Thursday, April 27, 2017

Aliens (1986, Movie Review)

      2017 marks the premier of “Alien Covenant”, which is the first stand alone Alien movie sense the 1990’s. It’s very exciting, but I’ll admit, I’ve never been a huge fan of the Alien series as a whole. I am however, most definitely a fan of the 1986 classic “Aliens”. This is a movie I’ve wanted to talk about for years, as I find it not only superior to its predecessor, but one of the plain greatest Sci-Fi/ Action movies ever made. I’ve already reviewed the first 1979 “Alien” years ago, and basically described it as something that left a meaningful impact on cinema, but not a movie I’d ever care to watch on repeated viewings. The 1986 sequel by contrast has aged remarkably well, and still holds up as one of my all time favorite movies. It does something completely different from the original, it up’s the spectacle, up’s the excitement, and most important of all ... it actually has a soul thanks to its outstanding cast of characters. “Aliens” is just one of those rare sequels that can escape the shadow of its predecessor, and become a cinematic classic in its own right. I should note that I’ve only seen the original theatrical cut once, and then stuck to the special extended cut of “Aliens” as I found that version far superior, with much better plot and character details added in. As such, I’ll be addressing elements from the extended cut throughout the review.

      After the events of “Alien”, the last survivor Ripley has been stranded in the empty vastness of outer-space in a state of frozen hibernation. It takes 57 years before she’s rescued, only to discover that while in deep sleep, her world has changed drastically. In fact her very own doubter has had a full lifetime, and died at the age of 66 while she was in cryosleep. Worse yet, a colony of several families have been living on the barren moon where the Alien Xenomorph from the first movie was discovered. Naturally, all it takes is one lone family to wonder outside the safety zone, and disturb the alien nest. Now communication with the colony is completely severed, prompting a small team of space marines to go in and take action. Ripley naturally is still traumatized from her last experience, but is determined to face her fears, and aide the marines on their mission. Upon arrival, all the human inhabitants are dead, save for one little girl named Newt. Ripley instantly makes a connection with her, as she lost her doubter, and the girl lost her whole family. Now we’ve seen the damage one Xenomorph Alien did in the last film, but now, as the title so colorfully establishes, there’s a lot more than just one, which means some serious crap is about to go down. The Xenomorph Aliens make their attack, Ripley, Newt and the marines find themselves stranded on the planet, and from there it’s a rollercoaster ride as our hero’s try to escape. In the end, our hero’s find themselves at the mercy of a monstrous Alien Queen and its hoard of ravage children.

       On paper, this may sound like your basic, shoot’em-up monster movie, but it’s executed perfectly, to the point where this can be called a cinematic gem in its own right. This isn’t a deep movie with moral substance, but it’s not a mindless creature feature either. There is in fact a deeply rooted theme at the center of this film ... which is that of motherhood, and how far a parent will go to protect their child. We have Ripley taking on the role of a mother for the orphaned girl Newt, and by contrast we have the malevolent alien queen who attacks out a vengeance for her offspring’s getting gunned down. This surprisingly makes for a thrilling revelry between two matriarchal figures. For all the thrilling monster action on display, the focus always goes to the characters first, and that’s where “Aliens” really resonates with me as being better than your typical, exciting creature feature. It’s Ripley’s relation with Newt that’s at the heart of this movie, and the two just have perfect chemistry. The character of Ripley is more densely layered this time around, and Sigourney Weaver plays the role with mesmerizing conviction. She brought the character to life with so much tenacity, resourcefulness and a sympathetic side so well that Sigourney Weaver actually got a best actress nomination for the role. Just think about that for a moment, an actress playing an action hero in a Sci-Fi monster movie got an Oscar nomination ... when dose that ever happen? To be honest, I think Ripley, as featured in this movie alone is one of the top 3 greatest characters in science fiction cinema.   

    Of course I love the reaming characters too, specifically this crew of space marines. They trash talk and act tough, yet they all feel very real. There’s something about this group that comes off as very genuine, like there real friends that have served with each other for years. You can make a movie all about this group of space marines and I’d be perfectly happy. We have Cpl. Hicks who’s a subtle love interest to Ripley, Pvt. Vasquez who’s like a female Rambo, and best of all is the late Bill Paxton as Pvt. Hudson. He’s the funny guy, who hams it up, and never goes too far. This is personally my favorite role of Bill Paxton’s career, and features some of his most memorable lines. There’s a human villain who comes in the form of a company manager named Burke, who aims to make a profit off the creatures. This could have been a painfully clichéd add-on character, but he works surprisingly well in the film, and never acts like the stereotypical jerk character. Rounding up the cast is Lance Hendrickson as the android Bishop. This adds another intriguing conflict to the film as Ripley was betrayed by an android in the last film, now she has to learn to trust Bishop. Lance Hendrickson is amazing in the role, even before he’s revealed to be a robot of any sort he just had this unearthly manner of speaking and acting.

