Sunday, May 28, 2017

Alien Week, part II: The starship troopers


The great JC (the other one; no, the other other one) brings this franchise to its highest possible point.

Written and directed by James Cameron
With Sigourney Weaver (Ellen Ripley), Michael Biehn (Cpl. Dwayne Hicks), Carrie Henn (Newt), Lance Henriksen (Bishop), Jenette Goldstein (Pvt. Vasquez), Bill Paxton (Pvt. Hudson), and Paul Reiser (Carter Burke)

Spoiler alert: get away from her, you bitch

When it was decided to revive the dormant Alien franchise in the 21st century, was there anyone better suited to the task than the director of the original himself, Ridley Scott?  That's no rhetorical question.  The answer, obviously, is James Cameron.  He almost did, too—but then he got distracted by Avatar, and then he fell into a computer, and nobody's ever seen him since.

It's too bad, because three decades before he got lost in Avatar's vaporware sequels, Cameron proved that he had a better handle on the universe of Alien than its creator did, delivering a follow-up that improved upon an already-great original in most every way it could, and provided a completely organic expansion of the franchise's basic material even as he took it in a noticeably different direction—as the tagline says, "this time it's war."  In the process, what the director wound up making was a showcase for himself, and for the epoch-defining style that can be summed up in those four simple words, "a James Cameron film."

Someday soon, we'll get around to talking about Cameron's filmography in a holistic sense.  But when it comes to his peak period, 1984-1991, "a James Cameron film" usually meant that it would be an action film of the highest possible caliber, featuring a female protagonist defined in equal parts by her motherly instinct and capacity for violence, forced to battle her way through an intense sci-fi/horror scenario designed to test the limits of both.  Additionally, "a James Cameron film" would be much, much longer than you would believe possible, at least for a blockbuster back in the day when every blockbuster wasn't encouraged to be two and a half stultifying hours long; but then, the main reason you wouldn't believe it is because it flies by like it was only 90 minutes long.  Furthermore, it would always co-star Michael Biehn, and he would always wind up overshadowed by the actual protagonist.  This is especially true for the last film of those years, where his character was already dead and the theatrical cut left him out completely.

So, now that we've mentioned that, we should point out one final motif: almost any "James Cameron film" would also have a home video cut that was even longer; and, invariably, that even-longer version is the better one, because Cameron, despite his increasing clout, was still bound by contractual restrictions on just how indulgent his movies could be.  Thus caged, the man had a really unloveable tendency to trim out small bits that, it turns out, were entirely vital to telling his story.  And that particular trend begins right here.  (Though Aliens somehow isn't even the worst example!)  This review, of course, is based exclusively upon that so-called Special Edition, which restores a certain character motivation, without which Aliens would appear to entirely lose the thread of its most significant emotional arc.  Then again, it doesn't seem to have mattered much at the time, so what do I know?

Cameron had begun his career in earnest only two years earlier, with The Terminator—in fact, it was the screenplay for Terminator that had earned the young relative unknown a crack at a treatment for Fox's long-delayed Alien sequel.  Nevertheless, his ultimate nomination for the dual job of writer and director of Aliens came down to whether Terminator could prove his commercial viability.  I certainly don't need to tell you it did; Cameron got the gig; and, alongside his then-wife, then-producer Gale Anne Hurd, and armed with the first real budget of his career, he proceeded to push his favorite themes forward into what would (eventually) take its shape as his very first outright masterpiece.  Oh, there are surely many valid reasons to enjoy Terminator more.  Some days I might even agree with them—just not today.

Like a lot of great sequels, Aliens begins precisely where its predecessor closed out, though thanks to the magic of science fiction, it gets to have it both ways: we pick back up with our long-suffering heroine, Ellen Ripley, the very moment she makes it back to civilization, only for Ripley to discover that what was merely a much-needed hypernap for her was actually a 57 year cruise into oblivion for the objective universe outside.  By sheer luck, her space pod is rescued by scavengers.  And maybe it's worth pointing out right here how thoroughly Cameron peppers his films with so many extraordinary little grace notes, all of which work toward making his spectacles not just more interesting, but more real—because one of my favorite grace notes in Aliens is its first, the sheer disappointment displayed by Ripley's saviors when they realize she's alive, and hence they won't be getting to rip her ship apart for the scrap upon which their livelihoods depend.

