… and Aliens

Hello, and welcome back to talk about all things Alien! As I talked about, at length, in my last post, Alien is a sci-fi classic that was both novel and original, not to mention faithful in it’s execution. Then, years later, the studio that brought us the original came back, this time with a bigger budget and a new director, a man who would make his name directing big-budget action flicks and blockbusters. I am of course referring to James Cameron. And with the added s in the title, we were given a preview of what was to come. Maybe not specifics, but anyone looking at the titles could probably tell that in the second, the ante was being upped! And it certainly was. In this movie, as was hoped, we got a dose of action, plenty of awesome sets and characters, and of course, some much needed explanations about the alien species.

(Background—>)
According to many sources, Cameron was the one who approached 20th Century Fox and producer David Giller and asked if he could direct a sequel to the movie. In addition, it was while working on The Terminator that he hammered out the initial script to the movie, and impressed the studio to the point that they willing to foot the bill. Choosing not to follow the lead of the first, he decided that the sequel would be a combat action film that focused “more on terror, less on horror”. In other words, this movie would have more shooting, more explosions, all the fear and suspense, but less gore. And of course, it would also have to illustrate the relationship between the two alien species, the spidery-parasite on the one hand and the hunter-seeker on the other! Strong hints were dropped in the first movie as to how these creatures bred and propagated. Remember the fields of eggs? Yeah, well… something was going to have to be done about that, and I think we all knew that it wouldn’t be pretty. It might be fair to say that the original trailer said it best: “Aliens. This time… it’s war!”

(Content—>)
Picking up where the first left off, the movie opens with Ripley’s ship coming back to Earth after being adrift for over fifty years. The opening sequence, where not a line of dialogue is spoken for several minutes, sets the tone of the movie quite well. Its eery, cold, and kind of suspenseful. There’s also the opening nightmare sequence to remind everyone of what happened last time, and illustrates how Ripley is haunted by the memory of it. Anyway, once she’s up and around, she learns that much has changed since her departure. The big, bad folks at Weyland-Yutani – the ones who screwed her over before, remember? – are still in charge. And now that she’s awake, they’re looking for answers! For example, why did she blow up their multimillion dollar ship, what happened to her crew, and whats all this business about an alien? As their is no physical evidence to corroborate her story, and no recorded instance of this alien being encountered anywhere else, they aren’t inclined to believe her. But in the midst of this strained testimony, she tries to warn them, especially since the derelict ship her crew encountered was full of eggs and the planet they set down has now been colonized! If just one of those things gets loose, she warns, it’ll make what happened to her crew look like a Sunday picnic!

But of course, they don’t listen, she is blackballed and spends the next little while languishing as she tries to find a new job and continues to have nightmares of her encounter. But then, wouldn’t you know it, the company comes calling! Enter their douchey, but seemingly nice corporate laison officer, named Burke (played by Paul Reiser), and the prickish Colonial Marine, Lt. Goreman. Contact with the colony has been lost, and wouldn’t you know it, the company higher-ups think it might have something to do with that alien ship she mentioned. And since she had first-hand experience dealing with the things, the company has decided to let her ride shotgun and offered to reinstate her. She initially refuses, but after another sleepless night of nightmares, she begins to think Burke might be right, that she should go back and face her demon. She agrees, but only on the condition that they are going back to kill it, not capture it for research. The cat, however, is staying behind (no really, what was the purpose of that cat?)

Cut to the Marine vessel establishing orbit around the planet. Ripley and her Marine cohorts are waking up, as is the douchey Burke, and Bishop, the ship’s android (played by Lance Henriksen). After discovering he’s an android, Ripley flips out just a little, since the last time she had a run in with an “artificial human”, it tried to kill her. She then attends the Marine briefing and gives them the low down on everything she knows, but the salty Marines don’t seem too shaken, especially the bad-ass Latina named Vazquez (Jenette Goldstein). Now already this movie has dropped a few hints as to whats to come. We’re pretty sure Burke is going to screw her over, that the aliens are likely to kick their asses, that Hudson (Bill Paxton) is going to be a whiny little bitch, and that Bishop is going to save her (or something) and gain her trust. Yes, unlike Scott, Cameron was a bit conventional. But the funny thing is, back then (as opposed to with Titanic and everything after) it worked for him. He knew how to appeal to an audience without going for the cheap payout. And besides, the movie’s given us plenty to be excited about up until this point, and even a few really kick-ass lines. “Is this going to be a standup fight, sir, or another bug hunt?” “I only wanna know one thing. Where-they-are!” “We’re on an express elevator to hell; going down!” Cue drop sequence!

