By: Garrett Collins
Starring: Sigourney Weaver, Michael Biehn, Jeanette Goldstein, Lance Henriksen, Bill Paxton, Paul Reiser, and Carrie Henn
Note: This review is of the director’s cut included in the ALIEN QUADRILOGY, which runs seventeen minutes longer than the 137 minute theatrical cut.
Imagine it is the year 1983 and you are James Cameron. Your little film The Terminator has not started shooting yet due to your ‘will he be, or will he not be’ star Arnold Schwarzenegger having to film the second film in the Conan series. And, in a case that can only be called sheer coincidence, your script for The Terminator has landed on the desk of one David Giler. Now Giler, along with his frequent partner in crime Walter Hill, produced a little film from 1979 called Alien. And, (at this time) four years removed from that film’s critical and financial success, they were anxious to get a sequel going. So, based on the strength of your Terminator script, they enlist you to write a sequel to Alien. A film that changed both science fiction and horror forever (anyone who says that Halloween is the sole reason slasher films took off has obviously failed to look at the 1979 film that had Geiger’s creature stalking a crew of seven aboard a ship). Cameron, who at this time, aside from a few gigs as a model designer on Roger Corman films, was about as unproven as you can get. But, anyone who has seen interviews with the man knows that he doesn’t lack confidence. And, what he eventually churned out three years later in Aliens is a film that is sheer excitement at its best. Knowing he could not match the mood setting and feeling of dread in Ridley Scott’s original, Cameron instead decided to go for the next best thing: pulse pounding thrills and gut wrenching additions to this already complex world.
Going into this film, Cameron knew that in order to make a film at least worthy as a successor to the first, he had to up the stakes. And, to his credit, his script does exactly that. Cameron wisely starts right off reminding us what this film is going to be. Because, as the screen is faded in and covered with space, opening titles ever so slowly form the word Aliens. Not as intricately as the beginning of Scott’s film. But, with a dark tint of blue. This shows us that Cameron is going to do things his way, and that this film, while paying close enough attention to what came before it, is also going to have a stamp of approval from Cameron himself. This automatically gets you excited for the film, and when we as an audience are reintroduced to Lieutenant Ellen Ripley, she is found in her ship 57 years after we left her the last time. In this time, her daughter has died, and nightmares of the creature she blew off into space last time are swiftly becoming a norm. I have heard people complain about that first nightmare scene of Jones the cat hissing and an alien coming out of her chest. I for one highly enjoyed it for a few reasons. One, it reminded us of the monster that she encountered & it’s a reminder that it is still out there. Also, it is one of only two or three shots in the film that is strictly of a horror aesthetic. And, it is our first introduction to new composer James Horner’s brilliant score for this film. All of these add up to a beginning that grips you right away, and Weaver shows in this first half hour or so why she in fact became the first actress to earn $1 million for appearing in this film. And, why she became a Best Actress Academy Award nominee for her role of Ripley in this, the second film of the series. She puts on an acting clinic here and invests us right away into her character.
After her nightmares slowly convince her to help out, we are then introduced to the grunts that will be working along with her. Now, I am not going to go over them one by one. But, what I will say is that this is a big example of how Cameron has changed the overall tone of the series for the better. Yes, the majority of these soldiers are stereotypes. After all, as good of a visualist as he is, no one has ever accused Cameron of being a great writer. As for highlights, we have frequent strong girl in a world of males Vasquez (Goldstein), is he, or is he not going to get with Ripley grunt Hicks (Biehn), and constant smartass Hudson (Paxton, 11 years before he would wear a mullet and earring for Cameron in Titanic). What was great about Hudson was that while he definitely had some great lines (“game over, man!”), he was so loud and rambunctious that almost every single character in the movie tells him to shut up at one time or another. Again, none of these characters really serve much of a story propeller. But, what Cameron does do is surround Ripley with these trained war mongers to make her feel safe. And, when the stakes are raised later on in the film & panic sets in, much like the first one, it makes the feeling of dread that much more apparent.
In fact, I must say: while Cameron would obviously go on to have a brilliant career, to this day I would go as far as to say that this is one of the best jobs he would ever do behind the camera (although you will never hear me put down what he did with Titanic). With some nicely staged and heart pounding action sets, masterfully shot ‘monster in the room’ sequence, as well as the brilliant inclusion of the Atari-like motion detector, Cameron found ways of raising the stakes without losing the overall tone of the film. He also made some good callbacks (chestburster, character who doesn’t show his true colors until well into the film’s running time), making it almost the perfect meld of both his and Scott’s films. However, as good as all of this was, I think one of the things that has to be in the top three good calls is who they nabbed to play lost little girl Newt. Carrie Henn (whose acting career began and ended with this film and is now a school teacher ) was so good in the role that it is almost sad to think what she could have done next. With her expressive eyes, love and cute caressing of a doll’s head (not to mention a blood curdling scream that I am still trying to dig out of my ear buds), Henn sells the character brilliantly. And, of course, the mother/daughter relationship that builds between her and Ripley not only brings out the best of Henn. It also gave Weaver an extra dimension to take the character in a new direction. And, in the final shot of the film, this entire cycle is complete.
Aliens is an excitingly fun ride, with some hints of comedy and horror thrown in (watch the scene of Newt in the water and tell me that is not horror). I have already outlined many of Cameron’s awesome directing choices, and combined with the performances around him brings to life the impossible: a sequel that raises the stakes without compromising the overall quality of the franchise. Is it a different feeling film than the first one? Absolutely. But, Cameron’s use of the camera here (I am usually pretty good about not feeling claustrophobic while watching a movie, but it was impossible not to here) and his uses of the colors blue & red (check out the way red surrounds Ripley as she goes to fight the queen. Almost as if she is walking into Hell) are just some of the components that prove Weaver’s instinct to trust him as a director were correct. However, even though this was a fun ride, I did kind of miss the horror feel and overall ‘what are its motives’ feel of the first one. Also, not all the visual effects always work (especially in scenes shot from the POV of the ships’ pilots). For these reasons, and these reasons alone, I do not rank it as high as Scott’s original. But…Cameron comes pretty close. So close, it would please a Queen.
4.5 out of 5