Awesome footage of At the Drive-In, live from Australia in 2001...
"Is it heavier than air?" Almost certainly yes!
Saturday, 28 July 2012
Thursday, 19 July 2012
Sunday, 15 July 2012
This weekend seems shorter of hours than usual, so there's only time to record in dispatches a few gigs that have previously gone unmentioned. I'll try to have something more substantive next time. A modernist art exhibition that shook up art over a century ago or a Hollywood movie that doesn't really make much sense, something like that. (Disclaimer: “more substantive” doesn't imply more up-to-date.)
Graham Coxon (seen here saying “ooh yeh yeh”) was of course instrumental in turning Blur from a godawful Britpop act into a pretty decent band. (I'd say at that point “before going solo” but, unbeknownst to me, he actually recorded three solo albums before that.) I don't normally like guitarists going solo as they tend to... well, solo, but Coxon's a great songwriter and even when he went for guitar breaks it felt right rather than indulgent. It's too far back to say anything clever or insightful about this gig now (23rd April at the Concorde) but it was a great night. (No YouTube clips seem to capture a whole number, alas.)
Sometimes you need to see a gig outside of Brighton to get back that sense of an occasion. That it's more about everyone getting together for a knees-up, and less about seeing some band, going home and writing a clever blog post about it afterwards. In such a spirit I once more trusted myself to the 2A bus to see The Men They Couldn't Hang at the Ropetackle Arts Centre, in Shoreham-by-Sea (Saturday 12th May 2012). Insofar as I can recall, the first time I've seen them since the late Eighties.
The Number One cool thing about this band (you know, apart from their music) is that they're such a motley array. Spy them separately and you'd never guess that bunch of people were in a band together. And only the banjo player (on the left) looks like he should actually be in a folk-punk band.
This great gig was only mildly marred by guitarist Cush (to the right) endlessly admonishing the crowd and treating us to harangues about not reading the Murdoch press and the like, including during songs. (Example here.)
This may well be the fifth time I've seen the inimitable Damo Suzuki and the second time I've seen him both with AK/DK and at the Green Door Store (on Tuesday 19th June). Though the line-up was rejigged, and instead of a violinist Anne Shenton (off Add N to X) brought along her theremin.
I may have liked this night more than the last (as spoken of here.) My only caveat would be that AK/DK are already quite a Krautrock-influenced unit, so (despite being entirely improvised) it's still the sort of thing you might expect everyone assembled to do. Of course I love circular drum patterns as much as the next man, in fact considerably more so. But when I've seen Damo with other musicians (or in his parlance “sound carriers”) there's been more a sense of bold new adventures., of new styles being hit on out of sheer extemporisation. Randomness = results. (Check out this random YouTube clip I came across.)
No-one seems to have uploaded any vids of that particular night, so here's the self-same clip I posted over it's predecessor. Still, a good cast is worth repeating and you can hear some of it here.
Since you asked (okay you didn't), I'm mostly listening to Current 93's 'Thunder Perfect Mind', Beth Gibbons and Rustin Man's 'Out of Season', At the Drive-In's 'Relationship of Command' and, inevitably enough, Can. (But not as yet the fabled Lost Tapes. I'm still figuring out how I'm going to afford getting those. Any suggestions? I'm currently trying to limit my options to legal ones...)
Saturday, 7 July 2012
Not at all a proper review of 'Prometheus', but something of a follow-up to this
Prior to 'Prometheus', Ridley Scott showed little interest in expanding on films already in the can. Most famously, his director's cut of 'Blade Runner' did actually cut - it took more stuff out than it added, and came in at a shorter running time. For his “director's cut” of 'Alien' (an ironic term considering the idea was all but forced on him) he added sequences fans had clamoured to see, but insisted on balancing them out by removing other scenes. He has shown little interest in creating a credible origin story of, or even life cycle for, the Alien. The 'cocoon' scene, which went some way towards establishing that, was something he'd originally unceremoniously cut.
Me, I'd have done the same. If I wanted to put back a cut scene, I'd have included the confrontation between Lambert and Ripley. The 'quarantine' scene seems a little consequence-less without it. More about the Alien? It's a killer monster in an enclosed space. That's enough, isn't it? It should stay unknown. Isn't that more scary?
