James Cameron is a gifted film-maker.
Now, let me parse that statement. He has gifts–not necessarily all the gifts you’d want him to have, though. For one thing, he can’t write a three-dimensional character to save his life. Sadly, his plots are seldom terribly intricate either. He makes up for these deficits with an ingenious sense of just what is possible on screen–of sensing the outermost boundaries of what can be done. The way these strengths and shortcomings play out in Aliens is interesting, to say the least.
[A quick, editorial note here: In reviewing Aliens, I will be referring to the far superior “special edition” cut which adds quite a bit of footage.]
Forget what people say about Titanic or Avatar, Aliens is Cameron’s masterpiece. The plot may be little more than “forty miles of bad road,” but the trip down that road is so well constructed with so many threads of conflict woven into it that as the road gets rougher, the knot of tension is twisted ever tighter. I could go on and on about this–in fact, I did once in an extensive analysis for grad school. Enjoy!
As I said before, character development is not Cameron’s strong suit. In Titanic, for example, Rose is only tolerable because of the admirable (and Oscar-worthy) efforts of Kate Winslet; whereas DiCaprio’s Jack just plain isn’t. Avatar’s leads and bit players, like most of Cameron’s characters, might as well be card-board cut-outs. Obviously the most important characters in Aliens come to Cameron through the original Alien film, but to his credit, his script enhances both Ripley and the monster. In the first film, we knew Ripley was a determined and hard-nosed officer, but the iconic heroine was still lurking beneath the surface–waiting for this sequel to be revealed. Between the greater range for the character in the script and Weaver’s more refined acting chops, Ripley becomes the model for strong female protagonists in genre filmmaking.
One wouldn’t exactly call the rest of the characters a subtle ensemble cast, but each of their somewhat flat personas serves the intertwined conflicts of the plot more so than in most of Cameron’s other films–where bad guys always sneer and simper from frame one and there’s never anything resembling ambiguity. Through Ripley, each of these characters finds his or her moment–Hicks learns leadership, Hudson courage, Gorman sacrifice. These are through-lines missing in later works like Avatar, but which weave into the central conflict much more efficiently than, say, the robot-gets-a-soft-side nonsense in T2.
In my review of Alien, I noted that the celebrated monster itself is more fully realized in Aliens than in the original. This is, obviously, near sacrilege to geekdom, but I’ll explain. In Alien, the creature moves slowly, plodding like Jason with a machete, counting on the co-eds to stumble in the woods. In Aliens, though, Cameron brilliantly reimagined the monsters–giving them a lithe agility as they hop around corners, squirm through crawlspaces, and emerge from the walls of their hive. Then, of course, is the queen herself. As he wrote the screenplay, Cameron had to doubt that she was even possible. In later Alien films the creature has been rendered using CGI, the silly putty of today’s special effects. In 1986, though, the queen was real. She existed. A towering monster that lived in the space with the actors and heightened the terror of the already terrifying alien creatures.
Cameron began in special effects, and throughout his career his films have made bold, loud moves into previously unknown territory in visualizing the impossible. From the water snake in the Abyss and the T1000 in T2 all the way to the world of Pandora in Avatar, many of these celebrated accomplishments in film making have involved computer imagery. Aliens, though, represents his greatest accomplishment. All of its considerable visual feats are created with practical effects. The queen was fantastic as a giant, four-man puppet. The power-loader was a styrofoam suit. The alien suits were streamlined and cameras turned upside down to capture the frenetic and frightening movements realized in the film. Pure genius.
For those of you keeping score, yes, this is the highest-rated film to date on the completely arbitrary Helmling-scale. There is, in fact, only one sci-fi franchise I would give more points to…
I’ve got to acknowledge all the great lines in this movie…
- Game over, man!
- Maybe you haven’t been keeping up on current events, pal, but we just got our asses kicked!
- They mostly come at night…mostly.
- Why don’t you put her in charge?
- When Hicks calls the dropship to pick them up after their disastrous first encounter with the aliens, they’re planning on loading up and flying straight to the Sulaco, right? Because, if so, they’re kind of leaving Bishop behind at the colony. Isn’t he also “an expensive piece of hardware?” Should they just leave him behind?
- The one really obvious glitch in the special effects that hasn’t been excised on the current Blu-Ray (other than the limitations created by the blue screens of the day) was the scene where Bishop shows off with the knife. Obviously the film was sped up to make it look like Lance Henrikson’s hand was moving faster than possible. When this happens, though, Al Mathews doesn’t slow down his nodding enough and it looks like his head is about to pop off his neck.
- The aliens are supposed to be smart, but it seems like the queen isn’t that great at math. We know the colony has only 157 potential hosts for the aliens, which means the queen has a total complement of 156 alien drones. We see (in the extended version) quite a few of them get blasted by the sentry robots to the tune of 990 rounds of ammunition spent, and later when they storm the command center via the ceiling crawlspace, several more die as Hudson and Vasquez spray the room with armor piercing rounds and grenades. In fact, when Ripley gets to the hive, there are hardly any aliens left there. Seems like grabbing this handful of hosts was a Pyrrhic victory for her majesty.