Saturday, June 23, 2012


What a brilliant concept.  Even if Aliens had not been made in 1986, seven years after Alien, we would have had a sequel made at one point or another.  Following up on Ridley Scott's brilliant sci-fi/horror masterpiece was inevitable.  You have a unique universe, filled with fantastic-looking monsters, and the original was received well; of course a sequel had to be made.  What makes James Cameron's take so smart is that he opted to make a film entirely different from the original.  Why make a pale imitation when you can carve your own path, right?

Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) survived the destruction of her ship, the Nostromo, but it took almost sixty years for anyone to find her escape pod.  When she awakes from her space sleep/hibernation, she learns that nobody believes her story about the alien that killed her crew; with the Nostromo destroyed, she has no physical evidence, and the higher-ups in the Weyland-Yutani Corporation (AKA "The Company" from the first film) imply that they believe she is making up her story as a defense for blowing up one of their expensive ships.  Why would Ripley even need physical evidence?  Because the species she encountered has never been observed by humans --- at least, none who survived.  In fact, the planet where Ripley's team found the alien is now a terraformed colony, and none of the colonists have ever encountered such a creature.  Naturally, not being believed doesn't make Ripley very cheery.  When you combine that with the fact that she has now outlived all her loved ones, including her child, you get some serious Captain America-style angst.
On the bright side, she gets to work with mechanical crab-hands
Shortly, Ripley gets a visit from Burke (Paul Reiser), a slimy Company bureaucrat, and Corporal Hicks (Michael Biehn).  Apparently, the entire space colony on the planet where Ripley found the alien has stopped communicating.  The Company's solution to the problem is, smartly, not to send an exploration team.  Instead, they are sending in Colonial Marines to kill anything that looks even slightly funny on that planet. 
It's called "The Carrot Top Defense"
Burke and Hicks want Ripley along as a consultant.  If the colony's problem is another alien like the one Ripley encountered --- which is a long shot, at best --- she might be able to offer some in-the-moment insight.  She won't be fighting, she won't see the creature, she will just sit on the ship and observe.  Yeah.  Right.  As the title states, this is not about a singular alien; this is about alienS, and they are very plural in this colony.

As I mentioned before, there is a huge shift in tone from Alien to Aliens.  Instead of trying to recreate the suspense of the original film, director James Cameron made a bad-ass action movie.  Sure, one alien is scary if you have no weapons, but how about a hundred aliens against a metric ton of guns?  That choice makes Aliens a lot less scary than Alien, but it is also a hell of a lot more fun to watch.  If there is one thing that James Cameron has always had a handle on, it is how to portray spectacle on the big screen.  An entire colony filled with alien xenomorphs is so over the top when compared to the quiet desperation of the first film that it cannot be described as anything but a spectacle.  Well, I suppose you can also describe it as "totally awesome," too.
Suck it, Rambo

This time around, it is clear from the start that Ripley is the main character, so Sigourney Weaver's acting becomes more crucial.  I'm not the biggest fan of Weaver, but she gives an otherwise emotion-free script some humanity.  It's also nice to see her character evolve some of the traits shown briefly in the original film; when she takes command, the marines listen because she's saying sensible things with authority.  That couldn't have happened before this story, but it still makes sense within the character's progression.  I have to admit that I really enjoyed Paul Reiser's slimeball company man role.  I've never found Reiser particularly funny, so having a reason to dislike him was very cathartic for me.  It helps that he does a great job playing a despicable character.
Even in the future, the "popped collar" is a sign of douchiness
Leading the rest of the supporting cast is Michael Biehn as the likable marine and quasi-love interest for Ripley.  I've always liked Biehn, and seeing him as the calming influence in Aliens provided an interesting contrast to his "come with me if you want to live"-intensity in his other noteworthy roles.  I also have to admit that, while it certainly isn't subtle, I always smile when Hicks falls asleep on the drop from orbit.  Perhaps the biggest division I have seen amongst fans of this film is whether or not Bill Paxton is awesome here.  I definitely fall on the "hell, yes" side of the argument, but I see where the other side is coming from; Paxton's character speaks in cliches --- almost like an action figure come to life --- and his performance is so ridiculous that I'm pretty sure he delivered his lines IN ALL CAPS.  And his "badass" speech?  He could have described the marines as being "bushels of badasses" and it wouldn't have been any sillier than what he actually said.  But then, isn't that what makes his character's whimpering so entertaining?  He's a tough guy that ignores Ripley's advice and gets the ever-loving shit scared out of him.  Subtle?  Not exactly.  But it's damn entertaining work from an actor I typically dislike.
Game over, man!  Game over!
The only other cast members I cared about, one way or another, were Jenette Goldstein, Mark Rolston, and Lance Henriksen.  Henriksen was solid as a detached android, and it was nice to see that his character was substantially different than the android in Alien.  Goldstein and Rolston were even more action-figurey than Paxton --- I would argue that their acting and dialogue puts them on par with the cast of Predator --- but, like Paxton, their incredibly macho attitudes were pretty entertaining to watch.  Side note: I just realized that Jenette Goldstein also play the foster mother of John Connor in Terminator 2.  Too bad she didn't have the T-1000's abilities in this movie.
"You're just too bad, Vasquez"

James Cameron's style lends itself well to big-budget action movies, especially ones that don't spend a lot of time with emotions or thoughtfulness.  Yes, there is a little bit of commentary of corporate greed here, and I love that Paul Reiser was essentially more evil than the xenomorphs, but Aliens is definitely a movie that is best enjoyed by turning off your brain and just enjoying the show.  Some of the production values have aged poorly in the past twenty-six years (pretty much anything on the surface of the planet), but this movie still looks pretty great on the whole.  As much as I think that the majority of the acting in this movie is ridiculously over-the-top, I have to admit that it fits the characters and works well within the framework of this story.
Where are all the quips now, tough guy?
The mere fact that Cameron took the concept of the first film, completely changed the tone and situation, and still managed to make it cool speaks volumes for his vision as a director.  He may not be even close to a favorite, but he can make some fantastically entertaining stuff with the right concepts.
Cameron math: More, bigger monsters > one monster

The most amazing thing about Aliens, to me, is that it works.  As much as I enjoy the original film, I cannot deny how much fun this one is.  In fact, until I sat down to watch both back-to-back, Aliens had been my favorite entry in the series for years.  It's got cool monsters, a few minor scares, and a whole bunch of can-do action movie goodness --- what's not to like?  Well, aside from having to go fetch the little girl at the end because she's a plot device.  And the fact that Bill Paxton's character pulls the "I'm ___ days away from retirement" bit.  And this is the second movie in a row that has a surprise fourth act.  And nobody kills Paul Reiser.  Despite all of that, though, Aliens is a ton of fun to watch and still stands up there with Star Wars as one of the most enjoyable action/sci-fi movies ever made.
Enjoyable for most people, that is

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