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Non-Review Review: Aliens (Theatrical Cut)

To celebrate the release of Prometheus this week, we’ll be taking a look at the other movies in the Alien franchise.

I think Aliens might be my favourite James Cameron movie. Of course, the guy has any number of iconic movies vying for that position – The Terminator and Terminator 2 both come to mind, for example – but I can’t help but admire how efficiently the director constructed his first big budget motion picture. Regardless of its place within an iconic science-fiction franchise, Aliens is practically a guidebook on how to effectively construct a movie, from writing the script to directing the action and absolutely everything in between. It’s hard to look at Aliens as anything less than a complete triumph, no matter which angle you examine the film from.

Queen bee…

It’s often debated whether the original Alien or the sequel Aliens is the superior film. Being entirely honest, I’m hard-pressed to choose between them. Both are exemplary and classic examples of cinema, and both are distinct enough to stand relatively independently. While they share themes, some production design, the eponymous monsters and Ellen Ripley, I think that they are both very different films. Ridley Scott’s film is essentially a gothic haunted house horror set in space, while James Cameron offers a futuristic Vietnam movie.

While there are obvious areas of overlap, there are key differences as well. Both directors, for example, deal with the reproductive horror quite differently. Scott’s version of Ripley survives because she refuses to conform to the feminine archetype of “the victim” or “the scream queen.”In contrast, Cameron’s version of Ripley finally defeats the monstrous queen by embracing her surrogate family, with Newt as her daughter, Hicks as her husband and Bishop akin to a loving uncle.

Get a load(er) of this…

Similarly, Scott’s monster reproduced in an ambiguous and creepy way, with the Director’s Cut featuring the alien turning people into eggs. In contrast, Cameron imposes a much more rigid and recognisable structure on the creatures. Here, they are essentially a hive mind with a queen producing eggs. I quite like this approach, even if it does rob the monsters of some of their mystery. The queen alien provides an effective counterpoint to Ripley, mother to mother. Given the series’ feminist themes, it seems strangely fitting.

Still, regardless of the story itself, I think Cameron’s film is exceptionally well constructed. It did, after all manage to earn seven Academy Award nominations, something still quite rare for a film residing in both the science-fiction and the horror ghettos. It’s stunning that the Academy actually allowed themselves to acknowledge Sigourney Weaver’s superb leading turn here, as it’s hardly a role that typically garners these sorts of accolades. I would argue that it demonstrates just how wonderfully put together the whole film is.

Just trying to Reiser out of her…

Look at how efficiently the film is paced. Like Christopher Nolan’s superb Batman Begins, it’s almost an hour before the main attraction shows up, and yet the audience doesn’t really miss them. Instead, Cameron actually takes the time to build and develop his cast. Sure, the marines are all stock archetypes, but they are written and played with enough charm and sophistication that they are far more engaging than they should be. Michael Biehn and Bill Paxton in particular do astonishing jobs playing two of the grunts assigned to back up Ripley.

That care and attention put into building the world pays dividends later on. The scene featuring Ripley taking a “power-loader” into action against the evil alien queen has become iconic, but it is actually carefully set-up well over an hour before the climax. That is a well-constructed screenplay right there. Similarly, throughout its run time, Cameron structures set-up and pay-off almost perfectly, introducing concepts like the nuclear reactor and the motion detector in clever ways long before they’ll provide dramatic pay-off.

Good to the Corps…

This is all really basic storytelling technique, but I honestly don’t think that many filmmakers can do it half as well as Cameron. I think that’s why even casual movie-goers engage with Cameron so readily, even across multiple projects and genres. It’s this incredible flair for storytelling that has helped films like Titanic and Avatar resonate with audiences, and earn massive amounts of money. I think the fact that these films are entirely accessible to people like my parents and even my grandmother illustrates how skilled Cameron is at these essentials, even if the stories themselves aren’t always of the highest quality.

For my money, however, Aliens is a far superior version of Avatar. I think one of the great things about the Alien series is that each of the films has its own very distinct visual style, coming from a unique director. Okay, Alien³ and Alien Resurrectionwere significantly flawed (especially the theatrical releases), but there’s no denying that each of these four films has a unique visual identity owed to the director responsible. Much like the eponymous creature, these films are adaptable and responsive, capable of perfectly mimicking the director’s style or requirements.

There’s something in the water…

In Cameron’s case, Aliens provides a rich commentary on corporate greed and exploitation, a theme the director would return to with Avatar. I think Aliens is the stronger film because it lacks the somewhat uncomfortable racial undertones of Avatar – the story of a white man who teaches a wise and peaceful native culture to make war to preserve their culture as his fellow white men perpetrate genocide.

I also think that the somewhat more cynical tone plays into the theme much better than Avatar’s family friendly atmosphere. Avatar is, I think, the happiest film I have ever seen about the death of the human race. It doesn’t help that the surreal joy of that ending is somewhat undermined by the solution proposed by one of the humans here. (“I say we take off and nuke the site from orbit. It’s the only way to be sure.”)

