Once more, I need you to join me in the Wayback Machine. We’re returning to a distant historical era– the ’70’s. Specifically Fall, 1979, in a small movie theater in a US Army kaserne in Germany. The geeky kid in the Army-issue glasses, about midway down the auditorium, is me. I’m about to watch Alien for the first time.
I didn’t go into this movie cold– I had intentionally spoiled myself at the World Science Fiction Convention in Brighton, England that summer, where there were exhibits and people from the production. (Yes, I am a spoiler junkie. It doesn’t really affect my enjoyment of a movie– or a book, for that matter– and it has saved me from some notable catastrophes). I was therefore forewarned going into a movie I might not have seen otherwise.
Oh, by the way–
I have mentioned before that I do not like horror, and I might have skipped a film that was set up as the sort of horror flick in which a cast of colorful characters gets picked off one-by-one, but its space setting, and the production values associated with it, got my butt in the theater seat. Ridley Scott, in his second directorial effort for film, and the producers Gordon Carroll, David Giler, and Walter Hill, all made a serious effort to create a believable, workaday science-fiction universe in which to tell their story, and discussions about it at the convention had persuaded me this was a film I wanted to see.
I found myself drawn in and held tight by a story that kept you guessing, despite a few flaws in its logic and some actions that did not make complete sense. I was particularly mesmerized by the young actress playing Ripley, who seemed to be the only character who had her head on halfway straight. It was the first time I had ever seen Sigourney Weaver, and I’ve been in love ever since.
(If by this you construe I like skinny, dark-haired women, I would have to say “yes” and ask you what your point is).
I liked the movie so much I watched it three times in a week, no mean feat when movies in the military theater system were usually there and gone before you could blink. I enjoyed the gritty feel of the film, the interactions between the crew, the derelict alien ship, and the spooky Space Jockey. The alien itself was refreshingly, well, alien, and I found I could deal with the horror elements without open weeping (yeah, I’m a wuss). Ripley was largely responsible for that– I was rooting for her from about the seven minute mark in the film. I am so very glad Ridley Scott was talked out of killing her off at the end of the film– the ending in its final form was just about perfect, and was the perfect setup for Aliens.
Fast forward seven years. I am out of the Army, working in California as a baker in a health food bakery (with a cockroach problem– go figure). When I hear that a sequel of Alien is being made, I am interested. When I see the trailers and realize that the second movie has a military flavor, I am very interested.
Aliens opened on July 18, 1986–
Personally, I have to count that date as one of the watersheds of my life.
It is hard for me to overstate the impact this film had on me, and continues to have to this day. It pushed just about every sci-fi action-adventure button I have. Once again the story centered on Ripley, now overwhelmed by the memories of what happened in the first film. At the end of Alien, Ripley is in an escape pod, in suspended animation, hoping to get rescued. Instead, she drifts right through human space and is only found fifty-seven years later. Her story of the destruction of her crew by a supremely vicious alien is not believed, particularly as there have been colonists on LV-426, the planetoid where her crew found the first alien, for many years.
Then contact is lost with LV-426 and Ripley goes with a platoon of Colonial Marines to investigate. Needless to say, things go from bad to worse to utterly catastrophic, except that this time there is visceral satisfaction in the discovery that these aliens (most definitely plural this time) go to pieces quite nicely under heavy munitions. It’s military stupidity and corporate cupidity that get Ripley and the Marines in trouble this time.
In the process Ripley connects with a young survivor of the colony, a shell-shocked little girl called Newt, and their relationship becomes the emotional linchpin of the whole story. When things go really bad, and Newt appears to be lost to the aliens, it is Ripley’s irrational refusal to accept that fact that pushes her, and the story, into a cathartic, and climatic, confrontation.
I enjoy action-adventure films, but I have never been a fan of the sort of action film that seem to exist primarily to showcase explosions and things going fast– I have had zero interest in The Fast and the Furious franchise, and do not get me started on 300 and similar trash. I prefer adventure movies in which something is at stake, and which possess some heart. Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings (particularly The Fellowship of the the Ring), Miyazaki’s Castle in the Sky, and Peter Weir’s Master and Commander are all examples of the sort of adventure film that holds my interest.
For me Aliens is supremely this type of film. Ripley’s struggle to overcome her demons (figurative and literal) is where we start. Slowly she becomes part of an extended family of Marines, and then comes her connection with Newt. At this point Ripley once again has something to lose, and something to protect, and it forces her out of her fear into courage. That’s the best sort of adventure film– not populated by super-beings, but ordinary humans who struggle to overcome obstacles far greater than themselves to preserve something precious, or forestall a horrible evil.
It does not hurt at all that Aliens is one of the most tightly written action films ever, basically keeping you legitimately on the edge of your seat and/or hanging on to the back of the one in front of you the whole way through. To this day, when the second drop-ship is heading straight for the atmosphere processing plant to rescue Newt, I simply cannot sit still.
Looked at another way, Aliens is almost the only great sci-fi military film, for my money the closest anyone has ever come to adapting Heinlein’s Starship Troopers (Verhoeven’s abortion does not count. Uh-uh, sorry). James Cameron, in fact, asked the actors portraying the Marines to read the novel during preparations for filming.
A special edition of the movie, released in 1992, restores seventeen minutes of footage that had been cut from the theatrical release. It’s not an unmixed blessing– it telegraphs things about the colony on LV-426 that had been left as spooky mysteries in the theatrical version. But the special edition works for me because it critically expands Ripley’s character and deepens her relationship with Newt. In the extended version, when Ripley is willing to go into the bowels of her personal nightmare to save Newt, you understand exactly why.
Now, let me balance this all out. I don’t believe Aliens is the greatest science-fiction film ever. There are films with more profound themes and deeper examinations of human nature and the meaning of the universe. Ridley Scott’s Bladerunner (particularly the director’s cut) is certainly a contender for that title. Nor is Aliens absolutely perfect in its execution– some of the characters are not fleshed out (let’s face it, they’re there to be alien-fodder) and some of the plot points don’t quite make sense (if the second drop-ship was available the whole time, why didn’t they call it down at once, instead of waiting for the processing station to start going into overload?). You don’t really notice, though, because the film as a whole just pulls you along and enlists you in the fight these people are waging to survive.
This film is probably a good portion of the reason why I am spoiled for lesser action flicks. When I want to remember how to structure a story that you can’t put down, built around people you give a damn about, I think of Aliens. The first movie script I ever bought (during one of my delusional periods in which I thought I could be a screenwriter) was for Aliens. This film taught me a lot about story and action, and it’s a personal touchstone of quality. I’m almost tempted to say they don’t make movies like this anymore, but I keep hoping….
As for the Alien franchise, it took a nose dive after Aliens with the two subsequent sequels. Re: Alien 3— wretched trash. Do not bother. Alien Resurrection— its got some cute moments, but mostly meh.
(By the way, if the folks who own this property happen to be reading this, I have a concept that will reboot the franchise. Call me. Seriously).