(Special Edition) Aliens immediately became my favourite movie when I first saw it. It was a heart stopping roller coaster ride, and I didn’t want to get off. So much so, when it was over I instantly rewound the video tape and watched it again. James Cameron transformed the slow-burn atmospherics of Ridley Scott’s haunting original into an all-out attack/slaughter by/of xenomorphs; as the tagline announced, “This Time It’s War”. I can’t really apologise for having preferred it to Alien; it was simply a more accessible, adrenalised, edge-of-the-seat, air-punching experience. Time, hindsight and repeat viewings can change a lot; while I still see the movie I was initially floored by in Aliens, it no longer comes close to that insurmountable pinnacle of science fiction (or action) moviemaking.
It isn’t as if I was alone in my rapturous response. Aliens was that rare non-Spielberg science fiction spectacle that even garnered Oscar attention in non-technical categories; seven nominations, including a crucial one for Sigourney Weaver (it won two, Sound Effects Editing and Visual Effects). For genre work at the time, such acknowledgement was tantamount to being proclaimed a Best Picture winner.
There was, and there remained for a good few years, the suggestion it might even have surpassed Scott’s film in terms of quality. Kim Newman (who didn’t much care for Alien) offered that it “surprisingly caps the original”, comparing it to the work of Sam Fuller and commending it as “an optimistic, individualist rereading of the genre”. Pauline Kael could be relied upon as a relative lone voice of dissent, noting Cameron’s recent script for Stallone and concluding that Weaver, loaded up and ready for affray, was “no more than a smart Rambo”.
Which is sort of is what she is. Cameron is an unfinessed writer and a literal director, and you can see that kind of crude, functional mechanism reflected in his fascination with hardware and weaponry. It’s little wonder he had a such longstanding rep as a tyrant on set, martialling his troops like a general and frequently incurring the undying resentment of those unwilling to step in line and become his sheep.
As a consequence, particularly in the Special Edition (“This is the ride that we intended you should take” he surmised on its release), the nuts and bolts processes by which he designs his screenplays are in-your-face for all to see. Ripley, 57 years in hypersleep, has lost a daughter to old age in the interim. Unable to get a job, she operates power loaders on a shipping dock. Hicks gives her a tracking device just in case (she gets lost). And wouldn’t you know it, later in the proceedings she meets a surrogate daughter (and a potential mate, and a funny uncle), those power loading skills come in particularly handy, and she fortuitously gives said surrogate daughter the very bracelet she will need to track her down (when she gets lost).
Because Cameron is a “serious” filmmaker, mainly in the once derided science fiction arena, he warrants scrutiny other genre contenders might not. And because he is an auteur, writer-director-producer, the spotlight falls on him even more starkly. There’s no question of his technical acumen as a moviemaker, but his writing skills are as indelicate as his tact with actors. Which means, depending on the scene and what he’s aiming for, the results can be supremely satisfying or hideously mawkish/clichéd/unsubtle/corny.
Whatever the pros and cons, there’s no mistaking what we have here for the verisimilitude Scott brought to the original, an original that still shines twice as brightly as its successors. Aliens, with its cartoon-machismo military and slimy corporate suits, could never be mistaken for anything other than heightened (Cameron attempted to dig deeper with The Abyss, but was only partially successful).
Added to which, on the gripe front, its fashions are determinedly stuck in the decade of its making, from the haircuts to designer-wear, while its aliens lack any of their former exotic terror/allure, very much men in suits. Compared to Alien too, the sequel is quite a cheap-looking picture, sporadically blighted by very obvious back projection and model work. It hasn’t aged well, in other words. Which must be particularly irksome for its director, given his rigorously demanding and exacting process, and that Alien was his favourite science fiction film.
Whatever elements of this I acknowledged subconsciously, they didn’t matter at the time. I was an adherent to all things Cameron, and lapped up news, interviews, making-ofs and articles, including the tantalising prospect of an extended cut, which duly materialised in 1990. Is it essential? Since the scenes I most wanted to see from the novelisation weren’t there (Ripley finding a cocooned Burke, Bishop encountering an alien in the pipe), one might say not; they ill-advisedly over-emphasise (read: ladle on with a trowel) Ripley’s connection to Newt and her mothering instinct (the conversation regarding where babies come from), and the Hicks romance (“Don’t be gone long, Ellen” goes that step too far, where “It doesn’t mean we’re engaged or anything” is the perfect shorthand, albeit Hicks wooing Ripley via armaments training sounds like something autobiographical on its director-writer’s part). But mostly they’re fine, and I wouldn’t go back to watching the original. Like Alien, this takes the best part of an hour to really get moving, the difference being, there it was “What’s going to happen?” and here it’s “When’s it going to happen?”
With regard to the ‘Ripley as Rambo’ aspect, Weaver was uncomfortable enough in retrospect that she fully embraced the guns-free zone of Alien³ (it needed some kind of response, undoubtedly; I recall rumours at one point that Arnie would be appearing in the film, which was exactly the avenue the series didn’t need to go down). Ripley becomes a death-dealing, gun-toting mean mutha, because that’s how Cameron likes his hot pieces of ass.
Cameron in the movie is at once undermining the military (vis-à-vis the Viet Cong-esque xenomorphs) but also wholly enamoured of it, something running through most of his pictures, and especially Avatar. You tend to get the sense with Jimbo that the values he espouses only go as far as not getting in the way of what he wants personally (save the planet, as long as it doesn’t interfere with making my movie; warfare is bad, just as long as you don’t try and stop me playing with guns or treating my set like a military campaign).