Then one day he upped and said “what no one's done is simply gone back to re-visit 'what was it?' No one's ever said 'who's the space jockey?' He wasn't an Alien. What was that battleship? Is it a battleship? Is it an aircraft carrier? Is it a bio-mechanoid weapon carrier?...Why did it land? Did it crash-land, or did it settle there because it had engine trouble?...And how long ago?“
...questions people weren't asking because anyone who cared thought they already knew, because it was in O'Bannon and Shusett's original script. That ship was just a prior victim to the Nostromo, who landed or crashed on the planet to be overrun by Aliens. They're basically there to have a dead figure at a giant gun, showing even such advanced weapons couldn't protect them. They're incidental characters, one big warning sign. It was cut out of the final version, most likely to keep up the pace but also because no-one was likely to care where they came from. A skeleton that falls out of a closet, that doesn't need its autobiography written. (The real unanswered question might be how the Company knew about all the Alien in advance, if all this was happening out in deep space. But that one seems to be staying unasked.)
But the question gets asked anyway. Then sidelined. For a film fixated on mutation shows sign of mutation itself. Things shift around so much we even shift planet. We encounter a different derelict spaceship, with a different Space Jockey at the helm.
'Prometheus' is always referencing 'Alien', recycling its furniture. Yet (as we've seen) 'Alien' was significant chiefly for its look. And that so-copied look is so changed here it's like a yang has been built to accompany its yin. Spaceships are now big, white and gleaming clean, the alien planet is mostly seen in daylight. It looks, it cannot be denied, absolutely fantastic. While everyone else has been copying 'Alien', Scott comes up with something new. But it's also like one of those disconcerting dreams, where triggers are telling you that you're back in your old primary school, but everything actually looks entirely different.
And it's not just the look that gets yanged. Unlike 'Alien', the crew are a team of experts carefully assembled for this mission. (Pretty useless experts who make an even worse fist of it than the working stiffs of earlier, but never mind that.) Shaw, unlike Ripley, is a heroine on a quest. The film is full of the 'cosmic wonder' that made up the other half of Seventies SF, such as '2001' - the stuff that 'Alien' seemed in such opposition to. In fact it's Shaw's shadow, the mission director Meredith Vickers who's most Ripley-like. (Seemingly deliberately, for there's an echo of the originals' quarantine scene.) The difference is there, bold as brass, in the names of the ships. Nostromo, from Conrad, is existential, suggesting hearts of darkness. Prometheus, from Greek mythology, suggests at cosmic knowledge. (Albeit coming at something of a price.)
Many people have commented that this film sets out to answer a question no-one really asked, then gets sidetracked by a new set of questions, then fails to answer them either. In the Village Voice, Nick Pinkerton called it “prone to shallow ponderousness.”
But, counter to this rather damning verdict, Cavalorn has come up with an interpretation. It's imaginative and worth reading of itself, so I'll give it the barest summary here. It's basically the Von Daniken thing of grafting cosmic causes onto Earth mythology. Just like the King should symbolically die for the perpetuation of his people, so these Engineers have a cult of self-sacrifice and have sacrificed themselves (you know, a bit) to give us life. They're the antithesis of the bestial Aliens, who kill to survive.
(Which actually makes the plot line strangely similar to 'Aliens vs. Predator', just with Engineers substituted for Predators and another planet for Antarctica. One film awaited by fans, as the master director finally returns to his creation. The other damned by fans, seen as a sequel too far, as franchises got cross-bred to produce bastards. But never mind that...)
Clearly we have done something quite transgressive to get our elders and betters so all riled up. Well it could be pretty much any of the things we've done, take your pick. We've held parties while they were out, fought wars, screwed the ozone layer, litter-louted our way across the planet. Except this theory goes in for something specific. We killed Jesus. Jesus was their emissary, their supply teacher sent to bring order. And we killed him.
We know this is true because Ridley Scott said so. (Scott was asked if he'd considered making any direct references to Jesus and said he thought that “too on the nose.”)
All clear? Jesus was a spaceman. We're all very naughty boys and girls.
Except there's an alternate theory which works just as well. This superior race, why would we be anything more to them than an experiment? Anger? We'd be lucky to rouse anything more than mild disappointment? We're just something to set up and observe, then when you're finished rinse out the petri dish and start again.
And we know this to be true because... you guessed it... because Ridley Scott said so:
“Maybe there was something half a billion years ago which was a civilisation equal to ours? ...could we have existed before and if we did, who or what destroyed it? But also, who created us and who kicked it all off again?”
In other words, this isn't the first time the petri dish has been rinsed out. It's just the first time it's happened to us.
