Tuesday, October 7, 2008

#82 and #83: Alien vs. Aliens


Directed by Ridley Scott
Written by Dan O'Bannon and Donald Shusett
Released May 25, 1979

Directed by James Cameron
Written by James Cameron, David Giler and Walter Hill
Released July 18, 1986

I'm not sure if it was Friday, July 19th or Saturday, July 20th, but I remember vividly that weekend of my 10th year because that was the weekend my mother took me to see James Cameron's Aliens, one of the scariest, most fun movie experiences I would ever have in my life. Since that night, spent packed in the dark with a theater full of flinching, screaming movie fans, the insanely successful sequel to Alien has been my litmus test for whether a horror or action movie (Aliens is the perfect example of both) works.

I've never been a part of a more rapt or enthusiastic audience. I can still remember my mother jumping in her seat and digging into my arm with her fingernails, as I sat there thinking, "This is AWESOME." You know when movie critics or reviewers refer to a popcorn flick as a "thrill ride"? Aliens is, without exaggeration, like a ride. If you never got the chance to see it in a movie theater, you really missed out.

But, before I rave any more about the sequel, I suppose I should cover the original Alien, directed by Ridley Scott. While both of these films are probably considered Sci-Fi pictures, they really fit more aptly into two other genre molds: namely Action (Aliens) and Horror (Alien). More specifically, Scott's picture is like a slasher movie in the vein of Halloween, but set in space, where the killer is not a man but a deadly alien being. It's Psycho by way of Jaws.

In Alien, the crew of a mining ship, commanded by Tom Skerritt as Dallas, intercepts what they think is a signal from a distant planet requesting help. Against the protests of some of the crew members, they visit the planet and examine the signal, only to stumble upon a giant nest of eggs. Crew member Kane (John Hurt) examines too closely and is attacked by a creature from one of the eggs, which attaches itself to his face.

Kane is brought back to the ship with the "facehugger" still attached, and his eventual recovery from his infestation is one of the most wicked, shocking scenes in cinema. You'd have to have lived under a rock to not know what happens to him, but I will avoid spoilers just in case. Just know that in that moment, a killer is born, disappearing into the bowels of the ship before anyone in the room knows what they're dealing with.

From here, Alien becomes the slasher movie I mentioned before, with a few technological twists (like a frantically paced scene involving Dallas and a motion detector) that breathe life into the genre. It's a perfect movie.

What's more astonishing is that Cameron's sequel is just as good (if not better). It's faithful to the source material while still managing to be an entirely different "beast" that moves at a much faster pace. Rather than dealing with a single alien sneaking around in the nooks of a ship, we're dealing with an army of them.

Over 57 years have passed since the events of the first film, and Ripley is awoken from her malfunctioning sleep pod to find her world completely changed, her family dead, and the company she worked for putting her up on charges of conspiracy about the happenings on her former ship. She is stripped of her pilot's licence and essentially fired, until the company discovers they may need her help: it seems they've since inhabited the planet infested with alien eggs in the first film, and they've now lost contact with the colonists inhabiting it.

While Sigourney Weaver's Ellen Ripley was one of the few surviving protagonists of the first film, she becomes one of the greatest female lead characters in film history in Aliens. I can't put it any better than how the late, great David Foster Wallace put it years ago in an essay he wrote about how Hollywood, after the success of Cameron's Terminator 2, had become obsessed with special effects over substance. In that essay, he praised Aliens, and more specifically the work of Weaver, by writing:

"It is a complete mystery why feminist film scholars haven't paid more attention to Cameron and his early collaborator Gale Ann Hurd. "The Terminator" and "Aliens" were both violent action films with tough, competent female protagonists (incredibly rare) whose toughness and competence in no way diminish their "femininity" (even more rare, unheard of), a femininity that is rooted (along with both films' thematics) in notions of maternity rather than just sexuality. For example, compare Cameron's Ellen Ripley with the panty-and-tank-top Ripley of Scott's "Alien." In fact it was flat-out criminal that Sigourney Weaver didn't win the '86 Oscar for her lead in Cameron's "Aliens." Marlee Matlin indeed. No male lead in the history of U.S. action films even approaches Weaver's second Ripley for emotional depth and sheer balls -- she makes Stallone, Willis, et. al. look muddled and ill."

Weaver is joined by a supporting cast that features actors like Paul Reiser, Michael Biehn, and a hilarious, scene stealing Bill Paxton, all doing some of the best work they've ever filmed. It doesn't hurt that they're working from a great script that fluctuates from funny to dark to intelligent. The special effects are top notch (though some of the miniature work is kind of obvious), especially the introduction of the gigantic, menacing alien queen. The music is propulsive and thundering, and the sound effects work is astounding; this movie will tear your home theater system up.

The version of Aliens that I own is the extended cut, with 17 minutes not in the theatrical version, but I wouldn't necessarily recommend it over the shorter cut. For first time viewers, the material in the extended cut isn't really that vital. Either way, you're probably going to have a blast. Just try to assemble the biggest group of virgin viewers you can, cut the lights and crank up the volume.

Trivia note: apparently, only six alien suits were made for Aliens. This will really blow you away once you've seen the movie, because clever editing makes it appear that there are dozens in various scenes. Check out the IMDB trivia pages for both movies for tons of other interesting tidbits.

For more on Alien:
- Movie information at IMDB and Wikipedia.

For more on Aliens:
- Movie information at IMDB and Wikipedia.
- Buy the Alien Quadrilogy Box Set. You don't really need Alien 3, and you definitely don't need Alien: Resurrection, but it's a great deal for a whole lotta movie.

The completely freaky, narration-free Alien trailer:

The Aliens trailer:

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