Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Aliens (1986)

"This Time It's War"

- When we last left Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), she had disposed the alien that had killed her entire crew and was heading back to earth. Aliens (1986) continues the story of Ellen Ripley when, 57 years later, she is found by a deep space salvage team.... it seems as if her shuttle had flown off course. Displaced in time, distrusted by the authorities and altogether deeply disturbed from her encounter with the xenomorph alien, Ripley finds it understandably difficult to re-enter society. But Ripley's account of her dealings with an alien onboard the Nostromo begins to become more believable to the powers that be when a terraforming colony on LV-426 (the planet that the Nostromo discovered the alien) suddenly disappears into radio silence. Enlisting the services of Ripley, a team of elite marines lands on the colony to investigate.

Ridley Scott's Alien (1979) was a brilliant stand-alone film that required no sequel. However, Scott created such a mysterious and fascinating world in Alien that a sequel was certainly possible. Unfortunately, Scott's world was expanded upon by the would-be master of the big and the bloated: James Cameron. Promising that "this time it's war," Aliens builds upon what Ridley Scott and team created in Alien by delivering a bigger, badder but brainless action-packed Alien film.

A good sequel should not be a carbon copy of its original. Like any good sequel, Aliens incorporates much of what audiences enjoyed about the original Alien while also forging new ground. Cameron's most obvious contribution to the Alien series is expanding the xenomorph alien race. The audience is shown more of how the aliens live and behave as a group within the context of the story and the truly fantastic special effects (lead by legendary effects wizard Stan Winston) allow the aliens to move in new ways. The best aspect of the film is how the character of Ripley is explored. The many dynamics that play into Ripley's role in Aliens is quite satisfying, especially the relationship between Ripley and the child "Newt" (played very well by Carrie Henn). Naturally, Sigourney Weaver gives a powerful Oscar-nominated performance of the tough but vulnerable heroine.

While Aliens is a generally high-quality and entertaining movie, a number of potent flaws exist; most of which flow directly from writer/director James Cameron. One can notice the large number of predictable and lame Cameronisms that populate the film's reels immediately from the trailer. The military caricatures, the badass Hispanic female character, Michael Biehn, Pill Paxton, trademark Cameron camera movements, etc. - which is great if you like Cameronisms but awful if you do not. Cameron's trademarks would naturally exist since he directed the film, one might say. I will buy that. However, Cameron's departure from the thriller direction of Ridley Scott is something I cannot embrace.

Nobody wants to watch Alien remade - however, while the direction that Aliens takes could have been great, the execution of Cameron's vision is not. While there are inventive, tense and arguably scary moments in Aliens, Cameron basically crafts an action film out of his Alien picture and the film's general visual style suffers as a result. The visuals are certainly of a professional production quality. However, Aliens focuses on capturing supposed spectacular action scenes while featuring little in the way of interesting style or photography to heighten atmosphere and suspense. The original Alien film was defined by its incredible visual and atmospheric style; its sequel, Aliens, is defined by gunfire and explosions. And what is worse? The gunfire and explosions are not presented on screen with any more excitement or style than any other number of better films.

Cameron also makes the film feel very cheesy at times. Ridley Scott was able to make the characters in Alien compelling without any unnecessary and dishonest tugging of the heart strings - even Jones the cat never descended into such a role. Aliens on the other hand includes many forced emotional moments, especially in the "director's cut" version of the film. Even the most powerful emotional element of the film, regarding the character of Newt, feels forced and inauthentic in certain parts of the film. The cliched nature of the film's dialogue is atrociously cheesy - much of it coming off worse than it was on paper by some truly bad performances. Most of the cast (save for Weaver, Henn, Lance Hendriksen as the android Bishop and Michael Biehn as Cpl. Hicks) are pretty hard to take in. The most egregious thespian offenders are William Hope, who overacts his role to hilarious levels as Lt. Gorman; Paul Reiser, who gives a weak performance as the mischievous Weyland crony; and Bill Paxton, who is infuriating to watch as the loud, irritating and painfully unfunny Pvt. Hudson.

The root of the flaws in Alien comes from its very formulaic nature. Alien was different all-around. The film begins as an ensemble piece in which Ripley slowly rises to become the character at the center of the story. The first half of Alien moves at an eerily leisure pace (Ridley Scott recounted how people would complain that "nothing happens [in Alien] for 45 minutes"); it continues to speed up, with calming moments peppered throughout, becoming electric and very exciting up until the largely quiet final act. Suffice it to say, Alien is an unusual and brilliant film all around. Aliens, by contrast, basically follows the studio-approved Hollywood blueprint for an action/adventure/thriller in story structure, character outlining and general pacing. Cameron structures Aliens well but it is much more of a traditional, familiar film than Alien - I found this aspect particularly disappointing.

