Tuesday, 5 April 2011

Aliens

Aliens is one of those films that is just pure entertainment. For me I think the only film that could beat it for balls-to-the-wall fun is probably Raiders of the Lost Ark. But where to begin in trying to review it, when it has probably all been said before? I think I’ll just give some of the reasons that I think make it so entertaining.

James Cameron’s vision
Following the tension and horror of Alien, James Cameron decided to make a shoot-’em-up version, and I believe that anything else just wouldn’t have worked. To have tried to copy the formula of the original, and deliver as many shocks would have appeared unoriginal, and perhaps would have devalued the sequel. By taking all of the Alien “history”/life cycle from the original, as well as turning Ripley into a real heroine and making her the driving force of the film, the writers delivered a really positive plot. Throw in a load of cannon fodder with big guns, and what James Cameron created was the perfect foil to the original while remaining true to the back story.

He also had the ability to create a film with as many iconic scenes as the first film:

The Alien rising out of the water behind Newt as Ripley and Hicks are cutting through the flooring above:

The Queen emerging from the landing gear of the drop ship having just ripped Bishop in two:

and of course those smart guns:

He also did a great job in getting James Horner to write the music. The story itself may be full of action, but the music, particularly the opening title, is very delicate, mysterious, and really captures the feeling of the unknown universe. The music here is very understated, which works perfectly. Of course there are times when big bold themes are needed, and Horner delivers this too.

The Script/Story
Two of the great things that Aliens manages to do is: 1) deliver us great characters. Whether we love them (Hudson), hate them (Bourke), want to see them kick ass (Drake & Vasquez), die horribly (Bourke again), or just watch them being cool (Apone); they are all well written, quickly & effectively introduced, and we become emotionally involved with most of them. 2) make us feel that the film is constant action from the moment they set down on LV426; but in actual fact there are only two main scenes where the marines fight with the aliens! Obviously there is plenty going on during the film, but in terms of alien confrontation, only twice. This shows the power of great editing and Ray Lovejoy (2001: A Space Odyssey; The Shining) does a superb job.

The evidence of the great script is also in the fact that the film is infinitely quotable:

Apone: OK Sweethearts, you heard the man and you know the drill, Assholes and Elbows!

Hudson: We got tactical smart missiles, phase-plasma pulse rifles, RPGs, we got sonic electronic ball breakers! We got nukes, we got knives, sharp sticks...

Hudson: Hey Vasquez, have you ever been mistaken for a man?
Vasquez: No. Have you?

The Special Effects
James Cameron has always been at the cutting edge of SFX. For a long time he was always “James Cameron (Titanic)”, which annoyed me as clearly T2 was a superior film all round, the SFX were groundbreaking at the time and haven’t really aged at all. The same can be said of Aliens. Even though it preceded T2 by 6 years, the effects still look great (give or take a couple of blue-screen shots); because everything is there. Before the dawn of CGI, Aliens was made by making everything. The Aliens are all suits; a huge animatronic Queen was constructed; the dropship, tank, marine outfits, weapons were all made; by people not a computer! I’ve mentioned this before in my review of The Thing; some of these older films (The Thing was 1982, Aliens 1986) still look a lot better than some special effects from modern films, mainly because they are there, they were actually filmed. When watching Alien 3 you may almost be forgiven for thinking that it was made before Aliens (maybe even before Alien for that matter) the CG Alien looks so bad! Anyway, Alien 3 is a completely different kettle of fish for other reasons. However, the effects team are right on target here. Ripely’s distended stomach as she dreams of the chestburster looks great, the Aliens unfurling and coming out of the walls looks phenomenal. The Queen looks amazing, even when out of her lair and fighting Ripley in the loader.


Along with the visuals, I must also mention the audio. The sounds are as iconic as much of the scenes. The scuttling of facehuggers, the noise that the doors and hypersleep chambers make, the pneumatics of the loader, the pulsing/clicking of the motion trackers, and of course the smart guns. Perhaps a lot of this praise stems from having played the original AVP game on the PC (the single most terrifying game I’ve ever played); all of the sounds were pitch perfect from the film and the atmosphere was unbearable!

The Cast
I don’t think that a fault can be found with the cast. Sigourney Weaver really steps up from the unlikely heroine of Alien to the confident, not going to take any shit, driving force heroine of Aliens. Her character obviously develops more in the director’s cut, as we learn that she had a daughter who she has now outlived thanks to hypersleep. This accounts for her drive in not leaving Newt behind. Michael Biehn is just right as the loveable “normal person” marine; William Hope plays the inexperienced new Lieutenant Gorman very well, Paul Reiser as the despicable Bourke, Lance Henriksen as the synthetic Bishop, Al Matthews as the cool Apone, and of course Bill Paxton as Hudson (who inevitably dies - don’t all Paxton’s characters?). The whole cast just work together perfectly.



Things I don’t like
Mmmm tricky. Come on, there’s usually something not to like in a film, no matter how small. It always irritates me a bit that Gorman doesn’t explain to the marines why he has to collect their armour piercing rounds. If he just told them about the risk to the nuclear fusion cooling systems they might understand! Also, after Ripley has set off the fire alarm in the Med Lab so that the marines come to shoot the facehuggers; why does she stand in the middle of the room with Newt? Surely you should press your face against the glass so that the facehugger can’t get at your face? These two points are really scraping the bottom of the barrel aren’t they? There really isn’t much to not like about Aliens.

So there you go, there’s my brief deconstruction of why I think Aliens is so good. Probably one of the two best action films ever (IMHO), certainly in my top ten films of all time list (I’ve never thought what the other 9 might be). Is it James Cameron’s best film? T2 is perhaps a bit slicker. But that’s an argument for another day.