Friday, January 18, 2019

SCI-FI WAR MOVIE: Aliens (1986)

                “Aliens” was the sequel to “Alien” (1979).  James Cameron was a young 31-year old director who had not yet released “Terminator”.  He was approached to write the screenplay and he decided to make the sequel a combat film with a mix of terror.  He envisioned it as an allegory about the Vietnam War.  The Colonial Marines exemplified the overconfident American army which had all the firepower, but was thrust into an alien environment against a primitive enemy that was relentless.  He wanted Ripley back to be a feminist hero, but contract problems with Sigourney Weaver almost led to Ripley being written out.  Cameron was given a paltry $18 million budget.  The film was shot in England, but American actors were used.  The movie was a critical and box office smash.  It won Academy Awards for Sound Effects Editing and Visual Effects.  It was nominated for Best Supporting Actress (Sigourney Weaver), Art Direction, Original Score (James Horner). and Film Editing.  At the Saturn Awards for science fiction films it won Best Film, Direction, Writing (Cameron), Supporting Actor (Bill Pullman), Supporting Actress (Jenette Goldstein), and Best Performance by a Younger Actor (Carrie Henn).  The aliens’ nest set was a decommissioned power plant. 

                “Aliens” takes place 57 years after “Alien”.  Ripley (and Jonesy the cat) are found drifting is space.  At a meeting with the evil corporation, Ripley is disbelieved (she’s a woman, after all).  She is shocked to learn that a colony has been set up on the planet where the Nostromo encountered the alien.  Communication has ceased with the colony.  A company man named Burke (Paul Reiser) convinces a very reluctant Ripley to join a squad of Colonial Marines on a rescue mission.  An android named Bishop (Lance Henriksen) is along.  Needless to say, Ripley is not enamored with him.  The squad is your typical heterogeneous unit filled with braggadocio and disdain for the potential “bugs” they may have to exterminate.  Their commander is green and will need to gain their respect.  Luckily, they have a gruff sergeant to motivate them.  You know this is a war movie when they arrive to snare drums.  The colony is located on an inhospitable planet and the settlement’s interior is cinematic prison/factory/ghost town.  They encounter one survivor, a little girl named Newt (Henn) and Ripley develops a mother/daughter relationship with her.  In a pulse-pounding and pulse-expending recon, they discover a nest of aliens.  It’s game on, as Hudson (Pullman) might say.

                “Aliens” has been called the greatest sequel ever and it is hard to argue with that assessment.  Cameron’s decision to change the sequel from horror to war was brilliant.  He did not take the lame sequel route of trying to recreate the vibe of the original.  Although more comfortably placed in the sci-fi genre, it is certainly a war movie.  It is basically a squad behind-the-lines movie.  Their tactics are realistic and the weaponry is amazing.  What sets it apart from a WWII movie is the strong female character.  Ripley is iconic and set a new standard for a woman who challenges the male-dominated world. (It is a bit depressing to think that in 2179 nothing has changed in this respect.)  in fact, the film has three strong female characters.  Ripley was ranked #8 on AFI’s list of screen heroes in 2003.  The character does not suck all the air out of the room, however.  The movie is blessed with several indelible characters – Hudson, Hicks, Newt, Vasquez, Bishop. Hell, even Paul Reiser’s slimy Burke is a great villain.  The actors are up to the characters with several doing their best work.  And I haven’t yet mentioned the aliens.  There is less left to the imagination than in “Alien” and the queen is a brilliant addition to the xenomorphs introduced in “Alien”.  Special effects wizard Stan Wilson deserves huge credit, along with Cameron.
                It is hard to imagine how the movie could have been better.  (Other than a cheap scene where Ripley dreams of giving birth to an alien.)  The sound track (amazingly done by Horner in just three weeks) and sound effects are amazing.  The movie takes the commando mission and last stand tropes and puts them in a futuristic monster movie in a haunted house setting.  This hybridization works because all the elements are maxed out.  The movie starts strong and builds consistently to one hell of an ending.  Ripley’s duel with the queen is incredible and includes one of the greatest lines in movie history:  “Get away from her, you bitch!”.  If that does not get you fired up, nothing will.

GRADE  =  A+

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