Terms of Cocoonment
I've seen Aliens so many times over the years that sitting down to watch it fresh--for review purposes--was a strange challenge. For starters, I chose James Cameron's "Special Edition" (aka the director's cut) from 1992, instead of the theatrical version. While I'd checked out all the excised scenes on DVD, I never experienced the sprawling, two-and-a-half-hour epic as whole movie--which meant my vivid memory of the story's flow were constantly interrupted by stuff that didn't belong.
The second obstacle was that vivid memory. It's hard to write objectively about something that comprised large strands of my formative, pop-culture DNA. Even though I hadn't seen Aliens in years, my mind raced through the entire movie as I pulled the blu-ray out from its (gorgeous) packaging. I saw the picture so young and so often that I never got to experience it as a first-time filmgoer. The nuances of Cameron's screenplay and the furious awesomeness of James Horner's score, for example, were lost on a kid who just wanted to freeze-frame his VHS tape whenever one of the cool monsters popped up on screen. Watching now with other goals in mind, it's hard to see the forest for the chestbursting, egg-sac-exploding trees.
If you're unfamiliar with this series, Aliens is a continuation of Ridley Scott's groundbreaking, sci-fi/horror masterpiece. In it, a group of deep-space miners follows what they believe to be a distress beacon to an uncharted moon. There, one of their crew picks up a parasite, which evolves into a nasty creature that terrorizes their ship. The last survivor, Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), escapes in an interstellar lifeboat--as does the alien. Following a climactic battle, Ripley falls asleep in a cryo-chamber as she makes her way back to Earth.
The sequel picks up fifty-seven years later. Ripley is found up by a salvage crew and made to stand before an inquiry board. The Weyland/Yutani Corporation is pissed that one of its officers blew up a multi-billion-dollar ship to get rid of a creature that they've found no evidence of. Ripley is suspended--until the company loses contact with a colony it has established on the very moon she and her crew had abandoned decades before. She agrees to return with a group of marines and a company executive named Burke (Paul Reiser) in order to locate the colonists and eliminate whatever threats they come across.
This being an Alien film, nothing goes as planned. On arrival, the marines patrol an abandoned terraforming complex littered with evidence of panic and battle. They find one person alive, a girl nicknamed "Newt" (Carrie Henn), who we last saw in a formerly excised scene involving her parents finding the derelict ship--her father was attacked by a facehugger, which ostensibly led to the colony being overrun by monsters. Ripley takes an instant liking to Newt, who she recognizes as both a resilient loner and a reminder of the daughter she'd left on Earth nearly sixty years ago--now dead of old age.
Soon, the marines find the other colonists--all dead or dying of alien-embryo implants--in an elaborate nest near the station's main nuclear reactor. The creatures lay dormant, nested invisibly in the walls, until one of the soldiers lights a chestburser on fire. After that, pandemonium kicks the film into high gear. Bodies pile up left and right as Ripley, Burke, Newt, and the very green commanding officer, Gorman (William Hope) watch the mission via video feed in a nearby armored transport. Ripley commandeers the vehicle and storms the nest to save what remains of the former badasses.
The rest of Aliens is a smart, gripping survival story that sees a small group of outmanned warriors fighting to return to their orbiting spaceship. This proves increasingly difficult due to a nastier, more resilient, and more populous breed of creature than we've seen before, as well as the fact that one of the good guys' number is actively working behind the scenes to sabotage what's left of the mission. Weyland/Yutani is very interested in adding the alien to its bio-weapons division, and Burke is eager to help out.
What sets this film above many other sci-fi action shoot-'em-ups is Cameron's gift for writing logical flows of action. He earns intensely violent outbursts by smartly placing obstacles in front of the characters, whose desperation often causes spectacular mayhem. An alien ambush leads to a close-quarters stand-off, which leads to a claustrophobic chase down an air-shaft maze, which leads to Newt slipping through part of a processor and getting kidnapped by an alien drone. This compels Ripley to arm herself to the teeth and go searching for her surrogate daughter--even as a remote-controlled rescue ship descends on the complex, which, by the way, has fifteen minutes standing between it and a multi-megaton explosion.
