Directed by James Cameron
Barbican Comic Forum
00000000 / Kraken
As everyone knows – there are two types of people in this world: those who prefer Alien and those who prefer Aliens.
(I guess theoretically there could exist somekind of third type of people that isn’t into movies about terrifying nightmare monsters from outer space at all: but that seems unlikely. If there’s one thing I know it’s that monsters are important – you know? And there’s monsters inside everyone).
But anyway the important point is this: the people who prefer Alien over Aliens are wrong.
I mean yeah yeah of course all art is subjective and everyone is entitled to their own opinions and all of that. And it’s not possible to tell say that someone is wrong for not preferring one movie to another. Like: you might prefer one type of flavour of ice-cream to another – but hey you can’t be mistaken for having a certain taste right? Some people like the taste of haunted houses in spaces with a healthy side-helping of body horror and ground-breaking multifaceted production design etc etc: and some other people are more into their ‘Nam analogies with squads of ultimate badasses blowing shit up and a soundtrack that sounds like someone smashing really cool knives into each other etc etc. Who am I to say which one is better? etc
But here’s the thing – right. What you have to keep in mind is what cinema is for and what it does and how it works and of course it’s complicated and there’s lots of moving parts and nuances and to consider and try and keep in mind but at the end of the day when you distill it to the purest essence: every film is basically a machine.
Part of me feels a little shameful at the fact that we’ve been doing this little film club since the start of 2018 and it’s only now that we get James Cameron who’s pretty much (sigh – please forgive me for saying this) – the Daddy of modern mainstream action cinema. I mean yeah ok maybe Spielberg is a little bit more family friendly and Christopher Nolan will scratch your brain more – but come on: James Cameron is on a whole other level here. He’s like if Radiohead and Oasis were the same band – pure crowd pleasing action with loud noises handed with a deftness that would make a magician nod their head in respect and admiration and just a general sense of: “wow ok – this guy is really something huh?”
And yeah – every movie he makes is basically an unstoppable machine whose only aim is to pummel your senses into submission. I mean: before Aliens there was The Terminator and I defy anyone who disagrees that it’s basically a perfect movie. Lean, sleek without a single ounce of wasted fat. Every scene takes you further. All the exposition is done in cars and between gunshots and it just keeps unrelentlessly building and building and building until Linda Hamilton pushes that final button (“You’re terminated, fucker!”). Swear to god – first time I watched it I almost had several heartattacks which you know – is unusual for a teenage boy.
Case in point: do you have any idea how many thousands of movies there are out there that do their best to rip off Aliens? I mean: I reckon I’ve seen most of them and most of them fucking suck. Like I feel like maybe I’ve already been skating way too close to all sorts of sexual innuendo talk already: but fuck it – here’s a very simple obvious thing you need to realise about Aliens before you start trying to build your own bootleg copy – the whole first hour is basically foreplay where everyone keeps their clothes on and it’s fucking amazing. You keep thinking you’re going to see an alien. You keep thinking there’s going to be some action. You keep thinking that something cool is going to happen and… nothing. The tension just builds and builds and builds and the film develops it’s own mythology right in front of you (“What the fuck happened here”? you keep asking again and again and again) until finally: well – that last bit clicks into place and the machine starts to do it’s thing (altho technically it’s been doing it’s thing right from the start): and it grabs you by the throat and the tits and the balls and refuses to let go until basically everyone is dead and Bishop is rolling around chopped in half covered in… somekind of white liquid?
And yeah yeah ok: Alien is more chin strokey and meditative and is really good if you wanna write a paper about feminism and male castration and all the rest of it: but it’s very much not as relentless and it’s nowhere near as concerned as being a machine. I mean: it has machine bits but it doesn’t have that kind of velocity and stamina and single-mindedness that only James Cameron can provide. Which basically means that if you prefer Alien to Aliens then: you don’t really get what films are about at all. Sorry. I don’t make the rules. That’s just how it works.
