Saturday, March 01, 2008

Thank the cinematic gods for pluralisation. ‘Oh, what’s that? Alien only had one critter? Well, let’s slap an ‘s’ on the end of the title and have hundreds of the motherfuckers. It’ll be great.’ And indeed it is.

Diehard fans of Alien may bemoan the different approach that Cameron takes – lots of guns and the Aliens themselves reduced to bugs to be blown to pieces by machinegun fire – but the film is true to Scott’s original while taking it in a new direction. It’s a perfect sequel.

The fidelity to the original includes the creepy atmosphere and the slow build-up, but this film has more action and more of an emotional pull. Indeed, it’s the relationship between Ripley and Newt that elevates it to something more than just an excellent action film.

The final act, which sees Ripley head off alone into the Alien nest in order to rescue what has become her surrogate daughter, has a whiff of absurdity to it. Skinny woman with a massive gun and flamethrower attached to her and she’s going to kick butt? Yeah, right. But because Sigourney Weaver and James Cameron play it so straight, and because you’ve become so attached to the characters over the course of the film, it seems like the only thing that could happen. You totally believe in Ripley. This is something she just has to do.

And it helps that there are no attempts to indulge in empty grandstanding. This is just a simple case of a mother going into hell to rescue her daughter. And as everyone knows, there’s nothing in the world you should fear more than a woman who’s trying to get her child back. Mothers are tougher than any Alien Queen, a point illustrated by the fabulous moment when Ripley burns the Alien Queen’s eggs. There Ripley is, just trying to get Newt back to safety. She’s happy to leave the Aliens alone. But then one of the eggs opens, and with a fantastic look from Ripley, one that says she’s going to kick the everloving shit out of you, she lets rip with the flamethrower. She burns the eggs, she shoots the Aliens and fires grenades at the Alien Queen. It’s a phenomenally good scene – aside from crackwhores and morbidly obese shut-ins, I believe any mother in the world would do this for their kid; they’d go into an Alien nest, rescue their child and fuck it up bad if any pissant motherfucker had the temerity to try and fuck with them. You just don’t fuck with a mum and her kid.

But back to grandstanding, one could argue that the ‘Get away from her you bitch!’ moment is an example of empty of grandstanding. But I’d strongly disagree with that. That moment is so iconic because of the sincerity of Weaver’s delivery and the truth inherent in the line – don’t stand between a mother and her child. But fair enough, it’s also iconic because the power loader is so damn cool.

However, the bond between Ripley and Newt was less explicit in the original theatrical version. But in the Special Edition we get a great scene where we find out, because she spent so much time drifting through space in hypersleep after surviving the Nostromo, that Ripley’s real child has died as an old woman. It’s a great little scene and gives more depth to the relationship between Ripley and Newt. I’m kind of baffled as to why it was cut out.

However, other stuff in the Special Edition doesn’t fare quite as well. The least successful inclusion is the scene on the colony where we see Newt’s parents find the derelict alien ship from the first film. It’s kind of pointless and it’s not particularly well filmed or acted – I can easily see why it was cut out. And plus, part of the joy of Aliens was not knowing exactly what happened on the colony. It was creepier when we could try and imagine it ourselves.

I’m also not a huge fan of the sentry gun sequences. Most people tend to love them, thinking they add to the tension. But to me they only seem to highlight the budgetary restrictions. You seem to see the same bit of footage of an Alien exploding over and over again. Plus, for me, there was greater tension when you saw less of the Aliens. The longer you have to wait for the attack, the bigger the pay-off because you’ve been wound up that little bit more.

But although the big attack where the Aliens come crashing through the ceiling is magnificent, I prefer the first encounter; the one where the cocky Marines are slaughtered in the hive. What makes the scene so fantastic is the way Cameron uses the Marines' cameras, the ones they have strapped to them, to add to the confusion of the attack. It makes it even more visceral - we see a lot of the action take place on a series of monitors.

But this use of monitor footage also serves as a nod to Alien. When Dallas and his crew head off to the derelict ship this technique is used to build tension. But Aliens takes the concept that little bit further.

Another concept in Alien that is developed by Cameron is the use of the motion trackers. Scott used it briefly in the scene where Dallas is killed, but here it’s a main feature of the film. It’s used all the time. And again it’s incredibly effective. It’s a tool that’s meant to help the Marines, a piece of technology that helps them do their job better, but it only makes them more paranoid and confused. They can rarely see their enemy. And even when they think they know where the Aliens are coming from, things are turned upside down because the Aliens will come crashing through the ceiling instead of through the door like they expect.

And it’s this unseen enemy, and the Marines' cockiness, that makes it feel like a Vietnam War film. The Marines start off with complete confidence and then are gradually broken down by an enemy that is less well equipped but that can adapt to its environment better.

But although the militaristic aspect of the film is always going to be reminiscent of Vietnam, it also feels a bit like a Western. The Marines keep getting attacked and they’re gradually running out of ammunition. It’s like the Indians are storming the fort – they can only be repelled for so long. But in that way it also feels a bit like the film Zulu – superior numbers will eventually wear down a well equipped force with fewer bodies.

However, going back to the way that Cameron builds upon the ideas that were started in Alien, I love the use of Bishop in the film. After Ash in the first film, we maybe expect another unhinged robot or at very least a company stooge. And at the beginning Ripley treats him like shit. But after hinting that he might be another android psycho, he turns out to be heroic. And it’s a lovely moment when Ripley finally tells Bishop that he did well. In a film that is relentlessly violent, it’s nice to have a moment that has such warmth.

A much smaller nod to Alien that I like is the use of a countdown at the end. With the reactor about to explode we’re told how long Ripley has to reach a minimum safe distance. It raises the stakes even higher when Ripley has to save Newt – not only does Ripley have to save her daughter from the Aliens but she has to do it before everything is blown to shit.

Aside from building on the concepts started in the first film, another one of Cameron’s strengths is creating memorable characters. No one gets lost in the mix. All the grunts stand out. My personal favourite is Hudson (Bill Paxton), the whinging scaredy cat who eventually grows a massive set of balls and kicks some serious Alien butt before being killed. Every line he utters is a work of genius. Then there’s Vasquez. I don’t know what it is about Cameron, but he always seems to be able to create believably tough female characters. Therefore it doesn’t ring untrue when she kicks an Alien in the head and shoots it in the face. You believe this woman is capable of doing this. And of course, then there’s Hicks. He’s probably the toughest Marine, but there’s also a sexual undercurrent between him and Ripley. Thankfully there’s no explicit romance in the film, but with the way that Hicks shows her how to use a gun and with the tracker he gives her, quipping that it doesn’t mean they’re engaged, you know it’s on the cards. And at the end Ripley, Newt and Hicks are like a small family. Again it’s another reason why the film works so well – you believe in the emotional connection between the characters.

But smaller characters stand out as well. Drake and the Sergeant are great in what limited time they have, and I love Gorman, the poindexter turned good. And then there’s Burke, who proves that a greedy company man will always be worse than an acid-drooling monster.

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