...which puts an interesting spin on things. Vickers says at one point “a king has his reign, and then he dies. It's inevitable.” The film's villain, Peter Weyland, this time's face of the faceless Company, plots to resist this and of course fails. All things have their time, whether individuals or species. Maybe the Engineers, while seeing themselves as keepers of our time, imagine themselves as above and immune. Yet they find themselves susceptible to their own rules, and come to the same fate. On what is technically known as 'an irony', their own creations in their weapons lab rise up to finish them off. (The Space Jesusers, meanwhile, don't have much of an explanation for what actually bumps off the cosmically superior, all-wise Engineers.)
It's a generalisation, but still a helpful one, to claim American SF tends to the optimistic and British SF to the pessimistic. In for example 'The Day the Earth Stood Still' (1951) the alien visitor is essentially Jesus, accompanied by a robot Archangel. While in for example 'Quatermass and the Pit', (1958) the aliens are quite explicitly devils. (Or more accurately our folk devils are a kind of race memory of aliens. Same difference.) Out of the Alien sequels, 'Alien 3' was dubbed “nihilistic” and fared badly in the US, but was more popular abroad. (Yet let's not make this too schematic. This video rant suggests the opposition is all down to Atlantic differences. But in his bio Cavalorn mentions owning a bookshop in Manchester...)
An American movie with a British director, that could maybe go either way. Last time round it took the pessimistic route, so maybe now that'll get yanged. Or, more interestingly, perhaps it'll take both ways at once. Perhaps what's intended is some SF version of 'The Innocents', like one of those drawings which makes up a face whichever way up you hold it. Which would be a cool idea. Ambiguity, after all, is what keeps art alive, while certainty damns it into being done with.
Unfortunately then, it actually can't be read either way. It's not two drawings in one, it's no drawings in one. Whichever direction you choose, you soon run into walls. Let's go through just a couple...
Of course it's something of a category error to fault movies for employing movie logic. In movie job interviews you pass by telling the interviewer imploringly “I need this”, not by spelling things right on your CV. You win movie wars by getting very cross and running shouting into a hail of bullets, never mind that training. If you take an instant dislike to a new movie co-worker, you will end up shagging them within the next thirty minutes. It's a different country. They do things differently there.
So maybe we should cut movie DNA some slack. If it in no way conforms to the rules of our-world DNA, then just imagine a subliminal disclaimer coming up on the screen, explaining that it differs from our DNA in any way favoured by the script.
But a movie Jesus? Okay they're talking about the mythologised Jesus of Jungian archetypes and bad New Age self-help books, and that “all-myths-correlate” claptrap the likes of Christian Vogler likes to come out with. But they're still talking about Jesus, they still want that cultural weight the Christian Jesus has.
And while I'm not the most knowledgeable person about Christianity, I still remember my school hymns. One of which went “he died to save us all.” Jesus comes here knowing he has to die. When his disciples resist his arrest, he tells them to stand down. He sacrifices himself to atone for our sins. It says so on the page. Crucifixion isn't even part of the plan, it is the fershluggin' plan! So how come Jesus' space buddies get so all-fired cross over a plan that worked?
It's like Kurt Vonnegut's take on the Bible, that poor plot construction led to its actual message being “before you kill somebody, make absolutely sure he isn't well connected.” If you don't believe in it, fair enough. Neither do I. But don't then try to bend its cultural weight. Why not have a kick-ass gun-totin' Jesus? Or a corporate-head plotting-Earth-acquisition Jesus?
And besides, even if you can buy Space Jesus as Movie Jesus, isn't the whole schtick of the Engineers supposed to be self-sacrifice? Wouldn't laying yourself down seem a noble mission? And, with their vast superiority over us, wouldn't they at least guess it might be coming?
Meanwhile, in a more narrative problem, the Space Jesus theorists have a hard time explaining the star maps. Described in the film as “an invitation”, they seem planted to draw us into visiting the planet. Why bother with all that, especially when its not even the Engineers' home planet, if their plan is for them to visit us and bump us off? Isn't that like having an air drop of escape routes before you bomb a town?
Whereas the petri dish theory explains this quite well. In figuring out the star maps and developing the technology to take us there, we're like the mouse in the maze triggering the electric shock. We effectively press our own delete key. We're signalling the experiment's developed to its conclusion, and the petri dish can be rinsed out again.
It just has trouble explaining so much other stuff, that's all. The film starts with an Engineer, seemingly sacrificing himself to seed life on Earth. Later, the Space Jockey seems angered by our presence. Neither of which seems the reactions of white coated guys, wondering how the mice got out of their cage, hoping clearing this up doesn't delay lunch. More like a Dad whose found out the teens borrowed the car without asking, then crashed it into the cop shop.
