‘Aliens’ vs ‘The Thing’: Cinematic Showdown
Alien movies can be used in many different ways. Independence Day is an example of alien invasions being used for big budget action spectacles, District 9 and Alien Nation went for social commentary, Avatar brow beat it’s audience with an environmental message and Mars Attacks took the comedic route. The most memorable close encounters, however, were those that chilled us to the bone. In this field there’s two movies that stand head and slimy shoulders above the rest – Aliens and The Thing. Both are 10/10 movies but when it comes to the crunch which one will come out on top? Funk investigates…
The Thing reads like something straight out of The Twilight Zone – and there’s few higher compliments to give a horror film. It has had a lasting impact with a (ultimately lacklustre) prequel being released thirty years on and an episode of The X-Files retelling it. A group of men are working in an Antarctic Research station when a malamute comes running their way. The hound is being chased by two Norwegians packing rifles and a helicopter who are desperate to kill the dog. Unable to communicate their meeting with the Americans spirals out of the control, shots are fired and the Norwegians are killed. The station take the dog in, unaware that it’s an alien creature in disguise who has been trapped under the ice for centuries. Able to take the form of its victims the crew of the station become increasingly paranoid as they begin to question who among them has been taken over by the Thing.
Although Alien was about claustrophobic thrills Aliens took a more gung-ho action route with high powered weapons taking centre stage of multiple shooting sprees. Not that it’s a Michael Bayhem movie by any stretch. For an actioncentric movie there’s layers of suspense, character development and mystery that round it out to make it a more complete and enjoyable experience. It always feels as though there’s lives on the line and the characters are never given a chance to rest easy whether it be a threat from outside of within the group. For all it has going for it, Aliens doesn’t quite match up to the uniqueness of The Thing.
POINT: THE THING
Both of the movies feature an ensemble cast populated by a couple of big name actors and a motley crew of redshirts. Heading up the American Antarctic Research Station crew is none other than Kurt Russel, looking especially ruggared and manly with a bristling beard. He sets himself up as a survivor early one by kitting himself out with flame throwers and taking charge. The rest of the cast, including Wilford Brimley and Keith David, fulfill a range of different stereotypes. Not that this is a bad thing under the circumstances since it gives us a quick and easy reference for each cast member. Beyond rising suspicions and paranoia there isn’t much depth the interactions, but the actors push fearful performances to the limit.
Aliens is headed up by returning cast member Sigourney Weaver who reprises the role of Lt. Ripley, sole survivor of the Nostromo event in Alien. She is accompanied by a large squad of foul-mouthed marines and skeezy corporate types made up by the likes of Michael Biehn, Bill Pullman, Lance Henrikson, Paul Reiser. The majority of the team are the previously mentioned Marines, kitted out in the same outfits and heavy helmets, but one of the strengths of the film is how well each one brings across their own personality. Even the small roles and canon fodder such as Alpone, Frost, Drake and Ferro read like good characters in their limited screen time. This really comes across in scenes based around heavy interaction such as the breakfast scene on board the Sulaco, which feels like natural human interaction. The greater variation in the characters also brings a richer dynamic to the film, with sexual tension between Ripley and Hicks and the introduction of the young Newt giving some extra heart to the story.
Even if Aliens wasn’t also pushing ahead in terms of ensemble the change character arc of Ripley into one of the most iconic female roles in cinema history would seal it.
This is practically a foregone conclusion, and with good reason. James Cameron can deliver action on a massive scale and he treats action scenes with the same attention to detail most directors give to dramatic scenes. Not that The Thing doesn’t give up without a fight – the action is limited to flame-throwers and axes but they’re intense and striking enough to have you on the each of your seat. Aliens, however, knocks it right out of the park. Half the cast is armed to the teeth with brilliantly designed pulse rifles and smart guns. The opening salvo is among the best action scenes of the decade followed by a brutal escape by the survivors. Things cool off until the breakneck battle to the escape ships and Ripley’s showdown with the Queen. Unforgettable.
