For the record, Jenny ended up reading an Eve Dallas book while Aliens played in the background, and I don’t blame her at all. She endured the oral onslaught, though, and toughed out a headache in the process. (For what it’s worth, I woke up with a headache this morning, therefore all James Cameron movies cause headaches.) And Phil, a movie’s value in personal growth to the director only counts when the director eventually makes a good movie.
As Phil mentioned over here, I realized that although I talk shit about Aliens whenever the subject arises, it had been maybe a decade since I’d seen it. How could my opinion on the movie be considered valid when I last watched it so long ago? I decided I needed to take it in again.
I’m glad I did. Because if I had written this review without revisiting it, I might have talked some shit about it. Now, having it fresh in my mind, I am going to talk veritable manure yards of shit about it.
Oh, where do I begin? How about with how poorly Aliens has aged.
In space, no one can see your perm
Now, don’t get me wrong. In no way do I hold bad 80’s haircuts against a movie. Any film is a product of its time, and sometimes, even the best of movies suffer from Outdated Hairstyle Syndrome. The Silence of the Lambs is a perfect example of a great movie where everyone has 90’s hair and the women wear shoulderpads, and the cops burst into rooms and immediately pose in the doorway like Charlie’s Angels. Most movies (except period pieces and movies that seem to truly define an era or culture) are only mildly hurt by this, and I usually get over it in fifteen minutes or so and manage to get into the movie.
However, Aliens has more dating it than a seargent with a bad moustache. I think the problem is best titled James Cameronitis. Half of the shots in the movie scream, “This was made with 1985’s best computer technology,” and the real problem with that is that it didn’t have to be that way. Alien made do on less and has only a couple of seconds of film that make me suddenly realize I’ve been watching a movie this whole time. But probably about half of its sequel made me see the fourth wall unintentionally. Shots which come to mind…
- The military spacecraft is approaching the planet LV-426. As it passes through the cloud layer, the ship is clearly a model on strings, wobbling against a blue screen while B-roll from an airplane cockpit sends clouds shooting at the camera.
- They land and wander around a bit. The entire exterior looks like the set of an Ed Wood movie. Shots of this nature are persistent throughout the entire film.
- A wall of industrial piping explodes. The pipes are very obviously computer generated, and are of the same quality as the Windows XP Pipes screensaver. The explosions are blue screened on top.
Now, my complaint here isn’t that the movie is old. It’s that it looks like shit even though it didn’t have to. James Cameronitis is the condition of a movie being swollen with special effects that are guaranteed to cement a movie to a specific time period without providing anything of value to otherwise engage an audience. Other symptoms of James Cameronitis include bad performances from good actors; characters that might as well be Dick Tracy villains; plots so predictable you don’t need to see the movie; and rabid, mostly undeserved fanboyism by people who act like characters on Big Bang Theory. If you experience any of these symptoms, ask your doctor if Good Cinema is right for you.
James Cameronitis is often caused by an urge to make movies with the latest and greatest technology the year has to offer. While that’s admirable in a “why not?” sort of way, it’s problematic because technology isn’t a big enough leg to stand on when filmmaking. I’m sure that in 1986, Aliens was an amazing looking movie, and the adolescent boner that is Ripley appearing in a mechanized cargo loader behind sliding doors, foggily illuminated from a light that has no business being where it is was probably super radical.
But not anymore. All the shimmer and sparkle of a movie like Aliens is doomed to fade in time, revealing the core that lies beneath. Unfortunately, there isn’t much underneath what used to be a glossy, attractive exterior. Turns out, Aliens is the film equivalent of an eight-track tape. Hey, cool! An old doohickey! But it’s totally useless.
Are you there, 20th Century Fox? It’s me, James Cameron.
One of the major themes of this film’s predecessor (which I didn’t go into much detail on in my Alien review) and other Ridley Scott films is the blatant disregard shown by corporations for human life. This theme is continued in Cameron’s thingamajig. Burke, the upper management goon from “The Company” is revealed to know more than he has let on, which puts the entire crew in danger. Just like in the first one when Ash is revealed to be an android who knows more than he has let on, which puts the entire crew in danger.
My point, of course, is that everything about Aliens is designed to sell admission tickets. It’s not even meant to be a good movie, just a marketable one. It doesn’t exist to inform us of some nuanced part of the human experience. It is not literature. If anything, it’s a textbook example of how to put butts in theater seats without making anything good.
