REVIEW: “ALIENS” (1986)

ALIENS

Personally, I don’t consider it a stretch to call Ridley Scott’s 1979 science fiction classic “Alien” a groundbreaking and incredibly influential film for the genre. It was a near perfect combination of horror and sci-fi which resulted in an intense and profoundly innovative thriller that still holds up today. Now when you have a movie so highly regarded, tackling a sequel is a pretty daunting task. You’re taking already great and established material and building on it while also creating a film that can stand on its own merit. Such was a the job facing James Cameron, writer and director of the 1986 sequel “Aliens”.

Cameron’s approach to the sequel centered around creating a story that captured both the horror and sci-fi elements that made the first film such a success and adding a militaristic action component to it. Much like Ridley Scott before him, Cameron is deliberate in setting up his story. “Aliens” starts with Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) being discovered by a salvage crew who come across her shuttle adrift in space. It turns out that she has been in stasis for over 50 years – since the horrible events on the Nostromo in the first film. She’s questioned by a group of executives behind the Nostromo’s mission who find her story questionable and her actions extreme.

Later she is visited by Carter Burke (Paul Reiser), a company representative who informs her that they had recently lost contact with a small colony on LV-426, the same planet where Ripley’s former crew had first came across the alien eggs. Burke asks Ripley to accompany him and a group of Colonial Marines to investigate. Ripley wants no part of going back but agrees after being reassured that the mission is to destroy the aliens and not study them. She sets out with Burke, the marines, and an android named Bishop (Lance Henriksen) to check out LV-426 and hopefully extinguish any threat they come across.

One interesting and recurring obstacle for Ripley is the constant disregard for her information and input. Planted right in the middle of a predominantly male environment, she constantly encounters skepticism and mockery. The corporate heads didn’t buy her story, Burke was skeptical of the severity of the threat, and the Marines laugh it off as a simple “bug hunt”. But Ripley not only turns out to be right, but she maintains the most calm and level-head of any of the group once the inevitable threat is realized. Through this, Cameron takes the tough survivor character from the first film and builds her into what I believe is one of the strongest female roles in cinema. Not only does Ripley adapt through physical toughness but you see a leadership that proves vital to their survival. But while she’s tough, I loved how we also see the gentleness and love she shows, especially after finding a young girl named Newt (Carrie Henn) alone in the ventilation systems of one of the colony office buildings. The two connect as Ripley takes on a mother-like role for a young girl who has seen horrors and lost everything.

The marines themselves cover all of the personality angles including the cigar-chomping Sergeant Apone (Al Matthews) the smart-aleck, wise-cracking Hudson (Bill Paxton), and the dependable, by-the-books Corporal Hicks (Michael Biehn). We also get the tougher-than-all-the-guys Vazquez (Jenette Goldstein) and her heavy gunner partner Drake (Mark Rolston) and an inexperienced and sometimes incompetent Lieutenant Gorman (William Hope) who was just assigned to be the squad’s field leader. We get some clichĂ©d but fun military banter between the soldiers during the first half of the film and later see them in full combat mode, fighting for survival. For the audience it really becomes one of those “let’s see who survives” stories. But it works so well because even though these are tough and resilient soldiers, they are humbled by the realization that they are overmatched. There are no Rambos in this bunch, only desperate people trying to survive. And when everything does hit the proverbial fan, they have to rely on a lot more than just strength and firepower to stay alive. That’s one reason Ripley is such a force in the movie.

Cameron is very clever in the way he sets up the tension. Again, much like Ridley Scott, for most of the film the true horror isn’t in what you see but what you think you are seeing. You get fleeting glances of the aliens – only enough to project images into your mind. In a sense, Cameron has the audience paste these brief images together in their minds to create what these deadly creatures look like. It isn’t until the very end that we get an unhindered look at them. I still remember the first time I saw the film. The brief camera shots of the creatures in motion really created a sense of tension and suspense. Of course now all movie fans know what the aliens look like thanks to the internet, comic books, sequels, etc. But the way Cameron never fully unveiled them in the film until the end was very effective.