James Cameron's Aliens has a strange reputation as one of the greatest sequels in film history. It seems to me that Aliens features all the usual sequel trappings which makes me wonder how the film achieved its noble but unworthy title. Taking the Alien story in a starkly different direction from what Scott created is not damning in and of itself as a different direction could have been interesting. However, while generally entertaining, Aliens features little that is compelling or interesting. Rather than creating an engaging film world through style and suspense, which made the original Alien such a great film, Cameron focuses on special effects and gunplay in a way that makes Aliens a largely forgettable action flick. Although ending up an enjoyable film overall due to the professional quality of its production value and Sigourney Weaver's strong performance of a more fleshed-out Ripley character, Aliens dramatically pales in comparison to Ridley Scott's original 1979 Alien.

CBC Rating: 7/10

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Alien (1979)

"In space,
no one can hear you scream...."

- Monster movies.... Been there.

Space movies.... Done that.

A monster movie in space? .... Now I have never seen that before!

Ridley Scott's sci-fi classic Alien (1979) is often summarized as "a haunted house movie set in space" but, although not without a logical footing, this description is not entirely accurate. Alien continues to shock new generations of viewers but it terrified 1979 audiences to their very souls. But why? How did some "scrappy little independent film" turn out to be a alarming and dramatic genre game-changer? One reason for this was because Alien was technically innovative and effectively scary but the other reason is the completely unprecedented nature of visual and thematic content which makes the film so much more than a futuristic haunted house picture. The first of Scott's amazing sci-fi films (Blade Runner (1982), followed much later by Alien prequel Prometheus (2012)) and only the second feature film Scott had even directed, Alien is a stunning and suspenseful attack on our delicate senses. Nothing prepared me for what I was about to see - not even having seen Prometheus first and Alien second.

Alien begins with the seven member crew of the commercial spaceship Nostromo waking after a long mission. The crew unhappily wakes to news that, although originally en route back to Earth, their ship has been re-directed by its command center, "Mother," towards a planet emitting a distress signal. Investigating, the crew encounters an unexplainable and deadly organism that turns their standard ride home into a desperate fight for survival.

The story is quite simple but what makes Alien hypnotically compelling are the absolutely mind-blowing visuals and atmosphere. Alien does not build upon a western blueprint as other sci-fi films do (like the Star Wars series (partially) or "Firefly" (literally)) but instead forges new ground in the sci-fi genre by combining a cruel yet awesome wonder of space discovery similar to 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), the suspense of And Then There Were None and the unimaginable horror of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974). Space is depicted as quiet, cold, ruthless; and space travel not as exciting as "Star Trek" which naturally lends itself well to a sci-fi horror film.

Director Ridley Scott assembles every scene with creative and truly powerful camera work; however, my favorite thing about the film is the incredible photography from Scott and cinematographer Derek Vanlit. A stellar distribution of color gives this dark story visual dimension that deepens the mood. The use of light throughout the film is also especially remarkable, bringing a very strong visual style to Alien through brilliant high-contrast lighting and the occasional lens flare (a technique unfortunately reduced to parody these days due to overuse by some directors).

One of the most vocalized assertions from critics of Alien is that the film is paced too slowly; that "nothing happens for 45 minutes." However, I would argue that the unhurried pace is a powerful piece to the overall atmosphere, which is one of the film's biggest strengths. Unlike other horror films, Alien is not filled with a lot of heart-pounding thrill moments (although there are plenty of those). What makes Alien a scary movie is the slow, creeping mood that creates an uncomfortable eeriness throughout the film. Alien burns slowly, building the sense of uncertainty and apprehension in the viewer as the story evolves from an uneasy but tranquil voyage into an eye-opening and frightening terror. A general silence strengthens the dark, uneasy feel of the film - even Jerry Goldsmith's score features more austere sounds and creepy tones than melodies. Alien proves that silence is often the scariest volume. Ads for the film whisper "In space, no one can hear you scream." ....Indeed.

