Wednesday, 27 June 2012

Why I Love That Film: Aliens

Ladies and gentlemen!  May I present to you I Love That Film's very first guest post from a fellow writer and teacher, David Jackson.  Here's why David Jackson loves Aliens:

In all honesty I feel that this review is moot; why I love Aliens and therefore why everyone else should love it is self-evident and can be summed up in the following three words:

It’s fucking great.

Though every last letter of that pronouncement is wholly true, the horrible realisation has dawned upon me that there are people on this Earth who have not seen Aliens. Those who have an excuse – the absence of running water, let alone DVD players – notwithstanding, this situation is unforgivable. It is a situation almost as unforgivable as the fact that there are people alive on the verge of adulthood who are younger than that other great James Cameron movie – Terminator 2: Judgement Day.
Before I get into highlighting the fact that only three of my students have seen any of the Back to the Future trilogy and one of them claimed they ‘were rubbish’ (and has since been committed to psychiatric care), I should resume reviewing Aliens. The topic of the death of culture itself can wait.

For the uninitiated, Aliens  is the 1986 follow-up to Ridley Scott’s uninventive but flawlessly executed Alien, and concerns the PTSD-afflicted Ellen Ripley’s ill-fated attempts to investigate (with the assistance of gum-chewing soldiers) the disappearance of an entire colony of humans on the planet where the titular phallus-bonced xenomorphs were originally found.

There are so many reasons to love this film from an aesthetic and technical point of view. Aside from the despicable haircuts, it’s hard to place it as a 1986 movie – a testament to the excellence of a production put together on (even then) a mediocre budget of eighteen million dollars. The academy award winning practical and special effects still equal those of any CGI-driven blockbuster of today, and even the slightly phony rear-projection face-offs with the Queen in her nest towards the end of the movie are more convincing than watching Ryan Reynold’s head floating against a background of pixellated green mush. The central character of Ripley is portrayed within a believable Feminist framework that is rare today. It is an action movie. It is a horror movie. It is a cyberpunk commentary on the dangers of unlimited corporate power. It’s even a serviceable Vietnam War allegory. To cover it all would require an entire book.

I remember seeing snippets of Aliens at a young age and finally saw the director’s cut in full aged fourteen when the boxset was released on VHS in 1997 before Alien Resurrection came out and ran head-first into a brick wall. What impressed me most was the design of the Colonial Marines’ military hardware – it was both futuristic and grounded within a recognisable practical reality. The designs are so cemented in the collective geek imagination that it they have been knowingly and smirkingly assimilated into other media. The UNSC troops and vehicles in the legendary Halo videogame franchise are the clearest example. Even Sergeant Apone makes an appearance in them under the guise of Sergeant Johnson.

One thing that is brilliant about the use of military hardware from a narrative point of view is that it underlines the menace of the xenomorph threat itself. The Colonial Marines are over-equipped to the point of complacence. Their weaponry is in fact overpowered to the point of liability – it indirectly results in the destruction of the colony they set out to save. One message of the movie is clear – flesh is stronger than steel. As an allegory for the trials of the US during the Vietnam War, it serves to illustrate how the superior numbers, guerrilla stealth and almost fearless nature of the North Vietnamese were more important than all the high-explosives at the Americans’ disposal.

Characterisation is a strength of this film – oddly because it doesn’t try too hard. The heavily-armed ready-meals who populate this film are painted with broad but memorable strokes. Sometimes, the best icons are the simplest. What really matters is the character of Ripley herself and how she is used to deftly handle second-wave Feminist issues in the script by Cameron (and some extent Alien screenwriters Giler and Hill).

Summary of powerful female characters in a modern film: take the recent Salt or maybe Tomb Raider (Jolie coincidence? I think not) or even the horrendously overrated marathon pop-video wank-fests known as Kill-Bill parts 1 & 2. Their approach is ‘because I am sexy, I am powerful’. Supermodel physiques that in reality can barely pull back the bed-sheets in the morning pull off feats of superhuman strength and speed far outclassing the obviously physically-fit male counterparts of these movies. I see this and I’m immediately bored. Why is it that their power has to be linked to their attractiveness in the most conventional terms? Why do we need to define female characters by their sexuality at all?