The Oscar-winning special effects of “Aliens” were another major reason the movie works. The skilled crew use an amazing assortment of miniatures, trick cameras and lighting, carefully designed costumes, and a large number of puppeteers that contribute to a visual world that still looks impressive even in today’s fancy CGI-driven age. So many cool details add pop to the film such as the marines futuristic armor, weapons, and vehicles as well as their technologies and sciences. The effects most certainly stand out but they always stay consistent with the movie’s gritty, dark tone. The action sequences throw the soldiers and crew right into the darkness and the unknown. Much like us, they don’t know for sure what they’re fighting. The brief glimpses of the aliens through gun flashes, shoulder mounted flashlights, and dim emergency lighting makes the combat intensely fierce. Ray Lovejoy’s editing of the action scenes is phenomenal as is James Horner’s score. As a result, “Aliens” delivers two of the most pulse-pounding battle/escape sequences you’ll see.

Another major accomplishment for “Aliens” is the recognition it received from the motion picture community. The movie received 7 Academy Award nominations, none bigger that Sigourney Weaver for Best Actress. Of course she didn’t win but the fact that a science fiction/ horror film would received such recognition was a major step forward for the genre. But Weaver was also surrounded by an excellent cast. I loved Henriksen as Bishop, the company android. He’s a cryptic character in the sense that we know from the first film that androids aren’t without, shall I say, glitches. But Henriksen is a believable “artificial person” and we, like Ripley, just aren’t sure we can trust him. I also really liked Michael Biehn’s performance. He’s a tough but open-minded soldier and when the situation goes bad he steps up. Biehn doesn’t play him as a testosterone-driven macho type. He’s at times unsure and he understands what it will cost to get his people out alive.

“Aliens” was an extremely ambitious sequel that took a pretty sacred first film and built upon it in the most satisfying way. It’s a fantastic sci-fi movie. It’s a fantastic action movie. It’s a fantastic horror movie. It blends all of these things together and creates what I consider to be one of best motion picture sequels of all time. With the exception of the stereotypical “we are soldiers” profanity, the dialogue is crisp. While some may describe the first half of the film as languid, I think the pacing is brilliantly deliberate. The special effects were astounding for its time and still hold up today. The acting from each character big or small is strong throughout the film. The direction, the score, the editing, and the sound design grab us and drag us into the unnerving world. It’s just a great movie. And while some may not respond to a handful of things that are connected to the decade the film was made in, “Aliens” is still one of my favorite movies of all time and while it is a sci-fi movie it’s also a great, great action picture.

VERDICT – 5 STARS

5 STARSs

5STAR K&M

“PROMETHEUS” – 4 1/2 STARS

Science fiction is often times a hard sell to movie critics. It can be an even harder sell to moviegoers who aren’t big fans of the genre. I can boldly state that I am a sci-fi guy. I can get lost in well written and well crafted science fiction. For science fiction to work you have to sell the audience on what they’re seeing on screen. The audience has to believe it, not so much from a realism standpoint, but from the perspective of the characters. They have to believe that what they’re seeing is completely consistent with the world the characters are living in. Often times this works due to strong characters worth investing in and an imaginative world laced with thin strands of believability. Director Ridley Scott accomplished this in 1979 with his sci-fi classic “Alien”. Now he’s back with “Prometheus” and he just might have another classic on his hands.

The movie follows the crew of the space ship “Prometheus” and it’s mission to make contact with those believed to have created human life. Two years prior to the mission, scientists Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) discovered the same star map on several different dig sites of ancient civilizations. Believing the star maps are invitations, they join the “Prometheus” crew on a mission funded by a mysterious elderly corporate man named Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce). After a long stasis, the crew awaken to find they have arrived at the remote moon LV-233, the site believed to be inhabited by those who created human life. Of course we know that things aren’t as simple as they appear. The story then takes off and we soon discover that its not only the moon that holds secrets, but also the crew members.

The Prometheus has an interesting crew besides Shaw and Holloway. Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron) is an employee of Weyland Industries who is sent to monitor the mission. She has an ominous presence and her true motivations are hard to decipher. The one thing that’s clear is that she has her own agenda. David (Michael Fassbender) is the ship’s android created by Weyland Industries. He monitors and maintains the ship but there is something unnerving and mysterious about him. Idris Elba plays Janek, the ship’s captain. He’s a straight-shooter who takes his responsibilities seriously. Some of these and the other crewmen believe in the mission while others are in it for other reasons. But all get more than they bargain for.

