by Jack Sommersby
Plenty of action and special effects, and a bravura performance by Weaver, but not a whole lot of ingenuity.Written and directed by James Cameron, Aliens is the sequel to Ridley Scott's extraordinary 1979 Alien, and while I can recommend it I can't do so as enthusiastically as many critics have. Clocking in at two hours and seventeen minutes, it's never boring and packs a fair amount of entertainment value. Cameron, who did the superb The Terminator two years before, is an excellent craftsman with a born instinct of what to look at and how to look at it, and his penchant for staging action sequences is undeniable. He also loves actors, so the performances he gets are a cut above what we usually get in this kind of genre exercise. All of these are evident throughout Aliens. But the screenplay he's concocted hasn't the degree of wit and surprise that graced The Terminator, and after the first two-thirds the movie becomes, well, not boring, exactly, but protracted, repetitive. Unlike Alien, which functioned as science-fiction/horror, Aliens is more science-fiction/action, and because it lacks the creepy atmospherics of Scott's movie the action alone has to sate us, and Cameron, in his desire to give us the ultimate cinematic rollercoaster ride, just doesn't know when to quit. Still, for a while the movie is intriguing as Sigourney Weaver returns as Ellen Ripley, the sole survivor of extraterrestrial evil -- in Alien, her crew of seven were systematically slaughtered by an acid-for-blood, virtually-indestructible creature inadvertently picked up from a strange desolate planet where a derelict spacecraft, whose transmission they picked up on, had crash-landed long ago. Ripley managed to blow the malevolent seven-foot creature out of the airlock of the ship's escape shuttle; at the beginning of Aliens, the shuttle, which had drifted through the core system, is picked up by a deep-space salvage team, and Ripley awakens in a space hospital shocked to learn she'd been in hypersleep for fifty-seven years (she still looks the same). Her former employer doubts her version of events, more concerned with the destruction of their forty-two-million-dollar vessel than with the deaths of Ripley's crew; she's stripped of her flight status and incurs horrifying dreams night after night, waking up clutching her chest. (The alien cycle begins with a face-hugger springing from an egg, attaching itself to a person's face, implanting an embryo, which then gestates into a baby alien that tears itself out of its host's body and grows into an adult.)
"A Decent-Enough Sequel, Nothing More"
It turns out that LV-426, the planet Ripley and her crew landed on, has been colonized for the past twenty years with over one-hundred and fifty humans. When contact with the colony has mysteriously been lost, company-executive Burke (Paul Reiser) offers Ripley the chance to get her status reinstated if she'll accompany him and a platoon of Marines to the planet to investigate. Initially weary of returning, Ripley, with the nightmares and reduced to a menial job of working the cargo docks, agrees, and within two weeks she's awakened from hypersleep again with a group of "tough hombres" who don't take their assignment with the utmost seriousness -- they presumptciously chalk it up as a "another bug-hunt" rather than a "stand-up fight." But after entering a heavily damaged, deserted compound they're soon neck-deep in not one but over a hundred persistent creatures, and when their pick-up craft is destroyed along with a good deal of their weapons they're forced into a similar situation Ripley endured -- and Ripley is right there alongside them, going through yet another round of Hell. The ordeal isn't nearly as terrifying as that of Alien, however, even though, because the creature quotient is a hundredfold this time around, it would seem to be. Emphasizing quantity over quality, Cameron doesn't really take full advantage of the hand he's dealt himself: with the exception of a few instances with the blood-acid aspect, the creatures are too easily killed with high-tech "pulse rifles," and after a while we're reminded of how more imaginatively this kind if thing was done in John Carpenter's second feature Assault on Precinct 13, with street hoods attacking cops and civilians in a just-abandoned police compound in a crime-ridden urban neighborhood. In Alien Ridley Scott succeeded in making the unbelievable frighteningly believable: he gave us an assortment of interesting flesh-and-blood characters caught up in the most tumultuous of conditions trying in all their collective might to combat a highly-evolved being that seemed to exist just to kill; and the logistics of trying to hunt down a monster with limited weapons (at first cattle-prod devices, then flamethrowers) accentuated the characters' vulnerable predicament. It was a beautifully sustained work of art -- enveloping from start to finish, unbearably suspenseful, magnificently textured, and all the more of an accomplishment coming from a director whose only second feature-film this was (with the lovely 17th century-set The Duellists his debut).
