Thursday, November 4, 2010
TEFB REVISITS: ALIENS
revisit by Mark Pezzula
Directed by James Cameron
Starring Sigourney Weaver, Michael Biehn, Paul Reiser
In the early 1980's, James Cameron - disciple of Roger Corman and production designer/art director/model maker extraordinaire - already had years of experience in the film business but had not yet directed a feature film. With his now well known bravado, Cameron approached Alien producer David Giler about penning and possibly directing a sequel to the 1979 hit film. He wrote the first 90 pages of a screenplay that so impressed 20th Century Fox that the studio decided to let Cameron make his own film - The Terminator - and wait until after he completed that to not only let him finish the Alien II (what would later become Aliens) script but also direct it as well. James Cameron had not yet dubbed himself "King of the World", yet already had what seemed to be single-handed command of one of the most powerful movie studios in the business.
Fox may have taken a gamble on an unproven filmmaker, but it's easy to see why they put a lot of eggs in his basket. Cameron's Aliens screenplay took advantage of that decade's obsession with fist pumping action films and was filled with violently explosive set-pieces. First Blood and Rambo: First Blood Part II had already become pop-culture phenomenons, and after The Terminator blew audiences away an action heavy science fiction film was what the world was craving. Folks were ready to see Ripley back in action, this time with guns blazing and a group of hardcore Colonial Marines by her side.
I recently revisited the film for the first time in years, thanks to Fox's Blu-ray release of the Alien Anthology, and the movie not only remains one of the best action films of the 1980's (second, maybe, only to Die Hard), but also a thrilling and tense adventure. It's flaws, however, seem to be more glaring as time wears on. While some (probably most) folks consider Aliens to be superior to its predecessor, the film has too many weaknesses and is burdened by an overlong running time. The weak aspects and desperate need of at least ten minutes cut out make it markedly inferior to Ridley Scott's film.
Once again, there will be spoilers in this revisit.
Aliens begins 57 years after the ending of the fist film. Ripley is rescued from the shuttle Narcissus by a salvage ship, which takes her to a space station where she is questioned by a panel of bureaucrats from the Weyland-Yutani Corporation. Berated for blowing up their ship, the company simply refuses to believe Ripley's story about the alien, more concerned with the price-tag of their precious mining vessel. The company, we (and Ripley) find out, has populated the planet from the original film (planet LV-426) with terraformers and their families. Ripley is recruited by company man Carter Burke (a slimy Paul Reiser) to accompany a group of marines to the planet to track down a missing colony. She declines, but soon finds herself agreeing to the mission. She also finds, in an echo back to the first film, that the company cares nothing about the folks on LV-426, they simply want the creature.
The blood pumping through Aliens is be pure and distilled action-genre fare and, therefore, has a tone quite different from the previous film. However, Cameron wisely follows Scott's lead in pacing and structure. Aliens is a slow moving film, compared to most action pics (the first set-piece doesn't take place until over an hour into the film) and Cameron, like Scott, is concerned with setting up characters rather than jumping right into the blood and 'splosions.
Weaver, of course, gets the most attention and the meatiest role, and her dedication to the character paid off with an Academy Award nomination. The take charge, "I don't want to hear any of your crap" side of Ripley that we glimpsed in the first film is front and center in Aliens. I think Weaver's work in Alien is more statue worthy, but I guess the fact that Cameron gave Weaver a little girl (a sufficient but bored looking Carrie Hein) to take care of tugged at the heart strings of Academy members more than the subtle layering she gave Ripley in the first film.
It's too bad that the other characters Cameron sets up are broad archetypes that he seems interested in only assigning one memorable trait each to. Hudson (a wired-out Bill Paxton) is the comic-relief, always flipping out and zinging one liners. Hicks (Michael Biehn) is the strong, silent leader - the would be hero if the screenplay didn't include Lt. Ellen Ripley. Vasquez (Jenette Goldstein) is the butch, take charge rule-breaker. What gives these few characters flesh and blood are the performances. Cameron populates the film with memorable faces and top-notch character actors. The rest of the marines are simply alien-fodder; faces that are not very memorable (save for a few, like Drake or Apone) but don't need to be, because they exist only to up the body count. Which isn't necessarily a bad thing at all. Aliens is, of course, an action picture, and an action picture needs some action. The rules of the genre dictate that the bodies must hit the floor.
And hit the floor they do. When Aliens finally does explode, after 60 minutes of tension building, it does so with the force of a sentry gun to the face. This is not Cameron's best film (that's The Abyss), but it certainly contains his best action sequences. He orchestrates some remarkably intense scenes which feature situations you don't normally see in other action films. The action isn't all centered around blazing guns and exploding alien heads. For instance: at the beginning of the film's first full-fledged action scene, an alien grabs a marine from behind. The marine pulls the trigger of her flamethrower, igniting a second marine in front of her. The second marine falls a few stories to his death over a railing, but not before dropping a bag of ammunition on the ground in front of him, which in turn ignites. The rest of the marines flee the burning ammo bag and then, as they say, all hell breaks loose. It's a quick scene (many of the film's action pieces come in short bursts), but it's demonstrative of Cameron's keen eye for action, and a testament to his skills as a director.
As previously mentioned, Cameron makes a wise choice by using Scott's film as a template for Aliens. Another wise choice Cameron makes is to use the same conceptual artist as Alien, Ron Cobb. This gives the film, at least the interiors of Hadley's Hope (the LV-426 colony gone missing) the same vibe and feel of the corridors of the Nostromo. While Aliens isn't as claustrophobic as the first film, the utilization of Cobb creates a nice palate to visually bridge the two films with.
While there is much to admire about Aliens and a lot that it gets right, there's a section of the film that becomes more irksome on each viewing. That section is the climactic battle between Ripley and the queen alien, which I've dubbed the "power-loader" scene. It features Ripley engaging in fisticuffs with the Mother of all Monsters while strapped into a large mechanical loader (see first pic above). While visually awesome and cool in theory, the scene shatters suspension of disbelief, as Ripley would never stand a chance against the creature in the bulky, metal mech. The scene also comes too close on the heels of the films first climax - Ripley and Newt's escape from the complex after incinerating and destroying the queen's nest. Cameron attempts to match the intensity of the escape with the power loader battle, and it becomes too much over too short a time. As an audience member, I'm already exhausted after Ripley and Newt successfully flee the clutches of the alien hive. A second, and equally ferocious, ending simply makes the film that much longer and, unfortunately, adds a disappointing coda onto a thrilling film.
Alien, for the record, had a final act structured the same way, however it works better for two reasons: 1) In the first film, Ripley had not yet had a face to face meeting with the creature when she comes across the alien in the shuttle Narcissus. In Aliens, Ripley has her cathartic way with the queen right after rescuing Newt. There's no need for a second meeting. 2) Instead of attempting to raise the film's level of intensity to where it was when Ripley was blowing up the Nostromo - with testosterone infused music and a grand set-piece - Scott wisely kept Alien's second climax a more intimate affair. Cameron's approach is to suck the air out of you and then keep sucking, whereas Scott takes your breath away and at least lets it back into your lungs in little gasps for the last ten minutes of the film.
Like my revisit to Alien, there's just too much I want to write about Aliens for one blog post to contain. I suspect that's how it will be with the remaining two films as well. Although over time the chinks in Aliens's armor become more and more apparent, it still remains one hell of an action flick, and an experience I don't mind having again and again, no matter what the format.