And, while he has an innate facility for pushing an audience’s buttons, his delivery system is far from finely hewn. Aliens makes some curiously leaden gender substitutions, now characterising the aliens as worker ant males led by a queen, and setting up an opposition of (mostly) worker male marines led by a natural queen, leading to the ultimate cat fight (“Get away from her, you bitch!”) The line, and subsequent clash, are masterfully conceived and executed, but very much evidence a mind who thinks his comic book conjurings have real depth and substance.
Aliens mostly continues to deliver, mostly. But it surfs a layer of cheesiness that can no longer be ignored, because Cameron deals in such exaggerated, superficial, sugar-rush plays of emotion, while the other entries in the series either avoid such pitfalls or pick their battles. He even has the effrontery to have Newt proclaim “Mommy!” at the end, such is the neat bow wrapped around Ripley’s post-nuclear family; I can’t say I was fully on board with anything about the execution of Alien³ , but Cameron’s going there is more than enough to forgive Fincher his heartless slaying of Hicks and Newt. Making Aliens all about family not only softens the series’ edges, it neuters the uncanny, the sheer otherness of the original. Aliens, for all the skill of its manufacture, is just another monster movie, which its predecessor wasn’t and isn’t.
While Cameron’s kinetic action technique is undeniable, I’ve been distracted by just how horribly overlit Aliens is the last couple of times I’ve revisited it. I can’t say it ever bothered me the many times I watched it during the late-80s and early-90s; perhaps it was simply the benefit of crappy VHS tapes adding a layer of murk/fuzz/atmosphere. Particularly impaired in this regard is the crucial scene where the marines follow the colonists’ tracking chips to the atmosphere processing station, but it’s generally the case that we can see much, much too much.
It can’t dent certain scenes; the med lab attack is still a masterpiece of sustained terror, and the “inside the perimeter”, culminating in Hicks looking aloft, is likewise inspired. On occasion, the brightness adds something (Ripley and Hicks reaching the lift, their surroundings almost agoraphobic, before one of the uglies appears from nowhere at the door), but it’s very strange thing to behold in what is intended to be a fearful, unnerving movie. And given that Adrian Biddle was brought in because the original DP was over-lighting the nest set, it’s a mystery what Cameron was thinking.
Aliens is very much, as Kael noted, “a comic book for adults”, and that’s evident in the characterisations. It’s comes back to the same point as the cheesiness factor. These characters work, mainly thanks to a fine assembled cast, but they’re broad brush caricatures, played as such. Weaver brings complete commitment, but that’s despite, not because of, Cameron’s dialogue (for all that Titanic swept the board at the Oscars, it didn’t even merit a nomination for screenplay, which is very telling).
One can turn a blind eye to much of the convenience here, as one is swept along (it’s fairly unlikely that “in twenty years, no one found” the alien derelict, and it’s very useful to the race against the clock that the venting should start blowing when it does. Once Ripley is off chasing after Newt, the picture has accelerated into a prototype computer game, complete with platform levels; on the other hand, that the marines should reach the processing station, all set for a rescue, and then be told they can’t blow shit up seems like exactly the sort of thing that would happen).
So I’ve griped about how Aliens has lost something of its lustre, but that’s merely to underline that I no longer see it as an unparalleled classic; it’s still a very good movie of its type. And, as noted, the cast are splendid. Especially the Terminator trio of Bill Paxton’s impossible-to-go-over-the-top Hudson (“How do I get out of this chicken shit outfit?”), Michael Biehn underplaying as Hicks (“I say we take off and nuke the sight from orbit. It’s the only way to be sure”) and Lance Henriksen being necessarily inscrutable as Bishop (I love the moment where Jeanette Goldstein’s Vasquez hands him a handgun as he climbs into the pipe; there’s the briefest beat of examining this foreign object before he passes it back to Ripley).
Paul Reiser’s performance as Burke is accomplished, but it’s standard corporate duplicity that ultimately goes beyond the bounds of common-sense when there are aliens on his ass and he’s still concocting ruses. Carrie Henn’s Newt has taken a hit in later years, partly thanks to some well-aimed South Park piss-taking, but it’s difficult to argue she doesn’t serve her purpose effectively as the moppet in peril.
Burke again goes to the recognition that the price of bringing Cameron into the franchise is the sacrifice of any possibility of nuance. His badmouthing corporations comes because it had become fashionable in the ‘80s, and because it serves him to do so in this case. There’s no real resonance to it other than that he’s an apt trope to slot into the plot, as the company man waxes lyrical about substantial dollar values and being set up for life.
Other elements display pervading professionalism, but without that something more. James Horner’s score, while owing a lot to his work on Star Trek II, is mostly exactly what the movie needs, mostly, but it still occasionally shows its hand too soon. Horner plies the action bombast with the dream chestburster scene, which should be freaky, not dynamic spectacle; it would have far better been left until the mayhem in the nest. The Alien queen is an artless creation (although, sat next to the hybrid from Alien Resurrection, she’s becomes a borderline phenomenal piece of design), reflecting that Cameron’s aptitude does not extend to weird sexual undercurrents or violations (you almost sense he was reluctant to even include a chest burst). But then, balance this against the pure pleasure of Hicks putting a shotgun in an alien’s jaws and firing, signing-off with “EAT THIS!”; there’s no way you can’t applaud.
Which is a way of saying Aliens has probably exerted more influence on the methods and beats of movie making than Alien. Aliens doesn’t copy Alien in form, but it has been copied thus ad infinitum by other moviemakers, mechanically so. Which is probably right, as even the picture’s emotional content is very calculated, very packaged. And, despite its problems, this is still the second best in the franchise; it’s just no longer possible to nurse the illusion of it being in the same ball park as Alien (as Pete Travers said at the time, “So much for the theory sequels never equal the original”). It would probably be better to simply be grateful that Aliens is as good as it is, rather than complain that it isn’t as good as its predecessor.