I’ve seen this movie many times over many years, and I’m sure you have too. I don’t think I need to try to convince anybody to like ALIENS. Asking somebody if they like ALIENS is like asking them if they like pizza or ice cream. You can assume the answer is “yes” and if not it’s just some weird quirk that person has, you can’t really make much of it.
But having noticed signs that the BIG FUCKIN SUMMER BLOCKBUSTER POPCORN MOVIE may be ailing here in 2007 I decided to get nostalgic and watch T2 (theatrical cut, back to ’91) and I had such a good time with that I thought, jesus, where do I go from here? Is there anything that big and yet at the same time that good? I wasn’t sure but I did know of one other James Cameron part 2 that I like even better and that of course is ALIENS. So I watched the theatrical cut of that too.
ALIENS is the perfect sequel to a perfect original. I always say I like ALIEN better, but that’s just a matter of personal taste and maybe the unavoidable fact that it came first. But I don’t really think one is better or worse than the other. Both are as good as they ever made ’em.
Looking at it just as a sequel it’s incredible, one of the best ever, so much so that references to ALIENS are the number one shorthand for a sequel that builds on everything that was great about the original and takes it to a new level. Every director of a part 2 now days seems to say he’s trying to make ALIENS to the first movie’s ALIEN. Here is a movie that takes the main character, the world and the premise of the original and expands on them, takes them in new directions, elaborates on them, even puts them in a different genre. Ripley becomes a warrior but also a mother. Her working class job is over so she gets another one using a robot to load crates. We see the same planet again but also the boring space station where people live, and what life is like for the military (now part of a corporation). Instead of repeating the same horror movie structure it goes into an action movie structure. Before it was one alien sneaking around a ship, now it’s a platoon trapped in hostile territory. Instead of just using the same monster – or just multiplying it into a group of monsters – they also expand on the life cycle of the monsters and introduce the Alien Queen.
Time for an ode to the Alien Queen. There have been many bigger and more powerful monsters on screen, and ones with more personality by human standards, but few as primally scary as the Alien Queen. What I love about the Queen is that she seems like a real animal, a dangerous fucking animal whose cave you would never want to walk past. Like the other aliens she has no eyes and her mouth isn’t expressive and you’re not sure she has emotions anyway other than anger. So you can relate to her as much as you can relate to a wasp. All you really know about her is she wants you the fuck away from her eggs. Unless you’re cocooned in slime. If you were Ripley and accidentally bumped into the Queen I think you would feel a combination of the terror of running into an angry mama bear and the “how is that possible?” I-can’t-believe-what-I’m-seeing awe of seeing a spider as big as your fist crawl across the living room floor.
I actually saw the Alien Queen once, but not alive. It turns out it is all a special effect and the puppet/suit/whatever is on loan at a museum here in Seattle. Even without the lighting and editing it looks amazing. I stared at it for a good 5 minutes before I noticed the velcro straps on the chest where people apparently climbed inside to control the thing.
But as great a villain as the Queen is this movie is all about Ripley. She’s a great character in all the movies but in this one she shines by far the brightest. Here for the first time she plays the only person who really understands the danger and can’t convince anyone else to take it seriously. We know she’s vulnerable because we’ve seen her nightmares and we can hear the emotion in her voice, but she’s still tough enough to convincingly command the attention of a platoon of macho space marines. And she cuts through the machismo without having to use a word – check out that expression on her face in the cafeteria when she hears them talking about “poontang.” Also, watch and see who survives longer – the tough talking warriors or Ripley. We don’t need some scene where she insults them. She wants to save their lives even though they’re assholes.
And why does she willingly go back there? They got spaceships, it’s a big universe, why not go as far away as she can and not look back? The movie’s answer is that she’s worried about those colonists, and about the aliens getting to other planets, and her experiences haunt her and she can’t just keep running. But I think the corporation’s original idea for how to get her to go is convincing too. They offer to get her flight officer license back so she can continue her career. And you’ve seen that space station. That would not be a good life loading crates all day and then going back to your little room. I’d want to get on a space ship too.
Watching it this time I was thinking that I can’t imagine anybody pulling it off as good as Sigourney Weaver did. Some of that dialogue might come across corny with somebody else. But Sigourney really believes it. That is a great god damn performance. I know they say you’re not supposed to have great acting in a sci-fi action movie, but nobody told them that when they were making this, so they fucked up.
I also gotta mention sitcom actor Paul Reiser (My Two Dads) who does an amazingly subtle version of the sleazy corporate bad guy. Almost always in movies this kind of villain either seems to know that he’s evil or at least revels in being a total asshole. This guy seems to believe his own bullshit. I don’t think he knows he’s a bad guy.