(The Space Jesus theory does, however, have the advantage of explaining why the film is so elliptical and incomplete. Obviously the core of it has been cut out to avoid controversy, and allow the film to play in mid America!)
Moreover, both these explanations rely not on extrapolation rather than imagination. There is more making up of stuff than there is watching the film. Take that black goo, where's that at? First it creates human life, then later it mutates it into something else? Begetter or killer, where is it at? Cavalorn has an answer, it's judgement goo:
“the black slime... evidently models its behaviour on the user's mental state. Create unselfishly, accepting self-destruction as the cost, and the black stuff engenders fertile life. But expose the potent black slimy stuff to the thoughts and emotions of flawed humanity, and 'the sleep of reason produces monsters'... The black slime reacts to the nature and intent of the being that wields it.”
Which is an imaginative and intriguing idea. It's just a shame it wasn't included in the film 'Prometheus'. It might have fitted quite nicely there. As it is, the black goo of the film is just magic pixie dust, obliging the script with whatever is required of it.
What to do when nothing fits? The two most likely answers are i) argue about it over blog posts like this, without getting anywhere, or ii) wait for the sequel. For in the final minutes we're tipped off there may be a sequel which may even explain some of this.
As said previously, what in many ways made 'Alien' such a great film was that it reflected its era. And 'Prometheus' does the same thing, only in a slightly different way.
Once upon a time films were things that were shown in cinemas, at fixed times advertised in the local press. They were enclosed events. You'd see them, maybe talk about them in the pub afterwards and go home. Seeing a film now is never a done task.
This film, for example, is not an event in itself but one more step in an ongoing marketing campaign. Yes it came after the teasers, the trailers and the viral ads. But it comes before the commentaries, the director's cut, the multi-DVD release and the inevitable sequel. In fact, once we've paid our ticket money what's then shown to us virtually is a teaser for the sequel. Which, if made, will in itself become a teaser for the next sequel, and so on.
In 'Alien' there's an alien on a spaceship. The crew have to get rid of it before it does them in. Which they finally manage, and then the credits roll. In 'Prometheus'... well, what did bloody happen? It's not allusive or creatively ambiguous, it's frustratingly incomplete. And we still don't even know the answer to very question which brought us here, how that Space Jockey, the first one, got there, Maybe they're saving that up for the third instalment.
But then what did you ever expect?
The more you think about this film, the less you find in it. I suspect writing about it here has lowered it in my estimations. You're really just supposed to go “whoo... far out space stuff,” and any other response is a category error. You're better off treating it like a pop star interview in the music press, lots of sharp-sounding stuff thrown out, which is actually just froth and sound-bites. It can't stand up to any examination but, you know, it has great cheekbones.
Sunday, 1 July 2012
Preamble to not-a-proper-review-at-all of 'Prometheus'...
“'Jaws' in space” was the pitch Dan O'Bannon and Ronald Shusett put to their initial script for 'Alien'. Yet no studio wanted to make “'Jaws' in space”. Then, as all now openly admit, it was hurriedly green-lit following the success of 'Star Wars' - fairly hilariously, as it would be hard to think of two films more unlike each other. In 1979 it finally hit the screens.
When both films notched up hits under the same genre label, science fiction was back in mainstream cinema. 'Star Wars' of course brought the bigger swell of immediate cash-ins. (It looked pretty easy, after all. You just needed a hero with a ray gun, a villain in black and a girl in a silver bikini.) But in terms of lasting influence, 'Alien' had the bigger impact. I have lost count of the times I have stumbled back from the pub on a weekend, clicked on the telly and immediately gone ”Ah, 'Alien' cash-in.” Even films which aren't simple spoiler products, which have their own plots and agendas can show it's imprint.
...an imprint which comes chiefly through it's design, the dirtied-down anti-sleek look O'Bannon called “the used future.” It's like industrial gothic meets surrealist nightmare beneath some severe under-lighting. 'Star Wars' stemmed from the gaudy, adventurous world of Saturday morning serials and comics, with the Marvel adaptation decided early. It was a previously critically rated arthouse director going mainstream. 'Alien' was the other way up, taking notions from the margins to the mainstream. It's chief visual designers were ex-underground cartoonist Ron Cobb (who had previously worked with O'Bannon on 'Dark Star') and gothic surrealist artist HR Giger.
