third and fourth movies, where we are forced to watch ignorant or incompetent characters learn about the alien threat in the split-second before their death. Would fully-prepared humans be a match for the xenomorphs? You won't find that out in any of the four movies, and that's why I enjoyed Aliens: Berserker as much as I did.

I promised to discuss what is next for the Alien franchise, but forecasting what will be next in this particular series has always been a game that makes the players look a little ridiculous. One thing is for certain: most side projects will continue on, especially the lucrative computer games. But in the case of a franchise where the movies are considered canon, most important is the nature of what we will see next up on the big screen. At this point (December 2002), it looks as if Alien 5 will not be made; instead, the next project is Aliens vs. Predator, which I'm mildly ambivalent about. I'm completely dismayed that one of the worst directors still working, Paul Anderson (Event Horizon, Soldier, Resident Evil) has been signed up to start work on an AvP movie once he has finished Resident Evil 2. I reiterate: this information is only accurate as of writing. And I would be more than grateful were it to change. AvP would actually be a fun project, if the absence of Ripley could be excused, and some wisdom about how to do a sequel taken from Cameron's Aliens.

James Schellenberg lives in Canada, where xenomorphs have never visited.

First posted: December 7, 2002; Last modified: February 1, 2004

Copyright © 2002-2004 by James Schellenberg

Crystalline Sphere | Challenging Destiny | Reviews | Columns | Issue #15

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