Sunday, October 07, 2007

Did IQs just drop sharply while I was away?

That Aliens is as much a product of its decade as its predecessor is evident in far more than just Paul Reiser's perm. Replacing the genre-bending Alien's Agatha Christie-inspired structure with all-out war not only pushes James Cameron's film squarely into the action genre (of which it is one of the definitive examples), it also turns Aliens into a competely different philosophical beast. Sharing with Ridley Scott's film a distrust of corporations, it's also a more direct descendant of Star Wars - it's a slick, populist combat picture that leaves us exhilarated where its predecessor left us drained. When Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) asks early on "We're going to kill it, right?", the question echoes Rambo's "Sir, do we get to win this time?" from the previous year's megahit Rambo: First Blood Part II (co-written by Cameron). And like Rambo, Aliens is a post-Vietnam attempt to revise nation's painful recent history, finding victory in an unwinnable war. Such fantasies were popular in the 80's, and appear to be making a resurgence now (witness the popularity of Ron Paul), and Cameron cannily exploits this need for catharsis. Aliens is one of the best movies of its kind, perfectly crafted and completely entertaining from beginning to end; if I love it a little bit less than Alien, it is because I find its motives suspect.

Aliens begins with the discovery of Ripley 57 years after the start of her cryogenic sleep, giving us a protagonist that is literally and spiritually adrift. At the film's core is the transformation of this woman, stripped of the world she knew and, consequently her identity, redefining herself in the crucible of violence and battle. Survival in Alien meant escape, here it means battle, and Ripley is transformed from Scott's liberated, resourceful warrior woman into one of Cameron's trademark gun-toting Überbitches. I'm of two minds about how Cameron treats his female protagonists; it's certainly a kick to see strong women celebrated (Titanic's sappier moments are largely forgiven by me thanks to the scenes of a buff, axe wielding Kate Winslet), but Cameron also defines strength in narrow terms. Early on, Ripley impresses the Marines she is accompanying on a rescue mission to LV-426 (the barren planet seen in the first film) by operating a power-lifter; bookended by her climatic battle with the queen alien, the two scenes are the first and last in a series of Ripley proving her strength to the skeptical soldiers (and, perhaps, to a skeptical audience). I admire Cameron's mostly successful attempt at creating a forward-thinking action movie, except that I already knew Ripley was strong and I don't need her to be talented with military hardware to belive this. Where the first, weapon-free film was driven by a kind of vaginal horror, Aliens is preoccupied with weapons and, thus, becomes about Ripley growing a dick. At worst this feels hamhanded; at best (which is, to say, for most of its running time), it's like Robert Heinlen's Starship Troopers as directed by Hélène Cixious.

None of this, however, changes the fact that Aliens is one of the most entertaining movies of all time, a perfect example of what Hitchcock called "pure film." While Cameron's films are celebrated and derided for their technical sound and fury (underscored here by an effective if indelicate James Horner score), what distinguishes him from other technically sophisticated peers like John McTiernan and Tony Scott is his appreciation of silence. The largely action-free first hour of Aliens, mostly devoted to Ripley and the Marine's search of the seemingly abandoned LV-426, has an ominous, deliberate pace that, just as it is about to demand our boredom and frustration, snares us with a shocking variation on Alien's chestburster scene. The trick of any sequel is to both meet and subvert an audience's expectations, and by adapting the first film's universe to his own style, Cameron's film manages to keep us off-balance even as he delivers what we've paid to see. My aesthetic and philosophical preferences aside, I far prefer Aliens to a retread where eight new crew members go through a carbon copy of the original - luckily, the four entries in the series (Aliens vs. Predator doesn't count) have been a training ground for emerging directors posessing their own singular vision, something that distinguishes the series from other franchises (consider the cynicism of that term).

The heart of Aliens is the relationship between Ripley and Newt (Carrie Henn), an orphaned little girl resourceful enough to have survived for several weeks on LV-426. Ripley's prolonged climatic rescue of Newt from the queen (masterfully realized by Stan Winston and his crew) is complely gripping, as Cameron and Weaver have succeeded in creating a very real emotional in these the characters, each experiencing a total, existential loss resulting in a poignant mother/daughter bond. Cameron comes closest to aping Scott's concerns in pitting his warrior woman against a monster defined by her reproductive status - it's a battle between Amazons and breeders for the future of our children, and it's awesome. On the other hand, in a development that jibes sharply from Scott's film, Ripley learns to cast aside her fears and embrace technology in the form of a sensitive 80s man android named Bishop (Lance Henriksen). While both films are critical of Weyland-Yutani, the company determined to capitalize on the alien, Aliens ignores the relationship between the android and his creator, as if to say "Yeah, Lockheed Martin is evil, but the F-22 raptor is sooo bitchin'."

In juxtaposing the mother/daughter relationship against its relative corporate conformity, Aliens reveals itself as surprisingly domestic. And strangely enough, this works in the film's favor; while some ambiguity is sacrificed, there is an undeniable cathartic joy in watching a gang of wisecracking Marines (Bill Paxton's Hudson, like a buff, male Veronica Cartwright, is the biggest standout) blow away a hive of very nasty xenomorphs. And, best of all, Cameron never sacrifices intelligence or character in the process. Aliens is a landmark film, a redefinition of action tropes that has often been imitated but rarely equalled in style or substance. It's so good, in fact, that not even Paul Reiser and his perm can sink it.


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