But also, from the weird-sounding transmission which kicks off the plot, 'Alien' always seemed to overlap with contemporary music, particularly the then-emerging genre of industrial music. (Check out Throbbing Gristle's 'Hamburger Lady.) Indeed, Graeme Revell of industrial band SPK later became a Hollywood composer.
Yet the paradox is that a film which spawned so many sequels and copyists actually occupies a strange kind of pivot-point between Seventies and Eighties cinema. This emphasis on look and design in itself makes that film that classic of the Seventies – mainstream auteurist.
There's a kind of myth that's now arisen around the idea 'Alien' was fertilized by the shit of B-movie schlock. Whereas it actually owes most to Hawkes' acclaimed 'The Thing From Another World' (1951). 'It! The Terror From Beyond Space' (1958) has a more headline-style title and may well have been an actual B Feature (shown as a warm-up for the film audiences had actually paid to see). But it's actually a much better film than any of that suggests. Scott was simply too smart to take influence from bad films when he could have looked at good ones.
Nevertheless, it's fair to say the plot line is pure B-movie. It's only in seeing it, the deranged designs, that unsettling strangeness, the pressure-cooker effect of events on the crew, that it becomes effective. O'Bannon and Shusett's script may have languished so long simply because it wasn't designed to work on the page, it needed a strong visual imagination to bring it to life. Their work is important, of course, but the film is rightly thought of as Ridley Scott's 'Alien'.
Moreover, you don't just not get the atmosphere from the plot, you also don't get the theme. In another zeitgeisty moment, 'Alien' is seen as a crossover between a science fiction and a slasher film. Notably the two sequel-spawning staples of the slasher genre bookend it, 'Halloween' in 1978 and 'Friday the 13th' in 1980. Certainly, the same formula is there – chop away at the cast until you're left with the monster and the last girl. But there's important differences. Perhaps I shouldn't generalise about a genre I don't follow or care for, but I contend the formula of slasher films is 'sex sublimated into violence.' When the sex can't get any more explicit for a mainstream film, somebody gets chopped up instead. (A far more savoury sight, of course.)
Whereas, and unusually for a mainstream film, 'Alien' not only doesn't have any sex scenes, it doesn't even bother with romance subplots. (An early idea was that Ripley and Dallas would be together, but it never seemed a notion the film's events would lead to them getting together.) True, at the end Sigourney Weaver strips down to her scanties. But that's to emphasise her vulnerability. (Well, you know, partly.)
Instead the sexuality is thrust upon the alien and the landscape. Sexual imagery abounds (penetration, gestation) but transformed into something horrific and otherly - like a universe that's out to rape you. The Alien is not just horrific but also icky. Slime is a signpost to horror here and in all the sequels. Most crucially, it doesn't just invade their ship, it invades the human body. The theme is Body horror, something then absent from most SF or even slasher films.
Crucially for this to be effective, the crew is composed not of bold astronauts but regular working guys. This comes straight from scripter Dan O'Bannon's previous feature 'Dark Star.' (Whose plot is effectively the crew going insane through the monotony of space travel, the trucking without the pit stops.) In 'Beautiful Monsters: The Unofficial and Unauthorised Guide to the Alien and Predator Films' David McIntee notes that part of the film's effectiveness in frightening viewers "comes from the fact that the audience can all identify with the characters...Everyone aboard the Nostromo is a normal, everyday, working Joe just like the rest of us. They just happen to live and work in the future."
Furthermore, the film is steeped in a kind of anti-corporate cynicism, a common theme among auteurist films of the era. Pakula's 'The Parallax View' (1974), for example, though ostensibly a thriller, was set in such a strange defamiliarised modernist environment it's almost an honorary SF film. Yaphet Kotto, who plays Parker, had only just starred in Schrader's anti-corporate drama 'Blue Collar' (1978). Similarly, here the Alien may be the adversary but the Company are effectively the villain, through their attempts to get their clutches on it they put the crew in danger.
Yet the peculiarity of 'Alien' is to come at the end of this era. Significantly, its release coincided with two big signposts of political change, the elections of Margaret Thatcher (1979) and Ronald Reagan (1981). Initially there's an upstairs-downstairs division between the crew, with grunts Parker and Brett attempting to demand parity in “the bonus situation.” But ship's Captain Dallas resembles the “Carter power” which the Dead Kennedys were predicting to “soon go away.” Such distinctions soon erode under the alien threat, and after some accelerated Darwinism 'downstairs' Parker and 'upstairs' Ripley are the last to survive. It's the modern world. Career paths don't go to plan any more. You can only rely on yourself.