The scenes that follow are infinitely re-watchable. The Marines drop into the colony, take to the main building and begin sweeping it from room to room. They find no one, but there are obvious signs of a fight. The tension is palatable as they stalk the corridors with their cool weapons and kit, their motion detectors making that eerie beeping noise. Everyone’s literally on the edge of their seat waiting to see what jumps out at them. However, what they find instead is a survivor – a little girl no less – named Newt (Carrie Henn). Apparently, she’s the only one who made it through the alien onslaught, and when she gets to talking, she’s got some cryptic words for them. “These people are here to protect you. They’re soldiers,” says Ripley. “It won’t make any difference,” replies the freaked out Newt. Then, by the one hour mark, we get our first combat scene! After finding the colonists by homing in on their beacons, the Marines go to their location in the neighboring atmospheric generator (Apparently, everybody in the company has these things implanted in them. A bit Big Brothery, you might say, but they sure are handy in the event of an alien abduction!)

As for the action sequence itself, I can honestly that it – and everything leading up to it – is timelessly awesome, made especially so by a number of factors. For one, it takes advantage of all the tension the movie has built up until this point. Second, the scene when the Marines catch a first glimpse of the remodeling the aliens have done. Wow! I mean, the way it was shot, how we see it from the point of view of Ripley and the others who are watching via remote camera, and then from up close, the scary music cutting in for the first time! Not to mention the dialogue that manages to punctuate the moment perfectly. “What is that?” asks the Lt. “You tell me man, I just work here!” says Hudson. Then we get an up close look at the nightmarish, twisted decorations they’ve lined the walls with. Holy Lovecraft, Batman! And last, but not least, there’s the added worry when they realize that they cannot fire their heavy weapons inside the place because they are right beneath the buildings thermonuclear reactor. If they fire, they risk rupturing the cooling tanks, yadda yadda yadda, big explosion! You might think this is a bit contrived, but whatever man, it works! Put it all together, and you got one scary, nerve-wracking scene. And I don’t think there was anyone who didn’t jump out of their seats when that woman hanging from the wall suddenly opened her eyes!

Okay, so then comes the intense fight scene where most of the Marines get killed, they pull back and Ripley finds herself saving the day. After returning to their base to discuss options, they decide to lift off and nuke the facility from orbit. Here we get two previews of whats to come, the first being that Ripley will slay her demons and kiss some ass, and that Burke will betray them. It seems obvious at this point that he wants to bring some of these creatures back, considering the way he’s changed his tune. At the beginning he was giving his word they’d wiped out, now he’s saying that no one has the right to arbitrarily exterminate them. Yeah, way to feign humanitarian concern, asshole! “Watch us,” is about all the Marines have to say in response. But of course, the plan fails when the dropship crashes and goes down in a fiery ball. Seems the little buggers found it while the Marines were out getting their butts kicked and got on board. With their dust-off ship destroyed – cue Hudson’s whiney one-liner (“Game over man!”) – they have no choice but to go to ground and wait for a rescue. And as Newt points out, they better do it soon, because as we see on the far horizon, the sun is setting. And as she says: “They mostly come at night. Mostly…” Woooooo! And so they seal themselves in to their HQ, cover the approaches with remote guns, and wait…

I should make a quick mention of the additional scene that’s included in the Director’s Cut. When I saw the movie on TV as a child, the scene with the remote guns and the aliens trying to find their way in was included. But on video, it was nowhere to be found. Luckily, this scene made it into the Director’s Cut, and its definitely worth while. However, if you’re not watching the DC, this scene doesn’t happen and instead we’ve got the scenes of Ripley, Bishop, Newt and Burke held up in the main building and fortifying their position. Though I prefer the version where the added action sequence made it in, I should say that the movie is still well paced without it, mixing expository dialogue with a lot of strung out talk about how they are going to survive for the night. You can feel the anxiety and desperation, but also the resolve, Ripley having come into her own at this point, her frostiness and fear turned to gridiron, ass-kicking determination. It also becomes pretty clear that she’s formed an attachment to Newt and doesn’t want anything to happen to her. In the DC, there’s a scene that helps explain this at the beginning, how she had a daughter who died while she was adrift in space. Call it transference, but it works! Her attachment, like her resolve, seems downright genuine.

