Saturday, August 28, 2010

"Aliens" (1986)

Starring Sigourney Weaver, Michael Biehn and Paul Reiser
Written and directed by James Cameron

I often waffle back and forth on whether "Aliens" or "Terminator 2: Judgment Day" is James Cameron's best film.  Tonight, I'm watching them back-to-back and I'm still not sure I can decide.  Perhaps they're equally as good?

"Aliens" is one of those rare sequels that manages to take the universe and characters of the original and do something new and interesting with them instead of simply trying to repeat and recapture the magic of the first.  Set some 60 years after the first film, "Aliens" finds Sigourney Weaver's Ellen Ripley revived from cryogenic sleep and brought back to Earth.  There, she finds that the entire world has changed without her, including the death of her only daughter several years before.  Now alone, in a strange world, Ripley also finds that the company that employed her is not so happy that she destroyed an expensive starship, seemingly without cause.  They don't believe her story about vicious alien creatures with acid for blood, and she's quickly drummed out.

Soon after, however, Earth loses contact with the colony on LV-426 that has sprung up in Ripley's absence - the same planet where she encountered the aliens "Xenomorph."  Ripley volunteers to be part of a military mission to LV-426 to discover the source of the communications blackout, hoping that it doesn't mean wholesale slaughter of several hundred colonists.  When the detachment of Colonial Marines lead by Lt. Gorman (William Hope), Sergeant Apone (Al Matthews) and Corporal Hicks (Michael Biehn) reach LV-426, Ripley's worst nightmares are confirmed: a hive of aliens has taken over the colony, using the human settlers as incubators to propagate themselves.  The Marines' initial encounter with the aliens suffers heavy casualties, leaving Ripley and the survivors stranded on the surface, low on ammo, until they can establish contact with their ship to send down a rescue shuttle.

On the planet, Ripley encounters Newt (Carrie Henn), a young girl who has managed to survive alone for weeks.  Ripley, feeling the loss of her own daughter, takes Newt under her wing and protects her.   But the aliens aren't the only thing Ripley needs to watch out for: a company executive named Burke (Paul Reiser) is along for the ride, and his intentions are not exactly noble.  Despite his promises to Ripley, he aims to capture one of the aliens alive (inside a human host, if necessary) and bring it back to Earth for study. 

"Aliens" starts off a bit slow, taking its time to build the characters and set up the situation before Ripley and the Marines even arrive at LV-426.  This is absolutely to the betterment of the picture, more so in the lengthier director's cut than in the theatrical version.  In this version, we find out more about Ripley's lost daughter, and are introduced to Newt and her family much earlier.  While I can understand the decision to cut these parts out in a business sense, in a creative sense it lessens the film.  The director's cut is a much fuller experience, even with the extra time spent at the beginning.  It's all worthwhile, because once the ride starts on LV-426, it's much more rewarding with that extra knowledge.

While the original "Alien" was a slow-burn horror film set in space, "Aliens" eschews that for a full-blown action movie.  It takes certain tropes of the genre, including the "men on a mission" plot structure, and sets it in space.  Instead of claustrophobic chase sequences, we get big balls-out gunfights and explosions, and a much more military feel to the whole thing.  

James Cameron's script gives us a cast of wild, fun characters.  The Marines share a special rapport with each other, joking back and forth, but entirely professional.  Bill Paxton's Private Hudson is the source for a number of hilarious lines, whether he's trying to exude his badassness or if he's flipping out from the fear.  Cigar-chomping Apone, slimy suit Burke, tough-chick Vasquez, all fun to watch and enjoyable to have around.  Michael Biehn's Hicks is a fine father figure for Ripley's new surrogate family with herself as the mother and Newt as daughter. 

Directing action has never been a weak point for Cameron, either, and he throws out some real balls-to-the-wall badassery in this one.  Even in all the smoky darkness, the action in "Aliens" is intense and easy to follow.  The final confrontation between Ripley and the alien queen is a scene for the ages, even if it borrows a bit from the climax of the original film.  The creature design is top-notch, with lots of extremely frightening alien creatures running about in the darkness.

"Aliens" is a fantastic film, sci-fi or not.  Well-defined characters, great performances and awesome effects and action make it one of James Cameron's best.  Is it his absolute best?  I'm still not sure.  I don't think I could ever really decide on that one.  But I'll continue to have a blast trying.