It would be tempting to claim the Alien as the market, a ruthless self-serving machine we can only organise ourselves around. As is said of it at one point, “its structural perfection is matched only by its hostility.” (Should the tag line have been “in the neoliberal mode of production, no-one can hear you scream?”) Indeed, the motor here and in the sequels is the Company forever trying to catch and weaponise the Alien. And wanting to have the Alien is akin to wanting to be like it. But their plans are forever going awry. The Alien is more likely the natural world, the cycle of life the Company seek to control and dominate.
Yet this just leads us into something more crucial. Ash says of it, “I admire it's purity. A survivor...unclouded by conscience, remorse or delusions of morality.” But this description also fits Ripley, who was willing to leave the others in quarantine rather than risk infection aboard the ship. Ultimately, Ripley doesn't win because she is more moral, she survives because she is tougher and smarter. She's the human being most similar to the Alien. Significantly the film ends with her final log, not a stirring speech or smart sound-bite, but a simple, direct statement of survival.
Significantly, neither 'Halloween' nor 'Friday the 13th felt obliged to keep the same female protagonist through their sequels. It's easier to get in a fresh crop of nubile girlies to get their kit off and then get offed, then another for the next one. After all, it's the guy with the chopper and the hockey mask people have come to see. Yet the Alien films all have to feature Ripley, just like you couldn't make a Dalek film without the Doctor. (Unless of course you count the '...vs. Predator' films. Which we don't.)
So... the look of the film is hugely influential, and the themes can only be found if seen through the prism of that look. But the look stuck while those themes would disappear not only in the imitators, but by the first direct sequel. The working crew, are replaced by (in order) space marines, monastic convicts and galactic outlaws. Their crossing and improvised dialogue is swapped for the reading of often-quotable lines. In short, the characters in the sequel films are characters from films. Ripley reappears, it's true, but with fading recognisability. By the fourth she's virtually become a superhero.
Sequels have many of the trappings of fanfic. One of which is, under the guise of 'developing' themes, making explicit what worked much better when implicit. A classic example is the accelerating literalism of the comparison between Ripley and the Alien. Let's count 'em. When she starts looking after a child instead of a cat, there's suddenly an Alien queen with her brood. Then she gets effectively pregnant with an alien. Then she becomes part-alien. If they'd made a fifth sequel, perhaps they could have swapped over roles entirely, and she'd chase the Alien in it's underwear through some gothic-looking set. (The poster for the third film was a comparison shot of Ripley and the Alien's heads.)
Similarly, an effective component of the Company's ruthless inhumanity is the way they lie unseen, existing only as offstage orders. They're not even named, they're simply referred to as 'the Company'. That last job you were laid off from, did you ever meet the guy who made the decision? Of course not! Someone, somewhere simply sent a message saying “crew expendable.”
Their one visual representative, Ash, turning out to be an android is perfect. How many times have you spoken to somebody representing a corporation who as the conversation went on became more and more like a machine? The personalised villains of the sequels do not add anything, do not tell us more about the Company or how it functions. They simply take stuff away.
But overall, if the sequels break away from the original that's their strength rather than their weakness. If you're going to do sequels, that's how you need to do them. Movies are standalone, they don't work well as chapters in an overarching storyline. Each film is made by a new director with a new angle, a new visual style and no thought of further sequels. Then another new crew come in and do the same.
It's not so much passing the baton as handing someone your car keys and telling them to go nuts. Of course, they crash the car. But they crash it somewhere else, in some new way, unforeseeable from where it was last parked. They're all, of course, inferior to the first film. But by minimising the points of comparison they give themselves the best fighting chance.
Take the way the Alien is designed slightly differently in each. While of course the original was the perfect killing machine. It's like the way sharks and crocodiles have stayed as they are for millennia, without need of evolution. Change is pointless. But necessary. You either mutate the Alien or throw in the towel.
Of course each is, in it's own way, flawed. But perhaps significantly the least flawed, the most functionally effective, is the second one, 'Aliens' – which essentially turns the whole thing into one big battle. (The tag line, “this time it's war”, effectively tipped us off - “this time it's not really an 'Alien' film”.) It succeeds most by attempting least. (My personal favourite among the sequels is the third. Despite it being... you know... flawed.)
And of course through breaking away they escaped the other great trap of sequels or fanfic – of wanting to explain or elaborate on things from the original, to answer questions no-one was actually interested in asking. They old stuff was just a springboard. Now it's time to make new stuff up. Which was better for all concerned.