Aliens, written and directed by James Cameron; based on characters created by Dan O'Bannon and Ronald Shusett; photography directed by Adrian Biddle; FX created by Stan Winston, The L.A. Effects Group; starring Sigourney Weaver.
Given the level of violence in Aliens, there was surprisingly little critical comment from reviewers. Critics said Warrant officer Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) was little more than a female version of Rambo, and then wrote off Aliens as just another cheap thrill for the masses in Reagan's America.
But the obvious implication of the analogy between Ripley and Rambo is a further analogy between the aliens and communists. The aliens are single-minded, unprincipled, voracious. They are just like the caricature communists that liberals accuse conservatives of manufacturing so they can discount their views as ridiculous. But to my knowledge, no critic drew this analogy explicitly. Of course, this analogy was not intended by the film makers, but I doubt that this would have deterred most critics. I suspect, rather, that they just did not think the movie important enough to bash.
Primarily, Aliens was not taken seriously because it had one major flaw. Ridley Scott's original was a first-class horror movies and one designed to appeal to the fans of SF. It followed one of the oldest of horror formulas—a small group of people who lack sufficient cohesion to cooperate in the face of a serious threat are trapped by an apparently invincible evil and destroyed one by one. The trappings of SF—the locale was a ship in space and the threat was a nonhuman lifeform—were not simply tacked on; they were integrated into the formula to give it a contemporary look and feels a perfectly legitimate ploy for a commercial filmmaker.
A natural sequel would have humans and aliens confronting each other on human turf, and in a place with more room to maneuver. The original depicted individual human beings surviving a confrontation with the aliens. The sequel would depict a confrontation between organized groups of humans and aliens acting in concert. Would human society fare as well (or ill) as individual human beings did? Could we meet the threat collectively, or would society collapse and leave nothing in its wake but a disorganized resistance movement?
This is, for example, the progression of George Romero's three Dead movies. They move from a small group of individuals who do not act in concert because they are strangers and haven't yet developed established conventions for cooperation, to a society mobilizing all its resources—human and otherwise-as best it can, to a small group of individuals who do not cooperate because they no longer think it to the point. As the evil spreads, it corrupts particular people first and then human nature itself, and it leaves in its wake creatures who have lost an essential element of their humanity.
This would have been an especially appropriate progression for Alien's sequel to follow. For, like the zombies in Romero's movies, the aliens are thoroughly dependent on human beings to increase their numbers, to breed. The threat they pose is not one of destruction, but of corruption. They turn us into something we are not and thereby create more of themselves. The sequel to Alien need not have been as pessimistic as Romero's films—the humans might have won. But a sequel must move the story (and the subtext) along.
Cameron's sequel is also a first class horror movie with well integrated SF trappings. In some ways, it might even be better than the original. But it is not a sequel; it is a remake. The bad guy isn't a robot, but he is still a representative of the company—this time, a young executive on the fast track with his eye on a big promotion. The aliens are many rather than one, but Ripley is much better armed. The story is essentially the same.
It is interesting to compare Aliens to a film like 2010. The latter does exactly what one would like a sequel to a good movie to do, but does it badly. The former doesn't do anything badly, but it does the wrong things.
When people go to a movie they want to see something; "magic lantern" is a very apt term for the movie projector. And it seems that filmmaking is becoming dominated by concern for how a movie looks. When a technically proficient hack like Michael Mann (creator of TV's Miami Vice) concerns himself with the look of a film, the result is a disappointment like Manhunter. Mann knows how to shoot an atmospheric piece of film, but he can't seem to make anything interesting happen in the atmosphere he creates. A director like Francis Ford Coppola, on the other hand, can do both. The jungles of Apocalypse Now and the production numbers of Cotton Club are environments in which truly amazing things happen.
Aliens is a great looking film, much better than its precursor in this respect. I enjoyed seeing it. But that is no real surprise. SF and horror films lend themselves to artful cinematography. And in view of current trends in commercial filmmaking, that may soon be all they have to recommend them.
John Ahrens is the Assistant Director of the Social Philosophy and Policy Center at Bowling Green State University.
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