Skip to main content

You're going out there to destroy them, right? Not to study. Not to bring back. But to wipe them out.

Aliens
(1986)

(SPOILERS) Aliens immediately became my favourite movie when I first saw it. It was a heart stopping roller coaster ride, and I didn't want to get off. So much so, when it was over I instantly rewound the video tape and watched it again. James Cameron transformed the slow-burn atmospherics of Ridley Scott’s haunting original into an all-out attack/slaughter by/of xenomorphs; as the tagline announced, “This Time It’s War”. I can’t really apologise for having preferred it to Alien; it was simply a more accessible, adrenalised, edge-of-the-seat, air-punching experience. Time, hindsight and repeat viewings can change a lot; while I still see the movie I was initially floored by in Aliens, it no longer comes close to that insurmountable pinnacle of science fiction (or action) moviemaking.


It isn’t as if I was alone in my rapturous response. Aliens was that rare non-Spielberg science fiction spectacle that even garnered Oscar attention in non-technical categories; seven nominations, including a crucial one for Sigourney Weaver (it won two, Sound Effects Editing and Visual Effects). For genre work at the time, such acknowledgement was tantamount to being proclaimed a Best Picture winner. 



There was, and there remained for a good few years, the suggestion it might even have surpassed Scott’s film in terms of quality. Kim Newman (who didn’t much care for Alien) offered that it “surprisingly caps the original”, comparing it to the work of Sam Fuller and commending it as “an optimistic, individualist rereading of the genre”. Pauline Kael could be relied upon as a relative lone voice of dissent, noting Cameron’s recent script for Stallone and concluding that Weaver, loaded up and ready for affray, was “no more than a smart Rambo”.



Which is sort of is what she is. Cameron is an unfinessed writer and a literal director, and you can see that kind of crude, functional mechanism reflected in his fascination with hardware and weaponry. It’s little wonder he had a such longstanding rep as a tyrant on set, martialling his troops like a general and frequently incurring the undying resentment of those unwilling to step in line and become his sheep.



As a consequence, particularly in the Special Edition (“This is the ride that we intended you should take” he surmised on its release), the nuts and bolts processes by which he designs his screenplays are in-your-face for all to see. Ripley, 57 years in hypersleep, has lost a daughter to old age in the interim. Unable to get a job, she operates power loaders on a shipping dock. Hicks gives her a tracking device just in case (she gets lost). And wouldn’t you know it, later in the proceedings she meets a surrogate daughter (and a potential mate, and a funny uncle), those power loading skills come in particularly handy, and she fortuitously gives said surrogate daughter the very bracelet she will need to track her down (when she gets lost).



Because Cameron is a “serious” filmmaker, mainly in the once derided science fiction arena, he warrants scrutiny other genre contenders might not. And because he is an auteur, writer-director-producer, the spotlight falls on him even more starkly. There’s no question of his technical acumen as a moviemaker, but his writing skills are as indelicate as his tact with actors. Which means, depending on the scene and what he’s aiming for, the results can be supremely satisfying or hideously mawkish/clichéd/unsubtle/corny.



Whatever the pros and cons, there’s no mistaking what we have here for the verisimilitude Scott brought to the original, an original that still shines twice as brightly as its successors. Aliens, with its cartoon-machismo military and slimy corporate suits, could never be mistaken for anything other than heightened (Cameron attempted to dig deeper with The Abyss, but was only partially successful).



Added to which, on the gripe front, its fashions are determinedly stuck in the decade of its making, from the haircuts to designer-wear, while its aliens lack any of their former exotic terror/allure, very much men in suits. Compared to Alien too, the sequel is quite a cheap-looking picture, sporadically blighted by very obvious back projection and model work. It hasn’t aged well, in other words. Which must be particularly irksome for its director, given his rigorously demanding and exacting process, and that Alien was his favourite science fiction film.



