Tuesday, June 26, 2012

James Cameron Roundtable #4: Aliens

Individual reviews are useful, but film criticism is a dialogue, not a monologue. I’m Max O’Connell of The Film Temple, he’s Loren Greenblatt of G-Blatt’s Dreams, and we’ve got some things to say in the James Cameron Roundtable.

Max’s Grade: 96 (A)
Loren’s Grade: A

LG: Quick synopsis: at the end of the first Alien, Ripley is the only survivor (well, her and the cat) on her ship. She goes into crytostasis and is woken up 57 years later. It’s a completely different world, everything’s more advanced, and her daughter has died. We find out the Weyland-Yutani company has colonized the planet the aliens were found on, and now the colonists are missing, so Ripley and a bunch of marines go to figure out what happened. Answer: nothing good.

MO: This is my favorite James Cameron film. It’s the one I’ve seen the most. I ‘ve been known to watch it multiple times a week. I also think this is his best script.

LG: Yes, I agree. I haven’t seen it as many times as you have, but all the people who complain about Cameron’s dialogue and structure really need to look at Aliens. It’s not a short film- we saw the 2 ½ hour long Special Edition. It’s not unheard of for a summer blockbuster to be that long, but circa 1986 it’s pretty long.

MO: Well at that point it was the theatrical edition, 137 minutes, but that’s still fairly long.

LG: Well my theory on this stuff is, the longer a film is, the denser it needs to be to justify that length. Boogie Nights is about 155 minutes and there’s never less than 8 things happening at once in each scene. Also, along with being long, you have to deal with the problems of it being a sequel to Alien, but try to make it different enough to justify its existence. Right away, we see Cameron’s own variation of the credits from Alien. And frequently through the film, even though it’s a very different film than Alien, you see Cameron’s version of a lot of things from Ridley Scott’s film. One of the things I really love is the way Cameron establishes mystery. Getting the audience to go with hard sci-fi can be difficult. Plus it’s a sequel, so right away you think it might be a retread. But Cameron establishes an opened up version of the world and establishes a mystery. We open with Ripley in the escape pod from the first film. She’s been sleeping for we don’t know how long, and a robot comes in, and we don’t know what the hell is going on at first. Setting up a mystery around a character we car about I’s a good way to set up a new sci-fi universe.

MO: Also it does a good job of picking up where the last one left off. The first film has heavy use of untrustworthy authority, (Spoilers for Alien 1) what with the company giving an android permission to kill his crew in order to preserve the alien (End of Spoilers), and the fact that it’s a bit of a corporate-owned world. Aliens really takes that idea and runs with it. It fleshes out the Weyland-Yutani company, which is a major part of the Alien mythology. Loren noted that a kid’s Big Wheel has a Weyland-Yutani logo on it.

LG: I thought the corporate owned Big Wheel was a bit much though.

MO: They’re like Disney or Fox. They own everything. It’s a film that explores a lot of ideas that might have had people guessing from the first film (though there’s plenty of stuff Ridley Scott himself had left over to look at in Prometheus). We knew where the aliens came from- the facehuggers. The facehuggers come from eggs. So where do the eggs come from? Well we find that out here.

Then there’s the fact that this film has not only his best structure, but his best dialogue. It’s fairly natural for a Cameron film, and it has a number of his best one-liners. Everyone remembers the great “get away from her, you bitch!” line, and Hudson’s “Game over, man, game over!”. But there’s plenty of other great stuff throughout. “What do you mean we can’t use guns? What are we supposed to use, harsh language?” Or “Guess she don’t like the cornbread neither”. Both of those spoken by Frost, one of my favorite five-line characters ever. Bill Paxton gets plenty of great comic relief lines (I love his “we’ve got knives, we’ve got sharp sticks” speech in the Special Edition).

LG: This is also a very strong film in terms of character motivation. Ripley’s daughter has died, and now no one believes her about what happened in the first film, and she’s been blamed for millions of dollars of equipment and several deaths. It pulls her apart before the main action even begins. It’s very different from the first film, which was a very claustrophobic horror movie. This is a war movie. It exists in a different world and genre.