My history teacher believed that the rich cinema landscape of the 1970s was directly related to America’s loss of confidence during the Vietnam War. One trope he returned to was that of rugged individualism, the cowboy out on his own, making his own way through the dusty old west through grit and determination; as reimagined by Arnie in Predator who eschews technology for his woodcraft, quite literally going toe to toe with an Alien in the jungle who used camouflage. Rambo was a similarly on the nose example. Indiana Jones is one of the perfections of this ideal: a good honest man who doesn’t really just the Government, but is not afraid to shoot some from the Middle East who waves his sword around too much. Like the ultimate imperial explorer Indy doesn’t steal from ancient tombs, he is simply on a quest of discovery. These heroes are pure of intension but not gentle, they are self reliant because they know that others are weak. And this is why they are so good in movies because they can do all the cool things a bad guy can do and you like them for doing it.
The heroes of Aliens are cut from the same cloth – literal colonial marines. They are in the film to do a job, they may seem petty and selfish but ultimately they have a sense of duty and that means that sometimes their behaviour might seem unethical to others but those others would hesitate in the face of the hard choices these tough guys would make in a heartbeat. The character of Burke exists purely to offset them against his scheming bureaucratic toadying. The film then puts those characters in the face of some impossible choices and that is why Aliens is so so good because these all-American heroes fail so so badly.
The original Alien gives you a bunch of idiots under attack by a dragon. I think therefore it’s weird to compare Aliens to Alien because Aliens works so well because it relies on our knowledge of that precious event. In Aliens we are expecting a reckoning, and are expecting a humans vs xenomorph showdown, but not just any humans. Aliens gives you a crack squad of double hard bastards with cool weapons, builds up the illusion of their professional competence and then, when you are expecting a fair fight it opens the trap door beneath then and it turns out that beneath that trap door are a succession of trap doors as our brave well armed cavalry get pounded into beach.
Joel says it’s been copied a number of times unsuccessfully but I would argue the film that takes the concept one stage further is Jurassic Park. The velociraptors are basically the xenomorphs, and the themes of the aggression and savagery of nature undoing human ingenuity are spelled out again and again. The twist is that we applaud the arrival of the dinosaurs, it’s not just a haunted house with with a dragon inside, but a whole dragon themed wedding and everyone is saying how delightful it is to have dragons at the wedding.
To link back to Raiders, Aliens similarly puts its timeless characters in to a persistent worlds, that feel like a place that exists outside of what the characters are doing. Of course neither of these films were quite the first to do what they do but they feel like the Urtexts of entire genres. Line tomb raiding and dungeon exploring, space marines vs aliens is the Lego box for countless video games, role-playing games, movies, tv shows which themselves have generated rich and deep mythologies but all trace back to this band of intergalactic badasses who bit off more than they could chew.
This is an exciting sentence “but I would argue the film that takes the concept one stage further is Jurassic Park.”
Oooh I thought. That’s interesting. And seemed like the kinda thing that could be true. Jurassic Park as the evolved offspring of Aliens. Taking Cameron’s brain and pushing it forward somehow. Except well – what have you really got apart from “velociraptors are basically the xenomorphs”? And you know – as much as love Sam Neill and Laura Dern and Kid 1 and Kid 2 they’re hardly the colonial marines (no matter how many times Jeff Goldblum takes his shirt off). I mean: your milage and take may differ but for me one of the main points and beauties of Aliens is how it starts the audience off on God-Mode with the most powerful people you could ever want on your side saying stuff like:
And then well – they then all get totally decimated by the halfway point of the movie and like the wise man said: it’s game over man.
And like yeah ok – maybe that’s like how stories work and you’ve got to reach the bottom of the circle before you can start to climb to the top again except it’s not just a minor setback where the main character learns that they need to believe in themselves or whatever: EVERYONE FUCKING DIES and all of the spaceships and stuff all crash in the biggest most smashey ways possible. I mean: in contrast Jurassic Park is what – a tour ride of two cars that gets in a few issues. It’s not really the same kind of rollercoaster you know?
Credit to my friend Rob for pointing this out: but one of the only other movies that deals with this type of narrative wrongness is the mighty Infinity War except it moves it’s game over man moment all the way to the end of the movie: but the basic effect is the same which I guess is why I love it so much. (Anyone wanna make a cut where over the image of Thanos staring off into the sunset you can hear Hudson saying: “What the fuck are we gonna do now? What are we gonna do?” because I think I’d like that…).
