?The original Alien changed a lot. Perhaps few people realized it back in 1979, but Ridley Scott’s twisted horror hybrid was a turning point for science-fiction movie monsters, reviving a stale premise with freakish symbolism, cynical undercurrents, and the psychosexual insanity of artist H.R. Giger. Beyond its acid-blooded cinematic icon, the film even set standards among sci-fi heroines with Sigourney Weaver’s performance as the relentlessly tough Ellen Ripley. Oh yeah, and the creatures bursting out of human bodies.
Far too many films have copied Alien‘s premise in the stalest ways: take a space station or some other isolated structure, and then have a hideous creature devour a cast of mostly doomed stereotypes, with a determined woman sometimes leading the group. It’s an idea that’s fed video-store shelves and dead-time cable TV for two decades, and it’s time to pluck out the more interesting Alien imitators. Never mind borderline titles like Species or forgotten chaff like The Intruder Within. This list is about the not-really-Alien films you’d remember, seldom in flattering ways.
10) Deepstar Six (1989)
How does one make an Alien knock-off stand out? For many filmmakers in the 1980s, the answer was simple: put it underwater. You’ll get all the claustrophobia of space, but with a slightly different and significantly wetter stage. You can also throw in a Jaws reference by having the film’s monster bite someone in half.
Unfortunately for Deepstar Six, several other films had the exact same idea in 1989, including Leviathan and James Cameron’s The Abyss (the latter of which isn’t even an Alien imitator). Deepstar didn’t have the marketing or the cast to compete, though it does have Miguel Ferrer freaking out, jetting toward the surface in an escape craft, and then exploding from the ocean pressure. And Deepstar‘s still in second place there, since Robocop did a more memorable job of blowing up Miguel Ferrer.
The Creature: A muddy, scaly, fanged undersea horror that could’ve crawled out of the MST3K-ed Italian monster-movie classic Devil Fish. The Heroines: The crew includes several prominent women, though the only one to make it out is Collins, who’s pregnant with the other surviving crew member’s child. Perhaps the Deepstar beast follows the same code of honor as the Predator.
9) Roots Search (1987)
Alien rip-offs were everywhere during the 1980s, even in the otherwise completely original field of anime. Roots Search, a direct-to-video dreg from Japan’s bubble economy, starts when a space station picks up an unresponsive ship that, surprise of surprises, contains a dead crew and a mysterious, vagina-mouthed alien. The derelict’s only survivor, Buzz, is taken aboard along with the apparently comatose creature, which then proceeds to psychically murder the space station’s staff by preying on their guilty consciences.
Short and dreary, Roots Search makes this list only for its stubborn and baffling refusal to end properly. Once the crew is pared down to Buzz and the semi-psychic Moira (who are both apparently without sin), the two of them have a sudden hallucination involving 2001-esque intergalactic babies. Then they awaken to find that the space station has transformed into a giant alien uterus. Hand in hand, Buzz and Moira walk off into the pulsing confines of the now-organic station. And that’s it. Movie’s over. The end. Move along.
The Creature: A pale, moldy humanoid that might be creepy if it actually moved. Instead, it spends most of the film in a futuristic recliner. The Heroine: Moira’s a big-eyed anime girl with psychic abilities, which apparently do little aside from giving her strange visions. The film could’ve pitted her against the alien in a huge ESP throwdown, but that might’ve resulted in an ending of some kind.
8) Star Crystal (1986)
Many films that copy Alien also copy its dark, cramped visual style. Not so Star Crystal, which dresses up its Alien rips in well-lit studios and cheap mid-1980s polyester. A team of brown-suited astronauts discovers a strange, egg-shaped object on the surface of Mars, and it hatches to reveal a crystal and lots of slime. After the astronauts’ space station goes silent, another team of investigators arrives there to find an alien on the rampage.
Through low-rent tentacle effects and blinking displays, the slime-creature murders the cast except for two bickering explorers. Then the monster reveals that it’s actually a good alien named Gar, and that it didn’t mean to kill anyone. After reading the Bible, the now-lovable beast makes friends with the two surprisingly trusting astronauts, and together they face another threat to their ship. If only Ridley Scott had thrown such a twist into the original Alien.
The Creature: A yellowish blob with an E.T.-like head and eyes, Gar resembles a glowing garden rock more than anything. The Heroine: An investigator named Adrienne, who shows little critical thought in making friends with an alien that destroyed almost everyone around her.
7) The First Part of Lifeforce (1985)
Tobe Hooper’s Lifeforce is mostly remembered for showing actress Mathilda May naked in almost every scene, but it’s also a big, sloppy, wonderful clusterfuck of a film. The ending has bat-monsters turning London into a huge zombie riot of exploding buildings while May and the film’s hero have hateful vampire sex inside a giant spaceship’s tractor beam. Let’s see Twilight top that.
