Friday Jan 29, 2010
There are a lot of intricate and compelling mythologies out there in films, books, comics, and games that I’m a big fan of, but I will say right off the bat that few — if any of them — touch the primal nerve that the Alien franchise touches. I don’t think it’s coincidental that the monster in Ridley Scott’s original film was inspired by artist H.R. Giger’s work, and that it evolved into what it did: Giger hits a very elemental nerve, especially in his more abstract artwork, and that sort of elemental menace is turned into screen presence with the sleek and vicious xenomorph of the Alien franchise. The Aliens, of course, will be taking on 1/3rd of our upcoming Aliens vs. Predator game, and with that in mind I’ve jumped at the opportunity to look back at this franchise and the media that’s come out of it.
And I’m a fan of the Predator too — there’s an intelligence and wickedness to the awesome creature design, and while for me it never quite touched on the same deep-down nerve that the Alien films did (note: as awesome as the Predator is, my rooting interest in the two AvP films and the AvP comics was strictly for the xenomorph), there is no doubt that the Predator was an exceptionally cool bad guy, and the original film’s jungle location helped set up the Predator as an enemy for the ages. Perhaps it’s just that something like 20% of the cast of this film went on to be elected Governors of various states, but it still has that primal impact when I watch it today — and as always, poor hapless humans thrown into the mix as victims! Note: Only in a movie like Predator does a man wielding a minigun qualify as an “underdog”.
Anyway, the point is that our forthcoming Aliens vs. Predator game is far from something birthed out of the blue — this is, pardon the xenomorph pun, a series that has long gestated, with a complicated mythology spanning decades (the first film came out in 1979), and every conceivable type of media. It is thus my solemn duty to offer this overview and retrospective of the Aliens franchise and mythology, along with their twisty-turny entanglement with the Predator franchise, and the versus — from comics to film and, especially, video games — that joined the two. The focus here, though, is on the Alien, and while this won’t be exactly comprehensive, it is my goal to talk about the highlights (and for fun, a few not-so-highlights) of the more than 30-year history of the Alien mythology. To wit: I do love my job.
This is my fascination with the alien from Alien, a creature primal enough that it has never needed another name. Clearly, Ridley Scott’s original work touched on something deep-seated; the stuff of nightmares. Dark gunmetal-gray ship hallways, animal hissings coming from ventilation shafts, an uncomfortable wetness overtaking the supposed dominance of technology, and the unforgettable tag-line, “In Space, No One Can Hear You Scream”.
Each sequel essentially reconfigured the primal formula of the first movie (humans stumble in where they shouldn’t, humans get infected by a parasite, creatures burst from chests, aliens run amuck, people die, aliens get blown into space, the end?) to its particular directorial style: James Cameron (Aliens) envisioned an action-oriented homage to awesome military hardware and posited the Queen Alien; David Fincher’s vision in Alien 3 was a weird, dark parable with religious overtones; Jean-Pierre Jeunet (with a proto-Firefly screenplay by none other than Joss Whedon) envisioned a kind of spiritual communion of alien and human in Alien: Ressurection that posited a Big Bad Government as the real villain (something that’s been true to varying degrees since Ash showed his true colors in the first film).
I’m actually a huge fan of the last film in the series, Alien: Resurrection. There’s also something of an homage to the fourth film in the upcoming game, and it is done, I think, in a very cool way — I can’t say more yet but the game does give you a sense of what the movies increasingly highlight — that the alien is not just a dumb bug, but a highly intelligent species, adapted through the roaring vacuum of space to be an unstoppable force. Their colonies move as one and playing the games it is a weird visceral thrill to be the one doing the hunting from that perspective.
I think it’s fair to say that the two Alien vs. Predator films took a significant turn from the Aliens (or Predator) series, but I was a huge fan nonetheless. I had scored tickets to a sneak preview of the first movie in this series and after waiting for several hours ended up in the front row, which somehow only enhanced the experience. When the Predator warrior tears apart the alien carapace of one of its victims and gives the trophy to the “last heroine standing”, I was making poorly suppressed glee noises (and also doing my best to keep my neck from seizing up). It was almost enough to make me root for the Predators (or the humans, I suppose) — almost.
Aliens vs. Predator games: The Lineage
SEGA’s upcoming Aliens vs Predator isn’t the first game to ever take on the idea of these two baddies going at it (with the poor marines trapped in the middle, if you can consider a guy with a pulse rifle “poor”). Far from it: The first Alien game was 1982, on the Atari 2600. I show you this only because it is awesome:
And as far back as the Super Nintendo, the iconic extraterrestrials have been slugging it out in various ways. If nothing else — and while I was a hard-core Genesis devotee at the time, I can admit this — that SNES game had fantastic music. An early arcade game offered a similar approach: side-scrolling beat-em-ups were certainly the rage around this time, and I remember pumping at least a few quarters into this game back in the day. Behold! YouTube reveals all:
It’s hard to consider these major entries in the franchise canon, though, particularly since they were essentially Final Fight but with Aliens/Predator sprites thrown in. I think the Predator may even execute a spinning powerbomb at one point. I feel compelled to mention these games, anyway, just because it is always fun & bizarre to see the direction some games have taken over the years. Plus they were actually kind of fun.
The first proper Aliens vs. Predator game that I remember playing was the 1999 game released by, drum roll, current AvP studio Rebellion. The game was reviewed well (garnering a 9/10 from IGN ) and what’s more, I remember that, playing it at the time, I was absolutely thrilled that someone had infused the rabidly popular first-person shooter genre with something as creative as the Alien and Predator mechanics (yes, and the marines too — the poor space marine, doomed to be murdered by creatures concealed in dark vents, or else vivisected for trophy sport by intergalactic big game hunters). This was the first time (aside from, I must say, the awesome Alien 3 game released on SEGA Genesis) that I felt like some of the menace & atmosphere that drew me to the movies was infused into a game.
