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Prepping for PROMETHEUS: James Cameron’s ALIENS (1986)

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–Note: to read part one on Alien (1979), click HERE.

There was a time, not long ago, when I would have ranked the second film in the Alien franchise – James Cameron’s Aliens – as my favorite film.  Aliens grew with me: I remember watching it as a ten-year-old, remember the quivering fear it engendered inside me.  I remember then embracing that fear a few years later and turning it on my friends, subjecting them to Aliens‘ particular brand of intensity.  And I remember – most powerfully – when I stopped fearing Aliens and started loving it; the film played at the Virginia Film Festival before a packed crowd that included star Sigourney Weaver and effects master Stan Winston, and they – and me – cheered and whooped like it was the greatest summer blockbuster ever made.  Hell, that night, maybe it was.

I say this because when I rewatched Aliens last week, I experienced no small amount of psyche shock as the following thought kept flashing into my head:

I think I’ve outgrown this.

Now, at no point during the recent rewatch did I hate Aliens – far from it.  On a technical level, it’s about as immaculately crafted as these types of movies get.  James Cameron may have been trafficking in themes he would return to ad nauseum (military superiority rendered impotent; peeling back the layers on an alien culture; creating a functional family unit from seemingly dysfunctional elements; the evils of corporate greed), but he’d never hit these topics as viscerally as he did in Aliens.

Even in the Special Edition cut (which adds fifteen minutes to Aliens‘ already hefty runtime of 137 minutes), this thing just moves, ratcheting up the tension in delicious increments during the first seventy-five minutes and then releasing it in a series of relentlessly paced action sequences.  Once the mayhem starts, Cameron never lets us catch our breath.  It’s the quality I miss the most in his more recent projects: the hungry young Turk who did this and the first Terminator would never have tolerated – not in a million years! – the melodramatic and narrative excesses of Titanic and Avatar.

Cameron also deserves a lot of credit for not simply aping the moody atmospherics that Ridley Scott brought to Alien.  Whatever you think of the sequel, you have to admit that it isn’t content to rehash old story beats.  Alien is a haunted house chiller, while Aliens is a war movie, the anamorphic frame now opened up to 1.85:1 in order to better accommodate Cameron’s many destructive toys (best one: a minigun mounted on a Steadicam arm) and battle scenes (best one: a Zulu-like standoff between Cameron’s heroic Colonial Marines and xenomorphs that spring from the floors and ceilings), and like with most war movies, the expanses of action also apply to the characters.

Cameron dispenses with the anonymity that Ridley Scott brought to his Alien cast, favoring instead a rag-tag group of grunts with personas so heroically outsized that they could have been lifted straight from a Howard Hawks picture like The Thing from Another World or Rio Bravo.  There’s Hudson, the loudmouth; Vasquez, the badass chick; Hicks, the Gary Cooper-style hero; Burke, the weasely company man; and, of course, Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley, who undergoes quite the character transformation: we see an impersonal trucker become a savage, courageous, and deeply compassionate warrior heroine.  That last bit is vintage Jim Cameron (think Sarah Connor or Neytiri’s Na’vi princess), but it works here; her relationship with the preteen Newt, a shell-shocked survivor of the xenomorphs’ rampage, gives Aliens its surprising emotional resonance.

Even the creatures lose some of their nightmare illogic so Cameron can biologically record their patterns.  We see their fighting prowess, how they work together to trap/attack the Marines (gotta love how they use the colonists to bait our protagonists), and we get a frightening look at their evolutionary development, pre-facehugger: the Alien Queen, a fifteen-foot-tall jumble of fangs, disgusting reproductive organs, and powerful maternal instincts.  Effects supervisor Stan Winston would go on to create a number of iconic screen wonders (not least of which: the Terminator and the T-1000; the dinosaurs in the Jurassic Park series; and the xenomorph’s frequent enemy, the Predator), but I don’t he ever topped the Alien Queen.  Working with a micro-budget and an insane shooting schedule, Winston didn’t just bring the Queen to life: he gave this inhuman monster a soul.

All this works, so why carp?  It’s simple: Ridley Scott and Alien.  As good a job as Cameron did, his film never dredges up that creeping, existential dread that Scott slathered his movie in.  Cameron is all about surface pleasures, which batter you around enjoyably and then evaporate with the end credits; Scott wants to get under your skin (and does).  I like how remote his leads are, and how much harder we have to work to sympathize with them.  I prefer how Scott makes all his surfaces – alien and otherwise – seem off-putting and vaguely hostile, or how he never lets us fully process the alien, changing its appearance just when we think we’ve got a bead on it.  The irony, of course, is that Cameron’s shortcomings on Aliens are the best kind of shortcomings; his movie suffers in comparison to Alien because it isn’t trying to be Alien.  I value that fact above all else, that so far, we’re two for two in the franchise, with little repetition in sight.

That said, a part of me has died, and I fear I cannot get it back.

Scariest scene: As I alluded to earlier, Cameron designed Aliens to “thrill” more than to “scare,” but he does offer one white-knuckle suspense setpiece that rivals anything in Alien.  Ripley and Newt wake up from a much earned nap in the medical laboratory, and just as we’re cooing at how “mother and daughter” they look, Cameron directs our attention to the empty facehugger jars (that previously contained live ones) on the floor, and the locked door trapping all parties inside…