Sunday, June 03, 2012

Zaki's Retro Review: Aliens (1986)

"This Time It's War," promised the poster for Aliens upon its release in 1986, a belated seven years after the first installment. And it certainly didn't disappoint on that front. In the hands of writer-director James Cameron, the sequel to Alien effectively backburners the moody, looming horror that made the first one so gripping in favor of more adrenaline, more intensity, and most importantly, more aliens. A lot more aliens. Under Cameron's care, Aliens emerges as that rarest of sequels that, if not surpassing its predecessor, stands comfortably alongside it as an equal.

Even after Alien made a boatload of cash for the studio, Twentieth Century Fox had no immediate plans to sequelize it. However, as before, a series of serendipitous events occurred in rapid succession that led directly to part two happening. It started when Cameron, in the midst of prepping his sophomore directorial effort, 1984's The Terminator, stated his fondness for Alien while conversing with its producer, David Giler. Giler in turn mentioned his desire to create a sequel. Taking up the challenge, Cameron came up with a detailed concept and storyline...which was eventually rejected when Fox made clear they weren't interested in another Alien.

Then, a conflict with actor Arnold Schwarzenegger's shooting schedule for 1983's Conan the Destroyer meant The Terminator had to contend with a sudden, unplanned, nine month delay. Taking the opportunity to keep himself creative, Cameron knocked out nearly a hundred pages of script for the proposed Alien 2 and sent it along to Giler and Fox. This time it took. Pending The Terminator's release, and contingent upon its success, Cameron was assured that Alien 2 (now called Aliens) would be his next project to write and direct. The fact that it was would appear to indicate that The Terminator did alright (though it's a real shame they never did anything else with that flick...).

Locked in for a Summer 1986 release, Cameron, along with his Terminator producer (and then-spouse) Gale Ann Hurd, set about getting the production ready to go, with a story picking up some sixty years after Sigourney Weaver's Ripley (who gains the first name Ellen here) blew up the Nostromo  and set course back to Earth in its escape pod, in suspended animation "hyper sleep." Finally found after decades of drifting in space, she is shocked to learn that the life she knew has passed her by (with the extended runtime of Cameron's preferred director's cut revealing how her daughter died of old age in the interim).

Plagued by nightmares, written off as crazy, and blamed for the Nostromo's loss, Ripley is discharged from service to the company that employed her, but is called back to duty when a terraforming colony established on the alien planet from movie one, now designated LV-426 (and where no one seems to have noticed that big alien spaceship), suddenly loses contact with Earth. Sent to investigate along with a company of colonial marines on the spaceship Sulaco, Ripley is forced to contend with not just one monster, but hordes of them, all the while dealing with the duplicity of the company's hidden agenda and her desire to protect the young girl Newt (Carrie Henn), orphaned following the alien onslaught.

I'm having a real difficult time narrowing this discussion because, like the one before it, there's just so much that's great about Aliens. Probably the smartest thing Cameron could have done, which really demonstrates his skill as a filmmaker even that early on in his career, was to recognize that the previous entry's visual shocks simply couldn't be replicated. By the time of the second installment, we, like Ripley, know of the creature and its behavior, so that mystery is gone. Therefore, rather than attempt to re-do or outdo what Scott had already done so well and be found lacking, Cameron takes the story opportunities left dangling to carry the concept and character forward.

While your average slasher flick from the '80s would use audience familiarity to become increasingly broad & comedic or elaborate & groteseque (think Freddy or Jason), Aliens plies our knowledge of the scenario to build dread of the known rather than the unknown. By the time we see the derelict spacecraft on LV-426, the silhouette of its distinctive shape already seared into our memory thanks to the Very Bad Thing that happened there before, we already know more than the characters, having been through this journey already. So when we see Newt's parents disappear inside to investigate, and when we see her father emerge with a facehugger already doing its work, the rest is left to implication.

The same applies for the cadre of over-armed space marines as they talk big about dispatching the "Xenomorph" threat. "Hey Ripley! Don't you worry, me and my squad of ultimate bad-asses will protect you!" declares Bill Paxton's Hudson, even as we already know he's going to end up eating his words. As Cameron himself has said, Aliens is less about horror and more about terror. There's a nuance to that distinction that the director not only recognized, but conveys masterfully as we see the squad of marines (which includes Cameron regulars like Lance Henriksen as Bishop, Jeanette Goldstein as tough-as-nails Vasquez and Michael Biehn as the heroic Hicks) getting whittled down one-by-one.

Also underlying Aliens is the role of the all-powerful corporation (known simply as "the company" in Alien, now christened Weyland-Yutani), whose presence is felt here thanks to the weaselly Burke (Paul Reiser), who joins the marines on their journey. We saw their machinations previously with the sinister science officer Ash, revealed late in the film as an android instructed to preserve the alien even at the cost of the Nostromo's crew (Cameron uses this history to toy with Ripley's -- and our -- expectations with the revelation early on that Sulaco crewman Bishop is also an android). The conceit of the immoral corporation concerned only with profits took on a renewed primacy during the "greed is good" era, but it's (sadly) a timeless enough notion that it doesn't really age the film.

