133: Aliens

James Cameron #2

After Ridley Scott’s 1979 sci-fi horror masterpiece Alien was a surprise hit, Fox wanted nothing more than to continue the series, but they never got the ball rolling on that one. It wasn’t until producer David Giler and director James Cameron started talking during the production of The Terminator that the possibility of a return to Alien seriously began to surface. Cameron wrote a pitch and after The Terminator became the hit that it was, he got the green light from Fox to produce Aliens. Cameron took this chance to create a movie that would take us on a rollercoaster like we’d never experienced before. I wasn’t old enough for my parents to let me go see it on the big screen. Not that I would have wanted, because the trailers and the clips I had seen on television scared the living crap out of me. And on top of that by that time I had not yet seen Alien.

It is now decades after Scott’s Alien. Ripley has been drifting through space in her escape pod, fast asleep with Jones the cat beside her. It is by chance that a salvage crew comes across her and brings her back to Earth. There she finds out that her only daughter has passed away (not in the theatrical cut) and that the company isn’t planning on believing her story about what happened to the Nostromo. It is only when all contact is lost with the colony on LV-426 (the planetoid from Alien) that the military wants her to come with them to see what’s going on there. After some time and more bad dreams, Ripley decides to tag along with the Space Marines, who are a really nothing more than a bunch of arrogant ragtag soldiers. What they find on LV-426 will be nothing like anything they have ever seen before. Before they know it they are in the middle of a war with creatures that have acid for blood and no reason to stop killing them.

It becomes evident that Cameron doesn’t want to wait for his audience to settle down and acclimate to the Alien Universe. It takes him just short of eight minutes, including credits, to get to his first chestburster scene. Something Scott took more than an hour to do. From that point on we know exactly what we are in for. This is not Scott’s Alien, this is Cameron’s Aliens and he is not going to take prisoners. He does, however, pay homage to Scott. When we first enter the U.S.S. Sulaco Cameron takes the time to let the camera roam through the rooms on the ship. He dwells on a locker with a pin-up inside and drifts by weaponry and equipment, an empty mess hall and ultimately a long row of hibernation chambers. Just like in Alien, the difference is that this time around everything is military as opposed to the commercial vessel that the Nostromo was. He even went so far as to put a gravity contraption in the mess hall like in Alien, only this time it isn’t a colorful bird but a metallic set of balls and rings. Once more a clue that this isn’t the Alien you know.

Three main themes common to Cameron’s movies come about in Aliens: strong women, the ineptitude of armed forces and evil corporations. Scott established Lt. Ellen Ripley as a strong leading lady who can take care of herself and defeat a deadly alien in the process. Cameron takes that foundation and adds a maternal layer to Ripley. We learn (from the special edition) that Ripley was a mother herself, but that her daughter has passed away before Ripley got back from her drift through space. This leaves her distraught and without a reason to keep on living a meaningful life. The discovery of Newt sparks her maternal instinct in such a way that the final scenes from Aliens even hinge on them. It is Ripley who must, at any cost, rescue Newt to fill that void left by the loss of her biological daughter. This gives Aliens an emotional core that is hard to deny. It even got Weaver an Oscar nomination for Best Actress in a Leading Role. Unfortunately she lost to Marlee Matlin for Children of a Lesser God.

The second theme is the armed forces. In a lot of Cameron’s movies the armed forces are portrayed as a group of mercenaries. In Avatar they are the company’s stooges, in The Abyss they are the mindless anti-communist killers and the police is often incapable of getting a handle on the situation in Cameron’s movies. In Aliens the situation isn’t different. Cameron modeled his Space Marines on soldiers we know from the Vietnam War. These soldiers were often cocky, arrogant and not always the best to have beside you when push comes to shove. We see this clearly in Aliens. On board the Sulaco these Marines mouth off constantly as if they are Masters of the Universe, but when the first real battle breaks out with the aliens they start to panic almost instantly, resulting in chaos and death for many. In the end it is Ripley who has to save mankind from one of the biggest threats out there.

The last theme is the evil corporation that controls all and blindly tries to get whatever they want, no matter the cost. Almost every one of Cameron’s movie has this theme running through its veins. The Weyland-Yutani corporation is one of the most sinister corporations Cameron has ever used. They are willing to send civilians to a derelict spaceship to recover something they really want, twice. They did this in Alien and now in Aliens. Cameron loves this and he loves to make them pay for their hubris. The face of the evil corporation in this installment is Burke, played surprisingly serious by Paul Reiser, who is better known for his comedic roles. He is as evil and sinister as the corporation he works for. He does things that are despicable and doesn’t flinch when he is called out on it. A fine piece of work.

As with a lot of Cameron’s movies, Aliens also had the good fortune of being treated to a special edition. Several minutes of footage were added back in to create a better movie, in my opinion. The funny thing is that when I scan through the scenes that were reinstated in the 1990 Special Edition, a lot of these scenes are natural to the viewing experience for me. Like the  sequence where Newt’s parents find the derelict ship on LV-426 or Hudson and Vasquez detecting the false alarm. Other sequences still feel reinstated, like the whole thing about the sentry guns, Hudson boasting about the weaponry or the scene where Ripley finds out about her daughter. Some of these scenes are very important in expanding on the motivation of the characters. We know Ripley hates the aliens, but the news of her daughter being deceased makes her drive to save Newt even more poignant. Having the marines interact a bit more makes them look a little less stupid. And very basic: knowing how the alien got into the facility in the first place is very important. I wholeheartedly agree with Cameron on putting these scenes back. They make for a better movie. Something we will see in his next two movies (The Abyss and Terminator 2) as well.

