Saturday, July 19, 2014

#186: Aliens (James Cameron, 1986)

Where do I start with Aliens, a movie I've seen probably a dozen times since I was a child? I'm a fan of the whole series of films (my wife is an even bigger fan) including the underrated third and fourth installments, each one made by a visually distinctive director continuing the story in a non-derivative way, but, like most people, I'll concede that the first two are the best. But, which one is the best of the best? Like Beatles vs. Stones, your answer to Alien vs. Aliens is likely to tell you more about yourself than any Myers-Briggs nonsense.
I'm an Alien guy, and though I've come around to loving it, I admit to being a little bored by Aliens on my first viewing. I had a childhood bias against action movies. My genres of choice were horror, comedy, and crime thrillers, while action movies were the domain of the macho rednecks and jocks I grew up around and couldn't wait to escape. Aliens seemed like a big, loud action movie with monsters instead of terrorists. I liked the first Alien's atmosphere, suspense, and Giger landscapes and was a little pissed that the sequel was about space Marines blowing shit up even though I was still totally psyched about the aliens. I've since learned to love '70s and '80s action movies (especially in comparison to the spatially incoherent CGI hellscape we're trapped in now), and the substantial pleasures of Aliens revealed themselves to me on subsequent viewings.
Those pleasures include James Cameron's undeniable visual skills, Sigourney Weaver, Bill "Game Over, Man" Paxton, Carrie "They Mostly Come Out At Night, Mostly" Henn, Lance Henriksen, Paul Reiser getting munched by an alien, a slow build that turns into an extended tour-de-force of action and suspense, and the goddamn aliens, man. I mean, it's right there in the title. The movie's a bit long at almost two-and-a-half hours, but most of that running time is earned.
I'm sure most of you know the story. Ripley and her cat, Jonesy, are floating through space in their sleep chamber after getting away from the aliens in the first movie. No one picks them up for 57 years, and unfortunately for Ripley, she's rescued by another slimy corporation, represented here by the weaselly little shit Carter Burke (Paul Reiser). For the past 20 years, the planet Ripley and her crew had to get the eff away from has been inhabited by space colonists working for Carter's space corporation, but their space signals have recently been lost, so Ripley, Carter, and some space Marines get their asses to space to find out what the hell is space happening. I'll stop doing that now.
Of course, things go wrong, the corporation is lying, and aliens abound, and our extended action/horror/suspense sequence begins. Ripley also finds the sole survivor, Newt (Carrie Henn, in her only film role, and who is currently a teacher in California), a young girl whose family has been wiped out by aliens. Cameron, in only his third film (after Piranha II and The Terminator), demonstrates his mastery of something-for-everybody Hollywood politics. We get evil corporations for the liberals to shake their fists at and Marines blowing shit up to give the conservatives that tingly feeling and Ripley gets to be both a badass feminist action hero and a nurturing maternal figure. Financially well played, Cameron. Despite my cynicism, I have to give Cameron credit. After showing what he could do with The Terminator, he handles the much bigger canvas of Aliens with confidence, skill, and talent, and even I have to admit Aliens develops its handful of main characters more extensively than Ridley Scott did in the first film, despite his casting of Harry Dean Stanton and Yaphet Kotto. 
I love Bill Paxton's goofy-ass portrayal of Hudson, Weaver as Ripley, and Carrie Henn's Newt. Did I mention I also love the aliens? And though True Lies is an anthology of Ronald Reagan's masturbation fantasies, Terminator 2 pioneered the CGI I despise so much, Titanic gave us that fucking Celine Dion song (I admit to liking the movie when I finally gave it a chance eight years after its release), and from the ten minutes I've seen of it, Avatar looks like an episode of Thundercats on bad hallucinogens, I will gladly admit that James Cameron knows how to direct action and Aliens is one of his best films.

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