DIMINISHING RETURNS: A comedy podcast about movie sequels, prequels, spin-offs and reboots. Hosted by Allen and Chris. WARNING: Contains Scottish accents and spoilers.
In This Episode:
In celebration of the shows half century episode tally it felt like the right time to look at one of the greatest sequels of all time, Aliens (1986) – which happens to be Chris’s favourite movie, and the movie that kicked of the whole franchise, Alien (1979).
In Space No One Can Hear You Scream:
Now, on this show, Ridley Scott has come under fire for his latter day tampering with the franchise and his disappointing prequels, in Prometheus and Alien: Covenant, but Alien is a stone cold classic. Released in the immediate aftermath of the Star Wars phenomenon at the tailend of the 1970’s. With the public’s appetite whetted for more science fiction cinema movie studios were more than happy to get on board and fund projects. However it’s hard to know if 20th Century Fox new what they were in for when Walter Hill’s Brandywine Productions hired Ridley Scott to direct Alien, from Dan O’Bannon’s heavily rewritten script. The original working title of Star Beast would be changed, O’Bannon choosing Alien due to the frequency of the words use in the screenplay. With O’Bannon and, producing partner/co screenwriter, Ronald Shusett on the verge of signing a deal with Roger Corman’s studio a happy accident brought the script to Brandywine, a production team with links to major studio 20th Century Fox.
Where George Lucas had created a colourful adventure, stuffed with outlandish and weird characters, which owed a huge debt to episodic pulp serials of the 1930’s and 40’s, Scott created, with significant aesthetic input from H.R. Geiger, a dark horror movie on board a spaceship. Riffing on the paranoid Sci-Fi of the 1950’s Alien would play like Jaws in space as the blue collar crew of the Nostromo face off against a merciless killing machine. Alien’s brooding atmosphere and deliberate pacing would ratchet the tension and a feeling of dread in the silent isolation of space, where no-one can hear you scream.
Although completely different in tone to the space opera created by Lucas Alien would profit from the public’s desire for science fiction pictures and would become a global success, both critically and commercially. However it’s hard to know just how much money it made at the box office due to creative Hollywood style accounting practices. With Fox claiming to have lost over $2 million on the film. Regardless, the cultural impact of Alien cannot be overstated. The movie would kickstart a franchise and spawn tie-in novels, comic books, video games and toy lines. Most importantly it gave the world a strong, capable female lead character in Ellen Ripley, launching Sigourney Weaver to superstardom and tying her inextricably to the franchise.
This Time It’s War:
Franchise cinema is so prevalent in the modern world that it is odd to consider a time when an actor would not automatically be signed up for any potential sequels, prequels or spin-offs a movie might generate. Or that a successful movie would have subsequent installments. That was the scenario with the sequel to Alien.
With the follow up delayed while Brandywine and Fox resolved their issues regarding the film’s profits it would be almost ten years before Aliens would hit screens. A pre-Terminator James Cameron was hired by Fox to write sequels for First Blood and Alien, after passing on making Sparticus in Space, and with some time on his hands due to the production on Terminator being pushed back, to allow Arnold Schwarzenegger to film Conan the Destroyer. With Sylvester Stallone choosing to rewrite Cameron’s take on the second Rambo film, changing the titular hero from a battle damaged vet into an unkillable, gung-ho, Reagan-era, jingoist, Cameron was able to retool aspects of his version of that script for Aliens incorporating PTSD as an aspect of Ripley’s character, and to underpin her motivation. Writing Aliens, with a photo of Sigourney Weaver pinned to his wall, Cameron was keen to focus on the damage done to her psychologically in surviving her first encounter with the alien.
No-one, however, had thought to sign on Weaver for the second film. With the producers refusing to pay her agents asking fee, they instructed Cameron to write her out of the movie. The young director held fast, saying that Weaver’s attachment to the project had been one of the main reasons he took the job, and at his insistence Fox paid Weaver $1 million to return as Ripley. With the success of the film, and her performance earning Weaver an Academy Award nomination, she became a truly bankable star able to open movies.
What makes both of these films successful? In each case the plots are pretty thin and if both handled differently could have just become forgettable B-Movie shlock made in the wake of Star Wars. However, in treating the material intelligently, investing in the concept and giving depth to the characters and the world they inhabit are just some of the reasons these films work. Of course in both cases we have incredibly artful, talented directors working with casts of hugely talented character actors. Some fateful planetary alignments were at play too, from O’Bannon meeting Geiger during the aborted Dune movie to Cameron having to wait for Arnie and stumbling into Aliens while saying no to the Space age Sparticus remake.
And in the case of the sequel telling its own story in its own way, never rehashing what we’d already seen, and pushing the character in a new, but logical, direction opens out this world and gives us that rarest of beasts. A sequel that betters the original, and when that original film is Alien that’s no mean feat.
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