MO: You noted in The Terminator that there’s a Vietnam parallel with the guerrilla warfare and Cambodian genocide imagery. The parallel here is a lot closer. The marines are all gung-ho, there’s a lot of great macho dialogue, their spaceship is shaped like a big penetrative gun, the sergeant wakes up with a cigar in his mouth. It’s all great. They imagine they’ll get it done and kill everything, they have no empathy for the colonists, and they have no understanding of their foe. Oh, and there’s a commander with zero experience.

LG: Ripley’s kind of brushed off by them, they don’t care about what the alien is like. They might have wanted to stick around when she noted that it has acid for blood. One of the few quibbles I have is that relatively few people get sprayed by the acid blood until near the end.

MO: Well, it happens quite a bit in the first fight…

LG: It’s late in the film where it really happens first. It’s a minor thing, but it bugged me the first time around.

MO: No, a few marines get sprayed in the beginning, like Drake, whose face melts off, and Hudson gets it on his armor. It happens more often later on, but I saw more than you did.

LG: Complaint retracted. One of the things I really love about the movie is the segmentation. After we get to the colony, the film could have easily become a one note shoot-em-up, instead Cameron gives us five or six mini-segments all with unique flavors and mini goals. And in each segment things get progressively worse for the characters.

MO: Cameron is noted for his differences from Ridley Scott, but he takes a lot from him as well. When we first get there, we get the Ridley Scott-style deliberate pacing that slowly builds dread before we finally see the aliens. It’s empty, they don’t know what happened, there’s no people around, no aliens around. There’s some sign of struggle, but there’s no sign of where anyone is. He milks the terror really well right up to when we meet the one survivor, Newt, the little girl hiding in the walls.

LG: Newt’s a very important character. It’s one of the two Cameron films with a mother-child dynamic. Ripley is a strong mother figure trying to protect a feral child who’s, to some degree, already independent by necessity. She’s survived, but she still needs, and is ultimately receptive to, a mother figure, much like the punk-kid from Terminator 2. It’s a great way to build up these strong female characters.

MO: Well Cameron is known for his strong female characters, and you don’t get much stronger than Ripley. We kind of like Sigourney Weaver in this movie, just a little bit.

LG: She’s very strong. It’s a pity that films like this don’t get Acting nominations…

MO: She got a Best Actress nomination, actually, but it’s one of the only major action roles to get an acting nomination. I’d argue she should have been nominated for Alien as well, but whatever. I’m not sure that she was really seen as a favorite- she was up against Kathleen Turner for Peggy Sue Got Married, and she ended up losing to Marlee Matlin for Children of a Lesser God, but it’s still a landmark occasion. This is a character who’s highly influential over future female action heroes, like the Bride from Kill Bill. It’s a great character- she’s still shaken up from the events of the first film. She’s still a bit standoffish (Ridley Scott played with expectations where she was built up as the “bitch” character who’d get killed). But Scott and Cameron sympathize with the fact that she’s a survivor, and she becomes more likable here when she gets a human connection.

LG: It’s a shame that we still don’t get a lot of good, female action stars.

MO: Or that a lot of major female heroes are over-sexualized to the point where it’s leery and borderline misogynistic.

LG: Back to the film. When they first get to the colony we see one of the biggest carry-over from Alien, aside from the world and Ripley. It’s a bit like the ship-approach from the first one. There’s even the same helmet-cams from the first film, though Cameron uses them in a very different way. You’re almost getting snippets of a found-footage pseudo-documentary movie. It really adds to the realism and tactility of the world. In the theatrical cut, this is the first time we see the colony. We’re just being thrown into this, and we have to get our bearings. We watched the Special Edition, though, and there’s one gripe we have with this version.

MO: We see life on LV-426 before the aliens attack. We see the terraformers doing their thing and Newt’s family. We see a great moment that later turned up in Terminator 2 (“whenever I look for an answer, they tell me ‘don’t ask’”), and that’s not bad. Newt’s family discovers the derelict spaceship from the first one, and the facehugger attacks her father. It’s not bad, but it’s better when we don’t know what’s going to happen when we’re going in.