Thus awoken, Ripley crashes her way back into a world she can no longer call her own, and every damned night, she screams herself awake dreaming of the Nostromo horror.  It was probably only ever a matter of time, then, that she'd succumb to the solicitations of Carter Burke, the Weyland-Yutani sleazebag who keeps pestering her to go back to LV-426, where she and her crew once found an alien egg.  But the universe wasn't going to wait for her to be ready for the closure she needs; and Ripley can't bring herself to refuse once the colony the Company's built on LV-426 goes silent.  Thus does she take her place on a starship heading back to the doomed planet, alongside Burke, a military robot, Bishop, and a squad of seen-it-all Colonial Marines, the latter of whom, sadly but inevitably, don't take the xenomorphic threat she describes any more seriously than the board of inquiry that stripped her of her rank and certifications.

The Marines' hubris is quickly punished, though, and of the amorphous blob of green-and-gunmetal-gray we started with, only their commander Gorman, tough-gal Vasquez, crybaby Hudson, and stoic Hicks make it out of their first encounter alive—and even then, only because Ripley has effectively seized command.  In the meantime, however, they have managed to temporarily safeguard the colony's only survivor, wee Rebecca "Newt" Jorden, found hiding in a crawlspace; and it's through Newt's continued survival that Ripley finds her real purpose in coming here.  But in a twist for the ages, the Company Man in this Alien movie has his own dumb agenda that runs somewhat counter to Ripley's desire to get Newt and the Marines the hell off this rock, and thereafter nuke the monsters on it from orbit.  You know: just to be sure.

When set against its franchise predecessor, I can only conclude that it corrects every problem I ever had with the original, while also doing almost all the same things that Alien did well, but either a little differently, or a little better, or both.  The only area where it consistently falls even the slightest bit short is in the cinematography—which is perhaps not the greatest surprise when you remember that Cameron fired Aliens' original DP, Dick Bush, over the course of its deeply unpleasant shoot, because Bush was essentially refusing to do the work required to effect Cameron's chosen lighting set-ups.  Cameron replaced Bush with Adrian Biddle, previously a focus puller on Alien, and Biddle—having been given the gift of his very first feature gig—complied with his directors' wishes as best he could.  It's lucky enough, then, that Aliens is as moody as it is: between two DPs and a story that demanded a certain immediate visual clarity (as opposed to Alien's own elemental script, that permitted and even rewarded Scott's noirish obscurity), Aliens could've easily wound up with far less interesting lighting and lensing than it got.

And it does remain, after all, a very handsome motion picture.  Its outright visual flaws, in fact, have very little to do with Biddle, and everything to do with effects that didn't look good back in 1986, and have certainly only gotten worse with age.  If we're being vicious, Aliens' high-but-not-that-high budget really does show on the margins: ugly dropships sharing the frame, sort of, with the cloudy skies over the Death Planet; miniatures that don't successfully pretend to be anything else; a chief monster who, unfortunately, cannot entirely hide her nature as a mechanical puppet.  This shouldn't be a surprise, either: one of Cameron's more curious charms has always been a willingness to push his effects without any appropriate sense of shame.  The result, as in Terminator before it, is a film that always feels bigger than a more sober director might've made—albeit one with occasionally visible seams.

It's largely irrelevant, anyway: Aliens is a picture that found its soul in the editing room—and only found its perfect expression years later, in that extended cut—rather than in its lighting and framing, or even in Stan Winston's (generally excellent, maybe even close-to-career-best) multiplication of Giger and Rambaldi's magnificent monster.  Besides, you can probably point to David Fincher's Alien 3 as the best-shot film of this franchise, and Alien's benighted threequel proves my point: being brutely pretty takes you just so far when your job is to make a movie that is, essentially, about giant insects killing guys.  Cameron would eventually make a movie that accomplished the bigamous marriage of his trademarked adrenaline supplement to both pristine special effects and gorgeous cinematography alike—that movie was Terminator 2: Judgment Day—but, as for this film, it lives and dies by its merciless, ruthless, breathless pace.  And that's awfully damned appropriate for the slight but crucial shift in tone that occurs under Cameron's watch: from the haunted house horror of Alien to the survival horror upon which Aliens seizes instead.

