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150 Films #4: Aliens (1986)

Here’s the thing about Alien: it doesn’t really have characters. It has charismatic actors with a ton of personality, who bring things to the characters that have little bearing on the story, but the closest it comes to “character” is in making Ash (Ian Holm) seem vaguely untrustworthy. Horror tends to get away with this lack of character more than other genres; the mark of a great “line ’em up and knock ’em down” slasher story often has less to do with the writer(s) making the audience care about the characters and more to do with the actors leaving a memorable impression. Nobody wants Harry Dean Stanton or Yaphet Kotto to die, but what do we know about their characters?

They’re blue-collar grunts in charge of keeping the ship operational, and they want even shares. That’s it. Why do we care about them? Because they’re Harry Dean Stanton and Yaphet Kotto, and they just will that type of good energy.

In most ways, Aliens merely ups the ante of its predecessor, adding horror to an action-movie template by giving us more aliens, more firepower, and more fighters—and having them still get their asses kicked. But in important ways, James Cameron’s screenplay deviates from the “raise the stakes” mentality by playing with the slasher convention of “memorable actor over deep character.” Playing on our collective memories of Ash, he casts professional scary motherfucker Lance Henriksen as the android Bishop, whose gentle calmness is made into a potential threat just because of the actor playing him. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Paul Reiser radiates kindness and decency as Carter Burke, Company man and eventual turncoat.

More importantly, though, Cameron gives Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) an arc. Granted, the arc was largely removed in the theatrical cut, but it informs Weaver’s performance throughout. After returning to Earth after 57 years floating in deep space, the first (and only) thing Ripley wants to know is what became of her daughter. Burke tracks her down and informs Ripley that she died a few years prior. This pivotal scene, restored in the director’s cut, lets the audience know three things: (1) Ripley is mourning both the loss of her daughter and the loss of her motherhood, (2) Ripley really has nothing to live for, and (3) Burke isn’t all bad (casting his eventual deception into a more interesting shade of gray).

Cameron adds much subtler character moments to the ensemble of Space Marines, as well: the intense bond between the otherwise depthless Vasquez (Jenette Goldstein) and Drake (Mark Rolston), Hudson’s (Bill Paxton) occasional moments of seriousness and competence, Lieutenant Gorman (William Hope) straining to prove himself after realizing early on how out of his depth he is… As the body count rises, this small (sometimes very small) amount of texture enhances characters beyond mere memorable performances. When Drake, who can’t have more than ten lines of dialogue, is among the first to die, Vasquez’s anguish says everything about their bond; because she cares, we do.

This, more than anything, is what elevates Aliens among the original in my book. It’s not about Cameron following the beats of the first film while relentlessly upping the ante, or the decision to shift the genre from “a haunted house in space” to an action/war film. It’s the small touches that enhance this film. Cameron is wise enough to know he lacks the element of surprise, so he shifts the focus from, as Gene Shalit might say, scares to care. Also, lots of guns and shit blowing up.

I’m in the camp that tends to enjoy the director’s cut more than the theatrical cut. In addition to the important scenes involving Ripley’s maternal arc and added snatches of dialogue giving the characters (especially Ripley) added motivation for going to the colony on LV-426, the added sequence involving the remote sentries demonstrates that the Marines really have exhausted all possible courses of action before deciding to nuke the colony.

One problematic restored sequence, though, involves Newt (Carrie Henn), the little girl whose bond with Ripley drives many of her actions later in the film. This sequence was wisely cut from the theatrical release, because it’s Cameron at his most cornball: Newt’s unsuspecting parents just happen to be the ones called out to examine the ship’s coordinates. More importantly, the sequence on the colony comes close to shattering the suspenseful moments of the Marines searching for survivors. They have no idea what’s happened, and although an audience familiar with Alien can be pretty sure, the search sequence is much more effective if we’re experiencing the unknown along with them. Seeing the colony buzzing with activity, and seeing that they’ve found the alien face-huggers, greatly reduces that suspense.

I mostly burned my good Alien-related stories in last week’s post, but I can at least say that my viewing of the sequel didn’t leave me with quite so many yucky feelings. Maybe I came into it with a better sense of what to expect, or maybe Ridley Scott’s morose style brings out the bad vibes more than Cameron’s blockbuster playfulness. Whatever the case, I was sort of dreading Aliens, but I had a lot of fun reliving it.

This film is also a good opportunity to bring up one of my favorite topics: masturbation. I’m not talking about a scantily clad, sweaty Weaver (because, whatever she might do for other men, she does nothing for me); rather, I’m talking about the series of Aliens novelizations written by Steve Perry (not the lead singer from Journey, although I initially thought so). These novelizations don’t tie directly to the movie; they’re adapted from a spinoff series of Dark Horse Comics. My friend and Alien series brother in arms, Sean, recommended these novels for one reason, and one reason only: “They’re not very good, but there are some really sexy parts.”