Before all this schlocky hell breaks loose, Lifeforce recycles Alien‘s premise with blatant precision. And why shouldn’t it, since Alien co-writer Dan O’Bannon was on script duty? It begins when a space expedition discovers an enormous ship lodged in the corona of Haley’s Comet. Inside the bizarre, vaguely organic vessel, the astronauts find decaying batlike creatures along with three curiously well-preserved humans, one of whom is the completely naked May. A month later, the unresponsive shuttle drifts back to Earth, gutted by a fire that somehow left the three aliens alive. The only remaining crew member, a bland type named Tom Carlson, crash-lands in an escape pod and tells everyone the truth about the space vampires, but by then it’s far too late: May has already started up her naked-bloodsucker journey, so she and Carlson hunt and screw each other for the rest of the movie.
The Creatures: Space vampires that look human 90 percent of the time. When killed, they turn into giant bat-beasts. The (Anti-)Heroine: May’s character is actually kind of boring, lacking a real name or personality. Still, she spiritually hijacks a doctor played by Patrick Stewart and almost has him making out with Carlson.
6) Lily C.A.T. (1987)
The anime industry’s best Alien-inspired moments came with Cowboy Bebop‘s “Toys in the Attic” episode, but that’s more of a parody than thievery. Lily C.A.T., on the other hand, is all-out plagiarism that wants to be taken seriously. In the near future, a ship full of the most boring people ever catches a mysterious strain of bacteria on its journey through space. Upon emerging from their cryogenic capsules, the crew is killed off in mostly tedious ways, all while the ship’s computer, which is called “Mother” and looks just like the Mother computer terminal from Alien, tries to save itself and the robot cat that controls it.
Lily C.A.T. is a painfully unimaginative retread of Alien and John Carpenter’s The Thing, though it becomes strangely funny whenever a cast member dies. That’s when the remaining characters discuss the giant, murderous, ship-eating bacteria beast in perfectly calm conversations. Witness their reactions to the demise of an Australian detective who’s either sporting a mustache or impeccably well-groomed nostril hair.
With a hokey 1990s English dub, the film reaches bizarre comedy as the alleged heroes discuss death, suicide, and hideous creatures as though they were a Taco Bell night crew counting up the registers. Maybe they’ve seen too many Alien rip-offs to be disturbed by a grotesque monster devouring their shipmates.
The Creature: A gooey, tentacled aberration that’s part the Thing, part xenomorph, and part bacteria. It was designed by artist Yoshitaka Amano, now much more famous for Final Fantasy, Sandman: The Dream Hunters, and other, better things. The Heroine: The only conspicuous woman in the film is Nancy, the blonde daughter of a high-up company executive. In contrast to the blas? reactions of the rest of the crew, she spends most of her time shrieking and sobbing in terror. Listen closely to her blubbering tirade above, and you’ll learn that she went into space just to get back at a boyfriend-stealing rival. Vasquez, she ain’t.
5) Enemy Zero (1996)
There’s a long and obvious history of videogames plundering Alien, from the last stage of Contra to such modern Resident Evil retreads as Run Like Hell. Yet few are as obvious as Warp’s Enemy Zero. A successor to the graphic adventure game D’s Diner, Enemy Zero emerged as a major Sega Saturn survival-horror game and enjoyed much hype in the Japanese game industry, thanks to eccentric creator Kenji Eno. He was (and mostly still is) gleefully insane, and in 1996 an industry waited to see just what sort of bizarre creation he would unveil.
And what did he unveil? An Alien rip-off. On a deep-space freighter, mannequin-like blonde heroine Laura awakens from cryogenic sleep to find that aliens are shredding her friends. She explores the dimly lit corridors of the ship, uncovering just about every plot twist and stereotype from Alien (there’s even a character named Parker). Enemy Zero at least has an interesting approach to monster-hunting: you can’t see any of the creatures, and you can only track them by a radar headset that constantly bleeps in Laura’s ear.
The Creatures: Standard freakish Giger-style monsters, made slightly more interesting by being visible only in brief glimpses after they’re killed. The Heroine: Laura’s a competent Ripley stand-in, though Eno insists on cramming an alien tentacle down her throat. Even that’s an Alien tribute, in a way.
4) Leprechaun 4: In Space (1997)
Every long-running B-movie series reaches a point where the producers, directors, and anyone else involved simply stop caring. The Leprechaun franchise probably hit that point five minutes into its first film, but by Leprechaun 4: In Space, even casual viewers could tell. In this bizarre attempt to enliven the series, space marines on a badly rendered ship find the Leprechaun (played, as always, by Warwick Davis) stalking an alien princess. While the creature’s blown up shortly into the film, a marine unwisely urinates on the Irish zombie-thing’s corpse, thus enabling the Leprechaun to re-emerge from…well, you’ll see it in the trailer.
Leprechaun 4: In Space doesn’t stop with Davis’ murderous shenanigans, as the cast also contains a mutated spider-scorpion scientist, a largely silent princess who flashes her breasts at her enemies, and a lot of computer-rendered stuff barely up to the standards of 1997. It’s all a comedy, but never in the way the director so clearly intended.