Aliens isn't nearly in the same league, even though it's very well-made. The first forty-five minutes are actually the best, before any real action takes place and we're left to our own imaginative devices to fill in what is so far unnervingly unknown (which was one of Alien's main plusses) -- just what has caused so many colonists to be overtaken in so short a time? Naturally, we know the answer, but the extent of the details of the unseen goings-on Cameron cannily keeps from us. The gradual entry into the compound, through the badly damaged corridors, ending up in a medical lab with two face-huggers still alive in stasis tubes, all of this is superbly done. It's just that when full-blown pandemonium breaks out we're expecting something more inventive than trigger-happy military personnel blasting away at inimical extraterrestrials. Cameron must have realized he needed something more, so he throws in a nine-year-old girl, Newt (Carrie Henn), the only survivor of the colonists and whom Ripley can be protective of; and because of damage caused by the Marines' secondary spacecraft crashing near the facility, a forty-ton-megaton explosion is set to go off in four hours. Then there's the duplitious Burke, the amoral company man willing to endanger everyone so an alien can be brought back to Earth for the bio-weapons division (as Ripley memorably remarks, "You know, Burke, I don't know which species is worse. You don't see them fucking each other over for a goddamn percentage"), which is reflective of the company executives in Alien whose special order was insuring the gathering of the deadly specimen with the crew deemed "expendable." The dandy Reiser, whose previous roles (like his moocher Modell in Barry Levinson's Diner) have been comical, gives the pathetic middle-management Burke an aura of quintessential corporate sleaze. There are other good performances from Lance Henriksen as the android Bishop, Jenette Goldstein as tough-as-nails Vasquez, and Bill Paxton as the tough-only-on-the-exterior Hudson whose machismo quickly gives way to hysteria. But this is Weaver's show. She was impressive as Ripley seven years prior, and she's even more so now -- it's a commanding, superlative piece of work that covers just about every emotion possible and is brought off with aplomb. You can't simply can't imagine Aliens without the forceful Weaver anymore than, say, the 1932 I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang minus Paul Muni, the 1948 Hamlet minus Laurence Olivier, the 1982 The Verdict minus Paul Newman.
To give Cameron due credit, the extensive high-tech sets aren't just hollowly presented as eye candy -- the air ducts, in particular, where the humans can only run half-bent from their ever-persistent pursuers, are spookily claustrophobic. Cameron, with a genuine film sense (that is, for a knowingness for fully shaping his scenes), conjures up some surprises that help maintain a through-line that keeps the narrative drive flowing. With invaluable help from editor Ray Lovejoy, whose cutting is uncommonly acute, Aliens really moves (and James Horner's pounding score drives it forward, too), it's just what it's almost always moving onto doesn't have much pizzazz -- it's, again, humans firing at non-humans, which grows old fairly soon being that we're in the realm of the imaginative possibilities of science fiction. The final confrontation between Ripley and the alien queen has been staged for maximum suspense (though how even this supreme cream-of-the-cop of its species knows not only how to work an elevator's buttons but also what exact floor to select is anyone's guess), but it's an overly long time coming. The 1982 Roger Corman-produced cheapie Forbidden World, the best of the Alien knockoffs, was a mere seventy-seven minutes, and while its special effects weren't always up to snuff it didn't have a single boring scene -- it made every second count even when it veered off track to fulfill its tits-and-ass quota. With the bigger-budgeted Aliens you can easily scratch off several scenes to be jettisoned (along with cutesy remarks and gestures from Newt that aren't any less expendable than World's frequent nudity), with the creatures lacking the primal organic clarity you'd expect (Stan Winston, who did marvelous work on The Terminator with an overall budget of six-and-a-half million, is good at robots but not the kind of stuff Alien's Oscar-winning Carlo Rambaldi brilliantly brought off). Does Cameron deliver the goods the majority of audience members are craving? Probably. But he's gone about it in a cautiously safe manner that hasn't left nearly enough to chance -- he's covering himself with standardized elements that can't get him into too much trouble but which intrinsically limit him as the kind of top-tier artist he proved himself in The Terminator. (Cameron even has Newt inform Ripley "they mostly come at night." Vampirical ETs, James?) More action-dependent than terror-inducing, Aliens is, for all the time and effort that went into it, neither here nor there.Superior to "Alien 3," inferior to "Alien" and "Alien Resurrection."
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originally posted: 04/12/13 09:16:17