All right, kids. Gather ’round and listen to another tale of ’90s masturbation. If I remember right, this was a couple of years before the World Wide Web, four full years before my family got a 14.4 kilobaud modem to dial up AOL on our Mac LC III, perhaps a decade before internet porn became so ubiquitous that a 12-year-old boy would have a hard time not stumbling on some… These were the days when actual porn was a rare, treasured gift. I had friends who would scour the dumpsters at the industrial park (which housed a Playboy printing press), and I personally accompanied many of them on treasure hunts through the forest preserve looking for discarded magazines. This was, at our age and at this time, the best we could ever hope to achieve.

What we usually ended up with were blurry VHS tapes of USA Up All Night, with noticeable tracking noise just before our favorite parts (from all the rewinding and stopping). In a mild “stroke” of luck, for awhile my family inadvertently got free HBO—but only on our cable-ready TVs that didn’t have a cable box. I still have a fondness for Joanna Pacula thanks to numerous viewings of the Italian softcore film Husbands and Lovers, in which the lovely Ms. Pacula appears nude almost exclusively. This was, perhaps, the coup de grâce of a collection that at one time included a cassette tape holder (in the shape of a phone booth, from a box of stale Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure cereal purchased at the Everything’s a Dollar in One Schaumburg Place) brimming with cut-out pictures of women from back issues of TV Guide and a special videotape filled with TNG episodes where Counselor Troi wears her famous green dress.

But in the infinite craving for variety, not to mention my escapist desire to plunge myself, penis-first, into the Alien universe, I took Sean up on his suggestion and tracked down the Aliens paperbacks at the public library. He had told me the pages to look for, and look I did. In particular, I remember a sequence where a character describes losing his virginity to his female drill sergeant, and the comparison between masturbation and the real thing. For a kid my age, desperate to understand “the real thing,” reading that it was so much different and better was a surprising turn-on.

In my research, I learned that these novelizations were rereleased around the time Sean informed me of their existence, with a change: instead of serving as direct sequels to Aliens, centering around the characters of Hicks and Newt, the books were rewritten as new characters to distance themselves from the vastly different Alien 3 continuity (in which Hicks and Newt die an offscreen death). I don’t remember much about them, other than my reason for wanting to read them.

Since I won’t be covering anything else in the Alien franchise for 150 Films, let me give some short takes on the other movies:

  1. Alien 3 (1992) — Terrible. Grimy, depressing, unpleasant, and quite undernourished in terms of story and character. This was the first feature from David Fincher, and it set a precedent for his hit-or-miss track record. (When Fincher hits, he knocks it out of the park; when he misses, it’s often a travesty.) Obviously, I saw this around the time I saw the first two, and I hated it then. I hated it even more when we studied the film’s development in college. It seems producers Walter Hill and David Giler, intrigued by the success of putting aliens into a horror movie and then war/action movie, wanted to see what other genres would work by simply inserting the Alien mythos. They ultimately landed on “prison film,” for some reason; in college, we read three drafts by three writers. The first, by William Gibson, added aliens to his tacky, over-the-top cyberpunk style. The second, by John Fasano and Vincent Ward, was imperfect but had much to recommend—it used the presence of an alien as a symbol of the devil in a religious film. The third, of course, was the shooting draft of the prison film by Hill and Giler. It was really frustrating seeing what this movie could have been.
  2. Alien: Resurrection (1997) — Also bad, but not nearly as bad as Alien 3. Joss Whedon famously tried to defend his screenplay by blaming its problems on the director, Jean-Pierre Jeunet, who spoke no English. It’s a fair point, since the rapid-fire smartass quips that eventually made Whedon famous are handled much better on his TV series (not to mention more well-directed films he doctored, such as Speed). The performance styles are all over the map, but I think Jeunet’s other films show he knows how to make a film, and there’s something oddly charming about the incredible Frenchness of the visuals. Even if the dialogue was as crackling as a superior Buffy outing (and it’s not), the story itself just…isn’t that good. The off-kilter visuals and Ron Perlman’s performances make it more watchable than it should be, and certainly better than its predecessor.
  3. Prometheus (2012) — Didn’t see it, mostly because of my dislike of Ridley Scott’s work. I also didn’t see any of the Alien vs. Predator movies, because those don’t really count. Now that I know what it’s about, I’ll say this: I don’t really need to know the origins of the alien species. The less you know about the aliens, the scarier they are. (And to that end, it’s a minor but noteworthy weakness of Aliens that Cameron basically turns the species into giant insects. While this is probably true to biological realities, it’s not very inventive. But the queen alien is fucking badass, as is the showdown with Power Loader Ripley.)

Keep or Sell?: Keep

Up Next: All the President’s Men (1976)

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