LG: Also, the film has some incredible special effects, but it doesn’t work as well in these scenes. The set looks very good in dim lighting, but in bright light, they looks kind of fake. Also: making Newt’s family responsible for the alien attack is a bit much. It’s better if she’s just a random colonist. And ultimately it’s better if we’re just with Ripley in the beginning, as we are the theatrical cut. It makes it more claustrophobic and mysterious. The cutting back and forth of the Special Edition is less effective. That said, that’s the only thing we don’t like about the S.E., everything else is worthwhile and makes the film much stronger.

MO: It absolutely is. And that scene: it’s not torture. If there’s a fan cut that has every scene from the Special Edition other that that bit, I’d love to see it. I’m sure there is, as we’re not the only people who complain about that scene.

LG: And the scene doesn’t undercut the film or anything, it’s just better without it. Some of the other additions: there’s a bit more with the Marines, there’s more establishing shots on the ship. The marines are interesting: a few of them are actual characters, but some of them are just monster-food. But even the ones who are just monster-food, we get a sense of who they are. These are people who know each other, and we get a sense of how they work as a team. It’s not a case where they’re thin. We just don’t know them well. And that’s a huge distinction. Hell, a lot of the later films in the Alien series have that problem, like Alien 3…

MO: Can you name anyone in Alien 3 other than Ripley and…Charles S. Dutton’s character whose name I can’t remember?

LG: Or in Alien Resurrection where they’re just a bunch of stiffs there to be monster-food, and we don’t care. Here, they’re real people we don’t know well. Like Terminator, even though this isn’t a world Cameron created, he updated it enough to claim a lot of credit for the mythos, and he has thought out all the angles.

MO: His films are all really well worked out. There are characters in this thing who are only around for a little bit, like Frost or Sgt. Apone or Drake, who I remember better than main characters in a number of other action movies. There’s a lot of specificity here, which Cameron brings.

LG: I think it’s even more important than his visual style or his editing. His specificity in his writing is extremely important and really sets him apart from a lot of writer-directors who say “eh, good enough.”

MO: That said, that style is tremendous. Something I love that carries over from the Terminator is that tactile sense of not just the violence, but all of the grit and sweat and particles. When we find Ripley, her hypersleep chamber has been closed so long that it’s covered in frost. The sets all look terrific. The pornography in the marines’ lockers is a great detail that you might not notice, but it’s important that it’s there.

LG: And it’s not all tacky Hustler stuff, there’s also some classy black-and-white photos mixed in. You get a sense that there are different tastes within the barracks.

MO: We also get a good sense of how the machines work. There’s a tank that resembles the Tumbler in the Nolan Batman movies so much that I’d be surprised if it wasn’t an influence. We get a good sense of how it works. We get a sense of how the weapons work…in fact there’s a scene where Michael Biehn’s character shows Ripley how the future rifles work. He tells her to “feel the weight”, and we really do. You noted that Cameron is great with showing how bullets are limited, and nowhere is that more important than in the sentry-gun scene.

LG: Oh, it’s a great sequence in the Special Edition. The guns are just outside the perimeter. We don’t see them fire, but we hear them, and we see the counter showing how many bullets are left, and tiny as it seems, it’s great. It’s a rare case where telling us what’s happening is more effective than showing it. It’s very Hitchcockian.

MO: And like Ridley Scott and Stanley Kubrick before him, he’s very good at contrasting bright lights with dark shadows, sterile interiors to gooey stuff.

LG: It’s a very gooey, icky film, and that’s one of the great things about it. One of the great things about Ridley Scott’s film was the facehugger. The biology of the alien is so bizarre that it had to be iconic. It comes from an egg, then there’s this thing that lays eggs in your throat, and then the egg grows and bursts out of your chest. The facehugger is one of the scariest things in the first film. They wrap around your face and shove stuff down your throat…

MO: There’s a lot of rape subtext…

LG: A lot. And the thing’s legs have fingernails, which is creepy…and James Cameron managed to make it even more terrifying somehow. My favorite scene in the film is also the most claustrophobic and Hitchcockian-Ripley and Newt are trapped in a room with two facehuggers and we see the things walk, and it’s terrifying. I don’t get creeped out easily, but this is just…yech.