Speaking of exposition, we then get to the part where Burke’s betrayal manifests. Basically, he attempts to infect Ripley and Newt while they are sleeping by letting two of the parasite specimens loose in their room. We already know Burke is a liar and a cheat, thanks not only to his “we don’t want to wipe these creatures out scene”, but also because prior to this, Bishop admits that Burke ordered him to pack some specimens up for transport (seems the colonists took some of the spider’s intact, one that was still alive even). After looking into this, Ripley discovers that Burke was the one who gave the order to send the colonists out to investigate the derelict alien craft. Again, there’s a scene in the DC showing this early on in the movie. But in the original, it is established through dialogue alone (I think I prefer the latter in this case. Sometimes, less is more, even though it means you don’t get to see the alien ship in the second movie). So basically, we are told that Burke is responsible for the situation in the colony. He then tries to buy Ripley’s silence by promising her a share of the money he’s going to make by bringing them back alive, but she tells him to sit on it and rotate! The betrayal seems inevitable at this point, but alas, it fails as both Ripley’s quick thinking and the timely intervention of the Marines sends the parasites to hell! Afterwards, they are deciding what to with Burke, when wham! Darkness! The creatures are coming, and they cut the power…

Bring on action sequence number two! The aliens have managed to bypass their defenses this time and are coming straight for the HQ! Get to the chopper! Hehe, always wanted to say that. So they’ve managed to get a dropship to come down on remote at this point, thanks to Bishop, but in the course of the action, Newt is taken alive! Ripley and Hudson are the only others to survive the attack, the other Marines having died selflessly and Burke dying like the pig he is! Unfortunately, Hudson was seriously burned in the last encounter, leaving Ripley alone to do what she’s gotta do! Namely, go rescue Newt. Strapping into a shitload of artillery, a moment has that lived on in cinematic history as pure gold, Ripley heads straight into the den of the beast. Finding her just in time before a parasite could infect her, we get to the movie’s climax. While holding Newt in her arms, one gun aimed forward, Ripley comes face to face with a field of eggs… She then looks up, and sees the Queen. Her existence is already hinted at during an earlier expository scene, the one that precedes Ripley confronting Burke. But now, we see her up close for the first time! What a perfect metaphor huh? One mother confronting another, the one rescuing her young, the other standing guard over her eggs. The latter is even willing to let Ripley live in order to keep her from blasting them, but wouldn’t you know it, Ripley does it anyway! Screw you, aliens! After blasting the whole field with her flamethrower, she fires several grenades and then hightails it out. And the mother alien, wounded but pissed, breaks free and follows her. It also seems this mother is a lot smarter than her children, for she manages to work the same elevator Ripley used to escape and follow her to the roof. Cornered, Ripley grabs hold of Newt and prepares to die at the Queen’s hands, but she narrowly gets out when Bishop comes to their rescue! Thus we see the android confounding her expectations and proving his worth! Echoes of Blade Runner here…

But wouldn’t you know it, there’s a final action scene, drawing its inspiration from the first movie where the alien snuck aboard Ripley’s escape craft and had to be blasted out the airlock. Ripley does the same here, but not before getting into a mechanized cargo loader and fighting the Queen in hand to hand combat! Sheerly awesome, if just a little bit cheesy! I tell ya, final fight scenes can easily go wrong, but this movie made it work (unlike Lucas who forced us to endure that lightsaber fight between Yoda and Dooku!) The whole thing is punctuated perfectly by one line: “Get away from her, you BITCH!” The whole dueling mothers thing is elevated to true visual art here. The movie then ends with Bishop, eviscerated but alive, telling Ripley she did good, and with Ripley telling Newt they’ll sleep all the way home. And were it not for one inadvisable sequel, they would have done just that! But more on that later…

(Synopsis—>)
You know, looking back on this review, I realize one thing about this movie. It’s got a LOT going on. Many a time I tried to skim past things, but couldn’t because they were just too relevant. And even then, I find that I minimized some things or left them out entirely. Bishop’s performance, for example, which contrasts starkly with Ash’s from the first movie. Whereas the former tried to kill Ripley and was an unfeeling automaton, the latter was genuinely empathic and saved her life (the incorporation of Asimov’s “first rules of robotics” was also a nice touch!). The mention of the name Hyderdine Systems (the androids’ manufacturer) was clearly a shout out to Cameron’s recently-released movie, The Terminator, where Cyberdine Systems was the company responsible for manufacturing the Terminator robots. And then there was the quasi-romance that took place between Hicks (Michael Beihn, also from Terminator fame) had with Ripley. Though nothing romantic ever materializes, you get the feeling that their relationship served as a sort of redemption, not between man and machine, but between men and women. All throughout the movie, Ripley is ignored and dismissed by male colleagues, but this one man listens to her and swears he will protect her. She, in turn, saves his bacon and goes on without him when it comes time for her to save Newt (her surrogate daughter) and confronting the Queen (the enemy’s mother).

