Aliens: The enduring perfection of James Cameron's sci-fi film
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On this day 27 years ago, moviegoers got their first look at one of cinema's rare perfect films when Aliens hit almost 1,500 theaters. Audiences loved it. Critics loved it. The studio must have loved it, since it went on to make a bunch more Alien films -- none of which ever lived up to the awesome majesty of Aliens, mind you.
Perfection is a bold claim, obviously, but really, what could be changed to make the film better? There's not a bad scene in it. No clumsy performances, or weird miscast roles. The effects were top-notch for the era and hold up beautifully today. Even its 137-minute runtime, long for an action-horror movie, never feels excessive, bloated or poorly paced. Bottom line, it is basically impossible to watch Aliens and think, "Yes, but..." That's a perfect film.
Its predecessor, Ridley Scott's Alien, pitted a single alien monster against a lightly armed and poorly prepared crew of space travelers armed with makeshift weapons in a cat-and-mouse scenario straight out of the horror movie handbook. James Cameron just went ahead and turned all the dials to eleven, throwing in hundreds of aliens and putting them up against a heavily armed, highly trained crew of space marines. But he didn't, and the result was a taut, adrenaline-fueled action movie that nonetheless was scary as hell.
Action and horror are, in a sense, strange bedfellows, as one trades on a fantasy of power and the other relies on a sense of powerlessness. Mixing the two courts disaster -- tilt it too far in the "more, bigger, boomier" direction and you get a Michael Bay-esque orgy of violence that drains all the tension and terror out of the original. I remember coming home alone from the movie to an empty house and being filled with tension, ready for one of those slimy alien bastards to uncoil from the darkened ceiling at any moment. That's not a reaction you get from most action films. Hell, it's hard enough to get it from a horror movie.
It's also secretly, quietly, a message movie too. Dig below the surface of this outer-space shoot-em-up and you'll discover a staunchly anti-corporate, pro-feminist film that also happens to be an extended metaphor for the Vietnam War. The real villain of the film is the Weyland-Yutani corporation that sent the original colonists to their deaths, then tries to manipulate events to bring a live specimen back, despite the fact this will not only kill its host, but put Earth in grave danger. The corporation's representatives lack a conscience or remorse. They are concerned only with self-preservation and profit. By contrast, the strongest character is Ripley, a woman who, despite her lack of training and alien-inspired PTSD, charges selflessly into battle when called upon to do so. She's also the smartest and most resourceful character. Other women play strong roles as well, from the heavy gunner Vasquez to Newt, a little girl who, as Ripley points out, has survived the aliens with no training, no weapons and just whatever supplies she can scavenge. The Vietnam metaphor is woven into the very fabric of the plot, with its corporate-backed, technologically superior armed force moving overconfidently into hostile territory only to find that their weapons, training and plans are all poorly suited to the fight at hand. Best of all, none of this is delivered in the form of preachy monologues. It's all just there, waiting to be discovered. Or ignored, if you're just looking for a visceral thrill ride of monster-killing escapism.
If you desire further proof of the perfection of Aliens, look no further than its lasting influence. Nearly every sci-fi action movie that followed, even movies like Starship Troopers that are classics in their own right, borrowed from its look, feel and vernacular. There's a not a futuristic video game shooter that's come out in the nearly three decades since that doesn't owe it an enormous debt. One of those games, the officially licensed Aliens vs. Predator, even spawned its own offshoot of the film franchise. Another, the enormously popular Halo, borrows so much from the film it might as well be Aliens: The Game. Its influence even spreads beyond science fiction, as seen in films such as [REC] 2, which is basically "Aliens With Zombies." Even Cameron himself hasn't been able to resist borrowing elements of it for his later movies, especially Avatar, which is in many ways an inferior remake with the added twist of the aliens being the good guys. That kind of influence is the mark of a timeless classic.
Almost three decades after its release, it's hard to find a science fiction fan who hasn't seen the movie at least a few times. Most of those fans -- especially those that didn't happen to be around in the mid '80s -- have never seen it in a theater before, though. For some movies, that hardly matters. For Aliens, that's almost like you've never seen it at all. This weekend, the Esquire is screening Aliens for its Midnight Madness program on Saturday, and whether you've seen it once, or countless times, only on TV or a dozen times in theaters since in its original run, it's worth seeing again. Perfection like this doesn't come around too often, and it never gets old.
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