MO: Something the first film has that you almost can’t fault it for because of the budget being so low, is the fact that the alien was very much a man in a suit. This film gives a better sense of how bug-like these things are. There’s a part where one falls under the tank, and you hear this big crunch that you’d hear if you smashed a beetle.

LG: Cameron’s interpretation was that they were more bug-like. He asks who laid all the eggs, and he adds an alien queen. It’s a very interesting constrast when there’s a mother lioness of Ripley fighting another mother lioness at the end.

MO: And the queen thing is compared to bees and ants, which is just great. It’s almost like they’re an infestation.

LG: But they’re also very intelligent: they lay an ambush and cut the power.

MO: But Cameron also builds his first mech suit since Xenogenesis.

LG: And like that film, a person’s movements control the machine. But it’s less goofy here: they’re robot forklifts that practically look real. I almost don’t even want to know how they did it, it’s so convincing.

MO: It looks real. It looks like Cameron built these things, which, it’s obviously a special effect, but we don’t get that. Also: we’ve had an idea before that the aliens were bio-mechanized weapons before, but it’s clearer here.

LG: There’s a lot of nuclear power stuff too- there’s a “let’s nuke ‘em” solution for the aliens, there’s the fusion reactor that’s melting down. The nuclear stuff from Xenogenesis and Terminator is still on his mind, and won’t be leaving it any time soon.

MO: But it’s a good time to talk about the corporate overlords. Burke, played by Paul Reiser, is a company man who befriends Ripley.

LG: He’s very trusting at first and he’s in her corner…at first. (Spoilers) He’s trying to cover up company mistakes, he’s concerned with the dollar amount of the colony over human lives, and he almost kills Ripley and Newt by trapping the facehuggers in with them to impregnate them.

MO: He is responsible for the colonists’ death, and he goes to disgusting lengths to get the aliens back. Which is a continuation of the first film. But the film also plays with expectations, since there’s another android, and the last one was a bad guy sent to watch over things for the company and kill the crew if necessary. (End Spoilers)
 They play with that a lot with Lance Henrikson’s character, Bishop. Henrikson’s very good here…

LG: And he has a great introduction doing the five-finger-filet game so fast that he can’t be human. He doesn’t identify with people or society, preferring to be called an “artificial person.” Similarly Ripley has been exiled from society. Again, like the Cassandra myth, she knows what’s up and no one believes her. Her mistrust of him, while understandable, may also amount to misplaced self loathing not to mention space-racism. Their alienation makes them natural allies, but she’s so mistrusting that she can’t recognize it until late in the film. It’s a great exploration of her flaws as a character. Cameron is willing to give her real issues, which is more than you can see in a lot of action films.

MO: The Terminator was a very technophobic film, this is a little less so. It’s a little like Blade Runner- they’re more human than we think they are. That she can build a human connection with Bishop is great. Cameron is interested in what makes us human, and part of it is empathy, which Bishop, Ripley, Newt, and the marine Hicks have where others don’t, and that’s part of their undoing. They empathize with the colonists.

LG: And Bishop learns empathy for Ripley a little bit. This is a theme that culminates in Terminator 2, which we’ll get into there.

MO: There’s a number of great characters here. Michael Biehn is really strong as Hicks, this marine who’s so dreamy and dazed in his delivery and presence that he almost seems out of place. He wasn’t originally cast- another tough-guy character actor, James Remar of Drugstore Cowboy and The Warriors, was- but he’s well cast here. He’s more empathetic and he’s a love interest that’s not overplayed. They never get a big sex scene or kiss or declaration of love, but their bond over the course of the film is wonderful.
LG: I never saw it as a love interest. I saw her as somewhat asexual, which is interesting considering all the psycho-sexual imagery in the films.

MO: Wow, I never got that. The human connection between the two was always an attraction to me.

LG: But it was never going to be consummated.

MO: Oh, I don’t know about that. She’s sexualized and feminized so much that I can’t see her as asexual. The way Cameron plays with her femininity is so interesting that I can’t read it the other way.

LG: Though a number of the female characters are asexualized.