Do I think Aliens is a better movie than Alien? Well, that is a difficult question. It is only because they are part of the same universe that we compare these movies. They are so incredibly different from each other. A lot of people will tell you Aliens is the better movie, but I am not one of those. If I had to choose I would pick Alien as the better movie. That movie is so incredibly tight and tense that every time I watch it I am captivated by the sheer terror of it all. And while Aliens is still a great movie, some of the miniature effects did not stand the test of time very well. The absence of big visual effects set-pieces in Alien dates the movie less than Aliens and therefore I think Alien is the better movie. Cameron has made an incredibly ambitious movie with Aliens, especially when you take into account that this was his second movie as a director. Astonishing when you think about it.

Next up: The Abyss, one of Cameron’s most misunderstood movies.

> IMDb

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058: 1492: Conquest of Paradise

This is the eighth movie in my Ridley Scott retrospective.

Ridley Scott always has a tendency to go a little overboard when he is making a movie with its roots in history. 1492: Conquest of Paradise is certainly a victim of this. I had not seen this epic depiction of Christopher Columbus’ iconic voyages since its first release. I was not a fan back then in 1992, but I was twenty years younger as well. I thought maybe this movie would have aged along with me and leave a better impression this time around. Unfortunately this is not the case.

1492: Conquest of Paradise is impeccably produced. Every shot is composed like a painting and truly a sight to behold thanks to the production design by Norris Spencer (Black Rain) and camera work by Adrian Biddle (Aliens). But, as is often the case with paintings, this movie has no movement in it. For nearly two and a half hours we are presented with scene after scene with seemingly important information and situations, but it never resonates as a whole. It just gets really tedious after a while.

For a movie to keep moving you need something or someone to latch on to. That someone should have been Depardieu, who plays Columbus, but he is visibly struggling with this role. Physically he is up to the task, but the English lines he utters are about as convincing as a toddler reciting Shakespeare. It is endearing at first, but it gets on your nerves really quick. There are some stirring scenes in this epic failure. When 1492 gets it right it gets it really right. Regrettably this occurs way too little. I advise everybody to leave this for what it is and go watch Gladiator or the director’s cut of Kingdom of Heaven. At least you get some spectacle out of those epics.

> IMDb

043: Alien

This is the sixth movie in my Ridley Scott retrospective.

Alien remains one of my favorite movies of all time. It is sci-fi horror at its best. Nonetheless I was rather late to the party on this one. To be honest, I was scared of its reputation and watching the trailer for James Cameron’s Aliens back in 1986 didn’t ease my nerves one bit for Alien. One late Saturday night Alien was on television and I couldn’t let this one go. Holy cow, was I blown away. Not because it was especially scary, but more because of the atmosphere in the movie, which is stifling and claustrophobic and really got to me.

Ridley Scott made Alien after The Duellists as his second feature length film. Although The Duellists is a decent movie, it was with Alien that Scott really upped his game. Scott started his career as a set designer and worked extensively in the field of commercials. He knew already perfectly how to design and light sets and this comes to fruition in Alien. He manages to create a world where, although it is set in a distant future, it absolutely feels like this could be today. Star Wars may have coined the phrase Used Future, but Alien expanded on this enormously. Everything is grimy, dirty and lived-in, except for some key locations, including the ‘birthing’ chamber at the beginning of the movie. The inclusion of a beautiful musical score by Jerry Goldsmith and you have the perfect storm.

It is this familiarity with our present day that really sold Alien to me. At every moment in the story you are totally invested in the plight of these doomed personnel who have to fight off this killing machine. Absolutely riveting. Another factor in the success of Alien was the way Scott played with suspense. He had the audacity to spend close to an hour with these characters before anything scary happens. This is totally unthinkable today. Does it feel dated and slow? No, not at all. Scott keeps you on the edge of your seat the whole time with stunning visuals and interesting people. People played by lesser known thespians at that time. This was Sigourney Weaver’s first big role and it cemented her career.

For this latest viewing I went back to the theatrical cut. Ridley Scott would not be Ridley Scott if he didn’t tinker with his movies at a later point. I don’t think the 2003 Director’s Cut adds much to the whole, though. The scene at the end where Ripley finds her crew-mates could be seen as a deleted scene and shouldn’t be in the movie. It just breaks the tension of the endgame.

Although I like the sequels made in subsequent years, I prefer Alien over these sequels. James Cameron, David Fincher and Jean-Pierre Jeunet were wise to choose a different tone for their movies, because Alien set a very high benchmark that those directors probably couldn’t have surpassed at those points in their careers. It is somewhat regrettable that Scott made Alien so early in his career, because a lot of his movies sadly don’t come close to the brilliance of this sci-fi horror adventure. Let’s hope the upcoming Prometheus proves me wrong.

> IMDb