There are many ways to decide why one film is better than another. You might judge on how things like:
- How you felt after watching the film
- The acting
- The plot
- The quality of the script/writing
- The camerawork and cinematography
- What someone else(a critic, a friend, etc.) said about it
- The quality of the special effects
- The quality of the music
In addition to these fairly normal criteria, I like to add two further ways to judge a film when I try to decide on the quality of a film. First, I look at the genre. I think about where this film would rank among the rest of the genre. Is it better or worse than others I have seen? Second, I like to attempt to set these previous judgements aside and look at what the film was trying to accomplish. Did it accomplish its goal?
Genre? Alien is a mix of horror and science fiction. Aliens is a mix of action and science fiction.
So what does the genre matter?
Well, there are a plethora of action/SF movies out there. Star Wars, Planet of the Apes, Predator, District 9 and on and on. So the competition to be the best is pretty stiff. Also few action/SF movies delve especially deep into the implications of the situation the plot creates. Aliens does this more than most by including the rapacious character played by Paul Reiser, Carter Burke, who seeks to secure a specimen alien to take back for study(and possibly to make into a weapon). This aspect of the plot is predictable and wholly expected, as is the inevitable downfall of this character.
By their very nature action films, whatever they are mixed with, lack much real depth. However, horror films rely on suspense. The suspense can build as the characters try to determine the nature of their opponent. As we learn more and more about the alien, the prospect of survival looks worse and worse for the crew of the Nostromo in Alien. Additionally we never see the entire alien as a whole in any shot in the film. We see parts and pieces, but director Ridley Scott’s decision to not allow us to see all of the alien adds to the mystery, the suspense, and our fear. James Cameron’s Aliens on the other hand throws not just one alien at us, but dozens for the space marines blast apart in an orgy of video game-esque splatter filled mayhem. No time to think, shoot!
What other films are there to stack up against Alien in the horror/SF genre? The Thing, Frankenstein, The Fly, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, most of the David Cronenberg canon… So how does Alien stack up? For my money, Alien is at the top of the heap. The Thing, the 1982 version if you please, is a great movie and excellent in its own right, but Alien is a cut above the rest. The mystery at the end of The Thing is put front and center for the audience… as if the director, John Carpenter, is saying… “Hey, the thing could be inside one of these guys!!!” In Alien the mystery we are left with is more subtly put to us.
What is the film trying to accomplish?
Alien. What is its goal? Ridley Scott, in trying to convince Harry Dean Stanton to take the role, described the film as a thriller. It would seem that space was simply the setting. As a thriller, a suspense film, a horror film, a science fiction film… it is successful. It’s not a shoot ’em up. It is meant to get you on the edge of your seat. It’s meant to scare you, horrify you, disgust you… make you anxious when Ripley is anxious. And also we are left with some unanswered questions. Did the alien survive at the end of the film? Are there more? Will Ripley survive and be rescued?
If we accept a film for what it is trying to do, we are ok at the end of Alien with these unanswered questions. We would feel cheated if everything was wrapped up in a nice neat bow.
Aliens. What is its goal? I think the primary goal is make sure the audience is satisfied. Were there enough aliens for you? The explosions… big enough? The queen, was she big and scary and suitably “queenlike”? Was Ripley enough of a bad ass? Yep, done and done.
Again if we accept Aliens for what it is trying to do, we want closure. We want Ripley to win. We want her to save Newt… to be the ubermother protecting her (adoptive) young.
So why ultimately is Alien better than Aliens? Alien has a better script(and thus plot and dialogue), better acting, better direction and cinematography. Aliens has better special effects, but this is largely a product of budget($8.4 million vs. $18 million) and the time(1979 vs. 1986) as effects technology had improved. At this point Alien is very much more highly rated than Aliens. It is like the difference between chess and checkers. One most can play well, the other few truly master.
Aliens is a fun action-packed adventure, but when it’s over do you think about it anymore? That’s the strongest reason why Alien is a better film… I’m still thinking about it over 20 years since I saw it for the first time.