Monday, August 30, 2010

Reeling Backward: "Aliens" (1986)

"Aliens" holds a special place in my heart. It was around its release in 1986 that my love of movies escalated from a childhood fascination into a lifelong passion. Not coincidentally, that was also the summer I got my first official job -- at a movie theater, not surprisingly.

This was in the day when popular movies would hang around in cinemas longer than two weekends, and I remember we were still selling plenty of tickets for "Aliens" in its six month. This also gave me an opportunity to watch the movie over and over again, and learn to anticipate the audience's reaction to the various frights and laughs (and yes, there are plenty of them).

Conservatively, I've seen the movie at least 100 times, but not for a few years. I decided to pop it into my player and see how it looked on my new LED TV.

The film holds up really well in terms of the characters, the suspense and the ultra-creepy alien creatures -- which are so black and spider-like, they seem less like organisms than null space brought to life.

I was surprised to realize that some of the special effects don't hold up as well -- in fact, some of the shots of the drop-ship approaching and leaving the infected planet of LV-426 look downright hokey. But don't forget, writer/director James Cameron was not yet the box office king he would become, and the studio saw fit to invest him with a budget of only $18.5 million. Even in today's dollars, that's less than $37 million -- peanuts by summer-movie standards.

It's interesting that the film, a sequel to Ridley Scott's 1979 atmospheric horror-film-in-space, is generally regarded as an action movie. Go through it, and you'll realize the character and dialogue scenes far outweigh the kablooey stuff.

I made some notes while watching the film. The first 30 minutes is concerned with the rescue of Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) and setting up the outbreak on LV-426. The second 30 minutes is all about establishing what ultimate badasses the Colonial Marines are, and observing their infiltration into the wrecked colony.

It's almost all suspense-building, as Cameron expertly draws out the audience's mounting anxiety. Consider this: The first full-grown alien does not appear until after the one-hour mark.

A director's cut of "Aliens" is now widely available, and for the most part I think the additional scenes add richness to the film (while ratcheting up the ratio of dialogue-to-action even higher). With one exception: There's an early scene of the colony before the aliens infested them, and it's a total disaster for the movie-watching experience.

Here's why: It shows you the colony, the people, and the beginnings of the alien encounter. In other words, LV-426 becomes a known quantity. When the Marines arrive, you have a pretty good idea of what they're getting themselves into. The movie is so much more effective when the crew shows up, and we're completely bewildered about where they are and what happened.

Anyway, the actual first encounter with the aliens lasts about 15 minutes. Then there's another 30 minutes as the survivors figure out how they're going to get off the planet, and intrigue with the corporate toady, Carter Burke (Paul Reiser), who wants to take the aliens back to Earth for military research. The last 45 minutes is the chase as Ripley's gang is picked off as they try to hot-foot it to the rescue ship, and her final showdown with the alien queen.

I still love the interaction between the marines, and how distinctive the characters are despite not a whole lot of individual screen time or dialogue. People most remember Bill Paxson as nervous-nelly Hudson, Michael Biehn as the butt-kicking Hicks, and Jenette Goldstein as the muscle-bound Vasquez. ("Have you ever been mistaken for a man?" Hudson teases her. "No ... have you?" she cracks back.)

I admit that the character of the android Bishop (Lance Henrikson) has receded in my mind's eye. I seem to remember him as being much more in the middle of things, but he spends most of the movie stuck in a lab or sent off on a mission to summon the other drop-ship. He only really has two substantive scenes: The knife trick with Hudson in the mess hall (still a hoot) and getting split in two by the alien queen in the final sequence.

Narratively, Bishop essentially acts as a red herring, making us think he'll wig out and start killing people like the android from the last movie.

Other than "Avatar," most of Cameron's films have featured female protagonists, and the feminist themes of "Aliens" are pretty plain to see. The childless Ripley gloms onto the colony orphan Newt (a terrific Carrie Henn, in her first and only film role) out of maternalistic instinct.

(In a bonus scene in the director's cut, we learn that Ripley did have a daughter, who died of old age while she spent decades wandering space in hyper-sleep.)

It's a more mature vision of the action hero, as a woman who fights for her (adopted) family rather than some testosterone-fueled need to assert dominance.

Ripley was hailed as cinema's first bona fide female action hero, and we can see her footprints in more recent films such as this summer's "Salt."

For my money, "Aliens" remains the perfect summer movie.

4 stars out of four

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