There is also the underlying question of faith versus science that pops up throughout the film. Shaw’s faith, that she shared with her father, is constantly brought into question by those with a more scientific slant. But I like how Scott never discounts or discredits her belief. In fact, it becomes clear that all the scientific knowledge they thought they had didn’t give them the answers they sought. I also liked how the movie plays with he contrast between human curiosity and things better left alone. The human desire to know can at times be a wonderful thing. But Scott shows us it can also bring severe consequences.

“Prometheus” takes place within the same world as the “Alien” films but it also sets out to create a new branch of mythology. Scott has been toying with the idea for the film for a long time and after several changes of direction, the results are most satisfying. “Prometheus” feels like an “Alien” picture and at times you see some of the same filmmaking style as was used in the original “Alien” movie. Ridley Scott starts the film out with a deliberate but measured pace, slowly asking questions and building up tension. I found myself completely immersed and constantly wondering “Is this the scene where everything blows up in their face?” John Spaihts and Damon Lindelof’s story gives us a lot of information early, some that’s intended to build the mythology, but some that leave us guessing right along with the characters. I found it to be a phenomenal buildup to the cataclysm that we know could come at any second.

When things do come to a head, the movie’s pace most certainly picks up and the audience is taken on one heck of a ride. Questions are answered as we are exposed to the truth behind the Engineers and their plans. One of my favorite things about the movie was it’s great assortment of characters and we begin to see the motivations and secrets behind the most mysterious of them. They also begin to drop like flies as the ‘survival movie’ element of “Prometheus” kicks in. This is where the movie does run a little off course. There were a couple of things that happen that seem to be out of the clear blue and with no real explanation. It also seems that in the frantic attempt to bring everything together, some useful details were left out. On the flip side, it’s clear Scott intentionally left many questions unanswered, questions that could conveniently (and hopefully) be answered in a sequel. 

The cast of “Prometheus” really shines and some of the performances really stand out. There’s no way to talk about the acting without first mentioning Michael Fassbender. His ability to capture the mystery and complexity of an emotionless, human imitating android is stunning. He never gives away his motivations prematurely and his looks, speech, and mannerisms are simply perfect. He creepily moves about the ship taking care of things while clearly having a more secret agenda. Fassbender sells all of this to us brilliantly. I also really liked Theron who always seems to be in the background observing but who also desperately wants more control than she has. Elba is also good as the Captain, a character that at times came dangerously close to being a stereotype yet he adds a freshness that I really liked. Then of course there is Noomi Rapace. She beat out big names like Natalie Portman and Anne Hathaway for the role and it’s clear Scott made a good choice. It’s a demanding role and Rapace is definitely up to the task.

I also have to briefly talk about the spectacular look of “Prometheus”. Scott certainly uses the modern-day special effects technology to his advantage creating some amazing visuals. The CGI is top-notch and never feels underdone. What’s even more impressive is that Scott insisted on building several sets from the ground up passing over the green screens in many instances. While there is a ton of CGI, I loved the fact that this old school filmmaker still uses old school techniques and uses them well. The futuristic technology in the movie is a blast and I loved watching each cool creation from their vehicles to the suits to “Prometheus” itself. Scott’s visual style is noticeable even here. He enjoys wide but structured shots and he doesn’t try to stage shots with fancy gimmicks like herky-jerky hand-held cameras to add a “chaotic” effect. He frames his shots and then trusts his vision. I like that. The movie also is one of the rare instances where I enjoyed the 3D. It was shot in 3D and Scott had it in mind throughout the picture. But he doesn’t overdo it. It simply feels like part of the movie. But it also doesn’t make or break the movie. I would have liked the film just as much in 2D.

