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Aliens (1986): deft manipulation creates unease and foreboding

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Welcome to the first What The Flick retro review. We’re going for a wander down memory lane to take a fresh look at a modern day classic.

The first film to be dusted down off the shelf is James Cameron’s Aliens – the sequel to Ridley Scott’s Alien.

Alien mixed sci-fi and horror to successfully scare the shit out of audiences on its initial release in 1979. Acting as the progenitor to what is now a well established genre, Alien benefited from the collapse of Alejandro Jodorowsky’s attempt to film Dune. As pre-production stalled on Dune, Dan O’Bannon (an alien-obsessed screenwriter involved in bringing Dune to the big screen), saw an opportunity.

Impressed by the concept artwork he’d seen by H.R Geiger and Jean Giraud, he returned to a story he’d penned about terrifying aliens who hunt a small number of humans. In the initial draft these aliens would steal a B17 bomber in WW2. As the project developed, the war film angle was ultimately discarded, but obviously planted the seed of idea, just like a face-hugger. Buoyed by the success of the original Alien film, O’Bannon went back and retooled his script.

Which brings us nicely to Aliens.

A cocktail nirvana of triple blending sci-fi, horror and an against-all-odds war film, Aliens manages to achieve all of three by largely taking from its source material and upping the ante x1000.  So what’s it all about?

Essentially we see the return of the lone survivor Ripley, the only remaining crew off the ill-fated Nostromo. I won’t go into it here (seriously, watch it), but things go really badly for the space truckers in the original. In Aliens we pick up many years later – Ripley has been in stasis sleeping off the nightmare of the first film. In the director’s cut of the film we understand Ripley, played by Sigourney Weaver, has missed out on her daughter’s life while in hyper-sleep for 57 years. This goes some way to build one of the film’s more successful themes of motherhood and paternal responsibly.

She’s in a intergalactic state of post-traumatic shock as she explains the events of the first film and learns about the world in her absence. This sets up the premise and gives us all the plot exposition we need. It also introduces yet another theme – corporate greed and irresponsibility. Our company man here is Paul Reiser’s Burke, an immediately untrustworthy and duplicitous character. We’re suspicious of his every move and with bloody good cause… I’ve decided to omit most of the main narrative, because ultimately we’re banking on the fact you’ve watched it. If not, what are you doing right now?

The idea of a retro review is to see if a film still merits its place in our hearts, all these later. Thankfully in the case of Aliens, it’s an “Affirmative Ripley”.

It’s a classic, with the appropriate nods in the right places. It’s infinitely quotable and it stands up visually. Before it, Alien won an Academy Award for its effects, and it’s clear that James Cameron’s follow up is cut from the same cloth – apart from obvious model work and questionable back projection.

Released before mainstream CGI, it feels, in places, like it’s over-stretching its capabilities. Yet none of this detracts from solid performances and an iron-clad narrative which really pulls you in.

My favourite visual effect clanger is Bishop, having been ripped apart, being thrown to the floor – Lance Henriksen’s body can be seen in a hole cut into the floor. Aliens has significant emotional elements that tug at your heart strings while scarring you in equal measure – whether it’s the discovery of some inhabitants cocooned up just for the purpose of acting as incubators, to the lone survivor Newt and her developing relationship with Ripley. The discovery of Burke’s true motives and the shock realisation that our crack team of army elites (fashioned here as if they’ve been plucked directly from a Vietnam war flick) are mere fodder to the advanced biological capability of the aliens.

But the success of the film is that these plot and character developments happen as the main narrative moves along at breakneck speed, often feeling like an out of control freight train. Everything, much like a war zone, happens so quickly there isn’t time to question anything and in those moments when the film slows, it’s done with deft manipulation, adding to the unease and foreboding. It’s a pretty depressing journey, at times stark and bleak.

Ripley is our one horse in the race and she’s really pushed to breaking point. When her physicality is bested by the queen alien, Ripley tools up in a mech suit – she’s ever adaptable. Much like the titular aliens, Ripley is the ultimate expression of a survivor and we never question this. In almost every possible way, Aliens beats the original, from performance to spectacle. It’s a testament to the script and acting performance that we have such a strong female lead. Not once is she at the mercy of any other character or is the typical damsel in distress. Instead, she’s consistently better prepared and smarter than those around her. It’s a sad state of affairs that a female role from a 1986 film is more progressive that many found in films being produced in Hollywood today. I

t’s our favourite Alien film and here at What The Flick we’re going to give it 4.5 out of 5.

Noticeable quotes

Ripley: “You know, Burke, I don’t know which species is worse. You don’t see them fucking each other over for a goddamn percentage.

How about that? Film trivia:

The Alien nest set was kept intact after filming in the UK. It was later used as the Axis Chemicals set for Batman (1989). When the Batman crew first entered the set, they were freaked out to find most of the Alien nest still there.

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