Thursday, February 5, 2015

Evan's Pick: Aliens (1986)

There’s not a movie I’ve seen more times in my life than Aliens. When I was a kid, I was obsessed with this film; not only would I watch it on a weekly basis but I would also compulsively write lists of all the characters, along with their means of death at the hands of the titular antagonists. At one point I even drew my cartoon versions of each of their demises, even depicting the off-screen deaths we didn’t see of characters like Spunkmeyer. Hopefully one day I’ll find these lost treasures the world has been clamoring for and get them included in a special edition of the film.

My uncle, who is a much more accomplished cinemaphile than I will ever be, noticed my obsession and gifted me with the Director’s Cut version of the film. This is the version of Aliens I’ve come to know and love and is, in my opinion, the canonical version of the film; the theatrical release had too much of its emotional core stripped out for the sake of running time. This cut of the film grants insight into the personal lives of its protagonists, providing information that ultimately allows the heart of the film to develop.

For those who haven’t seen the film, it stars Sigourney Weaver as Ripley, the sole survivor of the close encounter of Ridley Scott’s Alien and a woman with the uncanny ability to dream plot exposition. After drifting in space in hypersleep for 57 years (sleeping through the entire lifespan of her daughter back on Earth), she is rescued by a salvage crew and testifies about her encounter to her employer, the multinational corporation Weyland-Yutani. Unfortunately, upon investigating her claims they trigger another alien outbreak on one of their colony planets. A team of Marines is sent to investigate, and Ripley joins them as a consultant under the promise that the Marines are going to wipe out these nightmare creatures once and for all.

I'm getting real sick of having this dream!

As a kid, I preferred the action and the fast pace of Aliens to the slow-burn, deliberate pacing of its predecessor. The idea of a big squad of military badasses slowly being picked off one-by-one by a hive of “perfect organisms” held more appeal in the mind of an eight-year-old than a tale of hapless space truckers getting diverted from their voyage home and encountering a single monster. I responded more to the quippy dialogue of Cameron’s script than I did to Ridley Scott and Dan O’Bannon’s early attempt at mumblecore realism.

As I got older, I began to notice the intricacies of the film’s plot, like how seamlessly the story flows from beat to beat in a clear chain of cause and effect without relying on coincidence or Deus ex Machina. I also began to notice how well James Cameron’s script takes the subliminal ideas laid out in the first film and extrapolates them to their logical conclusion, like inferring from O’Bannon’s script that the Xenomorphs they encountered must have a hive structure that includes a queen.

Additionally, I began to see the subtle tenderness underlying the relationships between its characters. And I don’t just mean between Ripley and Newt, the eight-year-old lone survivor of the outbreak on the colony, although the maternal bond that develops there best exemplifies the unspoken relationship-building at which the film excels. I also mean between characters like the badass Latina Marine, Vasquez (Jeanette Goldstein) and her pals Drake (Mark Rolston), Hicks (Michael Biehn) and Hudson (Bill Paxton).

If I were the type of person who were qualified to write analyses of scenes in films, I would single out Ripley’s first confrontation with the Xenomorph queen as my first dissection victim. It wasn’t until I was 20 that I realized just how brilliantly the film captures this encounter. Not a word is spoken in this scene, but Ripley and this alien queen are able to communicate exactly what they mean to each other — and to the audience — through body language and facial expressions alone. It’s a testament not just to Sigourney Weaver’s abilities as an actress but also the talent of the special effects team. The alien queen they constructed perfectly expresses her hostility toward Ripley, her protectiveness over her crèche, her “dialogue” with her drones and her horror over what is eventually done to them. This scene is a masterpiece within a masterpiece.

No words necessary, just as in the film. 

Sadly, as I’ve gotten even older, I’ve started seeing cracks in the rest of the film. A few years ago I spent some more time with Ridley Scott’s Alien and discovered upon doing so that it is basically a perfect horror film, and close to a perfect film altogether. Although I didn’t appreciate it when I was a child, it does what great horror should do: establishes a believable setting with relatable characters, then slowly immerses them in a situation that gets increasingly dangerous and out of their control, until it reaches a point of no return.

