Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Director Report Card: James Cameron (1986)

3. Aliens

After the sleeper success of “The Terminator,” James Cameron was the hottest new name in science fiction. A sequel to “Alien” had been kicked around since the original’s release. Based on the strength of the “Terminator” script, Cameron was approached to make an “Alien II.” A fan of the original, he leaped into the project with full enthusiasm. The resulting film was a box office success and received critical praise. It earned Academy Award nominations not only for its special effects but for its acting as well, a practically unheard feat for a genre film. “Aliens” further cemented Cameron’s reputation as a hit-maker and a sci-fi visionary. Many consider it a sequel that is equal to, if not better than, the original.

Following the detonation of the Nostromo, and the defeat of the original xenomorph, Ripley’s ship floats aimlessly through space for sixty years. By the time she returns to Earth, everyone she has ever known or loved is dead. Still suffering from nightmares of the alien, Ripley is stunned when she learns the planet where the eggs were discovered has been colonized. When the corporation looses contact with the colony, Ripley is talked into coming along to investigate. Though the team of bad-ass space marines accompanying her seem sure at first, they are quickly overwhelmed by the creatures. As the situation becomes more dire, Ripley has to face her fears and fight back in order to survive.

“Aliens” continues to be, for many, the high-water mark for sci-fi sequels. On one level, this is a bit surprising. “Aliens,” almost to a tee, follows the same story outline as “Alien.” Xenomorph eggs are found on LV-426. The resulting creatures go on a rampage. The aliens easily outmatch and outsmart the defenders, killing most of them. Ripley escapes before a huge explosion, only for a alien to sneak aboard the shuttle, forcing her to fight back and shoot the thing out the airlock. As the pluralized title promises, the sequel has more of what viewers liked the first time. What makes “Aliens” special is the approach. As the tagline boasts, “This time, it’s war.” The sequel is more combat film then horror/thriller. The shift in subgenre leads to a shift in priorities, creating a very different but still satisfying whole.

“Aliens” also shows James Cameron’s skills as a filmmaker evolving. The use of color first shown in “The Terminator” continues to be prominent here. The alien planet and ships are frequently shot in cool blues. This suggests a future environment, one both sterile and foreign. In the latter half of “Aliens,” searing red light takes over the film, showing the panic of the situation and the characters’ worsening chances. (It also, implicitly, suggests that the colony is about to explode.) Cameron’s skills for composition is also on display. “Aliens” is full of memorable images. My favorite is a xenomorph emerging out of the water behind Newt. There are others that are equally memorable: A man collapsed on the planet’s surface, a face-hugger wrapped around his head. A horde of monsters crawling through the air duct. The Queen Alien’s back-lit first appearance. Coupled with the absolutely brilliant production design and special effects, “Aliens” is a great looking movie.

Cameron more then makes the movie his own. However, he does carry on an important attribute from “Alien.” The sense of stark isolation and quietly growing unease that Ridley Scott so perfectly employed in the first film is maintained here. The opening minutes are quiet and chilly, as Ripley’s pod floats through space. When the marines wake from cryo-sleep, the sequel purposely calls back to the original. The camera stalks the empty, silent rooms, focusing on the cold machinery. When the marines first arrive on LV-426, they search the empty buildings. The acid-burned holes in the floor lets us know that the aliens are present. As the group explores, anticipation builds. There’s little music in these scenes, ramping up the tension.

This is because, despite its change in focus, “Aliens” is still very much a horror film. Ripley’s reintroduction into the story is interrupted by a nightmare about the chest-bursters. Cameron is not above shock tactics like this. One incredibly effective jump-scare occurs when the team is exploring the colony, when a face-hugger suddenly leaps towards a glass tube. For the most part, “Aliens” is incredibly good at generating intensity and a sense of panic. When the marines first encounter the aliens, the xenomorphs seemingly emerge from the walls, picking them off one-by-one. Their actions are disorganized, the soldiers quickly being overwhelmed. A later sequence builds on this one. The aliens emerge from beneath the floor, dragging the brave men down to their deaths. Both of these moments successfully capture a real sense of panic. However, the scariest moment in “Aliens” is far more intimate. Ripley and Newt, isolated in a locked room, have to survive against two face-huggers. The creatures skitter around the floor, nearly attaching themselves to both women’s faces. The frantic score emphasizes the frenzy of a scene which successfully plays on natural fears and asphyxiation and claustrophobia.

