Aliens are better when they’re men in suits. How practical effects make for better filmmaking in the Alien universe…

CGI is essential to filmmaking these days. You couldn’t make a modern action-packed blockbuster without it. Plenty of arguments have already been made about CGI being overused in modern cinema and how, in some cases, bombastic effects have replaced actual storytelling.

But the negative impact of CGI has never been more visible than it is inside the Alien franchise. As someone that believes the first two films in the series – Alien and Aliens – are two of the best films ever made, period, the effect CGI had on the titular alien character is enormous.

Of course, wider issues with the overall stories, plot, and characters used in subsequent films, notably Resurrection and Ridley Scott’s newer (and deathly terrible) prequels, didn’t help matters one bit. Rehashing something or attempting to catch lightning in a bottle twice or three times, with the same IP and ingredients as before, is next to impossible.

The secret to Aliens’ success was escalation; it took what made the first film terrifying – the monster – and just increased the number of them. Cameron is a smart, thoughtful filmmaker, and it was his simple approach to Aliens – make it bigger, better, harder – that made the film so good. He didn’t mess with the formula too much.

At the time, people wanted more. There was a real hunger for more xenomorph-based shenanigans and Cameron served it up in the most satisfying way possible. Arguably, the franchise should have ended here; the ending of the film was near-perfect. Left here, the two films would have concluded perfectly.

Weirdly, Alien 3 was envisaged to be completely different. Even back then Ridley Scott was keen on making a prequel of sorts, what the film Prometheus would eventually become, but Fox wasn’t interested in footing the bill – apparently, Scott wanted an obscene amount of money to do it – so the torch, so to speak, was passed onto a then-young and untested David Fincher.

Why Alien Looks Better Than Alien 3

If you watch Alien or Aliens, nearly all of the effects were practical, and then put on Alien 3, you will immediately notice a difference. In Alien 3, the vast majority of the scenes with the alien in it are CGI – and the alien looks terrible as a result.

Because Alien 3 landed early on in the era of CGI, the effects now look incredibly dated – far less realistic than the original film and Aliens.

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The CGI “Good Boy” Alien

The use of CGI also changed the dynamics of the film too, allowing the audience to see more and more of the beast until, well… it just became known and, hence, not that scary anymore.

The first films were so impressive because of the limitations posed on the production crew when filming. You couldn’t show too much, that’d give away how the practical effects were done, so much of the alien was kept hidden in the dark, making it infinitely more threatening.

This was much the same for Aliens, its sequel. Although in this film, James Cameron seriously raised the bar with respect to practical effects. Even now, some thirty years later, Aliens looks utterly incredible. Watch it in 4K on a decent TV with HDR and you’ll know what I mean.

When It Comes To Aliens, Less is Definitely More…

As soon as CGI came into the mix, however, the alien, who we never really saw in full, went from hiding in the shadows to scurrying around in the light.

Alien and Aliens were tight and claustrophobic, whereas films like Alien Resurrection felt spacious and lacked any sense of dread.

Alien 3 had elements of the first two film’s darkness, the world in which it is set is dark and grimy, but far too much of the alien itself is shown and the less said about the overall design of the alien in that film the better.

In the end, Alien 3 was a disaster. Its director, David Fincher, disowned the project and the production was marred with all kinds of issues.

Prometheus & Covenant Don’t Even Deserve To Be Considered Canon

If you want to see an example of practical effects done right, Prometheus is a great example. Ridley Scott created a serious feast for the eyes with that film. The only downside was that the film itself was terrible. Ditto Alien Covenant.

The script for Prometheus had plenty of potentials but the final cut of the film just didn’t sit right. None of the characters were particularly memorable, save for David and Elizabeth, whereas in the first two films each and every character was well-rounded, intelligent, and served a purpose.

And while the storytelling in the first Alien movie was relatively simple – a riff on the ghost in the house story – it was done with such class, conviction, and likable, relatable characters that it didn’t matter. You cared about the people on the Nostromo. You didn’t want them to die.

Can you remember any of the characters, save for David and Elizabeth, from Prometheus? OK, Idris Elba was pretty good but that was literally it – the rest were just dumb, pointless, or completely surplus to requirement.

And then Ridley did the EXACT same thing in the sequel, Alien: Covenant. Only this time, there were more people to forget about.

