Saturday, May 3, 2008

Review - Aliens

1987 Hugo Winner for Best Dramatic Presentation

Let me tell you a simple story. It's about a bunch of tough guys who go someplace remote thinking that they have an easy job ahead of them. As it turns out there's a whole lot of bad guys there and they have to try to hold out as long as they can as things progress from bad to worse. They do the best they can with their plans in the face of overwhelming odds and in the end just a handful manage to defeat their last enemy and escape alive.

It's an old story. It's been used in movies almost as long as movies have been made. But rarely has it been used as well as it is in James Cameron's Aliens (the only man who I can think of who has done it better is Akira Kurasawa and there's no shame in being second to him). Instead of simply retelling the story used in Alien for a sequel Cameron used it as a launching point for his own movie and added a shocking amount of depth to the formula.

This time the tough guys are space marines who are accompanying Ripley, the survivor of the first movie, back to the world where they found the first alien. While Ripley in hibernation on route home a colony had been built on that planet and shortly after she arrived and reported on the monster they lost contact with the colony. Once there they find the place overrun with the monster who proceed to destroy the marine's methods of retreat leaving them trapped on the planet with no supplies and hundreds of very deadly killers.

What elevates Aliens above the standard fare is how Cameron develops themes throughout the movie. Motherhood resonates throughout the film as Ripley connects to a young girl who is the only survivor of the colony but there's also the aliens who are born from one mother and infect people to have them give birth to the adult aliens. The bonds and process of motherhood touch on almost everything in the movie.

And then there's the Viet Nam reaction. You have in this case your military going to help defend a population against a geurilla force and being overwhelmed by their opposition. In a straight up fight the marines would have no problem but the aliens take advantage of the terrain in a way the marines can't. Finally the survivors have to take the last chopper out of Saigon escaping just ahead of the enemy.

Another aspect of the film that works well is the fact that it manages to juggle roughly a dozen distinct character arcs without feeling overwhelming. The cast starts much larger but quickly gets pared down to a size that lets individual stories be told. While only a few of them get a great deal of depth there's so much happening that it makes the movie even more engrossing.

Finally there's a lot to be said about the art of film making used in Aliens. Cameron has done some great movies, some solidly made movies, and some weak ones but I find Aliens to be his strongest movie over all. He takes the opportunity to play with a very different canvas than any he used before or since. You'll see elements of the same style in other films but not the same balance of complexity. The lighting effects use some of the style from the original movie but for the most part it's Cameron selecting an ideal shot composition. This is an exceptionally well made movie.

If you have the opportunity I would recommend watching the extended cut of Aliens since it is a much worse version of the film; it will give you a greater appreciation for the incredibly skillful editing in the original cut.

I'm going to sound like a broken record for most of these dramatic presentation awards but the fact is they're rarely handed out to bad movies. In this case it was handed out to an exceptional movie (something that also happens relatively often). If you are somehow a nerd who hasn't seen the movie then you really need to as soon as possible.