Continuing my blog feature, DT Moviehouse Reviews, in which I slog my way alphabetically through my 200+ DVD/Blu-Ray collection (you can see the list right here) and decide if each one was worth the money, here’s my take on James Cameron’s celebrated Alien sequel, Aliens.
(1986) Directed by James Cameron, Screenplay by James Cameron, Story by Walter Hill and David Giler.
Tagline: This time it’s war.
What it’s about:
57 years after the original Alien, navigator Ellen Ripley’s (Sigourney Weaver) life pod drifts into deep space and is picked up by a group of salvagers. She awakens from her overlong hypersleep (with Jones the cat) on Gateway Station in orbit above the earth, where company man Carter Burke (Paul Reiser) debriefs her on her predicament. She is stripped of her piloting license over her admitted detonation of the Nostromo and her testimony about the alien that killed her crew goes ignored. The planet where the Nostromo picked up the alien is now LV-426, a terraforming colony of over a hundred fifty souls who has never reported any encounter with any hostile organism. Then, almost as if Ripley’s awakening has roused the aliens, the Company loses contact with the colony. Burke approaches Ripley about going back to LV-426 with a contingent of Colonial Marines to act in an advisory capacity. Plagued by nightmares, she finally agrees, and sets out with a platoon of heavily armed but cocky troops to investigate. They find the colony partially destroyed and deserted but for a small girl, Newt (Carrie Hen), who survived the alien onslaught by hiding in ventilation ducts. And then the motion trackers start beeping….
Why I bought it:
Simply put, I know this movie from “Bio-readouts are all in the green” to “High-firmative.” When I first discovered it on HBO around 1987 or 88 I must’ve watched my VHS recording of it in a constant loop for a couple weeks.
As I said in my Alien review, I had never seen the original prior to this, but this induced me to first read the Alan Dean Foster novelizations of both movies, and then see the original movie.
So which is better? Well, it wholly depends on who you are, what kind of story you’re in the mood for. My personal favorite (and it’s gonna sound like a copout) is whichever one I happen to be watching. Alien is mood and tension. It’s a cold, detached sci-fi horror movie. Aliens takes that tension and flicks it like a taut rubberband. It’s an amusement park ride. It’s a thrilling, kick ass action movie in the vein of Predator (which is why the crossover between the franchises always seemed so inevitable) and Rambo.
But at its core, it’s got more heart than Alien. In fact, Alien is like Ash, the synthetic humanoid in that movie. Cold, analytical, calculating and cruel. Aliens is Bishop (Lance Henricksen). Artificial sure, but with a strong humanistic streak that you’re not quite sure is genuine until the end.
It’s been said a million times by better critics than me, but the soul of Aliens is the relationship between Ripley and Newt. A surrogate mother and an orphaned daughter. Ripley is Soft Mother and the Alien Queen is Wire Mother and they’re at war over Newt. All the posturing of the Marines, the excellent violent action, is tertiary to this conflict.
Corporal Hicks (Michael Biehn, who I’m pretty sure I had some kind of man crush on in my formative years – it was his Kyle Reese in Terminator that got me wearing a trenchcoat in high school, not any misanthropic ‘mafioso’ devotion to sheer outsider-ness), brilliantly loud mouthed Hudson (the inimitable Bill Paxton who my friends and I used to just laugh at whenever we saw him anywhere – now I can see what a great, affable actor the dude is – and a director! Have you seen Frailty???), kick ass Latina lesbian Vasquez (Jeanette GOLDSTEIN – yeah, in my youth I had no idea. But Joel Grey as Chiun fooled me for years – my Remo Williams copy had been recorded on SLP and was pretty blurry), hard bitten Sgt. Apone (Al Matthews), and their stick up his ass, over his head, but ultimately heroic leader Lt. Gorman (William Hope), to say nothing of Crowe, Frost, Wierzbowski, Drake, Dietrich, Spunkmeyer, and Ferro.
Yeah and that was without opening another window. Entirely from memory. How many movies are there where the minor characters (and I mean so minor they’re introduced and they die in the span of about a half hour) are memorable enough that you can name them all? Given a little time and space I could probably attribute each character to their lines (except for poor old T. Crowe, who I don’t think had any).
That’s a testament to the writing and the acting in Aliens.
