Sunday, October 14, 2012


1986 ****1/2

The first time I saw this movie I was by myself, munching on a huge Italian grinder from D'Angelo's that I snuck into a nearly empty Showcase theater one afternoon. Watching this again I still felt a little bit of that same feeling when the final confrontation begins: "No, wait... no, that's enough, I want to relax now, it's been like 45 minutes of this...ohhhh shit."

In the early days of Horrorthon, when discussing what counted as horror and what didn't, I would often cite these two flicks as a guideline: Alien is a horror movie, Aliens is an action movie. Fortunately for my sci-fi theme, we've since widened our range a bit. (Also, the franchise would later proceed to move back towards its origins, but more on that in another review).

As far as I can tell, Aliens is the only example of someone inflicting a deliberate genre change on a sequel and having it work out (although off the top of my head I can't recall anyone else even trying). The coiled spring of tension that is Alien is given over to the machine-gun wish-fufillment that flourished in the 80s. Cameron said his focus was "less on horror, more on terror," but he may as well have said "more on kicking ass." The conversion is simple: add an "S" to the title to really define the scope of the problem (which loses "Alien" as an adjective, so good-bye horror), then add that special ingredient best presented by Kurtwood Smith in Robocop: "Oooh, guns guns GUNS!"

(It also helps that you're not on a spaceship and don't care where the acid blood goes.)

This conversion does not come without cost, primarily in the quality of dialogue, the sophistication of 70s cinema chatter having been eclipsed by the acceptable action-flick slang of the time. Bill Paxton particularly stands out, unloosing "slack-jawed jarhead" in such an overbaked fashion that I wanted to clock him more than I did watching his character Chet in Weird Science (who, now that I think of it, might actually be the same character).

Private Hudson's bravado famously collapses when the shit goes down, effectively adding to the tension and the action, so his attitude makes some sense in terms of the bigger picture. But watching the mission briefing scene, in which an alleged elite military unit behaves like a roomfull of teenagers in detention, I realized uncomfortably that I was watching the probable birth of a sci-fi trope that continues to this day: the Fuck Your Mission Briefing scene. That's where a bunch of hardcore professionals gather round to hear their space orders and then loudly denounce the speaker as full of crap. I just watched Event Horizon last night and it's the same damn thing, echoing all the way to Prometheus this year. It's really too bad, almost three decades later sci-fi writing is still aiming way lower than it should.

Another regrettable benchmark established by Aliens is the stripped-down, utilitarian production design vibe that discards most of the personality of Alien. Look especially in the upper left corner of that picture above; it's just flat panes of gray. Overall, it's might be enough to be adequately future-ish, but it's not really trying to get your attention. Here's some more:

See what I mean? It lacks ambition. But that's just the interiors.

It is with some delight that I turn from these inadequacies and their unfortunate impact on cinema and start fawning over some of the production design triumphs Aliens has to its credit, starting with the Sulaco (above), one of my favorite-ever fake spaceships. I love that thing so much, my model kit of it is one of the only toys I've never stopped displaying. And that Drop Ship is pretty groovy, too.

Don't you wish your spaceships were hot like mine?

And there's also this thing. Remember this thing?

And that brings me back to the final battle, still one of the most exciting and satisfying action sequences I've ever seen. Sigourney Weaver summons a lifetime of fury and fear to mix it up hand-to-hand with the family-sized version of one of cinema's most terrifying monsters, unbelievably brought to life with Oscar-winning puppetry. There's one shot that still gets me like the first time, when the two of them separate for a moment to regroup, and the Queen opens her maw to emit a hissing sigh of pure animal hatred. Yikes.

There are a few other performances I like: Michael Beihn as the grunt with a brain, Paul Reiser as the adorably evil Company man, and good old Lance Henriksen as the caring, faithful but still a little creepy Bishop the android. I'd spend more time talking about them but I'm more interested in spaceships and monsters.

Aliens isn't perfect but it comes pretty close, and while four and half stars may seem high for a movie that spawned Fuck Your Mission Briefing, there's enough stellar stuff in there to balance it out. I have to give it to James Cameron: even with his most questionable endeavors, he always manages to knock the action scenes out of the park.

Except those movies where it's all about him in a submarine. Did you know those fuckers were documentaries?


Octopunk said...

One detail worth pointing out because it fixes one of the big bitches about Prometheus: at the beginning of the Fuck Your Mission Briefing scene the C.O. says "Sorry we didn't have time to brief you before we left...."

Thanks Easter Bunny! Boc boc!

DCD said...

I've always like Michael Beihn's performance in this movie. When he's asked if he's next in command his beat down, "Yeah" is perfect.

Great review, Octo. Love this flick!

Catfreeek said...

Excellent review, love this movie as well. I never really thought about this being the only sequel to change genres but that's pretty cool in itself.

JPX said...

“Fuck Your Mission Briefing scene.” Aliens is tons of fun but this issue that you raise is one of the chief reasons that Prometheus annoyed the hell out of me. It’s difficult if not impossible to imagine that someone would fund a billion dollar space expedition only to hire incompetent boobs to do the job. Can you imagine Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin arguing like idiots while exploring the moon? You would never send unstable, uneducated jerks on such an important mission. You would never send individuals who were not completely briefed ahead of time not would you send individuals that questioned or argued about mission goals. It’s that kind of stuff that just goes up my ass in most science fiction movies. Alien and 2001: A Space Odyssey are nearly flawless in that respect.

There must be other examples of film series that switched genres…

AC said...

love this one too, completely agree with your critique, but mostly just love it.

Johnny Sweatpants said...

Regarding genre switches, the only example I can think of off the top of my head is Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Part 1 was a scary torture movie and part 2 was an over the top splatter fest. True, both are filed under horror but they're a very different kind of horror.

Fantastic review! I love your observation about the "fuck your mission briefing". It's something I had never noticed before.

Also I thought I was the only person on the planet who still uses the term "grinder".

Landshark said...

Love the review--I noticed the same thing with the Bill Paxton character when I caught part of this on cable a few weeks ago. He was definitely just doing Chet.

I'm trying to remember when I saw this. Did you drag me and DCD to this after you'd already seen it?

JPX said...

Evil Dead went from scary to silly by the third installment.

AC said...

mm, grinders! (homer drooling noise)