Happy Thirty Years to one of the most important summer blockbusters ever released, a film vastly more inspired than anything you’ll find at the cinema this weekend.
Alien vs. Aliens isn’t going away. Much like The Terminator vs. T2, the vested interests on either side are nerd-encampments that have ballooned into nerd platoons with full hierarchies and codified handshakes, but at least there aren’t any palisades blocking the channels between the first and second entries in either franchise. Most of the cases are not exclusionary, but merely preferential – “Alien is better than Aliens, but Aliens is a close-second”. We aren’t dealing with the Red Sox and the Yankees here; fans of any of these films can still lay down their arms and bond over their relatively evolved blockbuster taste. And they’re correct; all four films are, at minimum, very good science fiction showcases that toe and in some cases dance around the line between action and horror.
That said, for my money, the trajectory of the four films in unison is a much more compelling story. In 1979, Ridley Scott’s Alien invasively shuttled an ashy void of silence and emptiness grafted from the New Hollywood style to disrupt the soon-to-be-omnipresent Star Wars more-is-more machine. In 1984, The Terminator was paced like a rampaging bull but was lean and mean like a cobra with a grudge, having studied Alien’s simplicity-principle for a similar treatise on mood and atmosphere. In 1986, the post-industrial claustrophobic malaise that suffused both Alien and The Terminator, both very much products of America’s fallout with itself in the back-half of the ‘70s, was dynamited by Aliens, a toxic holocaust of fire and terror as the big and buoyant ‘80s cemented their place as a new pop sphere. It was a new light, essentially, to bat away the fell demons of Alien and The Terminator, both panicked nightmares in their time or in any. By 1991, Aliens was enshrined in a gilded halo of blockbuster gold, and the concussive reverberations of Terminator 2 were ready to set the world on fire and open the door even further, and maybe let in a little too much happiness and light, for an even more engorged blockbuster machine.
It’s the ‘80s in a nut-shell, essentially, and also a slide from suggestive insinuation to ballast and bombast, the latter still reigning today. Which, nearly forty years on, makes Ridley Scott’s Alien all the more electric and bulletproof in its contrarian demeanor; while Aliens is playing ball with the then-nascent blockbuster machine, Alien, much like The Terminator, valiantly warps it.
Yet this story is also the tale of a fan-boy named James Cameron, a truck driver turned director in the span of fifteen years whose each and every film seems like an attempt to show off how girthy and engorged his truck can be. The working-class, used-universe feel of Alien undeniably appealing to his bonafides (Alien is a story about space truckers after all), The Terminator was James Cameron’s proving ground on the hot coals of ‘80s action horror, a crucible he bested by remaining low-to-the-ground and dousing the more-is-more heat in all the filmmaking ice he could find to produce one of the chilliest, and best, action films ever made.
The Alien debate interrogates an auteur’s style (Scott vs. Cameron), while the Terminator one disrupts it by tackling two highly anomalous films made by one auteur (both Cameron). Aliens, coincidentally, straddles the line, since it was made by the Terminator auteur in between the two Terminator films and stylistically couldn’t be the more platonic ideal of neutral territory between the two. Cameron’s The Terminator gifted him the more action-heavy Aliens, which in turn gifted him the galvanic, all-action-brigade Terminator 2 (with a refueling station in The Abyss). At the very least, with Aliens, he had studied his forebear well.
Maybe too well. Cameron, never the scalpel when the hammer will do just fine, isn’t exactly surreptitious with Alien’s secretive gender issues here, although to his credit, he was at least aware of the closeted issues of the first Alien before it was cool. But whereas Alien simply discovered gender in the confines of its clandestine rape imagery and a woman’s cry to be heard among men and unthinking corporations, Aliens is less provocative as a gender commentary because it chooses to literalize its issues. If Alien understood that gender was simply a part of everyday life, simply embedded within our daily regiments and rule structures, Aliens feels the need to segment gender off by turning itself into a full-on gender commentary; it limits the extent to which it can burrow into gender so that it can instead announce gender. Which is a good description for Cameron as a whole, with each film another cart on his train barreling through the limits of “big” and “obvious” cinema without, frankly, nearly the insidious consideration that Ridley Scott smuggled into his production seven years before (of course, Cameron got the last laugh, since, by 1986, Scott was already well into his how-do-I-make-movies phase he never fully recovered from).
That said, Aliens is primarily a from-the-gut action picture once the themes are scraped away (and, again, because those themes reside on the surface here rather than tightly tangled into the very fibers of the original Alien’s shot selection, it’s easy to do the scraping). Its post-Vietnam aesthetics don’t leave the film with much to do except to deliver the proverbial kinetics (producer Walter Hill directed a vastly more brazen Vietnam parable three years before with Southern Comfort, a kind of Alien-in-the-bayou). Thankfully, of course, Cameron has a semi-divine skill with white-knuckle suspense and masterly tension dynamics, even if his tricks are only just tricks, and aren’t even originally his.
The nihilistic pulse of The Terminator is an afterthought in the pummeling piston of Aliens, and although I’m firmly entrenched in the former’s camp, one can’t deny that Aliens benefits from a certain alacrity and zest. With a plot that is none too subtly a Vietnam parable – Ripley, having had contact with the Xenomorph species, helps a military brigade investigate a disruption on a mining colony where she originally found the Xenomorphs – at least Aliens has the goods as a war picture. Cameron is undeniably more vested in the excitement of war than its pernicious effects, but the neat-cleave of the first-half build-up and the second-half explosion of pure cinema is hair-raising. And the initial Xenomorph confrontation is wonderfully aggravating, shrouded in Adrian Biddle’s fetid, gloomy cinematography and Ray Lovejoy’s almost Boschian editing.
Eventually, this is the mode Aliens adopts for a pummeling final hour that displaces Cameron’s interest in any quotidian terror, the mode which enlivened The Terminator. That film carved out its own identity in a year that produced mega-blockbusters and cultural icons like Ghostbusters (I mean, hell, Tarkovsky liked The Terminator, and you don’t get the greatest filmmaker of the modern era’s praise every day). Aliens is much more vested in the business of going to bat for the Hollywood team, and this sort of elephantiasis is a recipe for lapses and buckling; Aliens isn’t immune on either account. James Horner’s militaristic score is a pox, for one, not only canonizing his previous work but lessening it by applying it trivially and too liberally, and the lived-in milieu of the characters in Alien and The Terminator is displaced by a more gung-ho cinema where characters are primarily functional constructs.
Of course, we’re speaking with a grain of salt here: there’s a wonderful action thriller tucked into Aliens, depressing though its limited ambitions may be. The innards-of-a-bullet-casing, metal-casted look of the film, for all it enervates the characters of some of their human life, also suggests an inhuman world where Ripley’s analog-era fear of androids can no longer carve out room for itself when the humans seem less hospitable than Android Bishop (Lance Henriksen, after Weaver by far the best performer in the film, evoking phonetically-learned emotions and yet radiating them genuinely). The strung-out sound effects are world-class (Cameron, for once, exercises wonderful restraint in an all-sound action scene as the marines overhear a firefight and witness their dwindling automated bullet counter evaporate into thin air). And, for what it is, that last hour really purrs.