You take to the Marines almost immediately. They’re cocky, self-assured, gung ho jackasses all, with Hudson reigning supreme. Hudson is the loudmouth complainer every job, every sports team has. The guy that if you work with him you’re either shaking your head at his antics or turning around and telling him to shut the hell up already. They don’t believe in the aliens (xenomorphs, as Lt. Gorman calls them) any more than the company does, and though they quickly discover evidence of their existence, in true post-Vietnam war movie fashion, as soon as they come face to face with the enemy, their technology amounts to a precise ratio of doodly/squat. In fact, they’re thrown into an utter panic, three quarters of them die outright (in a memorable scene, Lt. Gorman stares at his remote mission monitor in disbelief as a marine’s bio readouts flatline before his eyes.) like stormtroopers against Ewoks, like the US cavalry at Little Big Horn.
The aliens literally emerge from the hive walls in which the colonists are found cocooned and snatch them one by one. They even torch each other in their confusion. And you realize that although you’ve been waiting for this to happen the entire time, you’re suddenly saddened to see the unit get their asses kicked so thoroughly. Going back and seeing the first Alien, there’s a definite added thrill in knowing how tough to kill one xenomorph was on a single ship and then seeing a slew of them cut loose with an entire colonial outpost to hide in.
But then Ripley comes in, piloting God knows how many tons of armored APC through the wall and Hicks musters the broken survivors and they spin wheels the hell outta there, running down aliens and sending their acidic blood spraying everywhere in the process. Ripley comes into her own in this scene. In Alien, as I said, she came off a bit cold and unlikeable, but in Aliens, as soon as she comes in contact with Newt, the orphan girl, we see a side of her we didn’t see in Alien, and she’s a stronger and more interesting character. There’s a great moment after their initial meeting where they’re watching the Marines’ camera feed of the hive interior and Ripley sees the people cocooned in the walls. She immediately tells Newt to leave the viewing area, like a parent who knows something inappropriate is coming (and it does).
The music in the forementioned ambush scene is my favorite in the whole movie. James Horner apparently felt Aliens was a rush job, but he really turned in some great work here. The music is alternately rousing and eerie.
I also have to talk up the technical aspects a little. Aliens is slicker looking than Alien, but it makes sense, and not just because we’re in the 80’s now. We’re fifty years more into the future, and we’re mainly aboard a military ship, which you have to assume is kept cleaner and more presice than a commercial towing rig. Go on the bridge of a cargo ship and compare it to the bridge of a Navy vessel and you’ll see what I mean. The Marines’ gear is functional and believable (the personalizations scrawled on their guns and armor and helmets are cool touches), with the mecha-suit loader and the rapid sound of the pulse rifles being a particularly imaginative standout. Futurized enough to plant us firmly in sci-fi territory, but readily idenitifable as to each thing’s purpose.
Most of the menacing subtleties of lighting in Alien are exchanged for more dramatic and mood enchancing reds and blues (LOTS of blue – I’d lay money on what Cameron’s favorite color is…and Michael Mann’s too). But it all comes together nicely.
In rewatching it, I noticed this time around how many tricks Cameron used to great effect. I saw the same alien blow apart maybe three times, and you rarely see more than four aliens on screen at a time (and then only briefly), yet you really get the sense there are hundreds slavering in the shadows. Lots of reaction shots. I guess Cameron was working under a lot of constraints, monetary and professional (he had notoriously bad relations with the British crew), but he proves himself a massively talented and ingenious filmmaker, just as he did with the relatively low budget original Terminator.
The alien queen is a brilliant piece of puppetry, the real ‘money shot’ of the movie. The practical FX in this film are heads and shoulders above most CGI stuff you see nowadays. There’s just something about seeing a real person go head to head with something right there in front of them in the same light that can’t be topped. Hicks rolling backwards to ‘carry’ a leaping alien on a bed of automatic fire, or Vasquez pinning one of the things to the side of the shaft with her boot and firing point blank into its head, or (of course) Ripley in the loader ducking back as the queen’s jaws come snapping at her face. All infinitely more visceral and engaging than watching what’s essentially a video game cut scene.
You get another fake out ending in the tradition of the first Alien, and it’s a doozy. All in all it’s a brilliant addition to the franchise, probably the one that really insured its future.
And don’t get me started on the stuff Aliens has inspired in look and story. Surely a whole generation of FPS video games owe their plots and feel to Aliens.
