Tag: xenomorph

IT CAME FROM NETFLIX! Aliens

Logo courtesy Netflix.  No logos were harmed in the creation of this banner.

I may have said this before, but it bears repeating: there was a time when sequels were not foregone conclusions. People like a good serial, to be sure, but not every entry into a genre is going to become a bestselling franchise. These days sequel hooks are practically a requirement as part of the conclusion of a story. Having one person survive a horrific ordeal doesn’t necessarily qualify as a sequel hook, but it does have the advantage of concluding the original story in a satisfying way while leaving the door open for a new story to pick up where the original ends. Such was the case in 1986 when Ridley Scott’s Alien was followed by James Cameron’s Aliens.

Courtesy 20th Century Fox

Of the events aboard the ill-fated Nostromo, there were two survivors: Warrant Officer Ripley and Jones, the ship’s cat. Rescued by a salvage team as the Nostromo’s shuttle drifted through space, Ripley is awakened from cryonic stasis to find 57 years have elapsed and she has no evidence of the unknown attacker that savaged her crew and forced the destruction of her ship. The company revokes her flight status and tell her that if such creatures exists, the 50-60 families that colonized the planet her crew landed on would have said something, right? When the company loses contact with the colony, they tap Ripley to accompany a team of Colonial Marines sent to investigate. They have military training, superior firepower, plenty of attitude… and are completely unprepared for what awaits them.

This film is a significant tonal shift from the original Alien. Ridley Scott’s film is a claustrophobic and shockingly intimate descent into nightmare, while Cameron’s plays more as a sci-fi action yarn with horror elements. Even so, there is a coherence in aesthetic that keeps the stories feeling closely related beyond threads of the plot. Despite not taking as much time to expound on every character involved, Aliens still contains the close environments and elements of tension that make the original memorable to this day. In other words, it does what a sequel needs to do in order to be a true success: it holds true to the original while expanding the scope of the story.

Courtesy 20th Century Fox
It’s all about girl power.

While many action films draw their power from the decidedly male side of things, Aliens also continues the tradition of not only having a female lead, but playing on rather feminist themes. Alien dealt very much with rape and bodily violation (even if it was interspecies) while Aliens focuses on female empowerment and motherhood. From the smart-gun wielding take-no-prisoners Vasquez to the dropship pilot Ferro, women are seen comfortably holding positions of power and performing jobs with distinction. Ripley herself continues to grow, showing a great deal of depth and complexity along with the ingenuity and bravery that got her through the first encounter. This isn’t to say the men are marginalized by any stretch. Michael Biehn and Lance Henriksen turn in great performances, and Al Matthews’ Sergeant Apone is quite memorable, serving as the template for future Marine sergeants in places like Halo. Carrie Henn turns in one of the most effective child performances I’ve ever seen. Finally, Aliens pulls off the feat of making everybody want to punch quintessential nice guy Paul Reiser in the face. Though I’m sure those who didn’t like the TV show Mad About You wouldn’t need his role as a sleazy corporate douchecanoe to add to their incentive.

In addition to its cast being well-rounded and progressive rather than running entirely on machismo, Aliens seems to have something to say about the nature of asymmetrical warfare. Here we have a team of highly-trained well-armed soldiers plunging headlong into an environment they know little about, trusting their high-tech weaponry to prevail over whatever’s in their path. But the enemy is something they’ve never encountered before. They are belligerent and numerous. They exist in a setting that is unnerving and (let’s face it) alien to the Marines, and they use the enemy’s ignorance to their advantage. They conceal their numbers, they strike without warning, and their methods are brutal and inhumane. This setup could be used as a metaphor for quite a few of America’s wars, though Cameron had Vietnam in mind when he was making the film.

Courtesy 20th Century Fox
Oo-rah.

All the same, it goes without saying that Aliens is decidedly less frightening than Alien. There are elements of horror, to be sure, mostly in the form of jump-out scares, but given the expansion of the cast, the shift in focus, and the presence of so many automatic firearms, this should come as no surprise. It does have tense moments, though, exemplified in the Special Edition scene involving the sentry guns. It’s funny to me that 20th Century Fox said this scene showed “too much nothing” when building tension in a movie like this is essential to its success. I guess it shows what studio executives know about storytelling.

No matter what edition you see it in, Aliens is definitely worth watching. It’s solid construction comes from being built on the great foundation of Alien and it wisely finds ways to expand its scope without sacrificing what worked the first time around. A strong female lead, great character beats all around, and the visual aesthetic of a sci-fi action director who would become one of the best in his field contribute to make a memorable film that may other movies and several first-person shooters would borrow heavily from for decades. It’s a great mix of fun and frightening.

