With sci-fi blockbusters like “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” and “Inception” opening this week, I thought I would revisit another great sci-fi action film, “Aliens,” for this week’s review.
This time of year brings no shortage of mindless action blockbusters. It’s easy to poke fun at these types of films, but they represent some of the best times I’ve ever had at the movies. I remember seeing “Independence Day” for the first time when I was 12 and thinking about little else for next month. The same thing happened with movies like “Twister” and “Armageddon;” these movies weren’t the smartest in the world, but the level of excitement you experienced made them more than worth the price of admission.
While mind-numbing excitement is all great, these movies work the best when you are actually engaged by the characters and the story. These days, any concern for character is mostly forsaken in favor of an endless stream of special effects. Films like “Transformers” feel more like amusement park rides than movies; you buy the ticket, take the ride, have your senses bombarded and emerge a more disoriented version of yourself. It’s hard to emotionally invest in movies like that.
“Aliens” is excellent example of action melded with emotion. It is full of great excitement and energy, but also sports a set of characters that engage you on a human level. Through all the explosions and gunfire, you actually care about their fates. Most action movies are big on talk and bravado. “Aliens” has those things, but it also has a heart.
The film is a sequel to Ridley Scott’s “Alien” (1979), which is actually a better movie, but works on the viewer in a different way; it follows a space station crew that encounters a deadly alien while exploring a newly discovered planet. The alien works like a stalking killer in a horror film, peeling off the different characters one by one as it infiltrates their ship. Scott created a film that was moody and cerebral, working to unsettle the viewer psychologically.
“Aliens,” directed by James Cameron, is more of a straightforward adventure story. The only survivor from first film was Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), who destroyed the alien and has spent years wandering space in hibernation. The film opens with her escape pod being salvaged 54 years after the end of the first film. She tries to convince her superiors of the aliens she found, but there is no evidence to back up her story. They shut the book on her case and move forward.
Soon after though, they are asking for her help. An expedition is being sent back to the planet from the first film and Ripley is brought along to advise. Still tormented by her experience with the aliens, she thinks they should just nuke the planet from space. But a human colony has been established on the planet and has drifted out of contact. Her crew, made up of military personnel and technicians, goes down to investigate, and finds the colony has been wiped out by the aliens.
The action ramps up when the crew encounters the aliens. Most of them are killed except for Ripley and a few others: Hicks (Michael Biehn), a confident marine, Bishop (Lance Henriksen), a loyal android and Newt (Carrie Henn), a little girl who survived the colony massacre by hiding in air ducts. The heroes are blocked in by the aliens, but devise a plan to evacuate the colony and blow it up as they escape. But also on board is Burke (Paul Reiser), who represents the company that owns the colony and hopes to capture an alien and sell it to the highest bidder.
Cameron amps up the action at the start of the third act and really doesn’t stop until the finish. This works fine though, as you are more than ready to go along for the ride. There is plenty of adrenaline to go around here, but Cameron, who also wrote the film, creates a fun group of characters you can root for to the end.
One marine, Hudson (Bill Paxton) begins the film with all the bravado of a frat guy and ends up moaning in fear when he sees the aliens. It’s fun to watch him emerge from his cowardice to help fight them off during the group’s escape. Paul Reiser is another treat as Burke, who is essentially the villain, but is played like a harmless yuppie. As his plan to hijack the alien is discovered, Reiser plays his scenes like a business manager who is trying to save a deal from exploding. He is wonderfully slimy in the film, playing the character with a sick energy that is almost charming.
Female action heroes have always been in short supply in Hollywood as male actors have usually dominated the genre. It’s easy to imagine the sex of the Ripley character being reversed; Weaver plays her as tough-talking, chainsmoking and hard-edged. But Cameron and Weaver use this rough exterior to open up another dimension for the character; we sense that she feels she has to be harder and tougher than the men who surround her.
In her relationship with Newt, Ripley and the film find their emotional core. Newt lost her parents in the colony massacre, and after rescuing her, Ripley cares for her as if she were her own. When Newt is captured by the aliens toward the end of the film, Ripley has to travel to the colony’s depths to save her.
As Ripley entered the aliens’ chamber, I was amazed by how involved I was in the film. It’s easy to ensnare the senses of a viewer, but grabbing them emotionally is more difficult, particularly for an action film. Fighting against the aliens with Newt at her side, Ripley lays down a field of explosions and gunfire that Rambo would be proud of. All of this is very exciting, but you also care deeply about Ripley and Newt, and desperately hope that they will make it out alive.
Dennis O’Neil can be reached at 270-887-3237 or email@example.com.