Now here’s an area where The Thing really shines. Aliens actually backpedals a bit from it’s original film. Alien was a tense and claustrophobic thriller where the alien picks off it’s victims one by one, whilst the sequel sacrificed some of that tension to ramp up the action and scale. Basically it did what a good sequel should do and escalate from the original. The alien creatures, and the fate that awaits their captors is the only thing keeping up the horror side of things.
The Thing is what Alien was – a tense and claustrophobic thriller – but better in every way. Rather than an external threat the group a trapped with an enemy ho can disguise itself as one of the group. Not only are they trapped in a small location with an unspeakable menace but they don’t know who it is or even how many of them are enemies. For all they know they could be the only one left human. Suspenseful stand-offs are the order of the day, and the horrific mutations that the victims become are among the scariest captured on screen.
For the final point – the blood test scene. Hollee frack.
POINT: THE THING
It might be easy to give this one to Aliens and move on, since it has the one if not the most iconic creatures ever designed. It might be easy to overlook The Thing‘s creature designs since it doesn’t have a specific form that ever gets revealed, instead mutating based on who it’s occupying and the situation it’s in. These opens the film up to some very creative designs and surprise moments, such as when they’re trying to perform compressions on a colleague only for his rip-cage to split open and bite of their arms. Although the dog mutant is pretty memorable the pick of the bunch absolutely is the severed head that grows spider legs.
In spite of all this it still doesn’t match the brilliant, nightmare inducing design by H.R. Giger. The long, eyeless heads with the monstrous teeth pulling back to reveal the second mouth. The spear-like tail, long talons and protruding spines. Threatening enough even before you get a shot in and find a spray of acid burst forth. Add to that their sickening life cycle that begins with the scuttling face-huggers implanting an embryo into a victim before the newborn alien bursts free from their chest. There’s a reason they’ve latest in the face of numerous crappy films.
Many horror films fail because they manage to put together some decent scares and maybe a good concept but totally fail to generate a good atmosphere. Without a sense of dread to build up the scares the best that the film-maker can hope for is a good startle, and nobody remembers a horror film based on how much it startled them. Even though Aliens is wall-to-wall with tough marine toting heavy armaments Cameron spends a large proportion of the first hour building the tension until it’s ready to burst. Ripley sets the stage with her reservations about what they may find in the colony and while the marines scout out the complex the small details that get revealed, such as the barricades and acid damage, paints a vivid picture. Long before the aliens ambush them the audience is drenched in fear. This atmosphere does manage to maintain a steady presence throughout the rest of the film, but is rarely as effective as it is before the the bullets started flying.
The Thing does a much better job of keeping the tension high throughout the entire film. Carpenter turns the movies into a 109 minute exercise in tension, and should be first on the list of recommended viewing for any film student wanting to learn about creating tension. The smart move is keeping the viewer in the dark as much as the characters and giving the creature the ability to inhabit multiple people. You’ll only need the edge of your seat while watching The Thing.
POINT: THE THING
LEGACY AND CULTURAL IMPACT
Whilst The Thing carries a strong legacy and fan base it never quite broke the mainstream in terms of recognition. The extremely high esteem that The Thing is held in mostly comes from the geek and horror fan community and, of late, hipsters buying vintage shirts. It’s had a huge influence on the making of horror films but it’s never branched out as a franchise. Attempts have been made with video games and a prequel but it’s never made a mark that reflects how damn good the movie is.
Aliens on the other hand is a household name. Even to those who haven’t seen the movies the image of the alien is instantly familiar. It’s launched a massive line of marketing and parodies and produced another two direct sequels. In cinema it birthed two more franchises – Aliens vs Predator and Prometheus. In other media it has multiple franchises in comics, video games and the like, and even makes cameo appearances in other franchises such as Predator 2. It’s very possible that the aliens from Aliens are the best known sci-fi creature in cinema.
THE THING: 3 ALIENS: 4