Josh Loomis can’t always make it to the local megaplex, and thus must turn to alternative forms of cinematic entertainment. There might not be overpriced soda pop & over-buttered popcorn, and it’s unclear if this week’s film came in the mail or was delivered via the dark & mysterious tubes of the Internet. Only one thing is certain… IT CAME FROM NETFLIX.

IT CAME FROM NETFLIX! Alien

Logo courtesy Netflix.  No logos were harmed in the creation of this banner.

[audio:http://www.blueinkalchemy.com/uploads/alien.mp3]

Our fear of the dark is something primal, something elemental. It hearkens back to the days when we were scraping out our existences in caves and under large trees hoping bigger predators covered in fur and claws weren’t about to leap out of the underbrush and use our intestines as a meaty spaghetti dinner. Since then we’ve learned to do things like create firearms, build sturdy housing, and put all of our information in one place so we can share, argue over, and laugh about it all day instead of doing necessary jobs. But even with the Internet and guns, the fear of the dark is, for many, still there. And it doesn’t get much darker than the depths of space, where as Alien reminds us, nobody can hear you scream. Unless you’re on a spacecraft of some kind.

Courtesy 20th Century Fox

The events do in fact take place on a spacecraft, the interplanetary ore hauler Nostromo, crewed by the half-past-the-future equivalent of a team of truck drivers. The captain, Dallas, receives orders from his corporate masters to set down on a planet nearby to investigate a distress signal. Despite the protestations of his crew, he sets out with his first officer Kane and navigator Lambert after they land. When they return, Kane has been… attacked. Warrant Officer Ripley, senior member of the crew with Dallas away and Kane incapacitated, orders them to remain outside for quarantine, but the science officer, Ash, lets them in anyway. What happens next has rampaged through nightmares and five more movies of varying quality.

This is where it all began for the disturbing alien creature referred to as a ‘xenomorph’ in the sequel. Strange creatures born out of space doing nasty things to human beings is nothing new in cinema. War of the Worlds and This Island Earth immediately spring to mind as examples of previous films that dealt with this sort of close encounter. Few of those films are truly frightening, coming off these days as more cheesy or quaint. Alien, however, despite thirty years of film making innovation, holds up as something disturbing to an effective degree. You may not lose all bowel control as folks tend to do when playing Amnesia: The Dark Descent, but you’ll probably come away from the film at least little unnerved.

Courtesy 20th Century Fox
“No. I don’t care what you say, I am NOT sitting in its lap.”

Part of this is due to the casting. Veterans Tom Skerritt, Ian Holm, John Hurt, and Yaphet Kotto were joined with newcomer (at the time) Sigourney Weaver to play normal, working-class people who just happen to do their jobs in space. Their conversations and interactions should remind modern fans of the sort of back-and-forth seen in shows like Firefly, if a bit more subdued and quiet. It’s still a bit difficult for me to hear every line spoken in the first twenty or so of the film, as the conversations are held at a low, interpersonal tone. I have to wonder if this was intentional on the part of director Ridley Scott, drawing us as the audience closer inch by inch until things start grabbing bloody hold of the crew.

When shit does hit the fan, it does so as viscerally as possible and there’s very little time to catch one’s breath. The scenes in the latter two thirds of the film are filled with tension and uncertainty. Very wisely, we don’t get a very clear view of the xenomorph until we’re close to the end. As it crawls through the Nostromo‘s air ducts picking the crew off one by one, the brainchild of H.R. Giger shows itself to be a very intuitive, very vicious, and very perverse sort of creature. It seems to truly enjoy stalking these humans and doing unspeakable things to them. This is a major part of what makes it so fearsome. It isn’t a mindless beast lashing out in fear or hunger. This thing knows exactly what it is, what it does, and likes it.

Courtesy 20th Century Fox
Bilbo’s probably just missing Bag End.

There are a couple jump-scares that happen, but most of Alien‘s effectiveness comes from the fear of the unknown, the twists that new viewers may not see coming. They’re done so well and with such sincerity that even I, a repeat viewer, am still a little unnerved by what happens. This is the sign of a story well-told. No matter its age, no matter the scene of popular media around it, its beats still ring true and its characters still come to life. This, above any of the disturbing imagery or foundations of films that came after, is why I highly recommend Alien. Fire it up and see how this nightmare began.

And next time, I’ll tell you how it continued.

Josh Loomis can’t always make it to the local megaplex, and thus must turn to alternative forms of cinematic entertainment. There might not be overpriced soda pop & over-buttered popcorn, and it’s unclear if this week’s film came in the mail or was delivered via the dark & mysterious tubes of the Internet. Only one thing is certain… IT CAME FROM NETFLIX.

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