Yep, this movie has lots going on, far more than just some kick-ass action sequences. But the funny thing is, you don’t realize it. The plot, pacing and tone wrap all the content up quite succinctly; at no point do you feel bored or overwhelmed. If I were reaching for something bad to say about it, I might try the flip-flop that happens with Burke. Initially, he seems like a nice guy, gives Ripley his word that the company doesn’t have ulterior motives, and then pulls the double-cross. But then again, that’s what you’d expect from the guy, isn’t it? From the beginning he’s oozing an evil sort of charm, you expect him to lie! And then there was the bit about them realizing, 11th hour like, that they can’t use their guns in the aliens lair. You might think they would have thought of that sooner, but then again, it really does seem like something that wouldn’t occur to them in the thick of their pursuit. The way they figure it out before any firing actually takes place actually seemed timely and believable to me. And yes, the somewhat predictable elements I mentioned. Are they predictable because they’re obvious, or because they work? I’d be inclined to go with the latter.

And of course, there was all the stuff it did deliver on. Awesome action sequences, lots of cool gear and sets, Ripley coming full circle, and of course, the full nature of the alien species being divulged. And let’s not forget about the theme of dueling mothers! This movie was downright original in that respect, its action sequences becoming staples of the industry that have often been imitated. Sigourney Weaver herself become an icon thanks to this movie, her gun-toting, mec fighting scenes something that have been imitated many times over! And once again, literary critics and philosophers found lots to praise, all those maternal themes and the conflict between machines and human and men and women mentioned earlier. Overall, the movie was not original in quite the same way that the first movie was. But still, it captures the same key themes and expanded on them quite well. The hostile species, the terror, the evil corporation that wants to possess it, all the while adding in original ideas of its own. Different but comparable, seeking what the original sought without following in quite the same footsteps. Aliens: damn good movie, awesome sequel!

Aliens:
Entertainment Value: 9/10 Hoora!
Plot: 9/10
Direction: 9/10
Total: 9/10 (Pained as I am that this movie has gotten higher marks than the original, the numbers just add that way! Fans of the original, please don’t hate me!)

Of Alien…

Not long ago, I reviewed a movie that had the honor of being not only one of the best sci-fi movies of all time, but one of the best movies period. That movie was Blade Runner, one of Ridley Scott’s most enduring classics. So it is with great pleasure that I dedicate this next review to another one of his masterpieces, the cult classic known as Alien. However, one can scarcely get into this movie without at least mentioning the franchise it spawned. Indeed, Alien went on to become not only a commercial success, but a cult-hit that inspired three sequels, two cross-overs, several video games, and even books and comics. Many of said sequels sucked, the less said about the crossovers the better, and Scott himself was not attached to any of the sequels as director. But that does not change the fact that the Aliens franchise was, at it’s core, one of the most original and inspired science fiction franchises of all time.

(Background—>)
Over the years, this movie inspired lasting praise, not the least of which came from literary critics who drew parallels between it and classical literary sources. These included H.P. Lovecraft’s At the Mountain of Madness, not because the movie was similar in terms of storyline, but in terms of its “dread-building mystery”. Upon the release of the Director’s Cut, Roger Ebert listed the movie in his Great Movies column, calling it “one of the most influential of modern action pictures”, and praising it for its pacing, artful direction, and how it took its time to build tension. It was also a commercial success, something many classics don’t see until years after their release. But enough of what others thought about it, let’s get to what I thought about it! Cue the opening sequence!

(Content—>)
Alien opens on the scene of a massive vessel traveling through deep space. The passengers, haulers who work for the mega corporation Weylan-Yutani, are in deep sleep and awaiting their safe return to Earth space with their shipment of ore. However, a distress signal from a neighboring planet brings them out of deep-sleep and sets them on course for this planet. Upon waking, they learn of the signal and their change in course, and are quickly told that company policy demands that they answer the call, otherwise they will lose their “shares” when the shipment is brought in. Through all this, we are immediately made made aware of two things: One, corporate monopolies control all shipping and mining in this universe; and two, that the company maintains loyalty by appealing to their employees greed. Another thing which we are made aware of is the concept of cryogenic-units which are used to keep people preserved during deep space travel in this universe. While the Alien franchise didn’t invent this concept (I believe Arthur C Clarke has that honor) it did much to popularize it. One can scarcely pick up a hard sci-fi book without reading a bit about “hypersleep”, “cryosleep”, “reefersleep”, and the like.

