Saturday, January 10, 2009

My Favourite Films Volume 9: Aliens

Here’s a riddle for you. When a movie’s plot leaves no questions to be answered, what happens next? Give up? A sequel. Ok, so that’s unfair in this case, but it applies more often than not. Name one big Hollywood sequel (leaving aside those based on novels) that was truly warranted? Some of them are good, mind you, but would it have been the end of the world if Raiders of the Lost Ark, Star Wars, Die Hard, The Terminator, Jurassic Park, or Airplane had never gotten sequels? My point is that when these films came to a close, I doubt there was a viewer in the audience (who didn’t have “Producer” written on his nametag) who thought “I can’t wait for the next one!” There are formulas, sure, and the one I’ll be illuminating is the trend to take an existing film and for the sequel, militarize the plot and quicken the pace. It happened for 28 Days Later and it happened for Alien. Neither film’s sequel is as good as the original, but they’re entertaining and no one could call them boring. And as it just so happens Aliens, James Cameron’s Vietnam-geared sequel to what may be the finest sci-fi/horror film ever made, has personal significance for me. My earliest memory as a child is of watching the climactic battle between Sigourney Weaver and the queen alien; Aliens is why I’m here writing about zombie films. Aliens is why I watch films.

by James Cameron
When last we left Ripley, she was floating in an escape ship with nothing but bad memories and pet cat Jones to keep her company. She’s picked up by a salvage team who ship her dehydrated body to a “company” owned hospital. The “company” we learn, is called Weyland-Yutani, and they have human faces now instead of just phantom directives. Ripley wakes up in time to be brought to trial for the destruction of the Nostromo, a million-dollar space ship carrying millions of dollars worth of ore. Ripley informs everyone that an Alien sighting trumps all their bullshit and flips out on them despite her lawyer Carter Burke’s urgings to take it easy. She gets her license reduced (I find this funny because everyone seemed to know everyone else’s job aboard the Nostromo. What was her speciality exactly. Also interesting that they use the word license, because she was supposed to be a warrant officer, which is a military rank, which a corporate tribunal can’t strip you of. James Cameron was doctoring an old script when he wrote this, so I’ll let it slide) and is stuck with a shrink for the duration of her probation period. As a final warning, she asks the big wig in charge of the proceedings to go and see for himself, to which he coolly replies that they have. There are 60 or 70 families worth of terraformers running a giant oxidation plant on the planet (which they refer to now as LV-246) where Ripley and the crew of the Nostromo found their interstellar foe. She knows nothing good’s going to come of this.

Weeks later her suspicions are confirmed when Burke shows up at her door with a marine lieutenant named Gorman and news that contact with the terraformers has ceased without warning. They’re starting to come around to Ripley’s claims of a 7 foot space demon with acid for blood, now! They’re sending in colonial marines to see what made the calls stop coming in and they want Ripley as an adviser. Though initially she refuses her recurring nightmares show no signs of stopping unless she confronts the thing that killed her crew. Soon, she’s waking up in a new set of hypersleep capsules, this time surrounded by marines instead of blue-collar workers. So let’s meet our crew of laughably over-matched boyscouts, shall we? Gorman, a greenhorn by all accounts, is in charge, but the marines really take orders from Apone, the sergeant, who is the black equivalent of R. Lee Ermey from Full Metal Jacket. The grunts are Corporals Hicks, Ferro, and Dietrich and Privates Vazquez, Frost, Hudson, Drake, Spunkmeyer, Crowe, and Wierzbowski. Burke comes along for insurance reasons – the installation they’ve lost contact with is company property after all, and he doesn’t want a bunch of yahoo soldiers blowing up anything expensive by accident. Finally there’s Bishop, the ship’s android – another company policy (Ripley must be just thrilled with the company by this point). Ripley throws a fit when she finds out about the android and warns him to keep his distance – didn’t have so much luck last time she was in close quarters with one. After the personality set-ups, the marines are dropped into the terraformers home base, guns blazing.