Let ‘er Rip(ley)…

In contrast, the corruption and greed apparent in Aliens is much more unnerving and effective. It isn’t even that the greed is confined to the sinister and pathetic scheming of Carter Burke. In the opening scene, the scavengers seem almost disappointed that there’s somebody alive inside the escape pod. “She’s alive,” one of the scavengers declares. “There goes our salvage, guys.” Later on, Ripley is actually held to account for the financial, rather than the human, cost of the Nostromo incident. “You admit to detonating the engines of, and thereby destroying, an M-Class star freighter,” she is told. ” An expensive piece of hardware. 42 million in adjusted dollars. That’s minus payload, of course.”

It’s somewhat telling that the cleanest and most stylish sets in the entire franchise are the corporate space station where Ripley is housed. Everything looks sterile and effective, in contrast to the more neglected and decayed aesthetic of the other locales. Weyland-Yutani, the mega-corp from the films, seem to have successfully commercialised everything, right down to air itself. As the marines land on LV-246, Burke boasts of the gigantic terraforming station, “You know we manufacture those, by the way?”

LV-246, a terrorforming success story…

Despite the promise that this is a strictly military operation, it seems that Burke is calling the shots. The inexperienced Lieutenant Gorman is rarely seen far from the corporate executive. Burke’s priorities are clear – and they aren’t altruistic. When the marines suggest nuking the base, he protests, “This installation has a significant dollar value attached to it.” When reminded this is a military operation and that Hicks holds the position of authority, Burke counters, “This is a multi-million dollar installation, okay? He can’t make that kind of decision, he’s just a grunt!”

Burke’s corruption and greed (escalating to a plan to murder everybody else on the mission), prompts Ripley’s scathing observation, “You know, Burke, I don’t know which species is worse. You don’t see them @#!&ing each other over for a goddamn percentage.” I think one of the great things about this series, as well as the fact that each director gets a chance to make their mark, is the massive distance between most of the installments. This means that each film essentially speaks to a different era and a different zeitgeist. Aliens is decidedly eighties, right down to Burke’s suit-and-tie combination, but I think that lends it considerable charm.

A hole mess of trouble…

Another way that the film speaks to the time period is the way that Cameron works the concept as “Vietnam in space.” It’s such a simple concept, but an effective one as the military prepares themselves for a quick and easy conflict only to discover that their advanced weaponry and tactics are unsuited to this particular style of conflict. Quite simply, the soldiers aren’t equipped, mentally or physically, for the type of opponent they are facing.

When the aliens cut the power to the facility, Hudson can’t seem to make sense of it. “How could they cut the power?” Hudson demands. “They’re animals!”Throughout the film, the monsters use all manner of sly techniques and tactics, from staging ambushes to interfering with enemy infrastructure. At one point, they even infiltrate the enemy position using lateral thinking, catching the troops entirely off-guard.

Prick him does he not leak?

It doesn’t help that the marines are at the command of an officer who has no actual experience or expertise. He doesn’t even eat with his men, or know their names – confusing Hicks and Hudson during the briefing. More than that, his experience is mostly theoretical. Ripley asks him how many drops he has been a part of, and he responds, “Thirty-eight, simulated.” Vasquez follows up, “How many combat drops?” He answers, “Two… including this one.”

Even Ripley, the civilian observer, challenges Gorman repeatedly. She disputes his insistence that the area “is secured” after a fairly routine inspection. When his troops find the enemy hive, Ripley asks, “So… if they fire their weapons in there, won’t they rupture the cooling system?” Gorman’s responds “So? So what?”Even the least tactically experienced viewer could probably reach that conclusion quicker than Gorman.

Not a dumb Hicks…

Of course, this is a bleak future, and Cameron proves a worthy successor to Scott in making this possible future a truly crappy place to live. More than any other science-fiction franchise I can think of, the universe seems a cold and hostile place – not actively hostile, but more inherently hostile. We’re told that Ripley was lucky to have been found drifting in dead space. “You had drifted through the core systems,” Burke observes, not explaining how Ripley managed to drift through those core systems without anybody noticing. That’s how sterile and indifferent this future is. Ripley was only found alive because somebody thought her ship might be worth something.

While it’s implied that Weyland-Yutani are solely interested in finding the crashed ship from the first Alien, and may have settled for that reason, there’s something depressing about the fact that a planet like LV-246 is considered ‘habitable’, that the universe is so hostile that a lump of rock like that is seen as a viable colony. (With the lofty ambition of making the air breathable, without seeming to do anything to affect the bleak topography of the place.)

I’ll bet they can’t wait to LV…

It’s fairly damning that Bishop is the most human member of the entire expedition, despite being an android. There’s a lovely joke at the expense of eighties political correctness as Bishop calls Burke on his use of the term “synthetic.” Bishop explains, “I prefer the term artificial person myself.” In contrast to Ash, who blended in disturbingly well amongst a relatively cold and isolated crew, Bishop exudes warmth in contrast to his fellow cast members.