Another element carried on from the first movie is its distrust of corporations. Sixty years has passed but the Weyland-Yutani Corporation has not given up on its plans for the xenomorph. They colonized the planet, despite knowing that the aliens were on it. When the outbreak happens, the team is sent with the secret goal to retrieve the monsters. The face of the corporation is Paul Reiser’s Burke. Reiser appears entirely affable at first, despite quickly revealing a sleazy side. Burke’s lack of scruples is revealed when he tries to kill Ripley and Newt, going even further to plot to kill the marines in their sleep. As Weaver notes, the despicable humans are just as dangerous as the aliens.

“Aliens” never forgets its roots as a horror movie. Yet the movie still successfully moves the series into the realm of action. Once “Aliens” gets going, it rarely slows down. The first encounter between the marines and the threat is full of memorable action. A flaming body dives over a banister. Xenomorphs are splattered with pulse rifles, yellow blood spraying everywhere. Two of my favorite action bits occur when Hicks shoves a shotgun in an alien’s face and when Ripley runs over another in the tank. The close-quarter combat features some excellent action choreography. The action is forceful and quick without being incoherent. “Aliens” is a successful war film, showing the intensity of combat.

“Aliens” also willing invites an interesting reading of its own material. Cameron himself has spoken about how “Aliens” is an allegory for the Vietnam war. A technologically advanced war force marches into territory they are not used to. The marines are cocksure and certain of their victory. The men are suffocating in their macho attitudes. Upon facing the adversary, they are completely overwhelmed. An enemy force that appears less sophisticated displays a quiet cunning, outsmarting and outmaneuvering its opponent. Eventually, the invading army is totally trumped by the native forces. The metaphor eventually looses its bite, since humanity is ultimately triumphant over the aliens, though at a great loss. That Cameron was willing to infuse a science-fiction story with such serious subtext is in the film’s favor, adding to the complexity of “Aliens.”

It helps that the audience is invested in the fate of the space marines. A cast of fantastic character actors were assembled to bring the soldiers to life. Michael Biehn plays the heroic, soft-spoken Hicks, a variation on “The Terminator’s” Kyle Reese. Biehn has fantastic chemistry with Weaver, especially in the calm moment when he teaches her how to shoot a pulse rifle. However, the quietly heroic Hicks pales in comparison to the colorful cast around him. Bill Paxton’s Hudson has always been my favorite. Paxton’s cornball charm help smooths over Hudson’s initial abrasiveness. His descend into complete panic is both hilarious and natural. Jeanette Goldstein’s Vasquez has become equally iconic. Her sculpted biceps, deadly accuracy, and incredibly tough attitude makes Vasquez a genuine action hero. Yet Goldstein shows a certain softness, mostly during her quiet scenes with Drake, a character she might share a romantic connection with. Lance Henriksen, in his third collaboration with Cameron, is also fantastic as Bishop, the logical but incredibly charming android. It would, in many ways, become Lance’s trademark role and highlights his strengths as an actor.

The supporting cast is as excellent as can be but this is Sigourney Weaver’s movie. In her early scenes, Weaver has a cold sense of desperation. She’s in a world she doesn’t know, her daughter is dead, and she’s suddenly unemployed. The scenes of her with Jonesy the cat are actually quite charming, showing her clinging to the one friend she still has left. What easily has gotten the most press over the years is Ripley’s transformation from scream queen to warrior woman. Her toughness is shown early on, when she leaps into a power lifter and shows off to the marines. Before long, Ripley is taking the fight to the aliens. Her pre-existing will to survive grows into a will to protect those she cares about, no matter what. Even if it means picking up a grenade-launcher and torching a field of xenomorph eggs. Weaver stands proud as one of the earliest female action icons we have.