An initial sweep of the wonderfully dreary colony turns up bullet holes, evidence of acid leaks like the one that nearly chewed through the hull of the Nostromo, six face-huggers in specimen jars (only two still alive), and a little girl named Newt, the only human survivor. In fact Newt’s the only evidence that there were people here in the recent past. Ripley tries interrogating her and short of the girl’s name and the news that everyone else is dead learns very little about what happened. From what they can deduce the colonists must have found the same downed ship and brought back the same uninvited guest with them. Just when things look to be completely empty of human life, Hudson finds the colonists on the third floor sub-basement of the atmospheric processing plant (they show up as dots on a tracking computer because each colonist has a surgically implanted tracking device). The marines move out leaving Bishop behind to continue autopsying the dead face huggers and Ferro and Spunkmeyer on standby in the drop ship. The problem with the marines moving into the plant is that the station works like a big fusion reactor and the use of their ammo is going to rupture the core. No firearms. Marines are still intimidating without guns right?

When the marines find the remains of the colonists, they’re mostly cocooned in hardened slime with holes in their chest. They show up in time to see the last survivor give birth to a chest-bursting worm alien, just like Kane, and in burning the little bastard alive, wake up something bigger. Make that somethings…many, many somethings with big teeth on the end of their tongues. When the aliens start attacking, Gorman quickly loses his head and freezes up. Ripley refuses to stand by while everyone is killed and drives the APC into the third floor corridor for an impromptu rescue mission. By the time the Vietnam-esque fiasco that ensues is over, only Vasquez, Hudson and Hicks remain of the marines, the drop ship has crashed because an alien snuck aboard and dispatched its pilots, and Gorman has a concussion. Shall we raise the stakes a bit? The aliens quickly try and take ground to get ahold of the seven tasty human beings and one robot hiding in operations. Hicks and Ripley order everyone to weld the doors shut and barricade themselves into a small portion of the compound. Not high enough for you? In emergency situations such as these, protocol states that a rescue mission won’t be sent until 17 days after contact with the marines has stopped. Higher still? You got it. Well, it looks like the marines weren’t careful enough in their attempt to defend themselves from the onslaught of aliens and ruptured the core anyway, leaving six hours before the station explodes in a giant fusion reaction. The only hope for escape lies in remote piloting another drop ship from their mothership. Bishop volunteers (proving his not-evil credentials once and for all) and his calculations put the ships arrival in time to be really goddamned close to the whole place going up in smoke. And as if that weren’t enough, Ripley finds out what made the colonists bring the face-huggers back to the colony in the first place. It seems that when SOMEONE found out there was an unstoppable killing machine just a few kilometers away from a whole host of fresh meat, an ‘investigate’ order showed up. And that someone is still just as interested in bringing back this killing machine to profit from it. That sounds like something a company man might do, doesn’t it? Let’s see what happens when the aliens work as a team and the humans don’t.