MO: Well Vasquez (terrific performance by Jeannette Goldstein) is the toughest of all marines, but she’s had to do it by being another one of the guys. She’s actually more macho than any of the men other than Hudson, who’s a coward (Bill Paxton is hilarious in this).

LG: We should note that this is not an all-male fighting force. There aren’t just one or two women: there’s a good handful. It’s not all white either. It’s very diverse in terms of race and gender.

MO: Well you can see the influence on Paul Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers, which has that as well, or the influence that Starship Troopers the book might have had on this.

LG: Well I’ve always argued that Aliens is the best movie adaptation of Starship Troopers available, not that I don’t like Starship Troopers.

MO: I love Starship Troopers.

LG: It’s a good film, but this is better. I’m surprised the author didn’t sue. There’s so many similarities of marines going after bugs and it being a sham…

MO: Well Highland is a more militaristic guy (ok, fascistic) where Cameron is more critical.

LG: I wouldn’t say critical…

MO: Well, their attitude gets them killed…

LG: But they’ve had successful missions, even if their attitude here is all wrong. They’re not bad guys.

MO: Oh no, they’re not bad guys, but they’re flawed human beings who make grave errors in judgment.

LG: But it’s not like other war films like, say, Platoon or Casualties of War, where there are rapists and murderers mixed in with the crew.

MO: I understand what you mean. None of them are nasty characters, and it’s not like they’re saying a military shouldn’t exist, but it’s still somewhat critical. I’d like to get into some other influences on this: obviously there’s a bit of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner in there along with Alien, and the opening has the same classical piece as in Kubrick’s 2001. In fact the intro is a bit of a space-ballet in its own right. Cameron has that same sense of meticulous design as Kubrick and Scott, but he borrows his rhythms from Spielberg and Lucas.

LG: The thing about Lucas is that his influence from samurai films was to drop you into a complicated world, which Cameron does too. There’s a lot of segments and mini-goals in Aliens like there is in Star Wars, and there’s the lived-in future. Now here’s an interesting thing: when I was a kid, I somehow got it into my head that Cameron wrote the first Alien. He had nothing to do with it, but look at it and you can see why he signed onto the sequel. The first one has a lot of similarities to Cameron’s work: there’s blue-collar space workers, blue light and blue mist (though that’s a Ridley Scott thing too), a strong female character, a script that’s very into the rules of its world. Alien is just chuck full of things that Cameron likes to put into his films. After Terminator, he could have done something original, but he chose to do a sequel to someone else’s film, and I think that says a lot of how the first film resonated with him.

MO: And here he brings his sense of kineticism and that blockbuster model, not to make it sound generic. Raiders of the Lost Ark five years earlier had kind of finalized what a blockbuster film was, and Aliens follows that very closely to an effective degree. And, like any action movie from Carpenter to Spielberg, there’s that Howard Hawks “man on a mission” feel.

LG: Also the feral kid is lifted from The Road Warrior. The two kids even look alike.

MO: We didn’t get into this earlier, but Carrie Henn is terrific here. She’s got kind of a weird accent, where she’s an American who was raised in Britain, so she’s a kid whose pronunciations go back and forth, but it’s not much of a distraction. Cameron gets a good performance out of her. He’s got a real talent working with young actors, which shows up in Terminator 2. Now, the James Horner score you might be able to speak about better because you’re a bigger Star Trek fan.

LG: There are bits from Horner’s scores from Star Trek II and III that show up here. That has a bit to do with how pieced together the score was- Horner didn’t have long to write it because Cameron took so long putting a final cut together- but Horner has a reputation for reusing bits of his previous scores.

MO: Yeah, and he was so upset he said he would never work with Cameron again (although he has twice, with Titanic and Avatar). That said, I love this score. It’s my favorite Horner score. It has those great driving rhythms he does well. It fits so well with the material. Plus it does reuse a cue from the first film, one of my all time favorite music cues, in the elevator scene near the end.

LG: And the stuff that is original works like gangbusters. And so does the stuff he adapted from his Wrath of Khan score. His reuse of Goldsmith’s cue from the first Alien brings us back to the structural similarities between the films: both end with running from the alien, a fakeout ending, a surprise scare, and blowing the alien out of the airlock., right up to the cryosleep ending. But Cameron does these callbacks very well. It never feels like a retread.