Altho hell – the one movie that I keep coming back to in my head and the only real worthy Aliens successor that doesn’t just feel like a cheap imitation is the movie that came out only one year after:
I mean: it’s basically the same set up – bunch of ultimate badasses confidently work into a situation that they actually can’t handle and get fucked up in all sorts of ways.
Although actually there’s a bit that kinda works as a summing up for how both films work which has been in the back of my mind ever since I wrote the first Aliens post and mentioned “squads of ultimate badasses blowing shit up” which is basically this bit here:
The big strong muscle-bound men going full tilt with their big fuck-off weapons and erupting in every direction until they’re empty and whoops having totally ended up hitting absolutely nothing: which yeah – is beautiful in all sorts of ways but mostly in how it does the Jarhead watching Apocalypse Now thing of taking this thing that’s basically “oh hey everyone – look at the pointlessness of war – look at the pointlessness of these guys impotently firing off their big weapons and being completely ineffectual” and makes it look AS COOL AS FUCK (LOL).
Which yeah: is Aliens in a nutshell. Because here’s the thing – even tho the marines lose in the most ridiculous way possible that would give a James Bond henchmen reason to flitch and say “ooof – that’s gotta hurt” and even tho all their big cool weaponage and special combat skills amount to sweet fuck all and even tho by the end of the film they’re all dead – even tho all of that: when the movie’s over you still end up thinking that they’re the coolest thing you’ve ever seen.
That’s the magic of movies etc
To expand on Joel’s point further, One thing we know about James Cameron from his recent attempts at Battle Angel Alita and also Avatar is that he is a big Anime/Manga fan and the Loaders in Aliens make it abundantly clear this is his first (and best) stab at that sensibility.
Certainly a lot of the Anime films I saw in the 90s felt physically larger in scale – Akira, or Laputa, or Patlabor shared a lot of the cheesy tropes and dialogue of American shows but they all had something extra. Maybe it was just the advantages of animation over live action but could you feel the breadth of Neo Tokyo, and when they blow it up they blow up the whole dn city. Similarly the Castle in the Sky really feels quite high up, and the action with character dancing about on thin platforms is almost vertigo inducing. And of course in all of these the robots and guns are… so chunky. [loosens collar] Aliens augments that sense of scale that you already had with the Nostromo and not only gives you plural aliens but also the loaders, armoured cars, Queen-sized Aliens Queens, tactical nukes, and also a feeling that you are in a larger universe.
One of the cool things about Akira is that it’s not just scale but scope. We join effectively in the middle of the story when loads of shit has already gone down in Tokyo, there’s been some sort of world war, and the Government is struggling to stay on top of the situation as gangs, rebels and cults fight for control of the streets and almost all of this is back story. Similarly Aliens brings you in to the sort of universe where there would be a war so big that tactical nukes are on the dropdown menu of your space ship and where a bio-weapon xenomorph might potentially come in handy. The Colonial maroons have clearly been around the block and colonised a few things, they probably have seen some C-beams and attacked ships on fire off the Tannhauser Gate and their whole attitude is that this is just another day at the office, but then that’s as much information as you get. Even the characters are just “normal” guys. None of them are one day from retirement or has a dark past they’re struggling to atone for.
Cameron tries the same trick again in Avatar, and maybe that’s why he plans to have 90 Avatar films out over the next decade because he has fleshed out this mega-back story in his mind. But for whatever reason I was never particularly interested in that universe or even in that planet. Maybe if some of the characters referred darkly to The Incident, or some-such maybe I would have wanted to delve a bit deeper but a world facing environmental catastrophe due to resource exploitation and destruction of indigenous cultures? Sorry, can’t relate.
Which brings me to Alien 3. The completely fair response to my “the real Alien 3 is actually Jurassic Park” is that the movie which really upends its characters in a descending escalator of horror is Infinity War – but the actual Alien 3 is like following Infinity War with an Ant Man movie (just imagine). We saw an Alien Queen, which implies there is a whole Alien society somewhere, potentially even a society on a world which is so tough that evolving aggressive acid blood and asexual parasitic reproduction was vital to survival of the species. After Aliens you don’t want a claustrophobic bottle episode, you want full on Alien War, and not only that an Alien War where the galaxy gets annihilated.