Like I said, I’m a sci-fi guy and when it’s done well I’m all onboard. “Prometheus” is science fiction done well by a director that has already given us one of the greatest sci-fi/horror movies of all time. It’s a visual delight with a story that delivers genuine intensity, some great characters, and an ending that had me howling for more. It almost pays homage to the first two “Alien” films with some striking parallels in story structure and even in dialogue. I loved that. “Prometheus” is certainly a movie that someone could sit down with a pen and paper and find flaws. For me it was an amazing experience. A reminder of how cool science fiction can be and once again I was drawn into a director’s world and stayed there for the whole ride. In other words, I really, really liked “Prometheus”.

5 PHENOMENAL MOVIE TOUGH GIRLS

There’s plenty of action pictures featuring movie tough guys. In fact, an entire action genre centered around muscle-bound movie tough guys in the 80’s and early 90’s. But we do a disservice if we fail to recognize that there have been some tough-as-nails women that can hold their own against any of the guys. So I thought it would be fun to give the ladies their due by listing 5 Phenomenal Movie Tough Girls. It may surprise you but there are a lot more tough girls to choose from than you might think. So after much deliberation here are my top five. As always, this isn’t the definitive list. But there’s no denying that these 5 Movie Tough Girls are absolutely phenomenal.

#5 – ALICE (“Resident Evil” Series)

While the movies are far from great, Milla Jovovich’s Alice has evolved into a very recognizable movie tough girl. Through several sequels she has punched, kicked, sliced, and shot her way through hordes of zombies and creatures. Jovovich has used shotguns, rocket launchers, swords, and special powers and she does it with the same sneering gravitas that many of the better male action stars used. Even though she doesn’t have the best material to work with, there’s just something too cool about watching Alice in action.

#4 – MALLORY KANE (“Haywire”)

Gina Carano blew me away with this year’s “Haywire”. She plays a government black ops agent who is double crossed and on the run. Director Steven Soderbergh puts Carano’s MMA background on display as she kicks butt from New York to Barcelona to Mexico. She has attitude to spare and her ability to fight is undeniable (just ask the likes of Michael Fassbender, Ewan McGregor, Channing Tatum, and Antonio Banderas). If you doubt that Mallory Kane belongs on this list, check out “Haywire”. It just came out on DVD.

#3 – SARAH CONNOR (“Terminator 2: Judgement Day”)

In the first Terminator picture, Sarah Connor was your basic girl on the run from danger. Boy how things change in “Terminator 2”. Linda Hamilton bulks up and gives Sarah a harder edge and an almost militaristic personality. Knowing the war that’s coming, Sarah fights alongside Arnold Schwarzenegger and more than holds her own. Whether it’s with her fists or with machine guns, she blasts away at anyone who gets in her way including the new T-1000 terminator. This new Sarah Connor certainly qualifies as a movie tough girl.

#2 – PRINCESS LEIA (“Star Wars” Series)

When watching the original “Star Wars”, it doesn’t take long to see that Princess Leia is as tough as they come. We see her open rebellion against the evil Galactic Empire and her unwillingness to compromise with them in the movie’s first scenes. It also doesn’t take Han and Luke long to see that she’s a no-nonsense woman who tells it like it is. She’s handy with the laser blaster and she doesn’t mind putting herself in danger. She plays an intricate role in saving Han’s life and it was Leia that kills Jabba the Hutt. Carrie Fisher’s Leia is as surly as any tough guy and she has the smarts to make things happen. Leia is the quintessential tough girl.

#1- ELLEN RIPLEY (“Alien” Series)

It’s been argued that Ellen Ripley is the best female movie character of all time. I don’t know about that but I do think she’s the toughest female character of all time. And regardless of what other role she may play, anytime I see Sigourney Weaver, I automatically think of Ellen Ripley. In the first Alien picture she was the only survivor of her ship’s crew and she single-handedly killed the alien. In the second film we see just how tough Ripley is. She uses grenades, flamethrowers, pulse rifles, and even a robotic crane to kill a load of aliens and even the queen. In the third film she even kills herself to keep the alien inside of her from getting out. Throughout the series Ripley encounters a variety of so-called tough guys. Isn’t it interesting that she is the one that actually survives. Sounds like she’s the one that’s truly tough.

There you have it. There were several others that I considered but these were the five that stood out the most. Do you agree or disagree with my list? Do you see someone who I left off? Who would you include on your list? Please take time to comment and share who is your favorite tough girl.