Of the three films in the original Alien series, Aliens is the one that has aged with the least grace (if you leave out the bad puppet shots in Alien³). James Cameron was busy writing a Vietnam film when someone offered him Aliens as a follow-up to his box-office smash The Terminator. A few months later, he had reworked that script into Aliens and it shows. Listen to Hudson speak through most of the film – it’s entertaining, but do you know anyone who isn’t a character in a film made between 1975 and 1997 that talks like that? That’s really the biggest problem with Aliens. In contrast to Alien, which did everything in its power to exist outside the trends of the time it was made in, Aliens couldn’t be more a product of its era. In nothing but a mid-80s romantic (anti)war film could you find a force of less than 12 taking on an entire army all the while glorifying a family unit. In fact Cameron’s script is structured so as to erase any and all military presence by the time the film’s climax rolls around. So leaving aside the Vietnam-syndrome that plagues the action and dialogue, we also have a lot of very 80s looking technology and a lot of budget-conscious staging. One thing you notice after having seen Aliens a few times is that there are surprisingly few shots that contain large numbers of aliens in them. With the exception of the shootout in operations at the end of the second act, you’ll rarely if ever see more than one alien in frame at one time. Cameron was all about editing tricks and making scenes feel big as opposed to actually making them big, hence his constant use of miniatures (which, don’t get me wrong, look great). If Cameron had been as willing to spend studio money as Ridley Scott was, he might have a film slightly better than the one he ended up with.
That’s not to say Aliens isn’t a great film. One thing I give Cameron and crew props for is making the film feel much more ramshackle than its predecessor. Things buzz and shake more and thanks in large part to Adrian Biddle’s cinematography, Aliens feels like apocalyptic, like everything’s coming apart at the seams. Biddle was a camera operator under Derek Vanlint on Alien and was moved up to DP for the sequel. His work is nearly as nice to look at as Vanlint’s, and his use of blue and red throughout makes for nice contrast. Where Cameron really shines (as evidenced by the best parts of The Terminator) is in the action. Cameron likes two things more than action, he likes depiction of the working class, and he likes love stories. That’s why every fiction film he’s made has both. Aliens was almost a much more mawkish picture, which but for one scene I’d have been ok with, but what he didn’t realize was that the chemistry between Ripley and Hicks and Ripley and Newt worked because it was always against the backdrop of something fast and mean. When you take time out from the story to be cute, you lose big. So, the theatrical version of the film keeps those two things nicely in check and we’re left with a pretty awesome collection of action scenes. All these scenes are accompanied by James Horner’s excellent score adaptation. With all the ratcheting up of the suspense Cameron does, he would have been quite damned if he couldn’t have followed through, but he does. The battle scenes between the marines and the aliens are the reason boys love monster movies. The bit where Ripley and Newt are stuck in the O.R. with the two facehuggers has been ripped off more times than I can count – just as a for example, look at the Raptors in the kitchen from Jurassic Park. Aliens is damned exciting and I could watch it any day of the week.

The performances are all pretty strong. Michael Biehn and Sigourney Weaver make for a nice pair and Carrie Henn does an excellent job as Newt. Jeanette Goldstein as Vasquez, Bill Paxton as Hudson and every other marine is little more than a variation on an existing stereotype, but, they all work. Interestingly enough, Cameron hired two stunt men to play Crowe and Wierzbowski, the two marines with no dialogue, just like Danny Boyle did in 28 Days Later. As a nice bit of coincidence, Trevor Steedman who plays Private Wierzbowski and Marvin Campbell who plays infected Private Mailer both wound up as stunt players in Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men. Paul Rieser plays Burke with just the right amount of sleaze and backsliding; he’s an usual choice to play the film’s one human villain but he does so effortlessly. Lance Henriksen and William Hope are both benign, except that William Hope has the film’s best exit.
Oh, there’s one thing I’ve forgotten. That scene I mentioned that I saw as a 3 or 4 year old. That had about the profoundest effect on me I can imagine. I’m a ravenous film hound because my dad let me watch it and my mom didn’t stop him; she loves the film arguably more than he does. Everything I do is coloured in some way by this experience and I’ll defend the climax of this movie until my dying day. It has the perfect blend of elements all kept in check. After taping a machine gun to a flame thrower, rides down a dozen storeys on an elevator to rescue Newt from the Alien’s lair. Using a tracker-wristband, she follows the signal, until she hears Newt scream. She pulls her out of her cocoon and carries her away as the place starts exploding. Ripley runs away from the flames right into the nest of the queen. A long pan moves from a heinous looking egg sack up a thick, slug-like tail, over a tubular collection of limbs and finally on a big crown. When the monster’s head protrudes from beneath its giant crown and clacks its jaws together, little worlds were being built and destroyed in my little brain. When Ripley makes her daring escape, with Newt on her shoulder all the while, and red herring number 2 is revealed back aboard the mothership I was given the yardstick by which I would measure all film climaxes. I love Aliens with all my heart.

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