Friday, March 1, 2013

Review: Aliens (1986)

In case you haven't heard, last week an utterly shameful excuse for an Aliens game was released on PC and all major consoles. I haven't played it, but this kind of summed it up for me. And this. Oh, and this.

But enough about Aliens: Colonial Marines. I'm here to talk about the movie that that game tried, but utterly failed, to disgrace...

Aliens (1986)

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Is there a more perfect action/horror movie than Aliens? Having just watched it, I'd be hard-pressed to find a way to say yes. James Cameron made this film bigger and badder than its predecessor, Ridley Scott's Alien (also a very good movie, by the way), in all the right ways, imbuing it with a fresh tone while still retaining the basic elements that made that film work. Tackling themes of maternity and America's Vietnam experience while still providing balls-to-the-wall action, nail-biting tension and dread, and insanely quotable dialogue, Aliens is an unqualified masterpiece that would easily be the standout of any director other than Cameron. (The fact that Cameron has made multiple movies that stand next to Aliens among the greats just goes to illustrate why he is the King of the World.)

Let's start with the characters. While Ripley and the other cast members were written as gender-neutral in the original Alien, here gender is placed front and center in the characters' interactions. We learn that Ripley was a mother, and that in the 57 years between Alien and Aliens, her 11-year-old daughter grew up, got married, and passed away while she was in cold sleep adrift in space. The loss of her daughter leads Ripley to bond with the young survivor Rebecca, or Newt as she likes to be called, as something of a surrogate. By contrast, the world of the Colonial Marines aboard the USSSulaco is one of hyper-masculinity, where the guys make sex jokes during meals and brag about their big guns. Even the few women on the team, like Vasquez, are arguably more manly than some of their Y-chromosome squadmates (particularly the tough-talking chicken Hudson). The film delights in demolishing that machismo as the Marines, with all their high-tech turrets, dropships, and "smart guns", find themselves in way over their heads, getting literally torn to bits by an enemy that hides in the shadows and fights "dirty" -- something that, in that time between Vietnam and the First Gulf War, was a metaphor that nearly everyone in the target audience was able to get, and which still resonates in the age of the War on Terror.

It helps that Cameron found an excellent stable of actors to handle the material. Sigourney Weaver, of course, was already familiar with Ellen Ripley, but here she explores a different side of the character, a survivor who is simultaneously more badass and more feminine than the largely asexual warrant officer from the first movie. Ripley, together with Sidney Prescott in the Scream sequels, is a realistic picture of what a horror movie "final girl" would look like after the credits are done rolling. Michael Biehn, Bill Paxton, William Hope, and Jenette Goldstein compose the quartet of Marines -- the squad leader Hicks, the cocky technician Hudson, the commanding officer Gorman, and the tough lad-ette Vasquez, respectively -- who survive the initial slaughter, all of them leaving an impression and bouncing off one another like old war buddies rather than actors. Paul Reiser, in the role of the shady corporate representative Carter Burke, made me want to strangle him for all the right reasons, playing an amoral, cowardly sleaze whose ultimate death made me get up and cheer for the xenomorphs. Last but not least, Lance Henriksen gave off a perfect air of frostiness as the android officer Bishop, in sharp contrast to his typecasting in villain roles since then. We feel like we're in a Marine barrack, or on a battlefield with them, rather than watching an imitation of such, and so much of it has to do with their performances. It's not for nothing that most of these guys and gals became cult favorites virtually overnight after Aliens.

Cameron's eye behind the camera also makes this a thrill to watch. Say what you will about his ego, or him being a tyrant on the sets of the films he works on. This. Man. Knows. Action. We get set pieces more bombastic than half the movies that come out in any given summer -- modern summer, mind you -- and all without a trace of CGI, on a budget that, after inflation, would come out to less than $40 million today. Pulse rifles and flamethrowers blaze away on xenomorphs, dropships crash and explode in epic fireballs, H. R. Giger's terrifying creature designs litter the screen... it's anything an action junkie could want. But Cameron recognizes that that's not all there is to a great action film, and especially not a great action/horror film. Much of the first hour contains little more than the Marines exploring the empty halls of Hadley's Hope, them -- and the viewers -- tensely awaiting what might possibly be behind the next door or hall. Even after the action gets underway, it is punctuated and preceded by long stretches where we await what we all know is coming, anxiously staring at the Marines' movement sensors as masses of white dots start closing in. Anybody who's seen this can instantly recall the "ceiling scene" as a perfect example of this sort of tension building. The film may run long -- the Director's Cut is 154 minutes long, and the theatrical cut is still well over two hours -- but it never felt like it. I was gripped from start to finish.

Finally, one would be remiss to not mention this film's visual design. H. R. Giger's grotesque xenomorphs look like nothing else that had been seen before, coming off as the closest thing to the boogeyman I can possibly visualize. Even after they'd been ripped off by untold numbers of films and video games, I still did not want to see one face-to-face, let alone a swarm of them. I could buy these things as the supreme predators that devastated a team of the toughest, most highly-trained soldiers in the galaxy. On the other side of the equation, there's a reason why so much of the style of the Colonial Marines has been imitated by damn near every sci-fi shoot-em-up video game ever made. Their dropships look like Apache helicopters on bath salts, their guns make our own Marines' fearsome assault rifles look like plastic toys. It's just a damn shame that so many of those games -- including the recent sequel Aliens: Colonial Marines -- missed the "Vietnam in space" horror and desperation that Aliens used those things to convey.

Score: 5 out of 5


(Oh, like hell I was gonna finish this review without quoting this movie at least once. Stay frosty, people.)

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