Whatever elements of this I acknowledged subconsciously, they didn’t matter at the time. I was an adherent to all things Cameron, and lapped up news, interviews, making-ofs and articles, including the tantalising prospect of an extended cut, which duly materialised in 1990. Is it essential? Since the scenes I most wanted to see from the novelisation weren’t there (Ripley finding a cocooned Burke, Bishop encountering an alien in the pipe), one might say not; they ill-advisedly over-emphasise (read: ladle on with a trowel) Ripley’s connection to Newt and her mothering instinct (the conversation regarding where babies come from), and the Hicks romance (“Don’t be gone long, Ellen” goes that step too far, where “It doesn’t mean we’re engaged or anything” is the perfect shorthand, albeit Hicks wooing Ripley via armaments training sounds like something autobiographical on its director-writer’s part). But mostly they’re fine, and I wouldn’t go back to watching the original. Like Alien, this takes the best part of an hour to really get moving, the difference being, there it was “What’s going to happen?” and here it’s “When’s it going to happen?”



With regard to the ‘Ripley as Rambo’ aspect, Weaver was uncomfortable enough in retrospect that she fully embraced the guns-free zone of Alien 3 (it needed some kind of response, undoubtedly; I recall rumours at one point that Arnie would be appearing in the film, which was exactly the avenue the series didn't need to go down). Ripley becomes a death-dealing, gun-toting mean mutha, because that’s how Cameron likes his hot pieces of ass.


Cameron in the movie is at once undermining the military (vis-à-vis the Viet Cong-esque xenomorphs) but also wholly enamoured of it, something running through most of his pictures, and especially Avatar. You tend to get the sense with Jimbo that the values he espouses only go as far as not getting in the way of what he wants personally (save the planet, as long as it doesn’t interfere with making my movie; warfare is bad, just as long as you don’t try and stop me playing with guns or treating my set like a military campaign).



And, while he has an innate facility for pushing an audience’s buttons, his delivery system is far from finely hewn. Aliens makes some curiously leaden gender substitutions, now characterising the aliens as worker ant males led by a queen, and setting up an opposition of (mostly) worker male marines led by a natural queen, leading to the ultimate cat fight (“Get away from her, you bitch!”) The line, and subsequent clash, are masterfully conceived and executed, but very much evidence a mind who thinks his comic book conjurings have real depth and substance.



Aliens mostly continues to deliver, mostly. But it surfs a layer of cheesiness that can no longer be ignored, because Cameron deals in such exaggerated, superficial, sugar-rush plays of emotion, while the other entries in the series either avoid such pitfalls or pick their battles. He even has the effrontery to have Newt proclaim “Mommy!” at the end, such is the neat bow wrapped around Ripley’s post-nuclear family; I can’t say I was fully on board with anything about the execution of Alien 3, but Cameron’s going there is more than enough to forgive Fincher his heartless slaying of Hicks and Newt. Making Aliens all about family not only softens the series’ edges, it neuters the uncanny, the sheer otherness of the original. Aliens, for all the skill of its manufacture, is just another monster movie, which its predecessor wasn’t and isn’t.



While Cameron’s kinetic action technique is undeniable, I’ve been distracted by just how horribly overlit Aliens is the last couple of times I’ve revisited it. I can’t say it ever bothered me the many times I watched it during the late ‘80s and early ‘90s; perhaps it was simply the benefit of crappy VHS tapes adding a layer of murk/fuzz/atmosphere. Particularly impaired in this regard is the crucial scene where the marines follow the colonists’ tracking chips to the atmosphere processing station, but it’s generally the case that we can see much, much too much.



It can’t dent certain scenes; the med lab attack is still a masterpiece of sustained terror, and the “inside the perimeter”, culminating in Hicks looking aloft, is likewise inspired. On occasion, the brightness adds something (Ripley and Hicks reaching the lift, their surroundings almost agoraphobic, before one of the uglies appears from nowhere at the door), but it’s very strange thing to behold in what is intended to be a fearful, unnerving movie. And given that Adrian Biddle was brought in because the original DP was over-lighting the nest set, it’s a mystery what Cameron was thinking.