Alien opens with a gentle camera tour of Nostromo, serenaded only by the haunting sounds of the clanging vessel, which plants the audience directly in the middle of Scott's established world. The design of Nostromo is interesting because the production team did not bend their minds to create something entirely unimaginable. The ship is clearly something of futuristic fiction but also feels somewhat familiar with its dirty and practical factory design. This connects audiences to an identifiable featured film world rather than alienating them with something completely unrecognizable. At the same time, a certain uncleanliness and tangible feeling of claustrophobia accompanies the Nostromo which makes even the familiar ship feel intimidating. It is a fascinating world and I am in no hurry to rush through it to get to some blood and action.

The other side of the design coin of Alien is the look of the iconic alien creature and everything else that is seen in the film, designed by artist H.R. Giger who won an Academy Award for his work. Giger's work as an artist proves that he has a unique talent and his contribution to Alien was invaluable. Everything seen in the film, from the unknown ship to the look of the actual creature, is phenomenal.

Based on some of Giger's previous works, the alien organism is unlike anything previously seen in film and some the most and controversial themes of the film stem from the alein's anatomy and behavior. The alien (later to be known as a "xenomorph") has multiple stages of life: first an egg then the other stages commonly known as the facehugger, the chestburster and then the full-grown alien. Once hatching, it must first violate a person by entering down the throat and implanting an embryo inside the host's body. It then bursts forth from the inside out and begins to grow into a deadly terror. A fully grown alien looks somewhat like an asexual human but is pitch black, slimy, having jagged snake-like features, a shaft-like head, nasty teeth, acid for blood and a deadly tail to boot. The shape of its head gives the alien a phallic look but its protruding toothed tongue especially evokes this idea. The phallic nature of the alien, combined the act of "impregnating" its host, adds a sexual side to the terror the creature generates which not only makes the alien more unique but also scares on a whole plane. It is a terrifying creature, its very traits horrifying us on a very primal level.

Unlike other horror films that do not take the time to allow the audience to get to know its characters, Scott takes the Hitchcockian route and sets up his characters and atmosphere first before the action and the scares begin. Alien begins as an ensemble film - no one character being singled out as the main protagonist until later in the story. The film's seven characters are all a bit older than the traditional route most horror films seem to take (casting nothing but twenty/thirty-somethings), often referred to "truck drivers in space," which adds a certain maturity to the film. The recognizable cast is great from top to bottom: John Hurt (The Elephant Man (1980)) as Kane, Yaphet Kotto (Live And Let Die (1973)) as Parker, Veronica Cartwright (Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)) as Lambert, Harry Dean Stanton (Paris, Texas (1984)) as Brett and Tom Skerrit (M.A.S.H. (1970)) as Dallas all do not act simply as horror movie fodder but embody their characters perfectly as authentic and interesting human beings. Ian Holm (The Lord of the Rings Trilogy) is a particular stand-out among the cast with a layered performance of the intriguing Ash. Holm had little experience with film prior to Alien and, with a background largely as a Shakespearean actor (see Henry V (1989) for a great example of Holm's Shakespearean prowess), had done little to prepare him for this very different kind of role; so his performance is that much more impressive.

Of course, Sigourney Weaver shot to stardom with her involved and intense portrayal of Ripley. Hailed as a ground-breaking character for women on film, Ripley is shown to be a vulnerable human being but also a very resourceful survivor and a tough, capable leader - and, being a woman, Ripley is the perfect protagonist to square off against a phallic beast. Ripley would later be the character to carry on through most of the Alien series and Scott too would continue to feature strong women leads throughout his career, most notably in Thelma & Louise (1991), G.I. Jane (1997) and Prometheus.

Alien, like many Ridley Scott films, leaves a number of events unexplored and questions unanswered. This trait alone returns viewers to Alien again and again and feeds the desire for sequels to expand upon the film's universe and fearsome creature. Although some would occasionally touch upon elements that made Alien great, no other film in the Alien series comes close to the quality of style, theme or feeling of the Ridley Scott original. Scott's Prometheus would come the closest to re-capturing the essence of his original but was largely its own film; the following sequels to Alien - Aliens (1986), Alien 3 (1991), Alien: Resurrection (1997) and the Alien vs. Predator series - took a largely action-oriented approach to the world that Scott created while also taking an interesting look closer at the character of Ripley. The rest of the Alien series, with a mostly fantasy/action direction, have their place as entertaining films but pale when compared to Scott's Alien. Many of the sequels are exciting and fun movies but they lost the focus on style, theme and mood that defined the very real-feeling Alien and made it such a brilliant movie.

CBC Rating: 10/10