After finally starting to appreciate the subtle brilliance of Alien (including the sexual dimensions of its horror, which I never noticed as a child), I did a side-by-side comparison with James Cameron’s sequel, and came to a disturbing conclusion: Alien is actually a better film than Aliens. This was hard for me to admit, but as much as I love characters like Hudson and Vasquez and basically all the military grunts on their bug-hunting mission, some of the dialogue in the movie almost feels like it needs to be delivered with a laugh-track in the background.

Case in point. Bazooper!

Aliens is still one of my favorite movies, and I’d still choose it over Alien if I were picking out a movie to watch while I nursed myself out of a hangover, but I’m able to concede some of its flaws. However, it was in these recent viewings when the cracks started to show that I finally had to admit another horrifying truth to myself: it’s all Vasquez’s fault.

Now, I guess it would be more fair to say that it’s all Weyland-Yutani Corp’s fault and, more specifically, the sniveling Carter Burke’s fault (played perfectly by the sniveling Paul Reiser), but these secondary villains aside, everything else that goes wrong from the first encounter with the Xenomorphs onward can and must be blamed on Vasquez. And this is not an accusation I make lightly as, after Ripley, Vasquez is my favorite character in this movie, if not in the entire series.

"Look man, I only need to know one thing: where the primary heat exchangers are."

But listen: it is Vasquez who hides a magazine for her assault rifle from Sgt. Apone when mission control realizes they can’t fire any rounds near the nuclear reactor core. It is Vasquez who says “fuck it” (or, more specifically, “let’s rock!”) and begins firing her assault rifle at the attacking Xenomorphs when they find themselves surrounded — and it is this firing that ruptures the nuclear core's cooling system, causing it to detonate later in the film. It is Vasquez who fires on the Xenomorph near her friend Drake and indirectly ends his life. And finally, it is Vasquez (and Lt. Gorman) who eat a grenade near the finale in order to kill two encroaching Xenomorphs instead of dying quietly — and it is the resulting explosion that sends Newt down an airshaft and into the clutches of the alien queen.

Now, this would all be okay if my analysis of Aliens ended with Aliens. Unfortunately, Aliens was followed by the toxic, nihilistic, life-destructive Alien3 (which I guess we’re supposed to refer to as Alien Cubed?), which is a well-made movie on its own merits but completely undermines and negates everything positive about Aliens. In fact, Alien3 reinforces Bishop’s Utilitarian position that they abandon Newt at the end of the film and escape the planet when they have the chance. By killing off Newt and Hicks in the first five minutes of the film — and doing so by assuming the eggless Queen who boards their spacecraft at the end somehow managed to lay eggs on their ship — it makes everything that happens after Vasquez’s sacrificial death pointless. Actually, it makes it worse than pointless — it makes everything Ripley does to save her adoptive daughter a colossal, counterproductive mistake.

In a world where I can completely ignore Alien3 and pretend the series continuity ends with James Cameron’s sequel, Vasquez’s sin of recklessness is forgivable and ultimately laudable. Until that day comes, though, I am forced to admit that my second favorite character in one of my favorite films is ultimately responsible for the horror that followed as the franchise continued. Yes, that means Vasquez is partly to blame for Alien: Resurrection.

Sadly, this scene was excluded even from Cameron's Director's Cut.

You might have noticed that I didn’t cover any of the myriad technical or artistic achievements of this film, from its superb special effects to James Horner’s iconic score, which is still probably my favorite action-film score of all time. This is mostly because I’m a lazy writer and couldn’t think of a way to seamlessly integrate those points into the rest of the text but, to a lesser extent, it’s also because everyone in the world has already seen Aliens and doesn’t need me to rehash the stuff they already know. This is an incredible movie and if for some reason you've never seen it, you're in for a treat.

Recently some rumors were swirling that Neill Blomkamp (District 9) planned to direct a reboot of the latter half of the franchise that picks up immediately after the events of Aliens, and hopefully diverts the story away from the disheartening fare that followed. It turns out that while there was some truth to these rumors, Blomkamp is no longer involved, meaning the project may be no more. I, however, am going to continue holding out hope for this true sequel to materialize someday that gives Ripley, Newt, Hicks and even Bishop the happy ending they deserve.

I can dream, can't I?

I think we both can.