An interesting aspect of Weyland-Yutani is how the organization appears to be the only authority of note in the entirety of the Alien cycle. We never hear about governments or other world bodies. It's always just the company. It's an interesting dystopic undercurrent that's layered throughout the film(s). In the absence of some governing authority, blind profit motive has taken preeminence, and in that situation, where casualties become simply collateral damage on the way to a better fiscal quarter, it truly is hopeless for those caught in the middle (be they space truckers on the Nostromo or the space marines of the Sulaco).

Another serendipitous jackpot Cameron stumbled upon came about after his pondering the creatures' lifecycle. The aliens come from the facehuggers, and the facehuggers come from the eggs, but where exactly did all those eggs Kane stumbled upon last time come from? Per Ridley Scott's original vision, the creature's lifecycle was cyclical. After the monster emerges from its host, it finds new victims and cocoons them, a process through which they end up turning into eggs themselves. This was revealed va an excised bit in Alien where Ripley, about to escape the Nostromo, stumbles upon her cocooned crewmates in varying stages of their transformations.

For reasons of pacing and dodgy effects, those bits were cut out (though they were restored in '03 for the director's cut). This narrative gap, in turn, afforded Cameron the perfect opening to answer the question of where the eggs come from his own way: naturally, they're laid by a giant alien queen, with huge wings and a big ol' sack. Thus, the ante is upped from the single monster in the last movie to the rampaging hordes in this one to, finally, the big mother at the end (literally). By the time Ripley squares off with the queen at the film's climax, wearing a totally toyetic power-loader suit and shouting "Get away from her, you bitch!" it's a genuine, earned, applause line.

In those days before stars signed on with multi-picture deals before a frame is even shot, there was no deal in place for Sigourney Weaver to return for Aliens. But while there was some question early on whether she'd sign on the dotted line, the arc Cameron sketched in about a woman haunted by fear and trapped in a time not her own gave her a lot to work with. Certainly, it was rich enough to earn the actress an Oscar nom for Best Actress, quite the feat for a sci-fi project, much less a sci-fi sequel. Ripley's relationship with Newt is the emotional push the character needs to overcome her fears and take control of the alien threat (and, by extension, her life).

We talked previously about how rare a feat it is when all the elements of a movie just come together and work, and it's even rarer still when an entirely different set of elements are assembled for a follow-up, and they manage to work together equally well. Nonetheless, that's exactly what happened. Thanks to Cameron's work behind the camera, thanks to the late Stan Winston's creature effects that build on and augment Giger designs, thanks to James Horner's percussive, propulsive score, Aliens was an unabashed critical and commercial success that paid due homage to its forebear while also confidently charting its own course.

With a final haul at the box office that bested its franchise forerunner, Alien suddenly became a hot property for Twentieth Century Fox, with Dark Horse Comics inaugurating a very successful comic book line based on the second film that's still going today, and the studio quickly entered into discussions with Brandywine about where to take the saga next. With Ripley, Newt and Hicks -- a makeshift nuclear family (along with android pet Bishop) -- safely stowed away in hyper sleep aboard the Sulaco after dispatching the queen, it seemed like a raft of story possibilities lay ahead. But if audiences thought things were dark with the first two entries, they had no idea what they were in store for next.

To Be Continued...

1 comment:

RobRoy said...

Great post, Zaki!

I've seen the movie a million times and I still got excited reading your recap.

Cameron found something with this picture (also in True Lies and the Abyss, and to a point, T2) where every single character, no matter how one-note and briefly on screen some of them were - - they're all likable.

The Marines, specifically, in Aliens - - you're rooting for them the whole time even though most of them have only one or two lines.

And I think that points to what you were talking about where we KNOW the danger they're about to face and we KNOW most of them aren't going to make it.

So you love them, but feel sorry for them right off the bat. Pretty amazing.

Aliens is easily the most quotable movie of all time in my personal kitchen. The great Bill Paxton has most of the good ones.

I'm killin' myself trying to get them to cast Michael Biehn and Bill Paxton for an episode of Tron where they play guys named Hicks and Hudson.

We've already got Lance Henriksen!

Imagine the three of them in an episode sharing voice-time together?!?!?!

I'm plotzing already.

And an interesting side note - - this is one of those go-to movies that my mom and I used to watch together.

I remember after Avatar came out, people started on this reverse-bashing of James Cameron. Titanic, I'll give you. There is a dated cheese-factor about SOME of the film. But then there was talk like "dude, go back and watch Aliens. . . it's pretty cheesy nowadays."

Suffice it to say, those people were never heard from again.

James Cameron has three perfect films under his belt in T2, True Lies, and Aliens. Really good ones in Terminator and The Abyss. And really great accomplishments in Titanic and Avatar.

And it seems like, each time, he got to do things HIS way.


I pretty much have lost track of what it is I came to say.

Oh yeah. Aliens good.