A word on the Director’s Cut. It’s a little overlong and makes the pacing hiccup a bit. There is some absolute gold in there in terms of character development. We learn Ripley had a daughter who died on earth two years before she is rescued from the lifepod, and this greatly informs her character, ehancing the relationship with Newt. At the same time, we see the colony (Hadley’s Hope) in full bloom of activity, learn a little bit more about Burke’s treachery, and best of all, see Newt pre-disaster, as her parents stumble upon the same derelict spacecraft and unwittingly unleash the xenomorphs. There’s a cool little time waster with the Marines setting up a bunch of robot sentry guns to discourage the aliens from overrunning them. Nothing much gained, but a neat sequence, and again very much on the cheap. We’re literally watching ammo counters click down and hearing the bullets and alien screeches. That’s it. But still a tense scene. There’s a short but sweet parting exchange between the acid-burned Hicks and Ripley before she goes off to rescue Newt and he succumbs to painkillers. Though it does seem just a tad out of place considering the situation and the breakneck progression of the sequence, it’s nice to hear them exchange first names, something we don’t canonically get in the rest of the movie. It’s also a proper goodbye to Hicks. Finally there are some slight dialogue additions here and there, and what I have to admit is a kind of embarrassing sequence with Hudson regailing Ripley on their armaments in the drop ship. One too many uses of the word ‘badass.’
Anyway, let’s hope Prometheus is even a third as good as Alien/Aliens.
Now you’ll notice Alien 3 is NOT next in my queue. You won’t find it or any of the other entries in the series in my collection. While I like David Fincher (Se7en is amazing, and Alien 3 really isn’t a bad movie, per say), Alien 3’s opening totally rips the heart out of Ripley’s storyline. By killing Ripley’s hardwon surrogate family offscreen, the producers pretty much destroyed any interest I had in seeing Ripley any more. They very cheaply SNAFU’d her character progression, and actually tried to set her back on her own emotional timeline. It just doesn’t work, and worse, undercuts all the great drama of this movie. There’s also a major leap in logic involving an egg somehow making its way onto the Sulacco that I just can’t forgive. And I won’t even mention the abyssmal Alien: Resurrection. For me the series ends here and picks up again with Aliens vs. Predator.
For a better continuation of the series post Aliens, I’d heartily recommend Mark Verheiden’s ‘Aliens’ comic book, published in the very early days of Dark Horse, before Alien 3. In that comic, you get a grown up and deeply disturbed Newt, a scarred and angry Hicks, a great take on the space jockeys, and a simultaneous invasion of the aliens’ homeworld by a troop of synthetic marines led by Hicks AND contamination of the earth by the aliens (due to a really fascinating subplot involving religious zealots stealing the alien from a government facility and willfully impregnating themselves). The first two volumes have some amazing writing, and it really takes the series in much more natural progression, though I think it would’ve benefited from the presence of Ripley earlier on – she doesn’t appear until much later, and by then Alien 3 had been announced and the continuity was already on its way to being abandoned. Newt’s and Hicks’ character names were actually changed in later reprints!
Best bit of dialogue:
There are great lines galore in this movie but my favorite is at the commissary table on the Sulaco just after Bishop does his knife trick with Hudson. Early in the meal Spunkmeyer throws down his food and exclaims ‘What’s this crap supposed to be?’
FROST: Cornbread, I think.
HICKS: It’s good for you boy, eat it.
While at the big boy’s table, Bishop sits down and observes a trickle of milky synthetic blood running from a nick in his thumb. Ripley is instantly upset, remembering her violent encounter with Ash in the first movie. Bishop tries to placate her by assuring her it’s physically impossible for him to harm a human due to his programming. He passes her a tray of food and she angrily slaps it out of his hand with a huge clang, drawing the attention of the other Marines.
RIPLEY: Just stay away from me, Bishop! You got that?
The Marines return to their dinner.
FROST: Guess she don’t like the cornbread either.
The second alien attack in the colony’s Operations Center. The surviving Marines and Ripley, Newt and Burke had welded the corridor doors shut and are confident they have blocked off every possible way in.
Hudson’s motion tracker start beeping off, multiple little flashing dots, and he counts down the meters as the tremendous body of creatures advances. They huddle up and lock and load their weapons, watching the door, the only possible entryway, waiting for the impact of the creatures. Six meters, and Ripley declares….’That can’t be – that’s inside the room!’ Still, the signal gets closer. Necks crane to the ceiling, and the sinking feeling is palpable. Hicks grabs a light and climbs up on a desk, poking his head through the vent, illuminating a shaft crammed with aliens, crawling silently forward on the walls, floor and ceiling.
The close action sequence that follows as the aliens crash through the ceiling sees the rapid deaths of Hudson (one of the most memorable and surprisingly game bow outs I’ve ever seen in an action movie – for all his bitching and moaning he goes out like a boss), Burke, Vasquez and Gorman.
Would I buy it again? Yes.
Next in the queue: The Apostle