To be fair these are the broad strokes which James Cameron does very well and which while interesting also serve as a very useful narrative device to lend stakes to action sequences. As AVP and Prometheus demonstrated these small details don’t always deserve further scrutiny, but the way they were cast aside seems like the main explanation for the failure of the franchise to progress. Its not an argument against sequels. Yes Sometimes it’s good just let things be (am I right Bladerunner 2049?) but it’s seems like people felt that all they wanted was the Further Adventures of Ripley or a prequel, which showed a lack of ambition. If Aliens provided any sort of roadmap it was that the series should go big or go home.
So I watched Aliens over the weekend.
Well – actually – I guess that should be rewatched Aliens. I’m pretty certain that of all the films in the world it’s the one I’ve seen the most times. (Which probably explains far too much).
I think the first time I saw it was at my auntie’s house on some old battered VHS copy and I can remember that feeling that gets created from all of the best films – where it doesn’t really feel like you’re watching a screen but instead it’s like you’re watching something real and something that’s happening right now and the box around the edges is just the portal you’re peering through…
Brief little side note that means probably nothing: but Sigourney Weaver / Ripley looked completely identical to my auntie in a way that was actually kinda weird. Plus my auntie was one of those strident militant radical lesbians that only really seemed to exist in the 1980s and they don’t really make any more (used to eat rice cakes when we went round to hers and I’m pretty sure she was vegan looooong before anyone really even knew what that word even meant). I mean: if you’ve ever read Dykes To Watch Out For by Alison Bechdel (and you should! It’s really good!) then you’ll know what I’m talking about… And there’s just a few moments here and there where Ripley kinda makes a face or says a thing that kinda makes me feel like she’s coming from the same kinda place. I mean: there’s a really wonderful moment in the – ahem – 3 hour Making of Aliens Documentary where Sigourney Weaver talks about how much she hates guns and how she didn’t really read the stage directions in the script and didn’t know that she’d have to be using and firing a gun and how she thinks that guns kinda do a number on you and warp your brain and then it cuts to Bill Paxton who’s literally smiling like a little school boy and exclaiming: “Guns? Yeah! I love guns!! Shooting them is the best part of the job!” (congratulations to whoever cast him as Hudson). But yeah point being: I can’t really tell my auntie apart from Ripley.
I watched the Director’s Cut because that seemed like the only honourable thing to do. (Does anyone still watch the Theatrical Cut anymore?) But even tho it’s always the one I watch and I think it’s definitely the version I’ve seen it the most times – it’s still really weird how the moments that weren’t in the Theatrical Cut still leap out at you. (Like I think the Theatrical Cut was the first version I saw and think I’m old enough to remember it being quite a big deal when the Director’s Cut was first released on VHS? But maybe I’m imagining that. I don’t know). But yeah – there’s something really… dreamlike (?) about new scenes in a film you know really well. Like a film is halfway between a piece of music and a book right? And so when you come across a “new” bit it’s like that thing when you have a dream and you find a new room in your house and you’re like: wait – was this here before? (Films are also a lot like dreams: but maybe that’s a point for another day).
Watching it now I was surprised that one of the scenes that I enjoyed the most was the debriefing scene towards the start.
Watching it when I was younger I just kinda took it as read – oh yeah this is just a part of the story and whatever but watching it now – I mean: the whole bit is kinda like a SNL skit or something right? You could imagine something similar for like Ethan Hunt or John McClane (“So would you like to go into some of the reasons why you decided to blow up the top half of the skyscaper?”)
(“Now, you freely admit to detonating the engines of, and thereby destroying, an M-class starfreighter, a rather expensive piece of hardware” is a really good line LOL)
And in these desperate crazy economy-obsessed times it’s gotta be said that it’s kinda bleakly funny that the only reason Ripley decides to go on this big crazy heroic adventure to defeat the evil monsters from hell and save the cute the blonde kid is all because in the first instance: she just needs a job and a way to get out of her crappy little box-room apartment.
Which makes sense right? I mean: why else would anyone want to go somewhere dangerous where they ran the risk of something horrible happening to them and death from some evil alien organism? Like we’re seeing right now the only real answer is: because you need to get paid.
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