Aliens is very much, as Kael noted, “a comic book for adults”, and that’s evident in the characterisations. It’s comes back to the same point as the cheesiness factor. These characters work, mainly thanks to a fine assembled cast, but they’re broad brush caricatures, played as such. Weaver brings complete commitment, but that’s despite, not because of, Cameron’s dialogue (for all that Titanic swept the board at the Oscars, it didn’t even merit a nomination for screenplay, which is very telling).



One can turn a blind eye to much of the convenience here, as one is swept along (it’s fairly unlikely that “in twenty years, no one found” the alien derelict, and it's very useful to the race against the clock that the venting should start blowing when it does. Once Ripley is off chasing after Newt, the picture has accelerated into a prototype computer game, complete with platform levels; on the other hand, that the marines should reach the processing station, all set for a rescue, and then be told they can’t blow shit up seems like exactly the sort of thing that would happen).



So I’ve griped about how Aliens has lost something of its lustre, but that’s merely to underline that I no longer see it as an unparalleled classic; it’s still a very good movie of its type. And, as noted, the cast are splendid. Especially the Terminator trio of Bill Paxton’s impossible-to-go-over-the-top Hudson (“How do I get out of this chicken shit outfit?”), Michael Biehn underplaying as Hicks (“I say we take off and nuke the sight from orbit. It’s the only way to be sure”) and Lance Henriksen being necessarily inscrutable as Bishop (I love the moment where Jeanette Goldstein’s Vasquez hands him a handgun as he climbs into the pipe; there’s the briefest beat of examining this foreign object before he passes it back to Ripley).



Paul Reiser’s performance as Burke is accomplished, but it’s standard corporate duplicity that ultimately goes beyond the bounds of common-sense when there are aliens on his ass and he’s still concocting ruses. Carrie Henn’s Newt has taken a hit in later years, partly thanks to some well-aimed South Park piss-taking, but its difficult to argue she doesn’t serve her purpose effectively as the moppet in peril.



Burke again goes to the recognition that the price of bringing Cameron into the franchise is the sacrifice of any possibility of nuance. His badmouthing corporations comes because it had become fashionable in the ‘80s, and because it serves him to do so in this case. There’s no real resonance to it other than that he’s an apt trope to slot into the plot, as the company man waxes lyrical about substantial dollar values and being set up for life.



Other elements display pervading professionalism, but without that something more. James Horner’s score, while owing a lot to his work on Star Trek II, is mostly exactly what the movie needs, mostly, but it still occasionally shows its hand too soon. Horner plies the action bombast with the dream chestburster scene, which should be freaky, not dynamic spectacle; it would have far better been left until the mayhem in the nest. The Alien queen is an artless creation (although, sat next to the hybrid from Alien Resurrection, she’s becomes a borderline phenomenal piece of design), reflecting that Cameron’s aptitude does not extend to weird sexual undercurrents or violations (you almost sense he was reluctant to even include a chest burst). But then, balance this against the pure pleasure of Hicks putting a shotgun in an alien’s jaws and firing, signing-off with “EAT THIS!”; there’s no way you can’t applaud.



Which is a way of saying Aliens has probably exerted more influence on the methods and beats of movie making than Alien. Aliens doesn’t copy Alien in form, but it has been copied thus ad infinitum by other moviemakers, mechanically so. Which is probably right, as even the picture’s emotional content is very calculated, very packaged. And, despite its problems, this is still the second best in the franchise; it’s just no longer possible to nurse the illusion of it being in the same ball park as Alien (as Pete Travers said at the time, “So much for the theory sequels never equal the original”). It would probably be better to simply be grateful that Aliens is as good as it is, rather than complain that it isn’t as good as its predecessor.










Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

  1. Why not add a complete bibliography of your work at the end of this article ? Could help some of us who wants to dig this wonderfull movie !

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Geneviève, it's a fair comment. Links are usually highlighted in grey text. The Kim Newman quotes come from Nightmare Movies (1988 edition, Bloomsbury) and Pauline Kael ones from Hooked: Film Writings 1985-1988 (Marion Boyars)

      Delete

Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

Your honor, with all due respect: if you're going to try my case for me, I wish you wouldn't lose it.

The Verdict (1982)
(SPOILERS) Sidney Lumet’s return to the legal arena, with results every bit as compelling as 12 Angry Men a quarter of a century earlier. This time the focus is on the lawyer, in the form of Paul Newman’s washed-up ambulance chaser Frank Galvin, given a case that finally matters to him. In less capable hands, The Verdict could easily have resorted to a punch-the-air piece of Hollywood cheese, but, thanks to Lumet’s earthy instincts and a sharp, unsentimental screenplay from David Mamet, this redemption tale is one of the genre’s very best.

And it could easily have been otherwise. The Verdict went through several line-ups of writer, director and lead, before reverting to Mamet’s original screenplay. There was Arthur Hiller, who didn’t like the script. Robert Redford, who didn’t like the subsequent Jay Presson Allen script and brought in James Bridges (Redford didn’t like that either). Finally, the producers got the hump with the luxuriantly golden-haired star for meetin…

He mobilised the English language and sent it into battle.

Darkest Hour (2017)
(SPOILERS) Watching Joe Wright’s return to the rarefied plane of prestige – and heritage to boot – filmmaking following the execrable folly of the panned Pan, I was struck by the difference an engaged director, one who cares about his characters, makes to material. Only last week, Ridley Scott’s serviceable All the Money in the World made for a pointed illustration of strong material in the hands of someone with no such investment, unless they’re androids. Wright’s dedication to a relatable Winston Churchill ensures that, for the first hour-plus, Darkest Hour is a first-rate affair, a piece of myth-making that barely puts a foot wrong. It has that much in common with Wright’s earlier Word War II tale, Atonement. But then, like Atonement, it comes unstuck.

Who are you and why do you know so much about car washes?

Ant-Man and the Wasp (2018)
(SPOILERS) The belated arrival of the Ant-Man sequel on UK shores may have been legitimately down to World Cup programming, but it nevertheless adds to the sense that this is the inessential little sibling of the MCU, not really expected to challenge the grosses of a Doctor Strange, let alone the gargantuan takes of its two predecessors this year. Empire magazine ran with this diminution, expressing disappointment that it was "comparatively minor and light-hitting" and "lacks the scale and ambition of recent Marvel entries". Far from deficits, for my money these should be regard as accolades bestowed upon Ant-Man and the Wasp; it understands exactly the zone its operating in, yielding greater dividends than the three most recent prior Marvel entries the review cites in its efforts at point scoring.

Dude, you're embarrassing me in front of the wizards.

Avengers: Infinity War (2018)
(SPOILERS) The cliffhanger sequel, as a phenomenon, is a relatively recent thing. Sure, we kind of saw it with The Empire Strikes Back – one of those "old" movies Peter Parker is so fond of – a consequence of George Lucas deliberately borrowing from the Republic serials of old, but he had no guarantee of being able to complete his trilogy; it was really Back to the Future that began the trend, and promptly drew a line under it for another decade. In more recent years, really starting with The MatrixThe Lord of the Rings stands apart as, post-Weinstein's involvement, fashioned that way from the ground up – shooting the second and third instalments back-to-back has become a thing, both more cost effective and ensuring audiences don’t have to endure an interminable wait for their anticipation to be sated. The flipside of not taking this path is an Allegiant, where greed gets the better of a studio (split a novel into two movie parts assuming a…

The simple fact is, your killer is in your midst. Your killer is one of you.

