As the years go by I find it harder and harder to muster the same levels of enthusiasm for certain films that I used to have, particularly with regard to those that I watched repeatedly during my teenage and student years. James Cameron’s Aliens is one of them: I still like it, but the fact is I’ve probably seen it at least half a dozen times over the years, and so familiarity has lessened the film’s impact considerably. However, I’d never had the chance to see it on the big screen until last week; to coincide with the 30th anniversary of its release, London’s Prince Charles Cinema has recently been showing Aliens in 70mm to packed audiences, so it seemed like a good opportunity to check it out one last time. After this I doubt I’ll watch it again … life’s too short and there’s so much more I’d rather spend my time seeing. Like…er…Ghostbusters reboots and Now You See Me sequels.
I wouldn’t say that the experience has changed my opinion on the film in any way, but for what it’s worth I enjoyed it and still think Aliens stands up today as being one of the high watermarks of 1980’s action or science fiction movies. After all, primarily thanks to Cameron’s adept handling of tense, bullet-heavy sequences – and his raging hard-on for military grade hardware – Aliens is still great fun to watch, even though the more downbeat moments within the film are occasionally a little rough around the edges. Some of the acting by those playing marines, for example, is decidedly ropey, although it’s true that the biggest culprit – Bill Paxton – manages to turn a largely forgettable character into a memorable one thanks to his enjoyably over-the-top surf dude performance; his ‘Game over, maaaaaan, game over!’ is the film’s second most quoted line after Sigourney Weaver’s ‘Get away from her, you bitch!’, and both predictably drew applause and cheers during the screening. Similarly amusing is Al Matthews as the cigar-chomping, wide-eyed Sergeant Apone, a character who lights up within two seconds of waking up from stasis and who sadly bites the big one far too soon, though it does at least save the audience from any more overacting. Then there’s Jenette Goldstein (Vasquez) and Michael Biehn (Hicks), both delivering stellar performances while they’re running around, shouting and shooting at aliens, but both showing their limitations each time they’re required to slow down and talk things through with Weaver’s Ripley. Still, as we all know there are some really strong performances here alongside the more colourful and cartoonish ones: Lance Henriksen is pretty good in his brief scenes as the android Bishop and Paul Reiser makes a decent fist of the slimy and self-centred corporate suit Burke. But this is Weaver’s film, and she is superb (again) as Ripley, the lone survivor from the first story who must conquer her nightmares by returning to the scene of earlier devestation. She picked up an Oscar nomination for her performance, and rightly so; what’s more – even though she eventually lost out to Children Of A Lesser God‘s Marlee Matlin – it was received during an era when the Academy still sniffed haughtily at all things sci-fi.
They were fine in 1986, but some of the effects have understandably dated, although it must be said that the actual alien effects hold up just fine and all the elements surrounding the creatures in their slimy lair still look great today. With the notable exception of the aliens themselves the special effects were always of less importance to this mood-heavy franchise than a lot of other sci-fi of the era anyway; I personally think that you remember the Alien films because of the look of the monsters as well as the dirty, dingy, industrial production design, rather than the quality of the shots of spaceships flying through the sky. Cameron continued with Scott’s ‘truckers in space’ motif for his sequel, and once again everything’s battered and used and feels like it’s about to break down. And there’s so much heavy machinery everywhere! One of the director’s masterstrokes was to incorporate a giant forklift exoskeleton in the final battle, making for an evenly-matched fight to the death that is surely this film’s one truly great scene (though even that titanic scrap falls some way short of the greatness of the chestburster scene in Alien).
As with Alien, masculine and corporate aggression and arrogance are punished here in a terrifyingly brutal fashion, although the two films were entirely different beasts: Cameron’s sequel is the all-guns-blazing battle royale after the slow, disconcerting build up of Ridley Scott’s original, and the action is certainly intense and frightening here, as numerous aliens scuttle along vents and under floor panels, stalking the human prey. It’s difficult to compare the two – Scott made a horror film set in space and Cameron followed it up with a war film set in space – but this latest viewing has cemented my belief that Scott’s film is superior, mainly because it came first, created many of the series’ themes and established the two major characters: the alien and Ripley. There are, of course, plenty of reasons why I’ve watched Cameron’s blistering, flame-throwing funfest so many times over the years, though. So yeah, it’s still a blast thirty years later, but I think I’ve had my fill now.
Note: This screening was for the film’s 30th anniversary so the cinema showed the original version. As everyone knows the Special Edition director’s cut is better AND shootier and that’s the version I’ve generally watched in the past.
Directed by: James Cameron.
Written by: James Cameron. Story by James Cameron, David Giler, Walter Hill.
Starring: Sigourney Weaver, Michael Biehn, Paul Reiser, Lance Henriksen, Jenette Goldstein, Carrie Henn, Bill Paxton, William Hope, Al Matthews.
Cinematography: Adrian Biddle.
Editing: Ray Lovejoy.
Music: James Horner.
Running Time: 137 minutes.