I've just described part of the climax, but there's so much more great material here. Aliens is the rare action/adventure classic that's packed with iconic moments based in genuinely interesting storytelling. It's more visceral than Scott's eerie and cerebral vision, but Cameron maintains the original's penchant for mystery. Towards the middle of the movie, Bishop (Lance Henriksen) posits that there's something more to the creatures, a version of them "we haven't seen yet" that must be laying the eggs. It's a passing comment that sets up the climax, but Cameron doesn't let us linger on that for too long, launching right back into the crew's survival struggle.
After all these years, the things that surprise me most about Aliens is the beauty and simplicity of Ripley and Newt's connection. Cameron specializes in macho dialogue, but I'd forgotten the dialed-back sincerity of his conversations between these two severely damaged characters. In any other film, Ripley's climactic return to the nest might have seemed contrived. But Weaver and Henn sell their characters' bonds so well that we can feel the intensity with which Ripley slaps magazines into her pulse rifle.
This comes full circle, of course, when she meets the alien queen, an oversized, crown-headed bug-beast perched atop an oozing egg-laying apparatus. Both mothers are very protective of their young, and despite a weird, implied-psychic-ability wrinkle involving a spontaneously opening egg, the extended fight between Ripley and the queen plays out like a bizarre but realistic nature special.
Despite these lofty accolades, Aliens isn't immune to criticism--especially in the concluding moments of the third act. Why, for instance, does Ripley waste several rocket-propelled grenades on blowing up the queen's egg sac, but not one on, say, a head shot?
And I still can't get behind the set-up for the film's second climax--yes, there are technically two:
Ripley, Newt, Bishop, and lone-surviving marine, Hicks (Michael Biehn) escape the planet with seconds to spare, leaving--they believe--the queen to burn up on the disintegrating platform. A little while later, they congratulate each other aboard the main ship, only to be attacked by the alien queen.
Now, I watched this movie on blu-ray--displayed on a high-definition computer monitor--and I still saw the queen come out from a doorway of some kind. For years, I'd blocked this out of my memory, hoping against hope that it had clung to the side of the ship or something (not that this would have made more sense). But no, it definitely came out of the ship--which makes absolutely zero fucking sense, no matter how you read the events leading up to the scene.
That said, the ensuing battle involving Ripley going head-to-head with the queen while driving a walking forklift is still amazing nearly three decades on.
Though Cameron's vision of the alien species and mankind's encounters with it is decidedly different from Scott's, Aliens proves to be an exceptionally worthy sequel. It goes above and beyond the duty of follow-up movies by not only building on the original's ideas, but also giving the audience more delicious ideas to mull on the trip.
Alas, we've come to the really unfair part of this review. I began writing about Aliens a few hours before watching Prometheus, Scott's prequel to the Alien franchise. I find myself trying to conclude this review, despite the bitter taste of pungent mediocrity still in my mouth. I've muscled through the last seven-hundred-plus words on willpower alone, so drained is my enthusiasm for this bled-dry universe.
I should have found some time to finish my love letter to Cameron's film. Instead, I'm stuck thinking about a movie that offers none of the juicy character work, suspense, score, scale, imagination, or technical artistry that Aliens has. Sure, Scott has state-of-the-art computer graphics to play with, but they're not as interesting as the brilliant model work on display here. There's a discipline and a craft to making puppets and model ships look like they belong in the same scenes as human characters, and that's lost on a generation who thinks staging an exciting monster fight is all about having actors dance around in reaction to things that have yet to be inserted.
I can remember the faces of each of Aliens' colonial marines, and even remember most of their names. Aside from Prometheus's main cast, I barely recall what happened to most of the crew. That's not a function of having seen one movie over the other; it's about a script and one set of actors making an instant impression on me, and another group...not.
I can also rattle off the themes that Cameron explores here in about three minutes, with evidence from the movie to back up my claims (motherhood, the military/industrial complex, masculine identity crises, etc.). Prometheus can only be explained, correctly, by watching interviews with Ridley Scott and Damon Lindelof, then watching their movie, and then scanning thousands of Internet comment posts to find the three or four non-conflicting theories that kind of align with the previous two steps. Cameron knows--and Scott used to know--that a filmmaker can say a lot of really smart, deep things without uttering a Goddamned word.
When I'm ninety, I'll likely remember the distinct sound of the marines' pulse rifles firing and Horner's stirring music. But I'll certainly have forgotten Prometheus, beyond the gross manner in which it hastened the death of a once-promising film series. In the world of film, there are classics and then there's everything else.