Director: James Cameron
Writer: James Cameron; story by James Cameron, David Giler, and Walter Hill
Cinematographer: Adrian Biddle
Producer: Gale Anne Hurd
by Jon Cvack
Aliens is a movie that I’ve seen at least three times, but had so spread out those individual viewings that I always forget what exactly happened in the story. It has long been one of the most divisive films amidst the sequel versus original debate; originalists love the horror film and progressives adore the action sequel. I’m more on the fence, finding them both near perfect films, though if pressed, I'd go with Aliens.
There are certain movies that make me sad with how good they are; knowing that nothing like them could exist ever again, back when the only place you could ever see this movie the way it was meant to be seen was in the theater and before the complete reliance on computer graphics; when watching a film was about seeing real things used to create a world.
About a month back, my friend lent me the Blade Runner (1982) BluRay. I’ve put off watching the famous Final Cut ever since my first viewing, convinced it couldn’t be all that different from whatever version I’d seen and hadn’t loved. What I saw this time around was one of the best at home movie watching experiences I’ve had in a long while. Without getting into the details, one of the movie’s greatest elements is the world they built through practical effects. Every single effect, no matter how extravagant, was in camera, from complex matte paintings to the sets and practical miniatures. Not a single piece of this movie was executed with computers and somehow it looks better than the vast majority that do.
Aliens provides a similar practical overload, building an entire intricate alien planet and designing beautiful model ships to explore. I’m not sure which versions I’ve seen, but my BluRay collection came with the Director’s Cut, introduced by James Cameron and I assume (through the images which accompany his intro) that the meat of the extended scenes involve the crew discovering Ripley fifty years into the future and the way she adjusts back to life and learns about her daughter and age rather than getting straight to the alien planet as quickly as possible.
What I missed the last time were the politics I should’ve expected from Cameron. Paul Reiser (who I didn’t even remember being in the film; perhaps due to the once deleted scenes) plays Carter J. Burke, a representative from the Weyland-Yutani Corporation who’s committed to maintaining the company’s investment versus ensuring the colony’s safety. Ripley goes before a review board where her peers sit smoking in disbelief of the story about a killer alien creature; not going so far as to fully blame her, but enough to take away her pilot license.
When they learn that the colony has gone dark, Weyland-Yutani organizes a group of marines to head down to explore the situation. Burke admonishes Ripley to join them in order to lend her expertise about the possible alien creature. So kicks off what I remember most about the films, as the marines, led by 80s sci-fi action star Dwayne Hicks (Michael Biehn) and joined by the wild mouthed, though absolute coward, Private Hudson (Bill Paxton).
So begins what I remember most from the film, as the marines assemble onto the ship and recreate the modern D-Day landing scene which would go on to be replicated on and on from everything from Edge of Tomorrow (2014)and Starship Troopers (1997) to Medal of Honor and the first Call of Duty. It remains one of the best, as Cameron’s magnificent use of miniatures, both on the Exomoon and the ship itself are expertly crafted and fully believable and real. There are fully functional armored trucks and tanks, in which one family pulls a bit too close to the alien spacecraft.
Aliens might have one of the greatest minor plots of an alien action movie, taking place in a colony overtaken by the alien creatures. That in itself could be a great movie, and I’m left wondering how much more interesting that could be rather than where the series has gone. Either way, it’s little more than a MacGuffin to get the marines down to the planet.
However, this is also where the narrative shifts from what I remembered as a non-stop action shoot out between the soldiers and the aliens, which it is (up to the first third), then shifts into a type of alien-slasher film hybrid where the soldiers are slowly hunted down and killed off one by one.
Subsequent films would either focus far too much on the mythology or action; often sacrificing all of one for the other. Cameron continues the story, leading us to a mother-bee alien whose children rounded up the colony to act as hosts for additional aliens to hatch. In the film’s climactic sequence, they initiate a nuclear warhead before battling the mother-bee, which is arguably one of the greatest practical creatures ever built; looking so real that you’d swear the film was remastered with computer graphics.
What makes James Cameron most unique is his ability to politicize his blockbuster films. Most involved corporations versus labor; the blue collar versus white. Terminator’s entire premise resided on the dangers of a corporation determined to create the greatest weapons. The Abyss (1989) has the fearful military fight determined to destroy an alien race (the extended cut having the aliens even warn against Nuclear annihilation). Titanic (1997) is very much an exploration of class. Avatar explores imperialism. True Lies (1994) is his only apolitical film.
Aliens continues the mission, with Carter J. Burke as a company man who’s entire mission is to ensure maximum profit for the Weyland-Yutani Corporation. And yet counter to the temptation to hire a slimeball businessman per the likes of Die Hard's (1988) (1986) Harry Ellis, the choice of Paul Raiser made the character far more sympathetic; where you never necessarily believe his motives are dishonorable until the closing scene when he wants to preserve the alien creatures in the hopes of striking it rich for discovering a new form of biological weaponry.
Roger Ebert gave this movie 3 ½ stars, but went on to qualify the praise, stating, “The movie made me feel bad. It filled me with feelings of unease and disquiet and anxiety. I walked outside and I didn't want to talk to anyone. I was drained. I'm not sure "Aliens" is what we mean by entertainment. Yet I have to be accurate about this movie: It is a superb example of filmmaking craft.” It just goes to show how revolutionary the film was, as like any new work of art, it stands unmatched against most of its sci-fi action/horror peers - arguably one of the finest films from either hybrid. With the exception of a few somewhat janky miniature spacecraft movements, the stands against anything from the last 35 years. I struggle to think of sci-fi action films that outshine it, just others that stand alongside it: James Cameron’s The Abyss and Terminator (1984) John Carpenter's The Thing (1982), and Philip Kaufman’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978) are the few that come to mind.
BELOW: D-Day throwback
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