James Cameron has always been a studio director, and he probably always will be, just like Burke was always a company man, and would have likely remained so had he not met his fate on planet LV-426. If Aliens is meant to warn us that a company might try to convince people they’re safe when they’re not in the interest of profit, then James Cameron is meant to warn us that a movie studio might try to convince us that we’re not watching the same old crappy story made up of the same old crappy characters in the interest of profit. There’s a reason James Cameron movie trailers don’t say, “From the director of Piranha Part Two: The Spawning“, and it’s because Piranha Part Two: The Spawning doesn’t sell tickets to Avatar.
I don’t want to spend a lot of time on the characters, because frankly, the writers didn’t even spend a lot of time on the characters. The cast is a gallery of boy band members – the quiet one, the tough one, the funny one… The characters suck. That’s kind of okay, though. This is an action flick, not a character study, and they get us through the plot alright.
They’re boring, though, unlike, say, Corbin Dallas. And unlike in The Fifth Element, their interactions with each other play out like a pissing contest instead of like people motivated to acheive a goal and facing adversity in doing so. Most of the characters are pretty useless, and the aliens continue to outsmart them and pick them off one at a time like the killer in a slasher flick. It’s hard for me to buy into the supposed intelligence of the xenomorphs when they are only ever shown outsmarting the most doltish team of marines in cinema history.
Ellen Ripley is a big, fat liar
Let’s go back to Alien for a minute. Remember that pivotal scene where, while trying to surgically remove a facehugger from Kane’s mug, the alien blood spurts out and begins devouring a hole in the floor. The crew of the Nostromo follows it down through several floors of solid, industrial metal flooring before the acid finally neutralizes. It’s incredibly destructive, and for the first time in the movie, they realize that this isn’t just some weird alien – it’s dangerous.
In Aliens, when Ripley meets with the company’s board about her actions on the Nostromo, she defends herself by explaining in a loud and frustrated and harsh tone that THESE THINGS HAVE HIGHLY CONCENTRATED ACIDIC BLOOD! Half an hour later in the movie, Alien blood starts literally splashing all over everything. There are explosions and gunfire and alien heads blasting open all over tanks and equipment. And yet nothing begins to disintegrate. There is no steam, no smoke, no acidic blood whatsoever. At one point, Vasquez grabs an alien and fires several shots from a pistol directly into the bug’s elongated head. Yellow-brown alien blood splashes all over her face, her hands, her body… she’s basically drowning in the stuff. And she doesn’t even blink. She doesn’t appear to be in any pain whatsoever.
So is xenomorph blood acidic or not?
Wheel of Overplayed Tropes!
Ripley is resting in a recovery room after waking up from her hibernation when Burke walks into the room. They begin to talk about how the world has changed, but Ripley soon becomes physically uncomfortable. It’s not long before she realizes that something’s wrong. Suddenly, she’s convulsing, her abdomen rising and falling in quick jerks, almost as though a chestburster were about to break through! In her wild convulsions, her hand hits a glass of water (a literal glass, not a plastic tumbler or disposable cup) and… guess what? You’ll never guess. It shatters on the floor in slow motion.
Soon it becomes clear that there is a chestburster pressing its face through her skin. It pushes up, up, up, and you can see its features defined in the elasticity of her belly. But then, just as it’s about to break through…. guess what? You’ll never guess. She wakes up, and it was all just a dream.
Later, they’ve finally arrived on the planet LV-426. While all the marines are unloading supplies with cargo loader mech suits, Ripley’s standing around, twiddling her thumbs. But she’s anxious. She’s not the prissy little princess the guys all like to imagine her as, and she asks what she can do to help. Seargent Apone tilts his head at her, opens his eyes behind curls of cigar smoke. He doesn’t believe her. So… guess what? You’ll never guess. He makes her prove it!
So Ripley gets into a suit, makes some mech porn for the high school boys in the theater audience, and… guess what? You’ll never guess. She kicks ass in a loader.
And so on and so forth. I don’t have to cite these things. If you watch the movie, you’ll find them throughout. I’ve seen these exact shots a thousand times, and I’m tired of seeing them. James Cameron didn’t exactly pioneer them, either.
I’ve said a lot of bad shit about Aliens today, and I feel I should explain why it isn’t all bad.
Believe it or not, this is what it looks like when James Cameron shows restraint. When the just-a-dream chestburster pushes his head through, Cameron could have easily thrown some money at a big gore sequence before the inevitable just-a-dream wake-up.
A scene later on has one man running out of ammo against an army of xenomorphs. At the control panel, Ripley and the Seargent watch a display counting down the bullet reserves. Cameron shows us only the looks on their faces and the countdown. He could have shown us the aliens devour the straggler as his barrels ran dry. I can think of a few action flick directors who could take a page out of Cameron’s book, and so can you.
Restraint is somewhat valuable in filmmaking. In fact, I’d say it’s worth about two points. Or, if you prefer to think of this way, that’s one point for every good line of dialog.