MO: And his use of slow-motion here is great: in the nightmare-exposition scene, in the alien attack near the beginning, in the queen’s attack at the very end. He uses it to heighten the situation very well. But the predominant theme here is feminism and motherhood. I’ve argued that Aliens is the ultimate feminist action movie. The opening credits have the “I” in Aliens in a slightly different font: it looks like a vagina. The marginalize woman has to prove herself. The female protagonist is more empathetic than the male characters, even the more masculine female. The four strongest characters in the film are all women: the strongest civilian is Ripley, the strongest civilian is Newt, the strongest marine is Vasquez, and the big-bad is an alien queen.

LG: I think you may be stretching it with the vaginal “I, ” but you have a point with the way Cameron centers on the women. In the midst of all these characters he keeps Ripley an active participant. She has more to do here than heroes in entire action trilogies. It’s set up so she could have been hanging about as everyone shoots the aliens, but she’s ultimately the only person who can get anything done.

MO: A lot has to do with her maternal instincts. For some godforsaken reason, the theatrical cut deleted a scene where Ripley reacts to her daughter’s death, and it strengthens the relationship between her and Newt, and her actions when she protects Newt are now that of a mother figure. It fills a bit hole in her life, and they develop a wonderful relationship, and when Newt falls in the alien-nest, it gets the finale going. It’s ultimately a fight between two matriarchs trying to keep their people going: Ripley with her daughter-figure Newt, and the alien, who’s trying to keep her species going by impregnating Newt. Something else Cameron does that’s great is that when he frames the queen, she overwhelms the frame of the camera. It doesn’t quite capture her enormity, which is terrifying.

LG: And it’s great as a practical shot, as it makes the special effects more convincing.

MO:  It’s like the Jaws thing, where technological limitations make the director more creative. Cameron does that sometimes with his villains: they’re so overwhelming that the frame can’t capture him. He did this once or twice with the terminator, and he does it even better. Finally, I’d love to note the dream and birth imagery in both films: both Alien and Aliens open with characters waking up, almost in a sterile birth setting, which contrasts the more horrifying births throughout them. Ripley is found almost in a cocoon, the only thing keeping her safe….

LG: There’s a lot of birth imagery: the nightmare sequence, the alien jumping through people’s chests, and there’s a bit of dialogue in the Special Edition where Newt asks if that’s where people come from.

MO: And those two are almost impregnated by the aliens. And along with the nightmare, there’s a lot of other nightmare imagery, both in the events of the film and the fact that Ripley can’t dream without waking up in a cold sweat. She tells Newt “don’t dream” at one point in the film, and when the film reaches its end, she and Newt finally note that they might be able to dream now that the ordeal is over. It’s a wonderful note to end it on where they really are safe. Had the series ended here, it wouldn’t be like Alien, where Ripley is floating out into space and might never be found. She, Newt, Hicks, and Bishop are really going to be OK, as far as we know. It’s a sense of closure that doesn’t feel cheap or unsatisfying. It’s well earned.

LG: After the hell that these films put her through, I’d like to see a movie where Ripley goes on vacation and nothing bad happens to her, because she has earned it.

MO: We’ll pretend that all of the horrible things that happened to her in Alien 3 didn’t happen. I’d accept that junk if the movie were any good, but it isn’t. Any final thoughts?

LG: I love this film. I don’t know if it’s my favorite Cameron film, but it’s close enough. I give it an A.

MO: I give it an A too. I think it’s between this and Terminator 2 for what Cameron’s best film is, and I’d give this an edge. It’s his richest, it’s his densest, it’s his best written, and I think it’s a masterpiece.

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A BRIEF ORDER OF BUSINESS: You may have noticed that my updates have been less regular this month than in the past. Sorry about that, things have been crazy. The James Cameron Roundtable will likely continue into next month, but also slated for July is a Director's Spotlight on David Lynch, hopefully more frequent movie reviews, and more frequent Overlooked Gem updates. Keep reading, and I'll keep posting.

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