The Creature: Aside from being a supernatural killer capable of living inside a human urethra, candiru-style, the Leprechaun also grows into a giant, badly superimposed version of himself in the final minutes. The Heroine: Dr. Tina Reeves, who hooks up with the lead soldier while fending off the Leprechaun. Oddly enough, the film’s second-biggest star, Home Improvement’s Debbie Dunning, gets the part of an easily murdered marine.
3) Leviathan (1989)
Leviathan knew what it was. Or at least it did by the time cable stations promoted it as “the best Alien rip-off ever!” in the mid-1990s. But that’s not quite true. Leviathan is just the best underwater Alien rip-off. For one thing, it’s got a decent cast. Fresh off Robocop, Peter Weller oversees a deep-sea mining crew that includes Richard Crenna, Amanda Pays, Daniel Stern, and Ernie Hudson. In a twist oddly similar to The Abyss, the team discovers the wreck of a Soviet ship where bizarre experiments were conducted. Upon drinking some tainted vodka from the vessel, two miners turn into a Thing-like creature. Weller, Pays, and the more appealing characters try to make it out alive, all while their slimy corporate superior denies them rescue. But don’t worry, because there’s a happy ending that’s actually quite unpleasant out of context. And perhaps in context, too.
The Creature: Stan Winston revisited his earlier work on The Thing to create an aquatic version of the grotesque, human-absorbing beast, one that’s part moray eel, part angler fish, and part Ray Harryhausen’s Kraken from Clash of the Titans. The Heroine: Amanda Pays is cast as a resilient miner who doesn’t take no guff from her sexist shipmates. She’s little more than arm d?cor for the hero by the film’s end, but, well, he’s Robocop, after all.
2) Outlander (2008)
Outlander isn’t a mere Alien swipe. It also plunders Predator, The 13th Warrior, and anything else that could result in Vikings fighting an Alien. The latter arrives when a spaceship crashes to Nordic earth sometime around 770 A.D., stranding a lone human named Kainan (played by James “Mel Gibson’s Jesus Christ” Caviezel). He’s captured by the local Vikings, but they soon need him to help hunt down the Moorwen, a glowing creature that stowed away on Kainan’s ship.
If it weren’t for the 2008 computer-graphics and production standards, Outlander could pass for some 1980s cheese nugget. It smacks together science-fiction and Beowulf with carefree style, and it rarely slackens in pure entertainment. It even tries to make viewers sympathetic for the Moorwen, but there’s no time for that when the beast is decapitating Ron Perlman with its tail and building an underground lair full of corpses.
The Creature: A sleek, neon-striped cat-lizard that manages to look legitimately cool for most of the film. Then it gets burned and shows its true form up-close, which resembles a mix of the Cloverfield monster and that awful Roland Emmerich Godzilla from 1999. The Heroine: A Viking chief’s daughter with the rather stereotypical name of Freya. She’s apparently strong-willed at the movie’s start, inept for the next hour, and then competent again for the finale.
1) Pitch Black (2000)
Pitch Black could’ve easily fallen through the cracks, arriving when The Matrix was running roughshod over any other science-fiction movie. But writer/director David Twohy put together the Alien tribute that countless films tried and failed to make in the twenty years before it. Not particularly symbolic or layered, it’s just an enjoyable future-monster flick where a horde of underground beasties picks off the survivors of a spaceship’s crash landing. Along the way, Vin Diesel’s antihero Riddick emerges as an endearing, Schwarzenegger-ish thug and the best hope the crew has.
Pitch Black also did something no other Alien wannabe could: it started a franchise. And, like Alien, that franchise has its highs and lows. As a sequel, The Chronicles of Riddick obscures its gritty origins in space-superhero theatrics that are sometimes ridiculously awesome and sometimes just embarrassing, but the Riddick-based video games are solid stuff.
The Creatures: A hive of batlike, crescent-headed aliens that avoid light despite not having any obvious eyes. The Heroine: Pilot Carolyn Fry, played by Radha Mitchell, gradually wins over mean ol’ Riddick with her bravery and leadership. Don’t get too attached to her.
Robert Bricken is one of the original co-founders of the site formerly known as Topless Robot, and its first editor-in-chief, serving from 2008-12. He brought the site to prominence with “nerd news, humor and self-loathing” as its motto, raising it from total internet obscurity to a readership in the millions, with help from his savage “FAQ” movie reviews and Fan Fiction Fridays. Under his tenure Topless Robot was covered by Gawker, Wired, Defamer, New York magazine, ABC News, and others, and his articles have been praised by Roger Ebert, Avengers actor Clark Gregg, comedian and The Daily Show correspondent John Hodgman, the stars of Mystery Science Theater 3000 and Rifftrax, and others. He is currently the managing editor of io9.com. Despite decades as both an amateur and professional nerd, he continues to be completely unprepared for either the zombie apocalypse or the robot uprising.