Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Alien Nation

Since I'm known as a movie guy in my circles (not THE movie guy, mind you; I'm still working on that), I often get asked my opinion as to what I think of certain films and genres. Some questions, for instance what I thought was the worst film EVER, are difficult. There are so many bad films released every year, you have to present the question to exclude the low-budget hack jobs that never should have been made in the first place. Even THAT doesn't necessarily pare down the list too much, as true scatological pieces like Waterworld and Red Riding Hood multiply in quantity each year. In short, some questions are so difficult that I may never have a true answer. Naming my favorite film is nowhere near as tricky. Long my movie of choice, Aliens has held a foremost place in my heart since just about forever. While I had been somewhat familiar with the series as a child, what really brought me into the franchise was the batch of Aliens toys that were released several years after that film's theatrical release, sometime in the early nineties. The toy series was loosely based on the characters and creatures from the film, and I had action figures of Ripley, Bishop, Apone and a few Aliens growing up. Later, my cousin showed me his VHS (no DVD back then) of Aliens, and it was love at first sight. It has ever since been my favorite title, and I will herald it as the greatest science fiction film of all time to any who will listen. With some free time on my hands and no compulsion to trudge out to the theater, I decided that I had gone long enough between viewings of My Precious, and enjoyed a perfect evening on the couch.

Campfires on LV-427 traditionally ended in bloodbaths
For those unfortunates not in the know, Aliens is the sequel to Ridley Scott's 1979 space horror film Alien. Directed by sci-fi prodigy James Cameron, Aliens was a vast departure from the film that preceded it. Unlike the horror archetype that dominated the story of the original, the new film introduced action and adventure to the mix, with the liberal addition of guns, soldiers and explosions. Fifty-seven years after surviving the events of Alien, Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) finally makes her way back to Earth frozen in a tiny escape capsule. After being thawed out, her warnings of an alien menace are ignored by "The Company", mostly because the planet where she and her crew dredged up the titular monster had become home to a colony in her absence, and none of them had encountered any problems. Not long after her warning, however, contact with the planet LV-246 is lost, and Ripley is asked/cajoled by her employers to return in the company of rough and tough Space Marines, assured that the mission is to go in and wipe the alien species out, once and for all.

"Got Milk?"
So what is it that makes Aliens so compelling? While the original is a classic, where it lacked was in the character development and plot aspects, two items that usually determine how much I appreciate a film. While Alien successfully introduced a brand new creature that still scares today, it did so in such a way that was somewhat derivative of similar horror fare, and the characters who died for our entertainment did so not as epic personalities, but big name actors (Tom Skerritt, Harry Dean Stanton, John Hurt, Ian Holm) playing shallow roles. Now, don't get me wrong; I LIKED Alien. I really did. But Cameron just did such a good job improving on the original that it feels like a whole other storyline, not the part of a whole that it is in reality. It helps that at the time Cameron was at the top of his game, having just finished Terminator and soon to be going on to make the spectacular sequel T2: Judgment Day. I know I may have my detractors, but I believe Aliens to be his best work, and it's a shame that these days the vision he once had seems to be rather limited in scope to what he can do with technology instead of story. After all, The Abyss was tons better than both Titanic and Avatar, two films for which he has received far too much dubious credit. Back in the eighties Cameron not only made great movie but managed to create two of the most memorable characters in film history, and both just happened to be women: Ripley, and Terminator's Sarah Connor.

Now you're his SPECIAL friend!
Strong character is a staple of any good film, and back in the day Cameron was among the best at building a wealth of personality into his films. And it's not just the leads that get a steady stream of development. Watch the first scenes of Aliens aboard the Marine starship Sulaco: those sequences where we are introduced to the diverse and dangerous marines practically weep character. After just a few moments of dialogue and interaction, we can map their entire biography and everything important needed to care about them as people, not just future cannon fodder. Sure, Ripley runs the show, and why not? Sigourney Weaver is an amazing performer (and as a side note has gotten so much more beautiful with age), able to convey her lines not only through practical dialogue, but subtle shifts in her facial expression and body language. It's easy to understand how she became the face of the franchise, and any film based on the Alien trademark that doesn't have her in a starring role just feels wrong, which of course is why the horrid Alien: Resurrection brought Ripley back from the dead (and of course she was the best part). Still, the strengths of the bit players makes the film feel just right. As I mentioned, it only takes a moment to understand the habits and motivations of the characters: from Sergeant Apone (Al Matthews)'s guttural growl and tendency to follow orders to the letter, to Drake (Mark Rolston) and Vasquez (Jenette Goldstein)'s tight friendship and bulldog attitudes, to the smart-mouthed nervousness of Private Hudson (Bill Paxton), Aliens was populated by smart roles that never felt stuck in first gear. When Bishop (Lance Henriksen) did the knife trick and Hicks (Michael Biehn) fell asleep in his dropship harness, those were moments when you really felt CONNECTED to the film and its occupants, and it's something you rarely get to feel when watching action movies nowadays.

My sister would approve Ripley's liberal use of duct tape to face the Alien horde
Another amazing aspect introduced by Cameron (and consequently ditched by the succeeding sequels) was the role of Ripley as a maternal figure. This was a motivation he sought also in his Terminator franchise with Sarah Connor and her son John, and the question of what a mother will do for her child makes itself known here with Ripley caring for the orphaned Newt (Carrie Henn). It escalates to to such a point that even the final showdown between Ripley and the Alien Queen is practically mom against intergalactic mom. While there is some inherent danger perhaps in overtly defining a woman by her maternal instincts, that aspect is done so well here that it takes the film to a whole other level. Scenes between Ripley and Newt are so compelling that they could easily be made part of a completely dissimilar film and still make perfect sense. Once again it's that attention to getting characters right that makes the film move forward, not the tension of waiting for monsters to strike - although that is still quite good, now that you mention it.

"Get away from her, you BITCH!" The best line in ANY movie
So why is it I love Aliens? Sure, the special effects are amazing for their time and Ellen Ripley is the most kick-ass character I can think of in film. Aliens spouts tons of memorable lines (including the near-famous "Game over, man!") and characters of such strength and motivation they would be leads in lesser titles. It also features one of the scariest movie monsters of all time, a creature that commits atrocities not out of malevolence but out of survival and procreation. The alien even enjoys its best day in the sun as Cameron's interpretation of the alien "hive" is one of the most enduring myths of the franchise. Finish off with a story that tells smoothly and with no wasted bits, and you could say that the ENTIRE FILM is in fact the best part. As complete a film as I have ever seen, and easily the first example you should point out to people who insist that science fiction brings nothing good to the table. My all-time favorite.

1 comment:

facehugger said...

seriously, it didnt distract you from the story line at any point....some movies feel like they just need to blow up stuff to fill in time...Aliens really integrated the action with the plot to make you feel no so detatched....really fell to bits after this one though..hated all after aliens...rubish plots...not much thought put in and killed off characters including ripley without much thought?