The Forum: Alien vs. Terminator
Pepsi vs. Coke. New York style vs. Chicago style. Taylor Swift vs. Calvin Harris. Freddy vs. Jason. We love great rivalries, so this week we are pitting Alien vs. Terminator in an arbitrary death match to see which is the baddest sci-fi action franchise ever. Both have crazy highs [Aliens, Terminator 2: Judgment Day] and crazy lows [Alien vs. Predator, Terminator Salvation], but only one can be the best! Let’s see where we stand, with a little help from our friends around the web.
John Gilpatrick, The Cinessential
As many of my colleagues will no doubt note, James Cameron is the driving creative force behind two of the maybe five best sequels of all time in Aliens and Terminator 2: Judgment Day. Their respective achievements can’t be overstated. One transformed a monumental space horror masterpiece into a rootin’-tootin’ military action epic. The other turned a Cameron original on its head as villain became hero and the series’ timeline twisted itself into a delicious pretzel. Neither approach is better than the other on the surface, but Aliens nails the execution a smidgen better than T2 does. That’s because it’s a film that resonates as much for character reasons as it does twists and turns of plot. The passage of time, the death of Ripley’s daughter, and the addition of Newt? Genius. Can you say the same about T2? There’s really solid material related to John and Sarah Connor and the Terminator, but that film turns your mind to T-1000 goo because it perfects the art of time travel. For that reason, I’m with Ripley.
Sarah Gorr, The Cinessential
I compare the Alien and Terminator franchises from a place of pure privilege—a place where I never had to watch either fully devolve into utter garbage. With the first two Alien and Terminator films under my belt, all I added afterward were Prometheus and Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines. Even so, the winner is clear: Alien. Not only did Ridley Scott’s nightmarish sci-fi flick give me the most visceral nightmare of my life (almost 24 years later and I still remember it clear as day), but it showed me the beauty of horror. Aliens is a fun enough romp as a follow-up and I love Terminator 2. But nothing in the Terminator series felt like art the way Alien did, and that just puts it a cut above the rest.
Jared Mobarak, The Film Stage
Alien is the superior franchise for its willingness to be different. I love the Terminator series as well (yes, including the retcon Genisys provided), however, they don't change much besides maneuvering to the reset the clock (not even the aesthetic alters except for maybe Salvation’s desaturation). Just a look at the Alien directors from Ridley to Cameron to Fincher to Jeunet shows a level of artistry and ingenuity that is unrivaled by its opponent here. The genres change from horror to action to drama, the philosophies instilled by Prometheus breathed new life into the property, and it takes risks. I only wish its auteurs were given final cut throughout the saga so we could see exactly how far they were willing to go.
Alex Moore, The Cinessential
Alien movies as a whole are simply more interesting than Terminator movies. Alien is one of the best horror movies of all time. Aliens is one of the best action movies. Prometheus is an intriguing, if flawed, space opera. Even a failure like Alien: Resurrection took a chance by hiring a pre-Amelie Jean-Pierre Jeunet, with his unique green-tinted style. Compare that with the Terminator franchise which consists of straight-forward action movies with humans versus robots from the future over and over (OK, I guess Terminator Salvation is actually humans versus robots in the future). Don’t get me wrong. Terminator and Terminator 2: Judgment Day are both excellent films based on a well executed sci-fi premise. It’s just that the Alien franchise has taken so many more risks by branching out in so many more directions. When I walk into Terminator X thirty years from now, I expect to walk into a movie about people in 2040 fighting robots from the future. When I walk into Alien X in the same year, I have no idea what I’ll get. It’s that unpredictability that keeps me coming back to the Alien franchise.
Peter Nellhaus, Coffee, Coffee and More Coffee
The Alien franchise. While there is the one time cross-over with James Cameron and Aliens, each of the films has reflected to some degree, the director in charge. Alien 3 has risen in critics esteem. I also liked the elements that made Alien: Resurrection a Jean-Pierre Jeunet film, plus it being a film with two main female protagonists.
Scott Nye, Battleship Pretension / CriterionCast
Whoever wins, we lose… Like a great many other franchises, the Terminator and Alien films are loaded with compelling themes and tepid exploration. Inescapable destiny and the terror of containment speak to very fundamental human fears of isolation and imprisonment, the gnawing certainty that whatever free will we possess is squandered by the limited opportunities before us. Ridley Scott’s entries in the Alien franchise, particularly Prometheus, admirably yearn for spiritual closure, but they do so clumsily and fall prey to the same franchise traps that the Terminator series has virtually made its specialty. Neither has fully considered what they’ve set out to explore, becoming more invested in permutations of the “world” they’ve created without expressing what it is that drives this desire. I’d give the Alien franchise a slight edge, as it’s proven more dynamic and malleable, but the films in each demonstrate how little we need them at all.
Aaron Pinkston, The Cinessential
Alien > The Terminator. Aliens < Terminator 2. Alien 3 > Rise of the Machines. Prometheus > Terminator Genisys. I won’t even risk making a decision between the wholly unsuccessful Alien Resurrection vs. the thoroughly dreadful Terminator Salvation. Movie math may have already dictated an Alien victory though the margins are close. While I do appreciate the philosophical and intellectual drive of the Terminator films, the Alien films are generally leaner and pique my genre interests. Extra credit to Ridley Scott’s series opener, a perfect film and the pinnacle of either franchise. Though it certainly goes off the rails by the end, seeing Ripley’s journey progress is ultimately more compelling than the complicated resets and recastings of the Terminator films. I wish I could be the contrarian here and go with the big bad killing machines, but Alien is the pick.
Matthew Warren, The Cinessential
Being asked to decide between the Alien and Terminator franchises is surely as cruel a homework assignment as exists anywhere in geekdom. Superficially, the two series are practically the same thing: intense, violent sci-fi horror flicks full of memorable set pieces, state-of-the-art special effects work, and iconic creature design. Both series hail from roughly the same era and boast roughly the same batting average in terms of the quality of their individual installments. It’s like being asked to decide between teal and seafoam, or like Sophie’s Choice—except one of Meryl Streep’s kids is a parasitic poly-fanged xenomorph and the other is self-aware titanium exoskeleton clutching an assault rifle. It took a lot of soul-searching (enhanced by approximately 438 billable hours spent inside the sensory-deprivation tanks at FloatLab Pasadena), but I’ve finally reached a decision: Terminator. Why? Because Terminator 2: Judgment Day was the first R-rated movie I ever saw, and for a guy who’s spent most of his adult life seeking out the weirdest, wildest, and most transgressive entertainment he can possibly get his grubby [and weirdly petite] hands on, that counts for a lot. Also, I worked on a movie with Eddie Furlong once [The Crow IV: Wicked Prayer] and he was a pretty cool dude. Hasta la vista, shitheads!