Friday, January 28, 2011

Aliens: A Review


Only once have I ever jumped in fright while watching a film. The film was Aliens, and it really wasn't a frightening scene. The exact moment is when they are examining what appears to be a dead alien...and then, WHAM! It jumps up, and I jumped with it.

It's a sign of Aliens' brilliance that it engrosses you so deep in its story that you become a part of it. When a film envelopes you in its artifice to become utterly real, then it is a brilliant production.

An even better sign of Aliens' genius is that one really doesn't have to have seen Alien to follow the plot. We don't have to worry about backstory because it is filled in for us both early and easily: Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), the sole survivor of the spaceship Nostromo, has been awakened after 57 years in suspended animation to a disbelieving corporation which doesn't believe her story of an Alien having killed everyone she was with on the Nostromo.

Still haunted by her terrifying ordeal as well as the knowledge that her family is dead, she tries to move on with her life. However, the planet from which she had escaped her encounter with the Alien is now being colonized, and the company has lost contact with said planet: LV-426. She agrees to go help a group of marines, but not for them, but to free herself of the nightmares she's been plagued with.

On LV-426, the only survivor found is a young girl named Newt (Carrie Henn). The Marines also find two 'facehuggers', spawn of the Alien that literally suck the life out of its victims. While the Marines, along with the android Bishop (Lance Henricksen) whom Ripley mistrusts due to her experience with a previous android in Alien, try to rescue those caught in the Alien's nest, Company executive Carter Burke (Paul Reiser) wants to use the 'facehuggers' and the Alien itself for whatever weaponry can be cultivated from them. Slowly the Marines are getting picked off by the Alien, leaving Ripley to face off against her monstrous nemesis while trying to save Newt.

I've had issues with some of director James Cameron's later films (Titanic, Avatar), but when he gets it right he goes all out to create a frightening, thrilling, intense, and emotionally involving film that gets you from the very start and keeps you locked in until past the end. Aliens (which he wrote the screenplay to from a story by himself, David Giler and Walter Hill which was based on the film Alien), is smart about its material.

Cameron trusts both his audiences: those who saw the first film and those which didn't. The Court of Inquiry early in Aliens allows those who have no idea who Ripley or the Alien are to get the backstory without it being overt, and it flows easily from the original. This is vital to the success of Aliens as a film in its own right: we don't have to have seen Alien to follow Aliens (although as a side note, I would recommend Alien immediately).

Cameron builds on the tension by restraining any inclination to be graphic. Instead, the attacks from the Alien are more terrifying because they are visually limited. It leaves us to imagine what the attacks on the colonists look like for example, and what we can imagine can be more frightening. He also holds off on us actually seeing the Alien itself: it takes over an hour before we see the Alien Queen in all her horrifying glory, and even at our first glimpse it is through the weak and failing cameras of the Marines. In this scene, Cameron builds on the terror not just through the chaotic nature of the Alien attack, but on the decision to have our heroine watch helplessly, the character we identify with is rendered powerless just when she and by extension we build a need to jump in.

The script is also highly intelligent in how the Marines and Ripley must solve the situations they find themselves in. The problems keep building on the exploration and rescue, but the problems are ones that can't be resolved with weapons. By continuously making things harder for the crew, Cameron builds more tension as the audience is kept in suspense as to how anyone let alone Ripley will be able to survive. The trump card in Aliens on the issue of terror is Newt, for there are few things that will cause an emotional response as that of a child in mortal danger.

Massive amounts of credit need to go every element within Aliens: the art direction of Supervising Director Terence Ackland-Snow, Ken Court, Bert Davey, Fred Hole and Michael Lamont and set decoration of Crispian Sallis, James Horner's tense and dramatic score which shows he can write good music, and Adrian Biddle's cinematography. The last one is especially noteworthy in that it is in the darkness of Aliens' frightening imagery (real and imagined): the playing of the black and gray sets and the reds enhances the fear that Cameron builds and builds to where it becomes unbearable and totally pulls you within Aliens.

There can be no discussion of the success of Aliens as a film without singling out Sigourney Weaver. She has created a rarity in action/science-fiction films: a vulnerable heroine. It isn't just her gender that makes her unique in a film like Aliens although action leads for women are still few and far between. Even if Ripley were a man (and from what I understand, Ripley was suppose to have been a male in Alien), it is nearly impossible to find a hero who has any emotions akin to vulnerability, fear, protectiveness, gentleness. I don't know if the fact that Ripley was a woman released a 'mothering' instinct when it comes to her relationship with Newt, but it adds a greater depth and dimension: this character who can be extremely strong when needed can also be caring and fearsome in her protecting those who cannot protect themselves.

Her performance runs the entire spectrum: from someone who is genuinely frightened to someone who has no fear or at the very least, has fear but knows it has to be faced. Ripley is all business, who can face down a monster like the Alien Queen while also being tender with a child.

Ripley thanks to Weaver's performance can be as tough as any of the men, but doesn't have to be manly in her attitude toward life. The fact that she can be vulnerable is a strong counterpoint to the only other woman in Aliens, Jenette Goldstein's Private Vasquez (really, a nice Jewish girl as a Hispanic?). Goldstein's Vasquez is uber-tough: almost more macho than her male comrades, and it maybe that I may be the one reading too much into Aliens, but there is a curious mirror image between Vasquez in her macho posturing and Ripley in her acknowledging of fears but facing them. Still, Goldstein gives a strong performance, as does Henricksen as Bishop, who in spite of being an android is almost human in his own vulnerability and willingness to sacrifice.

I would, after a second viewing, still have to say that Bill Paxton's performance as Private Hudson was still terribly annoying: part of you almost want him to die because he's so insufferable as a character. In fact, all the Marines appear rather stereotypical in their tough outgoing demeanor, but perhaps this is a case where it shouldn't be taken too seriously. Even Paul Reiser as the sleazy businessman manages to be good, and I say this as someone who found both My Two Dads and Mad About You endlessly insufferable...and him especially so in both projects.

Everything in Aliens works: the acting and the action, the story, the directing, the music, even the sets. Every element in Aliens builds to a brilliant and terrifying story that builds and builds on the suspense, making each decision the characters make and each situation the face a life-and-death struggle against a monster. One of the most memorable lines in Aliens is near the end, when the Alien Queen threatens Newt. With the audience fully identifying with Ripley, with us knowing what Newt has suffered, with us wanting them to survive and the Alien to die, you cheer when in righteous fury Ripley yells:
Get away from her, you BITCH!
James Cameron doesn't let us have a true moment of rest until we leave the theater or the DVD ends, and at the end of Aliens, we need that time to recover from one of the most terrifying and thrilling films made.

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