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Aliens: Even 35 years on, it is still the greatest action movie of all-time


Aliens (M, 138mins) Directed by James Cameron *****

“There are some places in the universe you don’t go alone.”

If you were a 12-year-old New Zealander like me in 1986, that included the local movie theatre, as groups of friends attempted to persuade cinema staff that we were old enough to see the most hotly anticipated R13 of our lives.

For whatever reason, something now lost in the mists of time, it took my Stranger Things-esque crew two attempts before we succeeded in our less-than-elaborate deception, brought the ubiquitous boxes of Jaffas and pottles and Tangy Fruits from the Octagon Cinema’s candy-bar and attempted to mentally prepare ourselves to be frightened out of our minds.

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All of us had watched Ridley Scott’s haunted house of horrors in space that was 1979’s Alien (at least those bits where we weren’t cowering behind the couch, or hiding behind our fingers), but the prospect of a bigger, bolder sequel by the man gave the world The Terminator, one whose other tagline was “this time it’s war”, no self-respecting “cool-kid” was going to miss this. And it certainly did not disappoint.

From the familiar 20th Century Fox fanfare to our heroine Ripley’s (Sigourney Weaver) final warning to the Alien Queen, which brought the house down, Aliens is a perfectly calibrated thrill ride, James Cameron’s finest hours (although the last one of Titanic’s three comes might close) and exactly the kind of immersive experience a Hollywood sci-fi action movie should be.

Thirty-five years after its initial release and now the subject of an episode of Netflix’s The Movies That Made Us, it still holds up as the greatest actioner of its era, an “express elevator to hell” that plays on our basic fears and a magnificent exemplar of how to follow up a beloved film with something that shares the same DNA (Scott’s visceral gloopiness is still front and centre), but has a style and swagger all of its own (a trick Cameron would later repeat with Terminator 2).

From the familiar 20th Century Fox fanfare to our heroine Ripley’s (Sigourney Weaver) final warning to the Alien Queen, which brought the house down, Aliens is a perfectly calibrated thrill ride.

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From the familiar 20th Century Fox fanfare to our heroine Ripley’s (Sigourney Weaver) final warning to the Alien Queen, which brought the house down, Aliens is a perfectly calibrated thrill ride.

As well as directing, Cameron was one of three writers whose story picks up the action 57 years after the Nostromo’s Chief Warrant Officer Ellen Ripley was forced to destroy the ship in order to prevent the xenomorph who had wiped out the rest of her crew from causing any more havoc to humanity.

Having just made it to her escape shuttle, along with Jonesy the cat, in time, she has been drifting in space until a lucky encounter with a deep space salvage team. Recuperating on a Gateway Station in Earth’s orbit, she is plagued by sheet-soaking nightmares of her ordeal and struggling to convince “The Company” of the threat posed by the human-impregnating, acid-for-blood creatures they first encountered on the planet LV-426.

To her horror, that lifeless rock has now become home to 60 to 70 colonist families, as it undergoes terraforming, with a view to eventually making it habitable for a sizeable population.

She – and we – have barely time to process that information before company mouthpiece Carter Burke (comedian Paul Reiser, playing the decade’s ultimate creepy, calculating corporate “suit”) breaks the news that they’ve lost contact with the colony and would love Ripley to go back there as an advisor.

After an initial flat out refusal, she’s eventually persuaded that accompanying a team of crack Colonial Marines on a mission that would, “destroy them, wipe them out”, if more of these creatures do exist, might finally allow her to rest easy. However, it quickly becomes clear that a “smooth and by-the-numbers” operation, this is not.

ALIEN ANTHOLOGY/YOUTUBE

The Alien trailer builds unbearable tension.

What follows is around 100 minutes of some of the finest tension building and breathless action ever committed to celluloid. Cameron draws us into the story, the sometimes claustrophobic setting and the threat of danger from every angle and refuses to let us go until the credits roll.

Aliens offers a masterclass in misdirecting the audience, gives us a cadre of characters to care about (everyone from Bill Paxton’s jittery Hudson to Lance Henriksen’s inscrutable android Bishop and Carrie Henn’s constantly imperilled colony kid Newt). The latter is not just a serial screamer though, she’s a mini-Ripley, whose remarkable survival with no weapons and no training shows the one-track-minded marines how it can be done. If anything, it’s virtually all the men who come out of Aliens badly, portrayed as either conniving, weak-minded, or simply not up to the task, especially compared to Riley.

Arguably offering the template for Linda Hamilton’s transformation in Terminator 2, Weaver’s performance here is nothing short of remarkable. Forget Stallone, Schwarzenegger and their ilk, this is, hands-down, the best lead turn in a straight-out action movie. If you don’t believe me, remember Weaver was nominated for an Academy Award for her work here, one of six the film received in total (fully deserving its eventual gongs for sound effects editing and visual effects).

Aliens was a rite of passage, a shared cultural moment, in 1986, and is still a stonking example of cinematic storytelling power today.

Supplied

Aliens was a rite of passage, a shared cultural moment, in 1986, and is still a stonking example of cinematic storytelling power today.

Cameron uses both sound and vision to keep the viewer constantly on edge, offering us extensive point-of-view and helmet-cam footage, long before the GoPro was conceived, breaking out the red filter as the story reaches a crescendo and using James Horner’s suitably bombastic score (which was so hurried into production he clearly borrows bits from his themes to the Star Trek movies The Wrath of Khan and The Search For Spock) to drive home the urgency of the situation.

And, breaking with traditional Hollywood convention, Cameron even ensures his 15-minute countdown to “a cloud of vapour the size of Nebraska” and “game over, man” lasts exactly 15 minutes.

In 2017, I happened to encounter producer Gael Ann Hurd in a queue at the Toronto Film Festival. I took the opportunity then to thank her for inspiring a cohort of Kiwi kids to mass deception, and I’m glad I did, for Aliens was a rite of passage, a shared cultural moment, in 1986, and is still a stonking example of cinematic storytelling power today.

Aliens is now available to stream on Disney+. The Aliens episode of The Movies That Made Us has just arrived on Netflix.



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