Saturday, June 9, 2012

Definitive Alien marathon: 'Aliens', an appreciation

In the general review for Aliens, much was written about how solid James Cameron's script was for how it expanded the Ripley character. As good as her performance was at the end of the first film, viewers would be hard pressed to explain very much about her. At the end of Aliens, there is a much greater sense about what motivates her and how compassionate she can be in the face of life threatening events, specifically via her pseudo adoption of Newt. There are plenty of other little details about the script which enhance her character and the interactions between other characters at large. The most interesting one is her relationship with Hicks, played by the now forgotten Michael Biehn. It could not even be argued that what they experience is on the cusp of romance. 'Close but no cigar' is not applicable in their case. Nay, they are much further than that from a romantic link. Is there a scene, a moment in the movie when Ripley and Hicks could have locked themselves in each others' arms for a good wet kiss? I really don't think so. And yet, and yet... There is something going on there. One of the strongest images of the film, one that includes no aliens whatsoever, is when, after Ripley and Newt are attacked by not one but two face huggers in the infirmary room, the few remaining soldiers come in to dispatch the vile, spider like creatures and Hicks dashes over and metaphorically 'protects' Ripley and Newt, crouching behind both of them, almost hugging Ripley as the latter hugs the little girl. They nearly come across as a family in that single moment. Naturally, some credit should go to the actors as well, with Weaver and Biehn living their respective roles unabashedly, giving them some depth and believability. Weaver's performance was so good that the Academy, which handles the Oscars ceremony, gave her a nomination in 1986, which was something no actor or actress had ever received for playing in a science-fiction movie, a genre that, if it earned nominations at all, was recognized mostly for sound and visual effects. Weaver really is quite a powerful presence in Aliens, not in any literal sense, but in character, in personality. When she leads, the side characters and by extension the audience is willing to follow.

Not far behind the Ripley-Hicks duo is that involving the protagonist and the story's android character, Bishop, played by Lance Henricksen. Her previous experience with Ash from the first film has made her incredibly sceptical towards machines of his ilk. He attempts to quell her unease by explaining that the model which Ash belonged to was known for critical malfunctions, but Ripley will have none of it. Hence , it is up to Bishop to prove himself to her, which is a really neat thing for the movie to make a robot to go through. After all, that's a journey a human character would normally go through. What it adds to the Ripley character is a little less clear. In a sense, it opens her eyes to a new reality: that allies can come in all forms. Whereas Carter (Paul Reiser) is a human who at first offers a friendly face, Bishop is, due to his nature, a little bit colder in his pragmatism and logic (computer ordained pragmatism, that is). Eventually, the tables are turned, revealing that the android Bishop, not the human Carter, is to be safely trusted. It isn't very very difficult to understand why actor Lance Henriksen is so fondly remembered for this performance, practically taking over as the quintessential cyborg of the series, supplanting one of the greats in the process (Ian Holm). Certainly his competition afterwards did not carry the same gravitas, as good an actress Winona Ryder (Alien Resurrection) can be provided the material she is given. With the addition of mister dependable, Michael Fassbender, to the franchise's cyborg characters, time will tell where Henricksen ultimately stands, but whatever the consensus, he is stellar in the picture. It is not as though he has to do that much, his mere voice is awesome, whether he is playing a human or a robot. As many cool movies he may have partaken in, this is one movie fan who believes he still was not in enough films.

These two articles have reviewed tons aspects about Cameron's picture but not too much about the antagonists. Having so many of them in a single picture obviously makes for a very different atmosphere. What makes each picture so neat are those very differences which the monsters bring to the fold. In Alien, the crew of the Nostromo is hiding and hunting a mystery. Here, the aliens are like pests. The audience knows what they are at this point, knows what they are capable of, so knowing that so many are on the prowl is a powerful tool in adding tension. They act like an unwavering, unstoppable infestation, first, by infiltrating and wiping out 99% of the human colony, and then by slowly closing in on an increasingly shrinking group of marines. Try as they might, the tactics of the latter are futile against the unshakable force of the former. There simply does not seem to be an antidote. One of the movie's most fun and intelligently constructed sequences is when, in order to protect themselves from their attackers, Ripley, Newt and the surviving marines barricade themselves in a particular room accessible via only one corridor. In said corridor the soldiers have set up two automated machine chain guns which fire upon detecting movement up ahead. The aliens, demonstrating that maybe they aren't that intelligent, send in hoards of troops down that corridor. The neat aspect of the scene is that instead of cutting to the hallway (in fairness, Cameron does cut to it, but very infrequently and only for split seconds), the viewer remains in the barricaded room as Ripley and company look at the video screen as the number of bullets diminishes with each round, and yet more and more aliens push their way, and the number of bullets lowers some more...It's a fabulous way to create unease, then ramp it up while hardly needing to show off tons of aliens getting blown to smithereens. 


Something which is not discussed very often, excluding talks among fans, is that the aliens do sport of different look in this sequel. They are pretty much the same beasts as the original monster, but rather than look sleek around the head, the bone structure is much more visible, as if their heads had so little skin that the skull can be seen through it. It's an arresting aesthetic, and one imagines that, just as in any sequel, simply doing the same thing over again is not a winning strategy. The audience wants something a little different, and of course the artists involved, from the director to the costume designers, and the effects people, want to put their own stamp on the visual cues of the picture. Again, it looks swell, although if I were to really make a choice, the original, more sleek lizard-like design sends more shivers down my spine. The fact that one cannot tell much at all from what might be under that dome is deeply unsettling. Suddenly seeing the skeleton blueprint is unique, although spoils a bit of the fun.

Cameron and creatures effects specialist Stan Winston blow the taco stand in the picture's final third by revealing one of the all time great movie monsters, the alien queen. She looks like her offspring, but far, far more sprawling, with her extended skinny bones almost giving her the shape of a spider. It is incredibly creepy while also very powerful. Fitting then, that Ripley lands in her hive during her mission to rescue Newt. As she holds the girl tight in her arms, the queen is laying her eggs. Adoptive mother versus actual mother (and bitch). A great moment in a film replete with great moments.

Watching to the bonus material on the blu-ray, it is amazing to learn under how much pressure composer James Howard Newton was. The time he had to create a score was no where near as much time most composers will normally get when working on a major film. Writes, re-writes and last second changes to various scenes had Newton continuously scramble in order to present musical pieces that that made any sense whatsoever. Now we listen to the results, in the film as it accompanies the action or on our mp3 players and admire how riveting it is. Some of those cues are brilliant in conveying the sense of danger and thrills. It may be one of the all time great adventure scores. 

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