Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Aliens

In the final 20 minutes or so of Aliens, we see series protagonist Ripley (an Oscar-nominated Sigourney Weaver) prepare to enter the creatures' hive to rescue Newt (Carrie Henn), a little girl and sole survivor of an alien infestation of a human colony.  Ripley loads up with a massive pulse rifle, a flamethrower and grenades, and as the elevator descends to what very well could be her death, we notice just how strung out and exhausted Ripley is, how covered in sweat and grime she is. She closes her eyes, mentally preparing herself for the horrors she knows she's about to confront.

And that little moment encapsulates why Aliens (1986) proves to be a worthy and superlative followup to the original Alien ; it expands on both the characters and the narrative instead of repeating the same plot. Written and directed by James Cameron, Aliens does something unique with its central character: it gives Ripley choice. Many  science fiction horror tales drop their protagonists in a pressure cooker and watch them react, and the best ones, like Alien, show us what those characters are made of. But the two big dramatic moments of Aliens occur when Ripley chooses to confront the creatures she barely survived the first time.

At the start of the movie, Ripley is a woman out of time, having been cryogenically frozen and drifting through space for 57 years after her first terrifying encounter with the alien. Everyone she knows is dead (including her grown daughter, we learn in the director's cut); her company strips her of her rank and job, holding her responsible for the destruction of her ship and not believing her story about the creature; and her sleep is plagued by nightmares. Everything about Ripley's life: her family, her friends, her job, and her peace of mind have been drastically and negatively impacted by the alien.

When the company loses contact with the colony on the planet Ripley warned was teeming with alien eggs, she's asked to accompany a team of Marines to investigate, with the offer her officer's rank will be reinstated. She refuses out right at first; why the hell would she ever willingly go back? But after another nightmare, she decides to go, realizing the chance to reclaim her life by confronting her fear and obliterating the alien threat.

Ripley's second big decision comes after the aliens have taken Newt to be implanted with another creature. By this point, we've seen them bond for much of the movie, and Ripley, understanding better than anyone what this little girl has gone through - alien attack, death of her family - is the one who looks after her, becoming an adoptive mother. She talks soothingly to her, cleans her up, protects her, comforts her, and Newt reciprocates. We can see how far Ripley has come as a character over the course of the movie; after Newt is taken by the aliens, there's no question about it: she immediately goes to save her.

Ripley and Newt aren't the only characters we come to identify with. The marines are elevated as being more than just cannon fodder along for the ride. Cameron continues a trend of the series of showing us blue collar workers of the future. These are grizzled grunts, each with their own personalities and quirks, and they share a palpable camaraderie. They bust each others' balls, reference past missions, and have seen a lot together. Who can forget the blustering Pvt. Hudson (Bill Paxton), the tough Pvt. Vasquez (Jeanette Goldstein), the quiet, competent Hicks (Michael Behn), and the authoritative, no-bull Sgt. Apone (Al Matthews)? The director's cut takes well over an hour to get to the first big alien attack, and by then, we've seen the marines and have become invested in them.

The marines also boast their own thematic interest. As critic John Kenneth Muir has noted in his writings on Aliens, the battle between marines and aliens can be interpreted as a commentary or reflection of the Vietnam War. The marines, like the US military, come equipped with the biggest, baddest technology and weaponry only to find themselves in unfamiliar territory, prone to ambush by a less sophisticated enemy that understands the terrain better, and the marines find themselves over-matched. The fight is even taken to an elaborate tunnel system. Traditional tactics do not work.

The scenes of alien attacks are exciting, visceral, and tense. Like the original creature, they prefer to leap from the shadows to snatch their victims, only now they attack en masse. The first attack is an excellent example of build up and editing as we cut back and forth between Ripley and others watching helplessly on video monitors as the creatures pick off the marines after stumbling into their nest. The later big fight is bathed in red light as the remaining marines make a last stand as the aliens pop out of the ceiling and is just as effective. I cannot stress the importance of the motion detector, its pulsing beep alerting the marines to incoming attacks they can't see.

Cameron further explores the alien life cycle, not content with just giving us more creatures to blast. The hive lifestyle is both fascinating and creepy in that aliens have some sort of social order, and they take humans to cocoon them. The Queen Alien is a wonderfully realized creation, both awe inspiring and fearsome (Stan Winston proves yet again to be the master of creature effects). There's talk in the movie how humans are terraforming planets to make it liveable; turn-about is fair play because we see the aliens transform human structures into these weird, dark dwellings, coating the mechanical trappings with a strange, biological residue.

Cameron also plays on the expectations from the first film in a number of significant ways. In the first movie, the facehugger laid on a face with a tentacle wrapped around John Hurt's neck; here, two facehuggers stage an attack on Ripley and Newt, scurrying like spiders across the floor and leaping from the ceiling. As in Alien, one of the characters in an android, but unlike Alien, we know almost as soon as we meet Bishop (Lance Henriksen) he is an "artificial person." Immediately, Ripley is suspicious of him, wondering if he'll do anything to jeopardize their lives for the good of the company. The chestburster scene in Alien was such a left-field development such a surprise cannot be replicated, but Cameron matches it for intensity twice. First, there's the dream sequence, in which Ripley dreams one bursts out of her, her skin stretching just as she wakes up, showing us just how haunted she is by the experience. Later, when the marines find a still-living colonist who "births" an alien, they're shocked but quickly dispose of it, but the truth can be seen on Ripley's face as she watches the video feed. She's in tears, not surprised but realizing and accepting of the horrifying truth: the aliens are back, and things are about to get worse.

Through much of my teenage years, I considered Aliens (1986) my favorite movie of all time. As I got older, I kind of distanced myself from it, thinking I had to find a more adult and sophisticated title, and I was a bit bored by the now genre staple of "send in the marines to blast bugs." Watching it again for the first time in years, I was surprised and pleased at just how well it holds up and how sophisticated and rich the movie is narratively, thematically, and visually. It succeeds as exciting action, as scary sci fi and most importantly as character-based drama.

2 comments:

  1. Agreed, sir. I've lost track of how many times I've watched Aliens, and it never gets old.

    You'd probably enjoy this - it's a cast interview I listened to the other day on one of my favorite screenwriting podcasts, recorded for the film's 25th anniversary: http://www.theqandapodcast.com/2011/11/aliens-25th-anniversary-cast-q.html

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    1. That was a pretty good listen. I laughed when Michael Behn said, "Fuck Alien 3."

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