That, of course, is only flatly descriptive; a tonal shift alone is hardly what makes Aliens the better movie.  But we can thank Cameron for what does.  As this sequel's screenwriter, Cameron developed a novel approach to Alien's heroine: namely, he had the great idea that Ripley might come off as even cooler if she were an actual human being.  (Why, he even gave her a first name.)  For all the strengths of her breakout performance—a better-than-solid and fascinatingly-atypical slasher film Final Girl, before there was even such a thing as "typical"—it's nonetheless plausible that it wasn't until six years had passed that Sigourney Weaver had built the chops to pull it off this well.  (Especially given the, let's say, lack of nuance that has forever typified Cameron's dialogue.)  But this time, then, Weaver is the show.  And nothing that happens in Aliens matters, unless it happens to, or because of, Ellen Ripley.

The downside potential of it is that nobody else might have mattered, except as a prop for Ripley's own development; and this is in fact the case.  It's especially the case when it comes to the Colonial Marines, and especially-especially in the film's first act, when they're introduced as an undifferentiated gang of hypermasculine assholes (amusingly enough, this goes double for the female ones), all of whom either don't say much at all (which is, we intuit, how Biehn's Hicks guarantees his survival), or are so pronounced in their preening obnoxiousness that it scrapes right up against the side of a war movie parody (a Vietnam war movie parody, specifically).  This is as much to say that the Marines represent an overstuffed satchel full of meat that we're almost pleased to see get butchered.  And that puts us very firmly in Cameronland: for while the director was always a friend to any man (or woman) with a blue collar, Cameron's repulsed fascination for the ones in green is a constant theme in his filmography.  Is it any wonder that the quotable Marines all horribly die?

In any event, Weaver's dominance is a palpable thing, despite all those perfectly good turns by Aliens' murderer's row of fine B-listers, including Biehn, Bill Paxton, Lance Henriksen, and Paul Reiser.  (Why, even young Carrie Henn is as good as you could expect any child actor to be; Cameron, wisely enough, slow pitches Newt's character to Henn, mainly calling upon her to perform her one best trick, a thousand yard stare that's seen too much.)  Still, with Weaver in charge, it's enormously difficult to care about anyone else, which is good, because Weaver gets everything to do, riding at least four whole separate character arcs along the way, while all those other actors generously recede before her as they might, properly enough, for a force of nature.

And so Weaver and Henriksen must reconcile Ripley's newfound racism against robots with the truth that not all robots are evil; Weaver must bring Ripley to terms with the fundamentally rotten foundations of human nature, handily personified by Reiser; Weaver, in cooperation with Biehn, must advance Ripley to the point where she becomes the preeminent bad-ass action heroine of her decade; and, finally, Weaver must carry Ripley from the strange grief of knowing she's outlived a daughter who died of old age, to the point where she realizes that Henn's orphaned Newt has already comfortably fitted herself into the maternal void her dead daughter has left behind.  Which might be why it's so fantastically gobsmacking that the theatrical cut did not include the all-important plot point of Ripley's child.  Weaver herself thought Cameron was an idiot for cutting it; she was right.  Well, now it's back, and while Aliens might be the only film in a sprawling eight-film franchise that can make so much as a tentative claim to provoking any emotional reaction besides thrills and chills (or, in its worse entries, boredom and/or laughter), we can happily say that Aliens clears its franchise's low bar by an easy vertical mile.  Aliens is the Alien movie that knows heartbreak—which is yet another way that Aliens is so emphatically a James Cameron film, for the filmmaker possessed that rarest of talents, the ability to add humanity to his action machines without gumming up the works.

An action machine it certainly is, though: the other half of the reason Aliens beats Alien is its superior reconception of the titular beasts themselves, and the last hour (or more) of Aliens is devoted to dovetailing all those various character arcs into a sci-fi siege thriller of exhausting tension and, on occasion, wincing gore.  (Cameron, at last, manages to pay off the monsters' acid blood in some spectacularly visceral ways; but then, it's always struck me as bizarre that Alien establishes the fact of acid blood early on, and then does nothing with it.)  But most importantly, in Cameron's telling, the aliens become so much more sensible than the id monster of Alien; and while Aliens' Ripley can be almost scientifically proven to be a better character than Alien's Ripley, I suppose it must be a matter of taste which approach to the xenomorphs you like more.