Aliens eschews all this and gives us in Ripley a character with powerful biological drive in terms of mothering instincts,  and assets that are universally praise-worthy in anyone. She is pragmatic, determined and cool-headed. She isn’t given any super-strength or inexplicable martial arts skills and the justification of her place in a masculine hierarchy certainly isn’t centred on her appearance. Surrounded by gung-go troops, an incompetent combat-virginal Lieutenant and a slimy corporate executive, she uses her experience and ingenuity to help the group survive. Some people might criticise Ripley, in her leather jacket and blue overalls, as being a character that’s essentially neutered. They might also argue that the loss of her own child and subsequent near-suicidal attachment to the orphan Rebecca (also known as Newt) are simply concessions made to give her a traditional female grounding. 

What is important here is that is we are dealing with the female not the feminine. Her biological leanings are inescapable and provide drive without defining her means of success. Other characters in the films mentioned above are defined in terms of the feminine – the artificial, socially contrived characteristics associated with females but which (though we get confused in our culture) have nothing to do with the essence of being female or even human. In short, the abilities that Ripley displays can be believed. There is a clear relation between her outward presentation and behaviour and what she achieves. She’s not even the ever-pouting super-bitch that is commonly portrayed as being the kind of woman who excels in a ‘male’ environment. Ripley is tough, but sensitive in quite a straightforward, undecorated manner. In other words, a great leader.

Unsurprisingly, another area in which Aliens excels is in its action ... or should we be surprised? If you added together all the action sequences from the 137-minute director’s cut, you probably only get about 35 minutes of action. In these scenes, the xenomorphs themselves are seldom in the same frame as the Colonial Marines and there are long moments of fighting where the aliens aren’t shown at all. Far from being simple cost-cutting exercises, these are strategies that make the action work. Marines blast away at middle-distance off-camera threats because they are in a confused situation and attacked by almost invisible enemies from all sides. Constant cuts to their out-of-depth Lieutenant watching their decimation from camera feeds enhance the sense of helplessness. Snap-cuts to creatures being mown down by sentry guns in a dark corridor give the impression of the beasts being innumerable even though we are only shown a few being involved at any time.

The sense of action, in short, relies on atmosphere for its thrill and menace. This is not a ‘literal’ action film that shows you everything in candid, realistic detail. The lighting in particular plays a crucial role. In one set-piece, the aliens make their way around the Marines’ barricade and into the Operations Centre by crawling under the floor and over the ceiling grates – but not before cutting the power. Cutting the power of course results in the engagement of emergency lighting which saturates the scene with murky blood-red tones that underline the primal horror of the moment, create a tantalising half-light which makes the creatures more threatening and serves as pathetic fallacy for the turning point wherein there is no hope for survival. During Ripley’s rescue of Newt and her final duel with the Queen, strobing hazard-lights create a tense visual heart-beat.

Aliens is fantastic not only as a stand-alone film but as a sequel. It isn’t the simple ‘more expensive version of the original’ approach taken by many films (though it did cost more). It operates on an entirely different dynamic and unravels some of the more mysterious elements of the original in a logical way. The nature of the xenomorph is expanded upon with the exposition of a hive hierarchy, and their survival strategies adapt when the conditions of their human enemies change. Expectations set up by the original – such as that all androids are untrustworthy tools of the evil Weyland Yutani Corporation – are toyed with and then smashed.

In summation, Aliens is a movie that has aged well. It has clever direction, sympathetic and believable spins on classic stereotypes, and stunning production design. It is a movie-geek’s dream as well as a satisfying mainstream action-horror. The more you know about this film, the more you appreciate it, mainly because so much was achieved with such limited resources. Despite having relatively little action, what there is happens to be well-paced and hits harder because of the dramatic tension that develops between.

... and plus, Bill Paxton makes this face:

What more could you want?


 DAVID M. JACKSON is the semi-fictitious construct of a crazed Language and Literature lecturer born in Essex and working in Berkshire.

He has loved Science-Fiction all his life and regards it as the ultimate means of developing complex hypotheses regarding how technological development catalyses social change.
He is pretentious and precocious enough to have been writing Science-Fiction since the age of fourteen, though most of those ideas are in quarantine. When cleansed of their impurities, he will rebuild them faster, stronger and better than before.

His corporeal avatar currently occupies a position in real-space approximately 1.6 meters in height, 0.6 meters in width, 0.35 meters at its deepest point and 98 kilograms in weight according to the metric increments employed by homo-sapiens in the industrialised territories of Earth (Solar System).

If you want to read more from David M. Jackson, look for his new novel Fidelity, Bravery, Integrity on Amazon – due out as an eBook from 1st July 2012.

Set in the near future, Fidelity, Bravery, Integrity sees cybernetically augmented police officer Jennifer Carter fighting to avenge her father’s death, evade arrest by her former colleagues and hold on to the last remnants of her humanity as Britain explodes into civil war.
Our real enemies are closer to home than you think …