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I did a long blog post about the 1979 Ridley Scott movie Alien on my personal blog a few weeks back (it should have appeared here on the Bee really, but I wrote it on my blog by mistake and then couldn't transfer it without losing all the pictures).  So it seemed only fair to go on and write about Aliens, the James Cameron sequel from 1986.  There will be SPOILERS.

When I ordered Aliens on DVD I accidentally bought the 'Special Edition'. This adds an extra 15 minutes or so to the theatrical release which I saw and loved when it came out. I usually steer clear of special editions and director's cuts of films I like (I preferred Blade Runner when it had a voice over and a happy(ish) ending) but in this case I was quite impressed. The only downside is the addition of a slightly cheesy bit of back-story for Ripley ( it turns out she's lost a daughter, which is a Hollywood scriptwriter's explanation for why she befriends and protects the little girl in the movie - and there I was thinking it was just because she was a decent human being).  Other than that, the restored footage really does improve the pace and mood, and allows for a lot of welcome little extra character details.

The film picks up where Alien left off, with Sigourney Weaver's Ripley, the sole survivor of the Nostromo, drifting deep-frozen in her space-lifeboat.  But - shock, horror!- when she's rescued by a salvage team she discovers that decades have passed since the first film ended, and the desolate planet where the alien was discovered is now home to a terraforming colony. The sinister company she works for doesn't believe her account of the alien, but when contact with the colony is lost she is persuaded to go back as an advisor with a squad of sweaty, sweary space marines to see what's happened.

A Ron Cobb design for the film.
What's happened, needless to say, is that loads of horrible aliens have killed everybody in hideous ways, and once the marines have got into the apparently deserted colony buildings they have the Devil's own job getting back out again: the second half of the film is one long siege/chase, as the dwindling band of survivors scramble out of the frying pan and into the fire again and again and again.

A criticism I've seen offered of Aliens is that it simply rehashes all the elements of the first film. To me, however, this doesn't matter at all because a) that's sort of what we want sequels to do, isn't it? and b) it uses these familiar elements to create a completely different film.  Alien is a bleak, haunting, horror film: Aliens is an exciting war story/action movie, and because its tone and aims are so different it somehow manages to step out of the shadow of its predecessor while paying ceaseless visual and narrative homage to it.

It never sets out to terrify us in the same way as Alien, although there a few effective shocks, and the bit where Ripley is trapped in a room with a couple of scuttling facehuggers is hard to watch if you're an arachnophobe (I've only ever seen that bit through the gaps between my fingers). It also uses our memories of the first film to create tension. The scene where the marines first make their way into the deserted colony was almost unbearably edge-of-seat the first time I saw it, while Lance Henriksen's creepy android Bishop, all lank red hair and poached-egg stare, looked likely to be as treacherous as the android in the original film.  Overall it feels much more like a piece of Hollywood product that Alien, but it's so expertly done that I can't help but be delighted by it.

Take the marines, for instance.  It's sometimes hard to get a handle on the minor characters in military movies - they all tend to be about the same age, wear the same uniforms, have the same haircuts, and spend their time covered in camouflage face-paint shouting things like 'Incoming!'. Most of the platoon in Aliens don't get much screen-time, yet each of them has a line or two of dialogue that helps us to identify them; they may be stereotypes, but we feel we know them.  'Have you ever been mistaken for a man?' the company wiseguy asks tough lady marine Vasquez as they prepare for their mission. 'No," she snaps back. 'Have you?'  Not exactly Oscar Wilde, perhaps, but it serves to introduce them, and tag them in our memories so that we at least know who's who when the acidic alien goo starts hitting the fan.

Unfortunately the marines are also the film's most serious flaw.  Cameron makes heavy-handed points about military arrogance and incompetence, but his take on soldiering seems to come entirely from the Vietnam movies of the late seventies and early eighties, and his marines behave more like strung-out conscripts than the hardened professionals they're supposed to be. And while real-life officers may sometimes be useless, it's hard to imagine them being quite as useless as Lieutenant Gorman. When he issues a panicky order to his troops that they mustn't actually fire their guns as they creep into the alien lair beneath the colony's nuclear reactor, the loud creaking noise we detect is the sound of the film makers stacking the odds against our heroes.

What makes this more annoying is that it's unnecessary: the marines could be as competent and believable as those in Generation Kill and still be defeated by the aliens. In fact, wouldn't that make it more exciting? Wouldn't that make it more of a vindication for Ripley when they end up looking to her for leadership?

The other problem is the little girl, Newt, who is discovered living wild under the floors of the colony, all her friends and family having been dragged off to the basement to act as gro-bags for baby aliens.  I'm sorry to say that the young actress who plays her isn't really very good: her lines sound rote-learned, her movements are often studied, and she isn't even much cop at screaming (which she does a lot of).  She makes you appreciate all the more the amazing performances which someone like Steven Spielberg can get out of child actors.

But most films have their flaws, and Aliens's are far outweighed by the good bits.  The best of which is Sigourney Weaver's performance as Ripley. I believe Alien was her first speaking role, and although she's perfectly good in it, she's one face in an ensemble and doesn't have to do a lot more than run about looking worried. Aliens revolves around her, and without her it would be unimaginable.  At the beginning she is traumatised by the events of the first film - the special edition, with its slightly slower pace, emphasises this - and her obvious dread adds to the foreboding that hangs over those first scenes where the marine squad set down outside the colony. Then, as the story moves on, she somehow gathers an immense inner courage, and ends up doing the things that usually only the male protagonists get to do in movies. When she turns back into the doomed colony to rescue her lost ward she is acting in the the tradition of a hundred Hollywood heroes. Taller, bonier, and slightly older than your average movie heroine, she was and remains the strongest female character I've ever seen in a film of this type.

I think in the end, while Alien is clearly a better and a more important movie, Aliens is the one I enjoy more.  In some ways the differences between the two sum up the differences between mainstream American films of the bleak, pessimistic '70s and the upbeat, can-do '80s.  In Alien, one of the good guys turns out to be a sinister robot; in Aliens the sinister robot turns out to be a good guy after all.  At the end of Alien when Ripley falls asleep in her chilly space-fridge she has lost everything and has only a cat for company. By the end of Aliens she has managed to assemble a little family around her. If you like your SF bleak and 1970s-ish you'll prefer the former images, but I think the end of the second film, with its two sleepers instead of one, makes a perfect, unexpectedly tender end to the story.

And of course it is the end: one hears rumours of a third and fourth film, of various spin-offs and some kind of prequel, but these are just misinformation seeping through to us from a parallel universe with less taste and greedier film makers than our own. Happily, Hollywood knew when to stop for once. There were only ever two Alien/s films.


RICHARD said...

How do we get to your review of the movie Alien? Where is the other blog located. I just found this today. Thanks. Enjoyed it.

city said...

thanks for sharing.

Philip Reeve said...

Sorry Richard (and City), Blogger didn't flag up your comments for some reason, and I've only just noticed it. My Blog is and I've added a link to the Alien piece in the first line of this one.

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