The terror continues as Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) returns to Earth after drifting through space in hypersleep for 57 years. Although her story about the Alien encounter is met with skepticism, she agrees to accompany a team of high-tech marines back to LV-426…and this time it’s war!
eyelights: the visionary technology. the excellent pace. the opening musical ode to ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’.
eyesores: Newt. Newt’s military taglines.
Ripley: “These people are here to protect you. They’re soldiers.”
Newt: “It won’t make any difference.”
I know that tons of people favour ‘Aliens’ to ‘Alien’. I don’t see why. Granted, it’s a thoroughly enjoyable, and well-crafted action flick, but it doesn’t have the same freshness and aura of mystery surrounding it: assuming one has seen the original, it’s already clear exactly what we’re dealing with, and there are few surprises to be had.
Which is reason enough for taking the film in such a new direction. Redoing ‘Alien‘ would likely not have been a successful endeavour – the filmmakers would have had to make significant changes to the formula to grab the audience by the gut and have them gripping their seats again (case-in-point: ‘Psycho II‘ vs. ‘Psycho‘)
In this case, they decided to go with “more, and bigger”. (surprise, surprise…)
It didn’t make for a better film, but it was quite the impressive piece. They certainly picked the right director for the project: James Cameron, who has never been known for his subtlety and does everything TITANIC-sized – but usually does it well. Hot off the heels of his success with ‘The Terminator’, he was an excellent choice.
‘Aliens’, for one, played to Cameron’s then-inalienable strengths:
-It features strong female characters, both in Sigourney Weaver’s now rather butchy Ripley, and in the manly Private Vasquez, who has more muscle mass than most of her brothers in arms. Cameron doesn’t always feature powerhouse women, but he frequently does – and, personally, I think that it’s a great thing.
-It includes a humanoid android, in the form of Bishop (played with utmost efficiency by Lance Henrickson). Cameron had just brought the innovative Terminator to the screen and was no doubt comfortable with the more manageable effects required with this ‘droid. And the special effects budget backing it.
-A significant chunk of the picture takes place on a massive industrial set. It made complete sense in ‘The Terminator’, his second feature, no doubt partly due to budgetary reasons (it was probably a cheaper location than, for example, a mall), but they found a way to sneak that into ‘Aliens’ as well. Well, Cameron is most definitely comfortable with that type of environment: he would return to one in ‘Terminator 2: Judgment Day’ and perhaps even ‘The Abyss’.
-There are tons of eye candy. Well, there isn’t much to be said here except that ‘Aliens’ has some awesome spacecrafts, planetary vehicles, great-looking shots, and everything is polished. Cameron always makes slick-looking pictures with tons of visual feasts. Seriously, when was the last gritty film that he made? His first: ‘Piranha Part Two: The Spawning‘ – and likely only because he couldn’t afford to do better than that.
Getting Cameron for this picture was also likely an awesome coup because he tends to be an innovator (at least from a technical standpoint – most obviously not with regards to plot and plot development). A guy with his talent could no doubt make a good picture great with very little – or at least make more with what he’s got than most of his peers. So, for a budding franchise that’s trying to do it on a budget, Cameron was likely the man.
Also, given his penchant for technology, Cameron was a good fit: ‘Aliens’ offered us innovative technologies that weren’t yet available in the real world (at least, not that I know of). I should have taken notes, but every other moment seemed to introduce a technological innovation that is more common place now, or will soon be, such as laptops (Bishop used one to remotely pilot a second craft), head cameras (the soldiers all kept one on their helmets) and animated table displays (which they used to plan out their strategy in the face of the alien infestation).
Cameron must have been like a kid in a candy store on this set!
And it must have been quite something for audiences of 1985! I didn’t see it until many years later, but I seem to remember that this picture, as well as ‘The Predator’ were pretty much all anyone was talking about for a while. Looking at it now, I still find that ‘Aliens’ is a splendid action film, and it’s filled with amazing gadgets, set pieces, and tons of thrills – all fashioned in a way that must have still been novel back in the day.
However, it is an action film, and action films rarely have much depth to them. The same could be said for ‘Aliens’: after the first 17 minutes of set-up, in which we are given a grand tour of the situation via Ripley (who’d been in stasis for decades!), we then follow a bunch of soldiers into the aliens’ lair, with Ripley in toe, more a bystander than a major participant. So we get testosterone, cockiness, and macho posturing for a sizeable chunk of the picture.
…until the aliens go on a rampage, of course. That seemed to put these Army brats in their places. It even neutered a few of them – figuratively-speaking, of course.
What bothers me the most about the film is that they tried to turn Ripley into a mother figure: while exploring the ransacked and deserted colonists’ workspace and living quarters, the soldiers stumble upon a young girl – a scared, savage little thing who had been abandoned during the alien attacks. She had been surviving on her own this whole time and Ripley takes it upon herself to look after the child, to try to calm her down.
The problem is that I simply don’t see Ripley as the mothering type. I always saw her as a tomboy, a tough woman with her own agenda – not as a breeder. In fact, in the first film, she kept to the sidelines, watching the others but never really empathizing with them – doing her job by the book was her primary concern. She had a cat, yes, but it was a mere afterthought in the grand scheme of things; there was no indication that Ripley had a soft side.
Perhaps this was just a reason to have Ripley face off against another mother, the “Alien Queen”, in what I suppose some might find to be a fitting match. Fine. And I must admit that the idea of Ripley using a cargo-loader to beat the Alien was inspired, even if it looked clunky and lost credibility the moment one considered the fact that the xenomorphs are actually quite quick – there is no way that Ripley could have survived the encounter against something ten times her speed, given that she was trapped in that exosuit.
Anyway, to make this whole mothering matter worse, this wild child, who is affectionately known as Newt, spends most of the movie pouting, staring vacantly or regurgitates military jargon. I suspect that was meant to be cute, but it comes off as annoying to anyone with pacifist bone in their body – to me there is an apparent adoration of anything related to the military in this picture (even James Horner’s score is militaristic! And don’t start me on the gun fetish…), and it’s not a love that I share one bit.
War is hell. Children are usually victims of war – so making them a tagline or cliché-spewing poster kid for the Army is in pretty poor taste, I find.
Still, as far as action films go, ‘Aliens’ delivers. Sure, it’s a war film with otherworldly killing machines in it in lieu of human opponents, but it was done relatively well. Plus which, Cameron managed to pace this lengthy motion picture in such a way that it flew by with ease – there were no major lulls to bog things down and it didn’t rampage through like a speed-freak xenomorph. And it has mass appeal: ‘Aliens’ would delight war film enthusiasts, action fans and lovers of sci-fi equally.
It’s no wonder that it powered up the franchise the way that it did.
Date of viewing: November 25, 2012