Weekend Retrospective - This Time It's War

ALIENS (1986)

"These people are DEAD Burke! Don't you have any idea what you have done here?!! Well, I'm gonna make sure they nail you right to the wall for this! You're not gonna sleaze your way out of this one!! Right to the wall!"

The story behind Aliens being made sounds like hell. The British crew clashing with the American and Canadian film makers over schedules and tea breaks while filming in England sounds like the sort of thing that should never happen, but the culture difference and lack of respect for people set on doing a sequel to our Ridley's 1979 classic created a lot of problems. People refused to bend or even watch a private screening of The Terminator to see they weren't being pushed around by some nobody hack. On top of that there are stories about the friction between Jims Cameron and Horner trying to get the music finished as deadlines approached. They even fired the original DOP because he couldn't light the set the way the director envisioned. Is this a story of art through adversity? Perhaps. Lucky for them all the stress paid off. As with the Terminator films, I have often had trouble deciding which is the better of the two - horror or horror and action? Ultimately this an easier decision and I find this to be a more watchable film, although again both are fantastic.

A lot of what the movie does right comes down to the creative process - somehow they set out some 6 or 7 years late to do a horror sequel and chose not to rehash the original. It's something that never happens. A lot of what the third installment does wrong comes down to a cheap resetting of the score to allow Ripley to be back as the lone survivor in another hunter and hunted style film which didn't ever need to happen; instead of looking at the next film as an opportunity to do something fresh. With Aliens they took a far more intelligence approach, and by thinking of a real direction for the character to grow in the result is by far one of the best sequels of all time. It would still be creepy but also be all about kicking ass; a cathartic journey. Despite several repeat moments like the airlock showdown they have been considered carefully to be bigger and louder or chosen to subvert audience expectation like the opening nightmare which gets the alien birth over with so people are not waiting for it. Instead of recycling the horror staple of one creature versus an unarmed and vulnerable supporting cast, they thought outside the box and brought in so many new and interesting elements that everyone would remember as iconic moments. Just as Alien could have been a cheap monster movie called Starbeast, this could have been a brainless rip off called Alien 2. The results are just as impressive.

Setting the film 57 years later might seem like a strange idea but the lone survivor plot would probably been less of a worthwhile starting point if Ripley had come home to a warm welcome. You also have the fact that this is nearly 6 decades of development in terms of science fiction technology. It's something I feel that gets forgotten a lot of the time: the creatures here get dropped by machine guns and smashed by moving vehicles. But this is a brand new era, times have changed since Ash described the perfect organism. This also lets them threw out any concerns that the drop ship and loaders might be stretching the believability too far. Subsequent stories set within this universe often ignore all this and have every day 21st century people surviving against the unstoppable horrors from LV-426. It's an idea that allows for the film to look different from the original in many places as well as have a different tone.

On the subject of tone of course there has to be something said for the character writing. Ripley herself is still one of the best protagonists in cinema, moving from being the officer bashing heads with Dallas and Ash in the first film to the one who will pull everyone together when things inevitably go awry in part two. The maternal side also allows for an interesting duality with the aliens themselves as she goes toe to toe against the "queen" in the finale. It helps that the supporting cast are all very good. There are those who find them irritating, in particular the more obnoxious members of the Marine Corps and child-in-peril Newt. Personally I never had a problem, even if the latter has that awkward accent at times as a result of growing up in England with an American father. The jar heads are a lot of fun despite having no depth, from the all mouth and no trousers Hudson, trigger happy Vasquez, spineless Gorman and strong and silent Hicks. I like that they have the red herring of Bishop too, another part that plays against expectations. I even like slimy corporate loser Burke who gets all the best parts of Ripley's wrath later on. Perhaps the dialogue isn't exactly ground breaking at times but it's nearly all memorable, and with a cast this size that's what really matters.

All this good stuff is packaged in with a fine structure with some of the best set pieces in action and sci-fi there are. The score may have a lot of borrowed cues from The Wrath of Khan (or even 2001) but it's a great mix of brassy, bombastic themes and atmosphere building moments. Rounding off the deal is all of the work from the master Stan Winston and his effects team who brought some amazing extrapolations of H.R. Giger's original designs to life. And wow, do they deliver. The clash between the loader and the Alien Queen is high point for practical design and puppeteering, the set design and art direction make a small number of drone costumes feel like a limitless number of killers, and my personal favourite - the face huggers being released in the lab is just a master class in nail biting cinema as well as an impressive look at how to edit together a sequence that uses the most basic creature models. The impact this film has had on popular culture is still being felt in countless films and videogames, but I feel the craft on show here is overlooked when people remember the more explosive guns blazing sequences. That isn't to say the film doesn't have those suspense scenes - the exploration of the colony and Ripley's venture into the Atmosphere Processor show some perfect examples of building that tension up. The later release of a director's cut would extend the running time a little and lose a little momentum, but when it comes to choosing a disc to watch I often go with the longer version. I want too much of a good thing.

James Cameron would go on to work on other greats such as The Abyss and Terminator 2 which retain many of the themes here, including no nonsense female leads and the dangers of technological advancement to humanity. I often feel sad that this mix of of intelligent ideas and out there special effects moments has never been revisited. Next to these the likes of True Lies and Avatar are deeply mediocre and don't show the kind of creativity and passion. Will Avatar 2, 3 and 4 ever bring us back to the visceral thrill ride through Hadley's Hope? I think at this stage it's unlikely, but I can dream.