The Avengers 5.12: The Superlative Seven
I’ve always rather liked this one, basic as it is in premise. If the title consciously evokes The Magnificent Seven, to flippant effect, the content is Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None, but played out with titans of their respective crafts – including John Steed, naturally – encountering diminishing returns. It also boasts a cast of soon-to-be-famous types (Charlotte Rampling, Brian Blessed, Donald Sutherland), and the return of one John Hollis (2.16: Warlock, 4.7: The Cybernauts). Kanwitch ROCKS!

I freely chose my response to this absurd world. If given the opportunity, I would have been more vigorous.

The Falcon and the Snowman (1985)
(SPOILERS) I suspect, if I hadn’t been ignorant of the story of Christopher Boyce and Andrew Daulton Lee selling secrets to the Soviets during the ‘70s, I’d have found The Falcon and the Snowman less engaging than I did. Which is to say that John Schlesinger’s film has all the right ingredients to be riveting, including a particularly camera-hogging performance from Sean Penn (as Lee), but it’s curiously lacking in narrative drive. Only fitfully does it channel the motives of its protagonists and their ensuing paranoia. As such, the movie makes a decent primer on the case, but I ended up wondering if it might not be ideal fodder for retelling as a miniseries.

Everyone creates the thing they dread.

Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)
(SPOILERS) Avengers: Age of Ultron’s problem isn’t one of lack. It benefits from a solid central plot. It features a host of standout scenes and set pieces. It hands (most of) its characters strong defining moments. It doesn’t even suffer now the “wow” factor of seeing the team together for the first time has subsided. Its problem is that it’s too encumbered. Maybe its asking to much of a director to effectively martial the many different elements required by an ensemble superhero movie such as this, yet Joss Whedon’s predecessor feels positively lean in comparison.

Part of this is simply down to the demands of the vaster Marvel franchise machine. Seeds are laid for Captain America: Civil War, Infinity Wars I & II, Black Panther and Thor: Ragnarok. It feels like several spinning plates too many. Such activity occasionally became over-intrusive on previous occasions (Iron Man II), but there are points in Age of Ultron where it becomes distractingly so. …

I take Quaaludes 10-15 times a day for my "back pain", Adderall to stay focused, Xanax to take the edge off, part to mellow me out, cocaine to wake me back up again, and morphine... Well, because it's awesome.

The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)
Along with Pain & Gain and The Great Gatsby, The Wolf of Wall Street might be viewed as the completion of a loose 2013 trilogy on the subject of success and excess; the American Dream gone awry. It’s the superior picture to its fellows, by turns enthralling, absurd, outrageous and hilarious. This is the fieriest, most deliriously vibrant picture from the director since the millennium turned. Nevertheless, stood in the company of Goodfellas, the Martin Scorsese film from which The Wolf of Wall Street consciously takes many of its cues, it is found wanting.

I was vaguely familiar with the title, not because I knew much about Jordan Belfort but because the script had been in development for such a long time (Ridley Scott was attached at one time). So part of the pleasure of the film is discovering how widely the story diverges from the Wall Street template. “The Wolf of Wall Street” suggests one who towers over the city like a behemoth, rather than a guy …

Gloat all you like, but just remember, I’m the star of this picture.

The Avengers 5.11: Epic
Epic has something of a Marmite reputation, and even as someone who rather likes it, I can quite see its flaws. A budget-conscious Brian Clemens was inspired to utilise readily-available Elstree sets, props and costumes, the results both pushing the show’s ever burgeoning self-reflexive agenda and providing a much more effective (and amusing) "Avengers girl ensnared by villains attempting to do for her" plot than The House That Jack BuiltDon't Look Behind You and the subsequent The Joker. Where it falters is in being little more than a succession of skits and outfit changes for Peter Wyngarde. While that's very nearly enough, it needs that something extra to reach true greatness. Or epic-ness.