And the movie just has so many clever ideas in it. For example when the marines start exploring the colony they have this gimmick of the helmets having cameras attached so the people back in the ship can see what’s going on. This was before COPS was even on TV, long before reality TV and webcams and BLAIR WITCH. So you can see it was an accurate prediction of future technology and a clever way to stage the scenes. We are anticipating seeing one of these aliens, and from those camera feeds we start imagining aliens in every little abstract squiggle. We share Ripley’s helpless perspective of not quite seeing what’s going on and being at a distance where she cannot help anyway. They keep us in suspense with those ambiguous images but then they show us a clearer view. This helmetcam thing has been tried in many bad movies since and never executed nearly as well.
You know what is a classic badass moment for the record books is when the door opens up and Ripley is standing there in the power loader ready to kick the Queen’s boney black ass. She wouldn’t even have to have that great line (“Get away from her you bitch!”) for this to be unforgettable. In fact, if this power loader just showed up out of nowhere and she used it to fight the Queen, I think people would laugh and it would be silly, but it would work. But the way they set it up is perfect. It’s that old trick of doing it three times. First they mention that she has that job, tying it in with the working class “truckers in space” thing from ALIEN. Then later they show her using the power loader to help moving crates around, impressing the Sarge and making him laugh. So then when it turns up as a weapon it’s perfectly organic, we know she knows how to use it, we know why, and we believe it. And it’s gonna be better for fighting Alien Queens than for moving boxes.
After this and especially T2 there was a trend of making so-called feminist characters in movies, and it just meant to give a girl a gun. If she kills some guys it counts as feminism. But I think Ripley is the real deal. She uses a gun and a blowtorch, she kills some aliens, she kicks the queen’s ass. She’s tough as hell. But her femininity is still intact. In fact, the whole reason for the asskicking is her maternal instincts. The Queen protects her eggs, Ripley protects her Newt.
It’s too bad, Ripley sort of gets a daughter but she never gets reunited with her cat, does she? Poor Jonesy. Maybe instead of resurrecting Ripley they should’ve done part 4 all about Jonesy, starting on that space station and he tries to go rescue Ripley but never finds her and faces some aliens of his own. And maybe they have breeded from some cats so they are more cat-like and closer to his size so he can take them on using cat methods. By the way, you ever notice that cats are afraid of aliens and dogs are afraid of terminators? It’s true. And I believe fish are afraid of robocops.
I could probaly write a whole book about all the things I love about this movie, but even I would never read that crappy book, so instead I will leave it at this review and cut it off with one last observation. This is a sequel, a “franchise” movie, a July release, sci-fi with action, special effects, from one of the A-List blockbuster directors, the guy who later made the highest grossing movie of all time. So I’m lumping it in with all these big loud summer movies, but one thing I like is that it begins and ends quietly. In the opening Ripley drifts through space asleep in her pod. And we see her sleeping face superimposed with the earth (a place she hasn’t seen in, what, more than sixty years? I forget how long she’d been in space at the beginning of ALIEN, but it’s been 57 years since then).
Then at the end she returns to sleep and this time when her profile is superimposed with the earth we also see the profile of Newt, the little girl she rescued. This is what she’s gained. She went through all that shit, but she’s not back to square one. The first time she went to sleep with nothing but her cat and her underwear. This time she goes to sleep and she has a family. I didn’t see ALIEN 3 until long after everyone said it was trash, so when I finally saw it I kind of liked it and the ballsiness of killing these characters offscreen during the opening credits. Almost as if it should say “a film by David Fincher” over a picture of him holding up two middle fingers. But watching ALIENS again now and really thinking about what Ripley has gained in this movie I finally understand why people were so pissed. She earned that new family. She should get to keep it in a movie, not just in the between movies hibernation period. She was asleep, they didn’t even get to go on any family picnics or powerloader races or anything.
Anyway, it’s a great ending, and then the music during the end credits lets you sit there and contemplate it. It doesn’t hammer you over the head with some thrilling adventure theme as alot of movies would’ve done then, or drill a hole into your brain with some horrible fucking garbage rock song by whichever shitty band the corporation that owns the studio is trying to promote, as they would do now. It’s a movie confident that it can kick your ass and then leave you peacefully to consider what has just happened.
SUMMER BLOCKBUSTER SCORECARD:
ORIGINAL RELEASE DATE July 18th
IT’S NOT MADE TO GET OSCARS but it did win best visual effects and best sound effects editing. Sigourney Weaver also got a well-deserved nomination for best actress, but lost to Marlee Matlin in CHILDREN OF A LESSER GOD.
BRAIN CHECK REQUIRED? no
STANDARDS THAT NEED TO BE LOWERED TO ENJOY: none
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.