I hold a lot of controversial opinions.
I’m a geek and a Royals fan: I’ve spent my entire personal and professional life making arguments for lost causes. But of all my opinions, might be my most inflammatory.
Why do I believe Alien 3, a film so derided that even its own director has disowned it, is better than Aliens, the Cameron-vehicle once voted ‘the greatest film sequel of all time’?
Alien 3 is loyal to what made Alien great
Alien is terrifying. It uses science fiction to build horror, rather than the other way around. Space is the ultimate ‘lost in the forest’. The alien itself is very scary - it is weird and uncanny and Lovecraftian in the way it is inherently unsettling. It is effective not because it is explicitly extraterrestrial, but because it is other.
Aliens fell into the trap of believing that more is better (given James Cameron, this is not a huge surprise). If one alien is scary, a thousand, or ten thousand, or INFINITE, aliens must be SUPER-scary. And yet, they aren’t. One alien is scary, a million aliens is a statistic.
Aliens 3 understands this, and makes the alien scary again.
Alien 3 is democratic and egalitarian
In Aliens, our heroes are space marines. They are highly trained professionals armed with big guns and the latest gear. The action begins, in fact, with the heroes having to disarm - if they unleashed the full power of their fusion rifles, they could accidentally destroy the whole station. They have to fight the aliens with one arm behind their back, otherwise it wouldn’t be fair.
In Alien 3, our heroes are ordinary people. Even beyond that: they’re some of society’s most vulnerable. Uneducated, untrained, and ill-equipped. They are fighting the enemy with sticks and stones; torches and their bare hands.
It is more interesting and inspiring to side with the overwhelmed: ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. Aliens is fundamentally about people being asked to do what they are trained and supported to do. And they do it. Eventually. (And badly, if you want to be a dick about it. If they didn’t ignore their intel, it’d be a five minute film.)
By contrast, Alien 3 is about getting ordinary people to do what they never should be expected to do - rise up against impossible circumstances.
In Alien 3, cooperation, not competition is the key to success
Our heroes in Aliens are slightly incompetent. And beyond that, they’re sketchy. The real danger comes from within - not listening to one another, not working together, and, ultimately, open betrayal. The ‘high notes’ of the film are when the characters manage to come together - the Lieutenant and his most vociferous critic, for example, or Ripley and Bishop. These are the exception that proves the rule: the atmosphere of suspicion that underpins the film.
Aliens therefore works as a conflict because our heroes make it hard for themselves: they don’t listen to one another, they don’t trust one another, and they have competing objectives.
In Alien 3, the odds are always against them - and, aside from some (reasonable) initial skepticism - everyone is on board very, very quickly. There’s still human conflict, but it is internal to each individual, as they wrestle with their own demons. Alien 3 doesn't work without everyone playing their part as a team.
Alien 3 is about faith
Aliens is a movie predicated on deus ex machina - literally so. There is godlike power hovering in orbit, and the objective of the film is simply to get their big spaceship’s attention. If they can successfully flag down this mechanical deity, they will be saved. Raised up from this murky hell, with their enemies struck down by cosmic force.
We spend Aliens waiting to win. Divine salvation exists, but only if the protagonists can stop falling over themselves long enough to tap into it. When they succeed, they’ll be lifted up and returned to their their glossy techno-utopia.
In Alien 3, there is no promise of salvation. Their problems will only get worse with the Company’s arrival, not better. Yet this makes Alien 3 a better discussion of faith. There’s no tangible salvation hanging around in near-orbit, but they pray. There’s nothing measurable, tangible, or real that they can access, and that’s when faith matters most.
And no matter how the events of the film resolve, their lives have changed - irrevocably - for the worse. The status quo was already pretty shitty, the future is even worse. They're fighting for survival because that's the only thing they can fight for. Where there's life, there's hope. That, again, is faith.
I mean, seriously, what’s the point of constructing an argument around, of all things, Alien 3?
TWIST. This really isn’t about Alien 3 at all. GASP.
It is about how we, as planners, construct our propositions - the ‘arguments’ for our products.
Creating a proposition is about finding the values that matter, understanding why they matter, and then positioning our product as a means of representing or reinforcing those values. Deodorant gives you confidence. Baked beans bring families together.
(The rational part of the argument is then how it helps the product achieve that value. Because you smell good for 48 hours. Because it is a cheap meal that no one complains about.)
But which values are important? Most decisions are about an individual’s balance of values. Health over flavour, efficacy over environmental impact, saving money over pleasure.
My argument for Alien 3 was couched in values like faith, loyalty, democracy and cooperation. If I’m sitting down to watch a film in which bug-monsters eat people’s faces, I’m facing a trade between those values and entertainment, ass-kicking, and fun. Sometimes I want tension and horror. Sometimes I want to see aliens get par-broiled.
Similarly, sometimes I’ll choose the salad over the burger, or the expensive taxi over the slow bus. Every decision is a trade in values.
But what if watching Aliens vs Alien 3 was literally a matter of democracy? Imagine a (very specific) dystopia in which, if you ever chose to watch Aliens you would never be allowed to vote again. I suspect fewer people would watch it, no matter how fun the cargo loader fight is.
Slightly less bizarre scenarios: If your wife is allergic to your favourite deodorant, you change it. If your shoes are made by child slaves, you find a new brand. If the cheap chicken will give you salmonella, you spend more money instead.
These are what is known as sacred values: “any value that a moral community implicitly or explicitly treats as possessing infinite or transcendental significance that precludes comparisons, trade-offs, or indeed any other mingling with bounded or secular values.” You’ll balance calories versus flavour, but not calories versus sex trafficking.
Of course, is that some people may still choose the calories. Or the slave-made shoes, or the anti-Semitic social media platform, or the cigarette that will give you cancer, or... We’re in a diverse, complex, and multi-cultural world, and universal sacred values will never exist. But that’s also why our audiences are never ‘everyone’. A proposition needs to be constructed around a moral community, not all of them.
Working with sacred values requires understanding an audience, and what they really believe in. Not simply finding any ol’ emotional hook, but an emotional hook that is, essentially, deep-rooted, instinctual, and, ultimately, inarguable.
The problem is, of course, it can be ridiculous.
As we’ve seen in the era of Corona-comms, there’s only so much togetherness and understanding and hope that we’ll take from our diet soda brands.
Arguing that Alien 3 over Aliens more democratic is ludicrous and spurious; a transparent attempt to overreach that only backfires. Poor attempts to leverage sacred values are just as taboo as transgressing them.
As with everything else we do in communications, relating to values only works if it is true.
How even tangible rewards vs intangible values can backfire.
‘Unavoidable’ trade-offs do happen - the trick is then around forgiveness or punishment. (Which can come from others or oneself.)
A much better defense of Alien 3.
Next Wednesday, I’m hosting academic, author, and all around mensch Matthew Feldman in a special (virtual) event to launch his new book. Politics, Intellectuals, and Faith is a (long overdue) collection of his essays, covering every topic from Ezra Pound to Anders Breivik; modernism to the Iraq war. I’ve yet to have a conversation with Matt that wasn’t immensely bonkers and incredibly fun, so please come along.