Everybody’s Into Weirdness: ALIENS (1986/70mm)

This week, Jacob Knight revisits James Cameron's superlative sci-fi/action sequel on 70mm.

The Alamo Drafthouse is a brand built on weird. Beyond being situated in a town that has long aspired to remain eccentric in the face of all normality, it’s easy to forget that the original Alamo started as something of a private screening club, running prints of the odd and obscure into all hours of the night*. Though the company has obviously grown into an internationally recognized chain of first run movie palaces, the Drafthouse Ritz in Austin, Texas remains committed to showcasing genre repertory programming, namely via its Terror Tuesday and Weird Wednesday showcases. This column is a concentrated effort to keep that spirit of strangeness alive, as programmers Joe A. Ziemba and Laird Jimenez (often pulling from the extensive AGFA archives) are truly doing Satan’s bidding by bringing ATX weekly doses of delightful trash art.

The fourteenth entry into this disreputable canon is James Cameron’s superlative sci-fi/action sequel, Aliens

(This week, we take a break from both Terror Tuesday and Weird Wednesday to indulge in one of the Drafthouse’s other exquisite privileges – the ability to take in classic epics on 70mm. This infrequent treat allowed me to revisit Cameron’s revered, analog slice of sci-fi action for the first time in half a decade. So how’d it hold up?)

"Their training and technology are inappropriate for the specifics, and that can be seen as analogous to the inability of superior American firepower to conquer the unseen enemy in Vietnam: a lot of firepower and very little wisdom, and it didn't work." – James Cameron in Time Magazine [ July 28, 1986]

Aliens is a fantastic war film with the apparition of a real world conflict hanging over its proceedings. On paper, the synopsis is pure pulp sci-fi. Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) – having been frozen in stasis for over fifty years – is rescued and then recruited by the nefarious Company (an idea spearheaded by Paul Reiser’s delightfully sleazy Carter Burke) to travel back to LV-426, the planet where her original blue collar ship, the Nostromo, and its crew encountered a derelict spacecraft carrying Alien’s titular monster. Only this time, Ripley’s flanked by a group of hard-nosed Marines, pulled straight from a Robert A. Heinlein novel and ready to lay waste to any “bugs” that get in their way. Needless to say, things don’t go as planned, and LV-426 becomes a deathtrap for Ripley once again.

There’s militaristic mythologizing going on at the heart of James Cameron’s sequel to Ridley Scott’s landmark horror picture – a driving desire to create cinema that exists on the other side of the entertainment spectrum from Scott’s Lovecraftian “old dark house in space” movie. Instead of creaking hallways and hissing cats, Cameron has crafted an industrial jungle, from which unseen attackers can launch themselves, ready to take down the intruding colonial police force. The director even makes some literal combat transference, lending Aliens an "authentic" mise-en-scène. These grunts speak in slang, fetishize their weaponry, customize their uniforms, and share mess hall stories of indulging in local “poontang” on previous missions. Considering Cameron’s first major studio assignment as a screenwriter was Rambo: First Blood Part II (not to mention the time traveling soldiers showcased in The Terminator a year before that), the drop zone combat set up fits with the artist’s already established auteur affinities. “This time it’s war” isn’t just a tag line utilized to sell ’86 audiences on the then thirty-one-year-old’s radical vision; it’s a statement of purpose that’s actually representative of Cameron’s final product.

It’s now a well-known fact that Cameron wasn’t initially slated to direct Aliens. He took the writing assignment to essentially fill time while waiting for Arnold Schwarzenegger to return from filming Conan: The Destroyer (after mega-mogul Dino De Laurentiis contractually hijacked the Austrian Oak). Cameron and his producing partner, Gale Anne Hurd, were simultaneously prepping The Terminator, and by the time Arnold finished up his second turn as the Barbarian, the young writer/director had only completed ninety pages, leaving him roughly midway through the second act. However, Fox execs loved his action picture retooling of Ridley Scott’s world so much that they half-promised him the director’s chair on Aliens, should The Terminator turn out to be a hit. Thankfully, Cameron’s lo-fi tech noir masterpiece became a sensation, as it’d be hard to imagine Aliens without the Canadian action/horror maestro behind the camera.

