Friday, April 3, 2015

At the Movies: "Aliens"

James Cameron, 1986.
After we watched Aliens last weekend, Niece #2 went
home and stayed up late painting Ripley, the much
put-upon protagonist of the film.

imbd: #65 (8.4)
     (March 1, 2015: #64, 8.4)
Ebert: 3 1/2 Stars
Rotten Tomatoes: 98%(!) Fresh
Provenance: I traveled from Hometown5000 to a town with a movie theater to watch this in original 1986 release.  I saw it on the big screen again in college, and again, with Mrs.5000 and Niece #2, last weekend.

I remember Aliens as seeming like the most amazing movie ever, when I watched it late in high school.  Watching it again nigh on thirty years later, well, I'm not sure that's too far wrong.  It is not flawless by any means: some supporting characters are broadly drawn, and there are lines here and there that try just a little too hard for gravitas ("They mostly come at night.  Mostly."). But having said that, Aliens has aged very well indeed.  Three decades on, it still pretty much owns the science fiction action thriller category.

Aliens gets an awful lot of things exactly right.  First, it establishes a believably scruffy future, and without ever sitting us down for an overview of the socioeconomic state of play, makes sure we get a general sense of how things work there.  Second, it absorbs within itself the genre of the military procedural, efficiently introducing us to a traditional war-movie's ensemble cast of assorted roughnecks, many of whom we will get to know pretty well.  Several of the minor characters have nicely developed mini-stories of their own, for instance the green lieutenant who seems like he might fall apart under pressure, and indeed does, but who eventually finds a way to redeem himself.  The sets, my goodness, the sets are to die for, from the squalid living quarters of the naval base in Earth orbit to the assault ship to the doomed terraforming base where most of the action happens.  All of these places seem real, and natural, and kind of fascinating in their utterly believable banality.  Then there are the strange organic structures of the alien hive, and of course the critters themselves, who really transcend the idea of "special effects."   The aliens of Aliens are both the stuff of our deepest nightmares and puppeteering raised to apocalyptic art of the first order.

Finally, in all of action-adventure I can not think of another film that uses pacing to such great effect.  There are long stretches of Aliens in which nothing much happens, including a long, long opening shot which is nothing more than the spacecraft carrying the heroine, Ripley, out of her very bad day in the earlier movie Alien -- also quite good! -- as it emerges from the depths of space.  When the marines begin their mission at the terraforming base, there is a pervasive sense that there is trouble ahead, and you watch in steadily growing dread.  But things actually go fairly well for a while.  The perimeter is secured.  An investigation begins.  What makes Aliens work so well is not start-to-finish violence and explosions, but the long, long build-up in which serious unpleasantness seems increasingly likely, and then increasingly imminent.  By the time humans actually make contact with extraterrestrial life, you are nearly as freaked out as the characters up there on the screen.  Soon, you will be very happy not to be up there with them.

Plot: In Alien, a spacegoing freighter encounters an extremely aggressive, rapacious, and toothy alien species on planetoid LV-426.  In Aliens, Ripley, the sole survivor of that incident, is rescued, but no one seems to believe her story until the terraforming colony on planetoid LV-426 goes silent.  A platoon of "colonial marines," perhaps not the cream of the corps, is sent to investigate, with Ripley along as an adviser.  Since the name of the movie is "Aliens," I don't think it's giving away too much to reveal that the colony has in fact been overrun by an alien hive, and that peaceful coexistence is not on the agenda.

Visuals: See "to die for" and "puppeteering raised to apocalyptic art of the first order," above.  There are many shots of industrial equipment in Aliens -- doors hissing open, whooshing hydraulics, computers coming to life, machines moving other machines around.  It is a way of impressing us with the forces the humans are bringing to bear on the situation, and also the mindset that the humans will be bringing to the fight.  A lot of screentime is devoted to people brandishing tools, which is right and proper: they are humans, and that's what humans do.  We brandish tools.  It also sets up a tremendous contrast with the technology and mindset of the aliens.  The aliens don't have technology, and indeed it's not clear that they have a mindset.  What they have is sleek, deadly curves, bladed digits, and speed, and teeth, and more teeth within those teeth.  Aliens is a battle between two different geometries, an machine aesthetic of straight lines and order against the softer asymmetries of nature, not as they are found in the willow or the orchid, but as they are found in an open abdominal cavity: wet, mortal, and horrible.

Dialogue: Much shouting out of information, which is saved from seeming expository because the characters are soldiers, and they are supposed to shout information to each other.  The dialog is well crafted for a situation in which all of the characters are under constant, crushing stress.  They don't express themselves particularly well, but nor do they have the opportunity to, and you can still tell that some of them would be pretty sharp in a more relaxed setting. When a group of marines approaching a place that is clearly extremely dangerous are suddenly told they have to unload their ammunition, but not given a reason, a soldier reacts: "What do you expect us to use, man, harsh language?" It turns out to be a really fair question.

Prognosis: Not for everyone, and not for everyone every day: it is a dark, tense, and very violent movie.  It is also incredibly entertaining.  One of the great cinematic horror stories of all time.   

Michael5000's imdb rating: 9.

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