I definitely prefer Cameron's: without ever sacrificing their essential horror, he comes to them as if they were animals, rather than demons, with a life cycle that almost makes sense, and (as the title implies) a social organization to rival our own.  (If absolutely nothing else, Cameron needs to be awarded the highest kind of praise for so successfully concealing the fact that Aliens Plural involves, at most, three whole aliens in the frame at any given time, most notably in a xenomorph Thermopylae that edges right up to the precipice of allowing you to think "this production ran out of fucking money, and all they can show us is the ammo countdown," before raising the stakes, in Cameron's inimitable manner, and bringing the offscreen slaughter right back into the actual movie with shocking gusto.)

And some of Aliens' most suspenseful moments arrive with the suggestion of a higher intelligence for the xenomorphs: it's simply perfect how Cameron paces the reveals that get us to the moment where Ripley can desperately (but reasonably) come to believe that negotiation-through-violence is also a possibility with these beings.  (Meanwhile, on the way there, Cameron manages in just one bluntly-written line a far pithier summation of the fractious human condition as compared to the xenomorphs' hive ethos than Scott gets to in all four hours of his prequels; that line is Ripley's, of course, and it's when she muses, "at least they don't fuck each over for a percentage.")  And, in the end, our punishing adventure culminates with its iconic climax.  Cameron dutifully recognizes his action movie's need for a central villain, and, in response, he offers up one of the greats, the Alien Queen, which he consciously conceives as the heroine's mirror image—at surely the last (and best) possible moment that anybody could introduce such a thematically-weighted antagonist, with only twenty minutes left to go before the credits.

But, to give Stan Winston's infernal majesty her full justice, the Queen is only Ripley's dark mirror if you're speaking with leaden (and almost brain-dead) literalness.  Almost subliminally, but no less intriguingly, Aliens expands upon, then actively inverts, the foundational cosmic horror of Alien.  Effectively, it equates our two disparate species: a pair of rival plagues, each spreading our way across the universe in our respective manners, each bidding for our own survival and reproduction.  The only reason the xenomorphs are "bad," really, is because they aren't us: in her story, the Alien Queen is heroic too, reaching for revenge against the terrifying primate that torched her children (even after she promised she wouldn't).  It's a notable aspect of Cameron's sci-fi stories that he never saw any special need to equip his inhuman antagonists with malice: the xenomorphs, like Skynet before and after them, simply have their priorities.  It's only Cameron's humans who possess the capacity for evil; and they, of course, can only be evil to each other.  Recognize this, and you're that much closer to cracking the mystery of why no one but Cameron has ever made a fully successful Terminator movie; in this series, at least, a sense of atavistic amorality is baked so thoroughly into the premise that even its most tone-deaf curators couldn't screw it up.

Nevertheless, maybe the worst thing about Aliens is what it did to its franchise: the unshakeable impression you get that Cameron, in his great mastery, simply left it with nowhere else to go.  And the part that makes you a little sad, of course, is that this impression was more-or-less right.

Score:  10/10


  1. The FIRST J.C. I thought of was John Carpenter because I'm a heathen.

    A more detailed comment to follow when I have the time to give this review the thorough deep dive it deserves.

    1. At your leisure, f course; I've been terrible at editing lately. "I'm sorry this letter is so long, but I didn't have the time to make it shorter."

  2. Yeah, I rewatched this recently and was surprised by how much my memory had papered over the limitations on the effects. Personally, I could lose the extra footage from the director's cut (minus the Ripley daughter scene - he was a lunatic for cutting that), but it's still a good-un!

    My second favorite Alien, if only because I can NOT get over Jennette Goldstein's brownface performance. No thank you.

    1. Yeah, Vasquez is... not great. But none of the Marines are (even Hicks is B-side Biehn). But then they die!

      Anyway, all I can ever think of at times like this is that bit from Scream 2 in the film class where they pontificate about how there aren't any sequels that are better than the original. (And the guy who mentions Aliens--and T2--gets shot down as being a "James Cameron fanboy.") But lots of sequels are better than the original, though. Maybe not most. Definitely not Scream 2. But lots.