The three stories and unique styles of gameplay felt refreshing in a first-person genre that had grown crowded with lame cash-ins. Playing as the Alien was a very unique challenge — and it should be noted, it is in the upcoming AvP game as well. It’s one thing to cruise around at ground level with a pulse rifle (and no offense to those who enjoy this — it’s a fine pass-time!); it’s another thing entirely to learn to alter your perspective to climb around on walls and hang from ceilings. The fact that Rebellion had designed three entire campaigns around this with totally different mechanics was very cool indeed, and I recall being fully absorbed into the 1999 game.
Check out the below footage for confirmation that Rebellion knows what they’re doing here, and has known for some time. This is, again, the 1999 version of the game.
But wait, wait, wait! Let’s backtrack a second: Go back to 1994, and one of Rebellion’s first credited titles as a studio was — wait for it — Aliens vs. Predator. This original title was a flagship game for none other than the Jaguar system. For those of you too young to remember the Console Wars, there were more systems around than just the Genesis and SNES — Atari entered the fray with their 64-bit system, and while it didn’t last terribly long, it had some memorable moments, especially in delivering first-person shooter mechanics to the console. Behold, a screen from long ago 1994!
What’s amazing is that even in 1994 Rebellion had figured out what was awesome about these series coming together — having the three unique styles of play result in three totally different atmospheres. The Alien playthrough has what’s absolutely essential: crawling through vents and jumping marines. The Predator even got a cloaking device, and this was awesome in 1994 and it is awesome in the upcoming game — and while I will be predominately playing as Alien in the upcoming game, boy howdy, I do love to hunt things while stealthed. And, appropriately, playing the Jaguar game as a Marine lends the feeling of abject terror as you are trying simply to stay alive. Here’s some footage of Rebellion’s inaugural work in the series — love the spooky intro:
Starting as the alien, you even get a broken-English sort of message that is the xenomorph’s own thoughts, their fear at the Alien Queen being imprisoned. Actually indoctrinating you into the hivemind like this is a pretty gnarly move on Rebellion’s part, but if you’re going to play as the Alien, you have to do it right. This early incarnation of Aliens vs. Predator has the same moody atmosphere and combat that would be refined later on. And there are still more Aliens versus Predator games out there — the 1999 game had a sequel (developed by Monolith Studios rather than Rebellion) and expansion pack for that sequel, each with various multiplayer modes. I have it on good authority these communities are still active today and devoted to the game: Giving people Aliens, Predators, and Marines to kill each other with strikes me as very noble work.
I find the development and history of the AvP franchise kind of fascinating — from side-scrolling brawler to first person shooter to next-gen shooter combined with lots of multiplayer modes, the primal forces driving the franchise have taken on all kinds of game-types, morphing to fit the popular game-style of the day. This is to say nothing of the aforementioned 1982, um, maze-based Alien game, and the absolutely fascinating 1984 Commodore-64 Alien strategy-RPG game (!). This all reminds me of how the Alien movies themselves worked — taking a primal, powerful idea and molding it to each director’s vision.
Aliens and Aliens Versus Predator: Dark Horse Comics
Maybe the darkest, most gruesome, and most bleak place the franchise has gone to is in the comic books published by Dark Horse in the 1990s. Dark Horse was willing to publish the kind of grim & gritty works that other publishers weren’t, and they proved to be the perfect home for Aliens and Aliens vs. Predator comic books. The central conceit here was compelling to every fan of both franchises, and since I counted myself as a fan of both, I was hooked from the get-go.
Those of you who pick up the Hunter’s Edition will be treated to the original AvP comic done by Dark Horse, and it’s pretty fantastic. I remember reading this as a teenager and being blown away. This was Dark Horse at its rabble-rousing best, with fantastically detailed, gory, full-page images and thought-provoking writing & narratives. The inaugural issue brings up questions of “survival of the fittest” and how we humans tend to do the things we do, environmentally speaking, because we are at the top of the food chain — and that there’s no other species to really punish us for it. Of course, these words prove spectacularly wrong. The comics were also excellent for fleshing out the honor-based society of the Predators, and they serve as an excellent counterpoint to perpetual human naivete and wicked Alien cunning.
I was also a massive fan of another early, six-part Aliens mini-series that Dark Horse did. You can find it available now as a single series, known simply as Aliens: Book One. I can’t recommend this series enough, and it changed the way I thought about comic books. It takes place after the Aliens movie and before the 3rd movie was made, and focuses on Aliens characters Newt and Hicks after they return to Earth. Illustrated in beautifully detailed black and white, it featured some absolutely stellar storytelling, showing what happened when Earth became infected with the alien parasites. Dark Horse nails something with this (and their other Aliens vs. Predator series) that I think is integral to everything to do with Aliens: the series is more than just shock horror/sci-fi; there is a desperate human loneliness and fear at the core of the Alien series, and the comic books investigate this with unnerving depth and skill.
The idea that humans — with all their awesome millitary hardware and resourcefulness — are the weakest of the three adversaries here, is continuously compelling. Predators, I think, represent the zenith of our hardware-lust and love of the steely gladiator archetype — they are the consummate powerful warrior. It’s the Aliens, though, that represent the Id — that dark, unexplored place in our subconscious, where creeping, pulsating biological horror overtakes the mechanical and the flesh and becomes the Other. The fact that a hideous parasite bursting through John Hurt’s chest in the original Alien film represents one of the most iconic moments in cinematic history says something about our fears and fascinations, I think; everything from then on in the series is a bit like mapping out, in detail, a recurring nightmare.
In short, go Team Alien!
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