You also see far too much of the “creatures” in Alien: Covenant and, for some reason, they’re also shot in direct light, so you can see everything. I get that Ridley thinks the alien isn’t scary anymore, he’s said as much in interviews, but he could have at least made an effort.

The aliens in Alien: Covenant were about as scary as Thanos.

Plus, no one cares where the alien came from. This was a big part of what made it so scary – it was an unknown entity. And that’s enough, right? Space is a big place. There’s plenty of room for all kinds of creepy crawlies.

I’d much prefer an open-ended, vague sense of where the alien came from (somewhere in our infinitely large universe) rather than Ridley Scott’s AI origin story. I mean, Scott’s Prometheus even half-assed this aspect too. It promised answers, then got stuck so far up its own arse it forget to give any. Talk about a mess of a film.

Can Noah Hawley Save The Alien?

With the confirmation of a new Alien TV series, helmed by Fargo showrunner Noah Hawley, is there hope for the alien franchise yet? Given how well PREY went down, once it was put in the hands of a capable writer and director, I am actually feeling pretty optimistic about things.

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I mean, it cannot be any worse than Prometheus or Covenant. The bar on that is way to low. Plus, Noah Hawley is one of the most talented and visionary directors working in film today. The TV series of Fargo is one of the best series I have ever watched, so I am very intrigued to see what he comes up with inside his Alien TV series.

No doubt the practical effects will go by the wayside once again, but that doesn’t necessarily have to be a bad thing. Done right, CGI – even in the context of an Alien film or series – is necessary to build out the world in which the action happens. I do hope we get a man in a suit again, though, wherever possible.

Is CGI Ruining Modern Cinema?

I’m not against CGI being used in films. In many respects, it is integral to modern storytelling, Films like Bladerunner 2049, Interstellar, and Rogue One, are all excellent examples of CGI done well. In fact, these films, as well as many TV shows, like Game of Thrones and its prequel House of The Dragon, simply wouldn’t have been possible with it.

But when there is a complete over-reliance on CGI to do everything from fist fights to monsters to locations, you generally stop caring about what you’re watching because it loses all semblance of being real. It always makes me feel like I’m watching a cartoon or some kind of cut scene from a game; it feels anything but cinematic.

Take the first Lord of The Rings film: it used a combination of CGI and practical effects to amazing effect. Or, the first Matrix film. Now, compare it to The Hobbit of the later Matrix films which relied too heavily on CGI. The first films, where CGI was used sparingly, felt more grounded, more real and this made them better films overall.

The later films, notably the last two Matrix films (I’m not talking about the new one), just felt like one big cut scene from a console game. Everything you were looking at was CGI. The end battle between Neo and Agent Smith was all CGI – the city, the actors, the fighting. EVERYTHING. And it looked far worse than the battle from the first film which used the real actors, choreographed fighting and ropes.

Real, live action will always look better than CGI – this is a fact. Your eyes can tell the difference. I’d take something that looks a bit fake over some ultra-polished CGI any day of the week – this goes doubly for blood and gore. Any director worth their salt knows this which is why all the most iconic films in history ALL use practical effects wherever possible and REAL actors, not CGI mock-ups of them.

But the role of CGI, which was initially designed to improve the cinematic experience, is now so ubiquitous in filmmaking that practical effects, even on a small scale, are just not done anymore. You no longer even need a location to shoot a film, just a green screen, and a studio. You can even do away with extras.

Good films were made without CGI; and not just dramas, either. You had 2001: A Space Odyssey, arguably the benchmark of what was possible with practical effects during the 20th century, Lawrence of Arabia, Ben-Hur, and plenty of other big-budget, spectacle films that created huge, sprawling worlds, all without the aid of computers. Films like Aliens, Alien, The Abyss, Terminator 2 all used practical effects and, in the newer ones, CGI when it was appropriate.

I just really, really hope Noah Hawley takes alien back to its roots and makes it scary once again. I also hope we get some decent practical effects too. Because the alien is scary and it deserves a context in which it can be scary. Ridley Scott has proved he no longer has what it takes. I’m glad he’s finally passed the torch to someone that definitely does…

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1 year ago

You do know there is only one scene in alien 3 that has cgi? The scenes where the aliens head begins to crack after the lead is poured on it.

8 months ago

Alien³ has like one scene with CGI. The alien isn’t CGI in the film. At least do an ounce of research before posting an entire article.