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Stay Frosty with ALIENS

December 24, 2011

As a Christmas present of sorts to myself, I decided my next review would be of one of my all-time favorites (of any genre), Aliens.

Getting the obvious out of the way, Aliens (1986) is the James Cameron-directed sequel to the Ridley Scott-directed Alien (1979). This is a huge movie, and I mean that in a few different ways. It was a smash hit, operating on a much grander scale than its predecessor and it ups the action, suspense, carnage and of course, the runtime.

Speaking of runtime, there are two cuts of this film, and while the original theatrical version is wonderful on its own, the 1992 Special Edition is Aliens at its most perfect. Clocking in at a whopping 154 minutes, this longer version of Aliens is completely without filler, a rarity for “extended cuts.” It’s a lean, mean two-and-a-half hours of “here comes the good part.”

Picking up more or less immediately where Alien left off. Aliens quickly reintroduces us to Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), drifting through space after outwitting the titular creature of the first film. What ensues is a nightmarish sequence of events that causes Ripley to face the terrors once more.

Taking into account that Scott’s Alien is pretty much a perfect film, and widely regarded as such, Cameron’s sequel had a tremendous degree of difficulty to overcome. Aside from following up a truly great film, the most imposing obstacle was creating a believable reason for Ripley to find herself among the xenomorphs again, as she obviously would have no realistic desire to do so.

How did Cameron maneuver through this crucial issue? He modeled the entire film as a post-Vietnam combat film a la Taxi Driver (1976), Platoon (1986) and even Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985), which happened to be co-written by Cameron.

Alien was Ripley’s Vietnam, and Cameron was going to make her relive the terror in Aliens. Ripley can be seen early in the film experiencing PTS syndrome-like nightmares, which subtly sets up her entire character arc for the film. The final stroke that really makes the story work involves Ripley agreeing to accompany a team of Marines back to LV-426 with the intent of exterminating the aliens. This opportunity to exorcise her demons coupled with the nightmares, makes Aliens seem like a natural – nay, necessary continuation of the first film. With the premise soundly established, all Cameron had to do was deliver on the action. Seeing as he already had The Terminator (1984) under his belt, I can’t imagine there was ever much doubt that this was going to work.

Wartime atrocity, another staple of the post-Vietnam combat film, was also given a treatment in the film when Ripley descended into the queen alien’s lair searching for Newt (Carrie Henn). The buildup begins with Ripley literally duct-taping a rifle to a flamethrower and erupts in a furious climax when she goes to town on the egg-filled lair, incinerating both grown and yet-unborn aliens.

Aliens is a superlative production from top to bottom, and this includes actor performance. Sigourney Weaver gives another memorable performance as Ripley and even earned a nomination for the Academy Award for Best Actress, something almost completely unheard of coming from a genre film. She didn’t win the Oscar but she did take home the Saturn Award from the Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy & Horror Films.

Bill Paxton delivered the other most notable performance as Private Hudson. Hudson is a comical tough-talking man-child with no filter between brain and mouth, and Paxton plays it way over-the-top to great effect. Paxton is so good here that I roughly equate his performance to the masterwork of George C. Scott in Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove (1964). I like to think that in some parallel universe, Paxton’s Hudson and Scott’s Buck Turgidson could do some seriously hilarious damage together in any military situation. As did Weaver, Paxton won a Saturn Award, for Best Supporting Actor.

The rest of the cast is quite good as well. Michael Biehn, Carrie Henn, Jeanette Goldstien and Lance Henriksen all turn in admirable performances. Even Paul Reiser, normally a comedic actor, has a great outing in one of his rare serious roles, playing the villainous Carter Burke (no relation).

Visually, Aliens serves up memorable and shocking imagery. This is not to say that it is particularly colorful. Avatar, this is not. However, the locales themselves practically become characters in the story. While the set designs are plenty original enough for my taste, I can’t help but be reminded at times of Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back (1980). The wasteland of LV-426 conjures images of Hoth the same way the gothic/industrial hell that is the queen’s lair evokes the carbon-freezing chamber deep in the bowels of Cloud City.

Praise of the set design doesn’t even touch on the greatest visual element of the film (and really, the entire Alien series); the alien itself. H.R. Giger, the Swiss surrealist painter is the man behind the creature design. Unlike Alien, which devoted very little screen-time to the creature, Aliens puts this wonderful creation on full display.

Aliens is a film that simply must be experienced by every film fan of any genre. It’s just that good. Though overshadowed among Cameron’s other popular works by such films as Titanic and Avatar, it probably stands as his best. Aliens is first-class entertainment and an example of surprisingly subtle filmmaking considering what an extravaganza it turns out to be.

Stop you grinnin’ and drop your linen.

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