      Then we have the Xenomorph Aliens themselves, which look phenomenal in this movie. This time they have a ridged warrior head re-design, helping them blend in with their surroundings. Like the best of monster movies, the aliens are on screen just long enough to satisfy our excitement, but they never stay on screen for too long. I love how overwhelming they come off in this film. No matter how many get gunned down, there’s more that just keep coming, which is all conveyed through people in costumes, and no over blown CGI armies. That is such a special achievement, and something that’s really lacking in movies today. The alien eggs and chestbursters are kept to a minimal, but the alien face huggers are given a lot more attention, move fast and are far more terrifying in this film then before. One of my favorite scenes is when Ripley and Newt are locked in a small medical room with the face huggers. It’s a really tense scene, as it plays to our fear of being in a tight space with spiders. This also leads to some great action, and I’ve always loved how Cpl. Hicks comes to the rescue by leaping through the class window ... it’s bad ass.

    Of course we have the Alien Queen herself, which is one of the greatest movie monsters of all time. It’s so terrifying that even with a machine gun in your hands, this thing still makes you feel defenseless. The design is fantastic, and I love that it’s an entirely practical creature effect that’s actually there with the cast, and in front of the camera. It stood 14 feet tall, had two people inside, and had several additional puppeteers operating various parts like the mouth piece and the tail. Stan Winston and his effects team simply out did themselves with the creation of this monster. One little detail of the special addition I really love is how the characters build-up on the Queen’s first appearance by comparing her to the insect queen of a Bee hive or Ant colony. 

     Perhaps the most important talent of all to address is director James Cameron himself. Instead of just ripping off or retreading what made the original a classic, Cameron made his own movie here that can stand apart as its own classic. That’s something really lacking from directors, screen writers and filmmakers today. The first “Alien” was like a haunted house movie set in space, and thus was a marvel of Sci-Fi horror. “Aliens” is more like a war movie set in space, and thus is a marvel of Sci-Fi action. However, for all its excitement and impressive battle scenes, this film still maintains the same level of suspense, and in my opinion was actually scarier. Seeing these heavily armed space marines get swatted like flies made the aliens feel far more menacing, and James Cameron’s quality direction helps create an eerie atmosphere. I love the subtle moments, like when a character takes a flashlight, peaks his head through a hole in the ceiling and slowly reveals several of the aliens crawling through the vents. The pacing is perfect, and I feel very involved in what’s going on. This makes it feel like more of an adrenalin rush whenever something pops on screen. One of the most effective scares is a dream sequence that happens in the beginning of the movie. The scene is set up with Ripley awakening from her deep sleep, and getting her exposition dump from the doctors, but then things take a sudden dark turn as an alien chestburster is about to pop from her stomach. It’s a great way to provide the audience with the info they need, while also startling them, and setting the tone.

     “Aliens” might have even inspired some horror elements for future films to come, like the found footage genera. The build-up to the fist alien attack is seen from the perspective of our troops looking at things through cameras and view finders. Even when the monsters attack, the focus is mostly on our hero’s watching it unfold on camera, which definitely brings to mind movies like “Cloverfield”. I also love how James Cameron expanded the universe of Alien, with new creatures, new vehicles, and it just opened the door for new creative possibilities. The space marines offer a wide variety of awesome battle vehicles and weapons that are on par with “Star Wars”. We have a space ship shaped like a big gun, a drop ship which inspired several video games like “Halo”, a Robot Mech Suit, and my personal favorite is this all terrain battle vehicle. Visually the film is a work of art, the set designs and practical effects all look top notch, and still look really good to this day. “Aliens” deservedly won the Academy Award for best special effects, and is one of those rare Sci-Fi monster movies to get a lot of notice from the Oscars. It also won the Academy Award for best sound effects editing, and had several other nominations including best art direction, best film editing, best sound design and best music. That reminds me, the score composed by the late James Horner is phenomenal, and really heightens the excitement whenever the action kicks in.

      On that note, let’s talk about some of the action highlights. The first big alien attack gets the ball rolling, and features one of my favorite moments when Ripley takes charge, grabs the wheel of their battle van, and rescues the troops. It’s the closest we get to having a car chase in the alien franchise, and a great moment to establish how bad ass Ripley would get. This is also a special case in which the action is spectacular, but it’s our connection with the characters that really propels the excitement. When the little girl Newt gets taken by the aliens, we are 100% behind Ripley in rescuing her and we want her to make those monsters suffer for even thinking of snatching that child. It all builds to arguably one of the greatest showdowns in movie history, with Ripley in the Robot Mech Suit battling the Alien Queen. It’s hard to explain, but phew other climactic showdowns between the hero and villain feel as satisfying as this. Once again, for all the over the top CGI battles we get today in the “Transformers” and  “The Avengers” movies, the practical puppet effects of the alien queen fighting Ripley’s Robot Mech Suit still look more impressive.

      In short, “Aliens” laid the foundation on how to make a sequel superior to a film that was already a classic. It still had the same level of intensity, and heightened action spectacles to boot, but interwove them with long lasting themes of trust, family and bounding for survival. It’s all very adult, but extremely entertaining, and that little pinch of substance just goes so far in a film of this sort. To this day, “Aliens” still stands as one of my favorite movies, and personally I think it’s the greatest monster movie ever made, with “Jurassic Park” being a close second. It was so good that no other sequel in the franchise could hold a candle to it. I do still have high expectations for “Alien Covenant”, and I expect it will be good, but still, you just can’t beet this iconic sequel that still stands as one of the greatest that the Sci-Fi genera has to offer.

                                              I give "Aliens" a perfect 5 stars out of 5.

The End 

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