Even after Cameron finished the script, there were still battles to be won behind the scenes before Aliens could head into principal photography. Fox wasn’t prepared to meet Sigourney Weaver’s quote and stalled negotiations, to the point of pestering Cameron to write a draft that didn’t involve Ellen Ripley. Cameron and Hurd thought this entire notion was ridiculous. How could you make a sequel to Alien without its iconic star? Once the suits came to their senses and signed Weaver, casting and location scouting became something of a long haul proposition, as Cameron parsed through over 3,000 UK candidates to fill the primary roles, before setting his sights on American players he had worked with before (Michael Biehn, Lance Henriksen, Bill Paxton). There were a few diamonds discovered during the audition dredge (Mark Rolston, Jenette Goldstein and Carrie Henn were all almost utterly inexperienced), rounding out a mix of familiar faces and complete unknowns. As always, Cameron’s pickiness paid off, as those donning military garb ended up becoming just as recognizable as Weaver’s Ripley or the acid-blooded beasts.

The shooting locations for Aliens were key to lending the movie its tangible texture. Where designer Syd Mead (Blade Runner, 2010) was integral in bringing the jaggedly utilitarian spaceships and their surrounding cosmos to life, it was an abandoned power station in London that furnished the movie with its sweltering, claustrophobic ambiance. Cameron was enamored with the metal floor grating that ran through the building, as it allowed him to create depth and play with space; hiding deadly life forms both above and below the squad sent in to rescue terraforming migrants. Though they had to clear the entire plant of asbestos in order to keep working conditions passable for cast and crew, the dilapidated nature of the facility can still be felt; even through all of the elaborate set dressing. It’s one of the greatest examples of a production discovering the perfect space for their tale to be told in, and then turning said arena into whatever their imagination held. Suddenly, we no longer feel as if these are actors playing on a stage. The world has been built inside of the frame for them to interact with, solidifying the picture’s reality.

Aliens resembles an amplified version of the old Roger Corman B-pictures Cameron cut his teeth on as a designer (such as Galaxy of Terror) during the bookended spaceship scenes shot in legendary Pinewood studios. The Sulaco cargo bay sequence has a sterile whiteness about it that stands in stark contrast to the grimy, blue Hell of LV-426. Seeing the picture in 70mm really highlights just how polygonal the Albert R. Broccoli 007 Sound Stage became – recognizably a set, but slathered in meticulously storyboarded detail. You can feel the cold steel underneath the Marines’ feet as they awake from stasis, and smell the oil that greases the gears in Ripley’s oversized yellow power loader. While we often lament the overuse of CGI in modern blockbusters, one viewing of Aliens in this blown up format stresses the tactile relationship between performer and special effect, thus rendering most other pixelated spectacles (even those made by Cameron himself) somewhat false. To call a director a “world builder” feels hokey and clichéd nowadays; yet Cameron is just that – a fastidious God who wants you to experience his spaces, right down to the pong of icky mucus these plundering organisms leave in their wake.

Nevertheless, none of this painstaking universe creation compares to the way Cameron is able to stage and shoot action. It’s clear from the first combat scene how the director envisions the ‘Nam parallels. Once the shit hits the fan, the movie moves at such a breakneck pace that it’s near impossible to keep up with. Cameron deftly conveys chaos within the frame – xenomorphs literally coming out of walls caked with their secreted resin. But it’s the build of impending dread the filmmaker perfectly presents that leaves the audience racked with anticipation, before gasping once violent release actually arrives. The director utilizes the technology and firepower the Marines come equipped with to emphasize just how out of their element they are. The beeps on a tracking device become a ticking clock of doom as the guerilla army begins to close in – a horde growing in size on a monitor. And since the Marines are technically now on foreign soil in a wilderness they are wholly unfamiliar with, their “superior firepower” is reduced to being near useless or destroyed in the ensuing skirmish. To quote Pvt. Hudson (Paxton): “they’re fucked.”

