Aliens (1986, James Cameron)


Fifty-odd years after the events of Alien, Ridley Scott’s glorified cheap-scare movie that has become an inexplicable classic, sole survivor Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) has returned to Earth to find that she’s a sort of sci-fi Philomena: her child’s already lived a full life and died, and she has corporate on her ass about how she handled the grossout organism that basically hijacked the Nostromo. Luckily, more aliens show up to kill a bunch of people, and now it’s seriously on in true James Cameron fashion: Ripley gets sent in with a whole mess of fighters (and a guy from the company, played by Paul Reiser?) to take this shit down and much mayhem and carnage must ensue, and it is idiotic. Truly. Worse than even my dim memory of it, which consisted of lots of me rolling my eyes while eating Cheese Nips back in the summer after seventh grade. This is one of the movies that made me realize that try as I might, I’d never be much of a sci-fi cultist or action movie fan; it may in fact be one of the key films that informs the taste displayed in this endlessly cheery weblog. That’s as close to a compliment as it deserves.

The chief problem here is Cameron. To his credit, he takes the sequel in a wholly different direction than Scott would have, and this is a net gain — Scott just isn’t much of a director of anything except empty sets, and Cameron for all of his obvious faults is at least a master of pacing. Like Cameron’s other popular sequel, Aliens can safely claim to be what I’m sure the commercials referred to as a Non Stop Thrill Ride; in its original theatrical cut, it takes very little time to get off the ground and then goes full-bore in a “space colony” on firepower and tense, action-packed death-defying ambush warfare crazy shoot-’em-up video game bad guys BFG5000 nonsense. That means one action sequence after another, with even the quieter moments quickly degenerating into big setpieces. That means the film takes pains to force the popcorn down and to never become boring, but to a particular part of the audience it will grow numbing just as quickly. The only real nod to the creepy-crawly, juvenile Nickelodeon Gak tone of Scott’s film is the sequence involving an alien nest that’s slowly feeding on the former human occupants of the colony. It Is So Pleasant.

But wait! Some of Ripley’s colleagues I can’t be arsed to keep straight in my head find out that the colony is going to explode, because reasons. There’s also a little girl. It all eventually floats back to Ripley and the dudes saving everything with a few simple-minded extra spooky Whack-a-Mole bits thrown in, and in the meantime gets dumber and dumber, and it dawns on us gradually that Cameron is really a competent movie director. He even composes shots well! And oh, again, the pacing. But that’s all this movie is: attractive composition and pacing. It makes Alien seem in retrospect like a good movie (it isn’t).

Does something sound a bit off in my tone here? This isn’t the place to talk about my aversion to science fiction — there won’t be many long reviews of sci-fi classics in the future here, I’m afraid — but it is the place to tell you that when I look at most popular, classic action films, what I see is utter, unforgiving drivel. I’m not trying to be contrarian or difficult — I find stuff like this really painful to watch. There’s just so much in Aliens that is so fucking unnatural, rote, silly, conventional, and as much as I might try to recognize that it’s engineered this way to give maximum pleasure to a certain segment of the audience, all I see is a bunch of ludicrous whiz-bang bright lights and loud sound sequences that raise no serious sense of peril or intrigue in me as a human being. You might easily argue that I thus have no place judging a film like this when I can’t really sense the value in it or engage with what it’s attempting. You may have a point.

And yet… no, I’m sorry, I don’t concede this. This movie is bad. Cameron can do what he wants as a visual stylist and energetic movie-brat nerd with a finger on the pop pulse, his screenplay is still an embarrassment. He goes into the task of writing this with the determination to score cheap thrills and center-stage grossouts as possible, and his solution is not to fluidly work out his characterizations and the logic of the situation and go from there, but to throw in as much stuff as possible and to make sure he has sixteen conflicts going at once, each mostly unrelated to the other. Oh dear, this guy seems kind of menacing, let’s make some big noise about that but then forget it; this other guy (Reiser) is a capitalist fuckwit — the modern equivalent to the Evil Land Developer — played by a non-actor with no understanding of subtlety. There’s also the Global Thermonuclear War thing. There’s also the little girl. And the infighting among the crew, although no one gets their head blown off this time. And there’s the running out of ammo, very tense stuff. And Ripley’s all-important story cycle, and — oh yes — the aliens themselves, who are faceless, mindless killing machines, which is about as complex an idea as Cameron can handle. Hackneyed as it often was, classic sci-fi at least attempted to make some sort of sociopolitical point about something. The sociopolitical point of Aliens is “hey wanna shoot stuff,” and Asteroids for Atari 2600 is a more fun object of such primal desires.

The crew of badasses — marines, this time — in Cameron’s big recruitment film are straight out of high school drama class. As in Alien, everyone’s an empty stereotype except Ripley, and even she just moves through the screenwriting-class connect the dots — loses purpose and daughter, finds both again, ta-da, and of course this is all played far too explicitly. Not all of this is Cameron’s fault — he is, after all, following up an immensely flawed horror movie — but the best illustration of what’s so irksome about all this is to imagine what would have happened if he had directed The Birds. The last scene would have to be Jessica Tandy giving a speech wherein she pointedly stated that she was glad to have Tippi Hedren as a daughter, and it would end with her saying “Let’s ditch these fucking birds and fly away, y’all.” And oh yes, there would be a confrontation with a giant bird, the biggest baddest bird of them all. And it would be driving a forklift.

Yeah, that’s right. Rote jump scares and pointless tangents aside, this elevates from mildly diverting stupidity to outright ridiculousness in the last thirty minutes, when it very determinedly presents us with one of those sequences of events that makes you wonder how the discussions over the script went with the studio, if there were any. The alien rides in a fucking elevator and then it’s gone, no wait it’s back, and then it gets in a fight with Sigourney Weaver in a forklift suit — called a “Power Loader” here. Wow, I had forgotten. Alien versus forklift. Four stars. Five stars. Recognized masterpiece. Oscar nominations. A FORKLIFT, PEOPLE. A fucking forklift. And that’s not even the worst bit, which is the alien observing Ripley using an elevator, discerning how to operate it, and then the elevator doors open, and there it is. There’s no elegance about it. No sense of menace. Just, shit. Elevator. Forklift. I don’t want to be an asshole about it, but my goodness, I don’t understand this stuff sometimes.

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