Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Aliens (1986) Review

This time it’s war...and what a war it is

I have a dilemma here as I attempt to write this review of Aliens. While I do consider Alien to be one of the greatest horror movies, Aliens is one of my absolute favorite movies ever. This makes it harder to write evenly about the film without resorting to fan boy praise. But I think I'll just write my opinion as it is, because it is my own view of the movie after all.

After going into hyper sleep at the end of the previous film, Ripley has been floating aimlessly through space in her shuttle. Soon she is picked up and brought back to a space station above Earth where she learns that she has been in sleep for 57 years. She learns that a colony has been created on LV-426, which turns out to be the same planet that has that derelict ship with the alien she found in the first movie. Later on, the station loses contact with the colony and Ripley is asked to join a squad of marines as they investigate the matter. When they arrive they find the colony completely deserted except for one survivor, a little girl nicknamed Newt. Eventually the marines track down where all the other colonists are located, and are given a little surprise.

One thing I found interesting about Aliens, after having recently rewatched Alien, is that it follows the same basic structure as its predecessor. There's a slow build up that helps us get to know the characters, a middle section where all hell breaks loose and everyone gets picked off one by one, and an ending that involves some sort of race against the clock. This is not in any way a detriment to the quality of the story or plot but merely a case of "if it isn't broken, don't fix it." The difference between the original and this sequel is that the original was set up like a gothic haunted house with barely any way to fight back, while Aliens is essentially a flat out war/horror hybrid. The tagline says it all, since once the action begins it never lets up. What's makes the action so brilliantly constructed is that very little of it feels like a standalone set piece. Everything flows and ties together as a cohesive whole, driving toward a singular goal of survival and escape.


Like the crew of the Nostromo, this ragtag group of space marines are a likable and fun bunch, each with their own defined personality. Vasquez (Jenette Goldstein) is the tough he-woman of the group, no less likely to kick your ass than any of the men. Hudson (Bill Paxton) is the cocky joker who, after facing a slice of reality, we learn is all talk and no courage. Then we have Hicks (Michael Biehn), who is the mild mannered leader trying to hold his squad together and begins to take a liking to Ripley. Finally we get to Burke (Paul Reiser), the smarmy and scheming company man who would put the lives of everyone else at stake just so he can capture an alien for testing. And if there's an actor that plays smarmy assholes really good, it's Paul Reiser. Of course there are a few of them of that are merely fodder for the alien swarm, but writer and director James Cameron wisely eliminates them within the first few encounters leaving us with the ones we actually care about.

Although she was just a determined pilot in Alien, Ripley has now become even tougher than before, until eventually she gets in on the fighting. Ripley also begins a protective bond with Newt, giving her this motherly quality that shows the humanity in her under all the cynicism. Carrie Henn (in her only film role sadly) is wonderful as Newt, who progressively changes from being near catatonic to being more open and resourceful. As Hicks and Ripley get closer over the course of the movie, we get this feeling that the seeds of a new family are being planted. If I were to pick the most well rounded and interesting version of Ripley from the series as the best, this is the one. Even the Academy Awards thought so when they gave her a nomination for Best Actress!

But you don't go to an Alien movie just to see characters and action; you go to see the monsters themselves. Since we last saw them, they've gotten a slight modification (their head no longer has the dome covering it because of costume issues) but they're just as fierce as ever but now in mass numbers. I would've liked it if Cameron had stuck with the dome design, but it's not a huge problem I have. I'm sure the question you've been asking ever since Kane set foot on the derelict ship was "where the hell did all those eggs come from?" Well we get the answer in the form of one giant queen alien. If you think the warriors look cool, just wait until you see this mother in action. Her climatic mano a mano with Ripley (in a forklift) is very intense and satisfying with lots of excellent wire and puppet work used to make this beast look alive. This fight is given extra pathos as it's essentially a fight between two mothers, with the queen being angry over the loss of her babies and Ripley protecting Newt.


But fear not, horror fans because even though Aliens is mainly action focused, the action and scares are balanced evenly so that no one is alienated (no pun intended). In fact that's the great appeal of Aliens; it is alternately funny (I love the knife bit at dinner), intense, scary, action packed, and character driven. Now where's that "Alien 5" James Cameron?!

Special Edition
Like many of Cameron’s movies, there’s bound to be a lot of interesting scenes left on the cutting room floor. But unlike his Terminator 2 and Abyss extended editions, the additions to Aliens feel more like filler than anything substantial. Some of the scenes that work, like Ripley finding out her daughter back on Earth has died and other small character moments, work really well and would’ve given the theatrical version more impact (not that it already doesn’t have a lot). But other scenes needlessly prolong the build up to the first attack even more. The biggest addition is in the form of a sentry gun defense that is actually a fully developed action scene. But the problem is that it feels more like a set piece and less like the flowing action because it doesn’t advance the story in any way. Stick with the theatrical version though, as it presents a much tighter narrative and you still get the same impact.

Both Versions: 4/4

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