Aliens (1986)

Aliens (1986) movie poster

director James Cameron
viewed: 09/06/2012

It was Prometheus (2012) that led me back to Alien (1979) and now Alien back to Aliens.  It’s a slippery slope to open yet another series of films to re-visit in whole.

It’s been said that while Alien was a science fiction/horror film, Aliens is more a science fiction/action film, a genre shift, but one of the most compelling sequels perhaps ever made.  Director James Cameron picked up the narrative from the 1979 original, took (not necessarily its DNA a la Prometheus but) many of the film’s great elements (the alien itself, Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), android paranoia, gender politics) and developed a wholly different, extremely thrilling, and even iconic movie from those elements.  And in many ways, the genre reinvention helped to define the film on its own terms, not merely in comparison.

Set fifty-seven years after the first film, fifty-seven years that Ripley and her cat have been in hyper-sleep in the middle of nowhere, Cameron pushes the distance of the real world seven years even further.  The clever set-up has the corporation blaming Ripley for her having destroyed the Nostromo, and not having any evidence of her monster anywhere.  Beyond that, there are humans living on that dead rock that the Nostromo had so fatefully visited.  At least until the humans make “contact” with the creatures and wind up in radio silence.  The corporation sends Ripley, their company man Carter Burke (a classically sleazy Paul Reiser), and a team of space marines, each tougher than the other, to kick ass and take names.  The whole thing kind of implodes.

What has always struck me is how effectively Cameron develops his characters.  It’s his Ripley that one thinks of when one thinks of the character that Weaver plays in four films, not the lucky, survivor of Ridley Scott’s Alien.  Cameron invents the female action hero, quite intentionally, quite effectively.  It’s not that she’s sleek, deadly or muscled-up.  She has not the fighting powers of a video game character.  She’s a working class woman, apparently a mother with a lost child (didn’t know that), maternal, strong in character, tenacious, heroic.  It’s the maternal aspect that sets up the epic showdown at the end of the film.  Ripley finds the lone survivor at the hive-like station in the little child, Newt, who she takes to in lieu of her own child, and she battles the Alien queen, mother to all the drone worker/killers.  It’s not happenstance that her character has become such an icon; she’s strong, intelligent, and real.  And wonderfully created.

I’ve always admired the scene in which the marines first appear, coming out of hyper-sleep, in a deft sequence that telegraphs their personae in flash-like strokes.  The character actors are all very good, and though their characters are hardly well-rounded, they are colorful archetypes, with unique qualities that make them characters, not mere stereotypes.  I’ve always loved how the sergeant (Al Matthews) pops his cigar into his mouth immediately upon waking, before any other movement is needed.  He has a number of little moments that develop his character more than whole scenes would need to do.  Bill Paxton gets all the comedy relief as Hudson, the best catchphrases.  Jenette Goldstein is fantastic as the butch Vasquez, again a character so well-sketched in her few scenes that she stands out in one’s mind years after the film.  And Lance Hendrikson is great as Bishop, the android with a milky heart of gold.

It’s a thrilling, exciting film.  I remember in 1986 taking my girlfriend and her folks to the film (I’d seen it once already) and how they were all surprised how much they liked it.  It stands up well over the years on the whole.  Unfortunately I watched the “Special Edition” version which threw in a few deleted scenes that help explain aspects of the narrative, like Ripley’s daughter, but really lengthen but don’t illuminate the narrative in useful ways.  It’s the Blade Runner (1982) effect.  The one film that really made an argument for a “director’s cut” now entitles all directors a hindsight that often isn’t 20/20.

While it is not a “feminist” film, I would say that it does create a female hero, an iconic female character in a realm of male-dominated action cinema.  It’s not just the sort of Lara Croft, woman with big boobs and hot gams, playing the role according to the script stereotypes.  But a character, originating in Scott’s film, and reaching fuller realization here, a character who is a strong woman, and intelligent woman, maternal, compelling, resilient.  I’m sure many an article or paper has been written on this specific subject, so I won’t try to say things that others have stated already.  But I think it’s a poignant character that Weaver and Cameron developed, and is all the more interesting for the lack of cliches.

Heck of a movie.

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