Aliens

February 4, 2011

It’s difficult to understand why 20th Century Fox would have waited seven years to unleash a sequel to one of the most popular movies of the last decade, especially when the movie, 1979’s Alien, is such an uncomplicated piece of storytelling.

After all, the plot was just a haunted house in space—something bad was loose, tracking down the members of a spaceship. None too original to begin with, it’s been ripped off countless times since.

Whatever the reasons for the delay, the sequel proves that some things are worth the wait. Aliens—that’s right, some free-thinker resisted the near-inevitable Roman numerals—is just a dandy joy ride, full of movie-making savvy, confirming the promising talent of director-writer James Cameron. Actually, I think it’s a better movie than the original.

If you cast your memory back to the first film, you’ll recall that Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), the sole human survivor of the alien presence, had just extinguished the creature and settled down into suspended animation, along with her wayward cat.

As Aliens opens, we learn that Ripley has been floating asleep through space for 57 years. She’s picked up by interstellar sanitation engineers and taken to a space station, where no one believes her story.

But when disturbing reports come back from the planet (since colonized) where she first found the bad eggs, a military reconnaissance mission is sent, and she goes along as adviser. Not surprisingly, the aliens—there were a lot of eggs down there, remember?—are running amuck. In fact, they’ve left their muck everywhere, on the ceilings, the walls, the floors.

At this point, Aliens could have gotten away with a simple game of alien-and-mouse, and probably satisfied its audience. But Cameron has a bunch of imaginative touches in his bag of tricks, the first of which is the discovery of a lone survivor, a little girl with plenty of smarts.

Ridley (Blade Runner) Scott, an ambitious director, made the first Alien a high-toned, high-tech exercise in terror. It looked fabulous, but with the exception of the fine cast, it always struck me as mechanical and overblown.

James Cameron, whose first film was The Terminator, is kinetic and grimy where Scott was mythic and neat. Cameron may be less highfalutin’, but he’s got oodles of sheer film sense. Although Aliens is about 2 ½ hours long, it flies by; and Cameron’s structure is so sound that the film keeps topping itself without getting repetitious.

He’s also woven in an allegory for, of all things, the Vietnam War, as well as an eventually touching mother-daughter theme among both the humans and the aliens.

Weaver returns, gutsy as ever. Paul Reiser, the stand-up comedian who appeared in Diner, plays the clammy mission administrator, who wants to retrieve an alien alive for study. He brings down the house when, after the crew has escaped from a hair-raising alien attack and voted to nuke the thing out of existence, he coolly observes that, “This is an emotional moment for all of us, okay, but let’s not make snap judgments!”

Michael Biehn, who played the normal guy (the one who wasn’t Arnold Schwarzenegger) in The Terminator, is quietly good as a Marine corporal abruptly put in charge, and Lance Henriksen gives a twist to the untrustworthy-android role.

The special effects are just spiffy, with the aliens modeled after the disgusting original design of H.R. Giger. But good special effects are the norm these days. It’s those other effects—storytelling, atmosphere, pacing, structure—that are in such short supply. James Cameron and his crew provide those in abundance.

First published in the Herald, July 1986

The Terminator was not Cameron’s first movie; I think I would have been aware of that in ’86, but who knows how these things fall through the cracks. Seeing Aliens was an exciting event, even on the small screen of the tiny preview room where it screened. It is interesting how Cameron has passed from being kind of a hip new talent to hopeless squaredom, at least by conventional wisdom. The colossal upcoming extension of Avatar fills me with a mixture of boredom and dread—and I liked Avatar, for the most part, which at least served as a justification for the idea of imagining an entire world in 3-D. In the meantime, the Cameron-produced Sanctum opens this weekend, a movie with a distinct air of King of the Worldness about it.


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