A common complaint regarding Aliens is that Cameron changed the monster from being the first film’s symbol of sexual violation to something more akin to a shooting gallery target. This criticism is true, but also seems to miss the point of why Cameron repurposed the sleek, black beasts. The Vietnam War influence in this otherwise straightforward action movie dictates that the xenomorphs represent a defensive clan, fighting valiantly to fend off an imperialistic invading force. They claimed this land for their own, and began building a culture within the bowels of the terraforming station. While it’s understandable to be disappointed in how the lethality of the aliens has been reduced – no longer able to wipe out an entire unarmed crew via a single being – for Cameron, the xenomorph isn’t a frightening loner, hiding in a spacecraft’s air ducts. They’re pack animals when familiar with the terrain – ambushing and attacking in an effort to retain the territory they now call their own. Similarly, Cameron isn’t making a straight-ahead horror film, but is instead looking to deliver something closer to a roller coaster ride; visceral thrills in the place of terrifying chills.  

What the levelheaded critique of the movie’s monsters also conveniently leaves out is that Cameron and SFX guru Stan Winston improved upon HR Giger’s initial phallic design with a “Boss Level” Alien Queen. The Queen is a miracle of practical construction, towering over both Ripley and the beast’s worker bee subordinates. She lays hundreds of face hugger eggs, so that her species may thrive in this new hive. However, she’s also the counterpoint to Ripley’s mama bear role with Newt (Henn), a little girl she and the Marines discover hiding in the colony’s ventilation system. So much of Aliens is thematically built around Ripley’s loss of the ability to be a mother, and Newt becomes that surrogate kin she can protect against the creatures who slaughtered the child’s family. In turn, once Ripley torches the Queen’s nest of eggs, the creature is enraged and chases the woman and her youngster, sworn to take vengeance for the destruction they caused. Aliens suddenly transforms itself into a movie about dueling matriarchs, each eager to kill the other for pain they’ve caused their respective “families”.

Unfortunately, a good chunk of material that bolsters this thematic through line was lost in the edit, only to be fleshed out later in a Special Edition Cut. This included a lengthy moment where Ripley learns her daughter died at 67 years of age while Ellen was in stasis, and didn’t birth any children. It’s a somewhat odd omission (cut ostensibly because it was deemed “too depressing”), unlike most of the other restored footage, which unnecessarily protracts certain suspenseful scenes and telegraphs characters’ fates with clunky exposition. Though without it, the Theatrical Cut leaves Ripley’s want for a mother-daughter relationship muddled; vaguely implied rather than explicitly stated. However, the pace of the Theatrical Cut is vastly superior to its seventeen-minute-longer sibling, as Ray Lovejoy’s propulsive edit (not to mention James Horner’s thundering score) send Aliens ruthlessly chugging toward the finish line. Though the inclusions are intriguing, the Theatrical Cut is still the superior version of the film.

A great debate will always revolve which of the initial Alien pictures is superior. There were no less than three conversations regarding the topic in the theater lobby following the screening. Hell, the Canon Podcast had a live episode devoted solely to the topic. But it’s unclear why this qualitative back and forth matters at all. In fact, Alien and Aliens are so separate in their respective goals and filmmaking approaches that it’s debatable whether they’re comparable at all outside of shared characters/iconography. Scott’s film is a horror pinnacle – possibly the greatest scare picture in the history of the genre. On the other hand, Aliens is an action masterwork, and the arch paradigm for how you do a sequel correctly: build on the world of the original while still marching to your own beat. Contemporary franchises could benefit from having no bullshit visionaries like Cameron sitting in the director’s chair – a distinct auteur who still reveres what came before.

This Week on Weird Wednesday: Future-Kill

Previous WW Features: Penitentiary; Skatetown USA; Blood Games; The Last Match; Invasion of the Bee Girls; Julie Darling; Shanty Tramp; Coffy; Lady Terminator; Day of the Dead; The Kentucky Fried Movie; Gone With the Pope; Fright Night