Skip ahead to the planet where the distress signal is originating from, and we are confronted with an alien derelict which I can only describe as awesome! Really, truly, alien looking! In the course of spelunking through the cloudy and oddly shaped interior (you can feel the tension building!), they encounter a field of eggs. One of these eggs opens up when the XO – Kane, played by John Hurt – gets near, and let’s lose a spidery parasite that attaches itself to his face. After he’s returned to the ship, the crew learns that there’s nothing they can do for him now, since the parasite will kill him if it’s disturbed, and that it has acid fpr blood and therefore can’t be removed without causing serious harm to the ship. They learn this second fact the hard way, giving the thing a tiny cut causes an acid spill that melts through two decks! And in a space ship, holes are not something you want! But, as luck would have it, the parasite falls off and dies all by itself. Problem solved, right?

Well, no… shortly after losing the spidery thing and waking up, Kane ups and dies, in the most graphic and horrible way imaginable! This is another aspect of the movie that was both novel and original for its time, the concept of the chest exploding alien! They gestate inside you, scary enough, and then emerge as this nightmarish, toothy thing with spindly arms and a long, segmented tail. In any case, the crew jettisons Kane’s body and is just beginning to breathe normally again when the fully-grown thing of nightmares kills another member of their crew. What follows is a claustrophobic, mad rush to kill the alien, but those attempts quickly fail. The ships Captain (Tom Skerritt) is one of the first to fall, leaving Lt. Ripley (played by Sigourney Weaver) now in charge. She soon realizes that the company wants the alien taken alive, and is even willing to sacrifice the crew to get their hands on it. She further learns that one of crew – Ash, played by Ian Holm – is a corporate mole who’s job, it now seems, is to make sure this directive is followed to the letter. Oh, and did I mention he’s an android?

As soon as he’s found out, Ash tries to kill Ripley, but she and her crew manage to take him down and get some answers from him. He confirms that the company wants the alien and the rest of them are expendable, and is also sure to leave them with some cryptic words: “You still don’t understand what you’re dealing with, do you? Perfect organism. Its structural perfection is matched only by its hostility.” “You admire it,” says one of the crewmen, to which Ash replies: “I admire its purity. A survivor… unclouded by conscience, remorse, or delusions of morality.” Classic lines! Then, just to be prick, he let’s them know exactly how slim their odds of survival are: “I cannot lie to you about your chances, but… you have my sympathies”. Naturally, they say “screw it!” and decide to scuttle the ship. But the alien creature is no slouch and manages to kill all but Ripley and the ships resident cat. To this day, I am not sure what the point of the cat was. Maybe to provide some tension; I mean nothing is more scary than a cat jumping out of nowhere during an already tense scene, right? In any case, she finally kills the alien by blasting it out the airlock of her shuttle and burning it with one of the ships thrusters. She is then left alone to drift home, and files a heartfelt report of how all her friends were killed in deep space by a hostile creature of unknown origin.

(Synopsis—>)
To be honest, this movie was a tad uncomfortable at times, at least when compared to the sequel. But then again, that was the whole point of the movie, wasn’t it? It was meant to feel uncomfortable, claustrophobic, and paranoid, because that it exactly what you would expect to feel if you were in that situation. Put yourself in a spaceship, surrounding by vacuum, then imagine you have a hostile organism on your hands that has the run of the place, and is both an expert hunter and hider. What feelings come to mind? Claustrophobia, since you’d feel like your trapped with it, and agoraphobia because you know you can’t just open a door and run outside. For these reasons, and because of the amazing artwork, set designs, the concept of the aliens, and of course the theme of personal and corporate greed, Alien deserves full credit for getting the ball rolling on the whole of the franchise. But really, it was never meant to be a standalone piece, so comparing it to the sequel is not really fair or warranted. If anything, this film and it’s sequel are companion pieces, Aliens picking up where Alien left off and expanding on it, something which it did very well. But more on that next time, stay tuned!

Alien:
Entertainment Value: 8/10
Plot: 8/10
Direction: 9/10
Total: 8.5/10