Director: James Cameron
Writer: James Cameron
Cinematographer: Mikael Salomon
Producer: Gale Anne Hurd
by Jon Cvack
This is the third time I’ve seen the film, and just like the second viewing, I forgot that it’s only in the Director’s Cut that the alien scene contains the prophetic video of Earth’s descent into Nuclear War. Although IMDb trivia says, much to the surprise of studios, James Cameron wanted the shorter version, it takes a massive drop, deeper than the miles deep canyon. After all the build toward discovering the aliens, Bud Brigman (Ed Harris) is taken aboard, sees the alien through a water wall or something, the ship rises from the ocean, the storm has ended, and everyone is saved. It’s when you see the Director’s Cut that you understand exactly what was explored, and why the aliens landed in the first place. Without it, the abrupt ending leaves you with far more questions than answers.
In college I took a Sci-Fi CInema class, and during the section on the Red Scare 1950s alien invasion films, we learned the two camps - 1) fearful, pro-military, in which those in charge feared the aliens and wanted to destroy them (The Thing, Them!), and 2) empathetic, pro-science films in which the characters fight against the military in order to approach the aliens with diplomacy and understanding (The Day the Earth Stood Still). The entire discussion poses an interesting question in that why would aliens necessarily be malevolent? If the United States were to visit a planet with Intelligent Life, I can’t imagine NASA or its crew possessing any intent to harm (at least not initially, I assume - until private enterprise came in; think Avatar and what much of world history has shown; or read King Leopold’s Ghost).
What I admire most about James Cameron is that he is one of the most politically AND financially successful filmmakers alive. Nearly all of his films contain a progressive message - about class in Titanic, colonialism and genocide in Avatar, militarism in Aliens, and pro-science and empathy vs. fear and aggression in The Abyss. The two sides are divided between Bud and his ragtag, begrimed and loyal crew, with his ex-wife Lindsey Brigman (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio) joining the show at the last minute, having created the underwater drilling rig. Their mission is hijacked when after a nuclear submarine implodes, a group of Navy Seals, led by Lt. Hiram Coffey (Michael Biehn), joins the the crew in order to retrieve the sub’s nuclear warheads.
It’s the perfect set up, and with Cameron’s vision at the forefront, with a lot of the movie taking place in diving suits and underwater, with Harris almost drowning at one point during production, like Hard Rain, it leaves you wondering when another practical FX-heavy film like this will come about. While the aliens look great, the fact that this film is nearly 30 years old allows you to forget all that. Similar to what Cameron would accomplish in Terminator 2, he’s able to use computer graphics as a supplement, rather than with full dependence. Given the aliens’ jellyfish-like bubble, they’re referred to “Non-Terrestrial Intelligence”, using water to take on shapes per the likes of T1000, or just preserve their jelly-fish selves, complete with neon glows and facial features. However, the Navy SEALs couldn’t care less about any peace gestures from the aliens, believing they could have been sent by the Russians, providing all the more reason to hurry and get the warheads off the submarine.
While Cameron didn’t pioneer the modern roughneck sci-fi crew (first seen in Alien), he definitely made it his own. Ed Harris and Mary Elizabeth are so good in this film, providing a perfect amount of emotion, humor, and passion, all while alongside some of the most fascinating supporting characters in the genre. I loved how each person has a unique persona, with Lisa’s cowboy hat and good tunes, Alan “Hippy” Carnes’s pet rat (Todd Graff), Jammer’s extraordinary strength and teddy bear demeanor (John Bedford Lloyd), every character is sculpted and unique, allowing us to care about even the most minor of them. The combination of real people placed within this extraordinary situation allows it all to take on a realism usually lost in films from the genre. No matter how ridiculous things get, the characters keep it all grounded. Perhaps the best performance comes from Michael Biehn, who struggles to keep himself sharp while dealing with depth sickness, hyper paranoia, and inability to keep things under control. His demise is one of 80s/90s action films all time greatest battles, leaving you wanting the toy submarine, disappointed that they never existed.
I’m not sure why the movie wasn’t as successful as Cameron’s other work, only making $90 million from its $70 million budget. I’d attribute a large portion of that to the rushed ending, which might have prevented word of mouth from spreading, as no matter how great a film is, a disappointing ending will leave a bad taste in any story. I’m even surprised how little attention this movie gets in the film community. While many people have seen it, it doesn’t at all have the following of Cameron’s other sci-fi films, or other popular blockbuster pieces. It’s smart, both with the content, characters, and message, allowing you take as much from it as you desire. Just make sure to check out the Director’s Cut.
BELOW: It just doesn't work as well without this scene
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