Bishop is affectionate and sensitive – when he secures Newt towards the end of the film, it looks like a hug. More than that, though, Bishop is shown to have a sense of humour, gleefully improvising Hudson as a volunteer for his knife trick. Bishop isn’t just a nice person, he actually seems more human than the humans around him, with all the complexity that suggests. It helps that Lance Henriksen is absolutely superb in the role, probably as good as he’s ever been outside of Millennium.

Knife trick, there, Bishop…

Indeed, in this cold future, Ripley’s humanity is actually used as a weapon against her to exploit her. When she first hears that LV-246 has gone off-the-grid, she is reluctant to go along on the rescue mission. “It’s not my problem,” she tells Burke. Given what she has been through, it seems a fair position (if not the most heroic one). It’s hard to blame her for not wanting to get involved. Burke skilfully manipulates her, though, taking advantage of the fact that Ripley isn’t as disconnected as most of the cast.

In fairness, Cameron continues the sexual subtext from Alien, even if he develops it in a slightly different direction to Ridley Scott. Scott suggested the monster was an asexual aberration, the result of a culture unable to express and articulate their own sexual needs and desires. (He even suggested the creature inherited Kane’s suppressed sexual desires.) Ripley defeated it by refusing to succumb to traditional gender roles, by refusing to break down and cry or scream, arguably seeming quite masculine in her confrontation with it.

All for gun and a gun for all…

Cameron contrasts that approach by building a more conventional sexual identity for Ripley here. Ripley builds a surrogate nuclear family around herself, including a surrogate daughter and a surrogate husband. The one thing I miss from the extended cut is the reveal that Ripley had an actual daughter who died of old age while she was away. Anyway, Ripley and Hicks are a very clear couple, even if their love is never consummated beyond his pragmatic decision to give her a tracking band. “Doesn’t mean we’re engaged or anything,” he jokes. When she’s considering a suicide pact, he is the one she turns to. “You’ll take care of it, won’t you?” she asks, as if asking him to pick up some milk on the way home.

The pair of them serve quite well as surrogate parents to Newt. Ripley passes on her locator to Newt, and tucks her in at night. During the initial assault on the hive, Ripley tries to draw Newt’s attention away from it. While planning their strategy to survive the monsters, Hicks carefully lifts her up so she can see the screen, and warns her not to play with a small weapon. I’ll freely admit that the decision to kill of both Newt and Hicks so bluntly and pointlessly is one that I didn’t agree with.

Tunnel vision…

Incidentally, even after re-watching the film dozens of times, I can’t decide whether Carrie Henn is a good actress or not, playing the role of Newt. Her delivery is fairly stunted, but it works remarkably well in context. I don’t know whether she has a natural talent, or Cameron is just a great director. She never acted outside this film, so that’s one hell of an entry to have on your CV. She fits perfectly as the emotionally traumatised Newt, and plays brilliantly with Sigourney Weaver, who is arguably better than she has ever been. (And Sigourney Weaver is a great actress.)

Whether or not Aliens is a sequel that surpasses the original film is a debate that’s going to rage for years to come. However, the fact that the debate even takes place stands as a testament to the quality of Cameron’s work here. He’s managed to craft that rare sequel that proves a fitting expansion to the original film, without impeding or reducing that first film in any way, shape or form. Those sorts of sequels are far too rare, even decades after Aliens.

You might be interested in our reviews of the other films in the Alien series:

3 Responses

  1. This and Raiders of the Lost Ark are pretty much the perfect movies. I saw Aliens in the Ambassador when I was teenager and pretty much made me the fanboy I am today. I miss the Cameron of this era as he seemed more inventive under a more constrained budget.

  2. Great review. You hit upon all the elements that make this an amazing film. I’m surprised you didn’t review the director’s cut, however, as I find it the superior of the two versions because of how much is added to the story (such as showing the terraforming community before they’re wiped out by the aliens, and Newt’s family discovering the shipwreck from the first film).

  3. Great look at the theatrical cut of this film. Before the Director’s Cut was released, I loved it. The DC has eclipsed it in my person play count and favorites, but there’s no denying how wonderful the original release remains. I very much agree Cameron’s storytelling and set-up went up another level with this film. in fact, a couple of my all-time fave action sequences are in this film, beginning with the Rescue of Trapped Marines:

    When this sequence kicks in, you know you’re in a James Cameron movie (and simultaneously realizing you’ve taken a 180° in the series and away from Ridley Scott’s Alien). It’s here in this highly skilled sequence that director Cameron accomplished a number things for the story: 1) slapped the hero character, Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), out of her post-trauma stupor, 2) established who in the surviving group are the strong and weak links, and 3) set up the emotional payoff’s that will come later; the action-packed finale (which is the other sequence of note, one you covered excellently). Well done, Darren.

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