The reason for Ripley’s transformation is that she’s given a new purpose in life. In a scene excised from the theatrical release, we learn that Ripley’s daughter died while she drifted in hyper-sleep. One simple scene, where Ripley sits on a beach in a holographic park, is devoted to her grief. Yet the loss informs everything she does. When Ripley discovers Newt, she finds a surrogate daughter. Played by the young Carrie Henn, Newt is strong enough to survive alone for months in a colony full of aliens. Henn’s soft voice and adorable behavior makes her immediately endearing. The scenes Weaver shares with Henn are touching and not overdone. Ripley’s desire to protect Newt is what drives her to face her fears and battle the monsters. Newt’s status as her foster-daughter is confirmed when she leaps into Ripley’s arms, shouting “Mommy!’

And a warped reflection of Ripley’s motherhood is seen in the Queen Alien. The Queen’s existence is hinted in an earlier scene where the xenomorphs are compared to ants. It’s a logical step in the creatures’ life-cycle and a worthy addition to the mythology. Even better then that is its design. The Queen suggests what the cross between a xenomorph and a Tyrannosaurus Rex might look like. It has huge legs, balancing on oddly feminine heels. Small arms at the chest further suggest the dinosaur connection. The xenomorph’s mouthful of teeth is expanded into a wide, razor-sharp, and ghoulish grin. Her tail is topped off with a pointed blade. Proving her status as royalty, the Queen also has a wide, regal crests on her head, acting as both a shield and a crown. The design was so impressive that it even won the favor of the alien’s father, H.R. Giger. As a special effect, the Queen Alien is equally flawless, a fully convincing combination of large-scale puppetry and brilliant animatronics work.

Like “Alien,” “Aliens” has an extended fourth act. After surviving the explosion on LV-426, the Queen somehow stowaways on Ripley’s shuttle. Her appearance is signaled by its tail tearing through Bishop’s body and tearing the android in half. Ripley is on the offense this time. Instead of cowering while slipping into a space suit, she jumps in the power lifter and takes the fight to the bitch. The battle that follows is fantastically orchestrated. Think about how hard it must have been to coordinate this, two large scale special effects bashing into each other. Yet it works fantastically on-screen, the stakes remaining high while the action remains exciting. The final sequence, tossing the Queen out the airlock, is incredibly satisfying and perfectly executed. It’s a great note to conclude the film on.

What’s the difference between the theatrical cut and Cameron’s director’s cut? As seen in theaters, “Aliens” ran two hours and seventeen minutes. The director’s cut, meanwhile, extends the film to the epic length of two hours and thirty minutes. Like a good extended cut is supposed to do, the added material deepens the movie. The subplot about Ripley’s daughter is reinstated, further expanding on the character’s motivation. The extended prologue, showing Newt’s family and their first encounter with the xenomorphs, adds to the mythology of the movie. The next greatest addition is a lengthy scene involving automated guns. These scenes up the tension in the movie’s middle section. Don’t get me wrong. “Aliens” is an excellent film in either version. The director’s cut is the better version though and certainly the one hardcore fans will prefer.

“Aliens’” status as a great movie can be easily seen in how many rip-offs and would-be successors it spawned. The space marine would become a standard part of sci-fi fiction from here on, especially in the then-growing sphere of video games. It’s no coincidence that many of those soldiers would be firing at vaguely xenomorph-shaped creatures. (“Contra” is only the most famous of these rip-offs.) “Aliens,” meanwhile, would also launch a lengthy series of comic books, novels, video games, and toys. The series would continue but this is the film the expanded universe must closely followed. It’s hard to say “Aliens” is better then “Alien.” They are different beasts with different goals. The sequel does match the great original and stands on its own as a masterpiece of the genre or any genre. [Grade: A]

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