God damn it I have been slacking off recently. Had all sorts of things pre-occupying my time though what with my recent redundancy. But now I am unemployed and so have nothing better to do than watch films and write reviews. Well, other than try to find a new job that is. 90 reviews ago I covered Alien, and right before that Prometheus. I did toy with the idea of doing a season of all the Alien series but I was headed to Sweden for a few days at that point and decided I’d just skip the review season idea. This may or may not have also been because I really don’t want to watch Alien Resurrection and the two Alien Vs Predator films. I will get to them someday, but believe me, I am in no rush. So, Aliens then. Click the link.
Whilst still working on Terminator James Cameron and his, soon to be, wife Gale Anne Hurd were talking up the idea of directing a sequel to Alien with the studio bosses that were currently backing The Terminator. A deal was made that if The Terminator proved to be a success they would be given a shot at making Alien 2. It was and so they were. Cameron was self aware enough to know that he didn’t have the chops to pull off a film that played on the same level of horror as Ridley Scott’s Alien and so, somewhat smartly, chose to switch the focus from horror to terror. As such his approach for Alien 2 was to tell a Vietnam war story in space where Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) would join a team of armed to the teeth space marines in a mission to wipe out a apparently less powerful foe. Naturally they grossly miscalculate the danger these Aliens pose, despite Ripley’s warnings, and before long it looks like game over for the team of interstellar bad-asses. The studio bosses loved the idea, the name was tweaked to be Aliens and James Cameron proceeded to piss off half the UK film crew community whilst also pulling off one of the greatest special effects masterpieces of modern film making.
I guess I’ve kind of told you what I think of Aliens right there haven’t I? Yes, this is one of the greatest examples of visual effects ever produced. Even today there’s only a handful of effects that have started to show their age. A few of the back projection shots are a bit too obvious and the Newt doll used at the film’s climax, made to avoid Weaver having to carry a child around with her all day, is a little too static for it’s own good. Other than that though the miniature shots are incredible. The sets are spectacular in their detail and at times are combined with foreground miniatures to create vast and expansive views not possible in a regular sized set. I’m talking about the effects first because this is Cameron’s forte. I have many views on the self proclaimed king of the world, many of which are not good, but damn the guy knew how to create a world back then. He was the MacGuyver of the action director’s world. For example, did you ever notice the shot that was filmed in reverse to allow a running facehugger to appear as though it was leaping through the air? Did you ever notice that the entrance to the Alien hive was actually a small model placed in front of the camera some 30ft closer than the actors being filmed? What about the Power Loader and Alien Queen being puppeteered by two men each inside the puppets themselves? Many of these exemplary effects can be credited to Robert and Dennis Skotak and effects maestro Stan Winston, but it is Cameron that makes them shine on screen.
A film cannot live by it’s effects work alone. Sure you might be able to manage a certain level of sustained excitement if a film is visually stimulating enough, it certainly was the case for that Speed Racer film. Without a solid script, though, effects are merely gloss and shine on weak story. One thing I haven’t found myself criticising Cameron for just yet is his capabilities as a writer. Now he’s no Robert Towne or Aaron Sorkin, but he’s also not a George Lucas. Cameron is very adept at creating a script that has all the details needed to keep the film moving. I’m not just talking about making sure the path from A to B being in place. I’m talking about how he will make sure that anything that needs establishing is established, that there is time spent working in tiny character details and that everything in the script has a purpose to the film as a whole.
For example, in one sequence Bishop (Lance Henriksen) is to risk his (artificial) life by crawling through a tunnel to repair a communications satellite so he can remote pilot down a rescue ship. As he climbs in, alpha female, Vasquez (Jeanette Goldstein) hands Bishop his tools followed by a handgun, he instantly passes the handgun to Ripley. This tells you more about those characters in about 3 seconds than many films will even bother with 3 minutes of dialogue and actions in many modern films. Ripley has no issue sending Bishop into potential danger unarmed as she’s still uncomfortable with having an artificial life after the incident with Ash in the first film. Vasquez thinks of defence and sees having a weapon as being second nature so she hands one to Bishop. He is a peaceful A.I. And does not wish to carry a weapon for a task that, as far as he’s concerned, will not need one. Aliens is full of details like this. The decals on the marines armour. The inexperience of Lt Gorman (William Hope, who’s really very good in this) causes problems later when the marines disobey his poorly described orders about not using their firearms. These all sound trivial but they’re the essential building blocks to creating a film that feels truly alive within it’s world. Even Cameron’s Avatar manages some of these elements and I think that’s one of his worst films.
That’s not to say there isn’t the odd misstep in the script. Ripley heads to the planet LV-426, now colonised by terraformers, under a premise that should have set off alarm bells. She is, after all, being sent there by the same company that sent the crew of the Nostromo to their certain death only a few hours ago (to her at least). Maybe she believes they may have changed over the 57 years she remained in suspended animation for, but even then she’s being fairly trusting. I suppose you could also argue that she wanted to make sure at least one person going knew what they were up against. Still, would you willingly go somewhere where you’d almost certainly die after having just experienced that same threat. Remember that Ripley isn’t in the military. She’s a space trucker. Another misstep is that Ripley is well aware that company official Burke (Paul Reiser) has nefarious plans afoot, and yet she doesn’t tell the remaining marines until a number of scenes later and after he has nearly gotten herself and Newt (Carrie Henn) impregnated by alien face fuckers. The revelation of his evil plans could have been handled after the facehugger entrapment scene in a different manner, but, the scene that we do learn of his real plans suits the pacing and structure well.
Aliens is a rich and densely packed Sci-Fi action flick and one that actually benefits from it’s Special Edition cut, which was the one I viewed for this review. The added scenes of Ripley learning of her daughter’s death a few years before she was recovered from space informs and reinforces the maternal role she takes on with Newt later in the film. The scenes with the sentry guns show the determination and learning ability of the Aliens themselves whilst also adding a scene of tension that manages to work despite showing very little of the action going on in the colony’s corridors. The 17 minutes of extra scenes may slow the films first hour down a little but they all add to the overall film. The fact it takes nearly 1 hour and 15 minutes before we see our first Xenomorph without it even feeling like that long is testament to the film’s quality.
Overall it is hard to really be critical of much of Aliens. It’s an incredibly well crafted film on a technical level, which is what Cameron excels at, and I can understand how many people cite it as their favourite in the series. Personally, I think Alien is the best as it’s a film making masterclass in horror and sci-fi. But the same could easily be said of Aliens with horror switched for action. This film spawned the videogames industry’s obsession with space marines that is still running today. From what I can tell the latest Dead Space game is more of an Aliens game than the actual Aliens game released 2 weeks later. That shows how far it’s influence has spread. Cameron is gearing up for a few more Avatar films, which despite it’s attempts at an environmentalist message, essentially tell a similar story of technologically advanced humans going up against perceivably less advanced aliens. It’s just that now he wraps it up in a family friendly certification and fills it with computer generated imagery that feels lifeless when compared to the unforgiving and real feeling terrain of LV-426. Aliens is mostly James Cameron’s best film…. mostly.
I stole that last line from a friend. Hopefully he didn’t steal it from somewhere else…