Classic Review: Aliens

By contributor Patrick Zabriskie

Stars: ★★★1/2

Summary:  ‘Alien’ is a popular film that I have issues with, ‘Aliens’ is a popular film that I have no issues with.

Review:  I disliked ‘Alien’ because, despite great design and an interesting story, it was ultimately underwhelming.  It was a box office hit, though, and in 1986 20th Century Fox released a sequel, directed by then-newcomer James Cameron.  Cameron had already proven his worth on the 1984 hit ‘The Terminator’, a surprisingly powerful film that paired heart and depth with adrenaline fueled action.   Cameron would use this same approach to ‘Aliens’, and so it fixes everything wrong with the original ‘Alien’, salvaging and improving the sense of atmosphere, isolation, and terror that people enjoyed from it.  The result is one of the best action, science fiction, and horror movies ever made.

Though this is a three-genre movie, Cameron thankfully avoided the clichés and the tropes of each.   Unlike most space pictures, the future presented here isn’t particularly happy or hopeful.   It has neither the mysticism of ‘Star Wars’ nor the optimism of ‘Star Trek’.   Rather, it goes for that gritty ‘Blade Runner’ feel.  The world is still corporate and capitalist, we still have soldiers and fight wars, and space seems cold and ugly.  It’s a fresher, albeit darker, take on our view of outer space.

Unlike many action films (and, in my opinion, the first ‘Alien’), the characters in ‘Aliens’ are not two-dimensional or stock.  Ellen Ripley, the central character, is one of the best and most complex heroines of recent years.  She is strong, formidable, brave, fierce, and mother-like at the same time.  Most importantly, she seems human and, therefore, relatable.  The intimacy of her character is what draws us into the story and makes it compelling.  The other characters in the film are just as fleshed out, and so it is becomes easier to care about them and feel fear for them.

This does wonders for the sense of horror and terror in the film, as does its pacing and design.  Where as ‘Alien’ was very slow and, at times, even boring, ‘Aliens’ makes effective use of suspense.  People wander into rooms where we know great monsters are hiding, but Cameron allows for time to pass, and thus, for tension to build up before an attack or chase is on.  He doesn’t go for low blow shock-value, such as sudden kills from creatures out-of-nowhere, but rather for legitimate, well-timed terror.

Cameron and co also out-did themselves when it came to design on this picture.  They take the atmosphere from the original film and greatly expound upon it.  The aliens’ look is wonderfully frightening, especially the Alien Queen; the sets are intricate; and the models used are so detailed that it’s impossible to recognize them as such.  Despite being nearly 25 years old, modern CGI would not improve the look or believability of the effects, it’s that good.  James Horner also delivers an electrifying score that has proven so popular that it is still used in movie-trailers to this day.

The filmmakers really pulled out all the stops on ‘Aliens’.  It is an intelligent, suspenseful, and very enjoyable film.  It is the best of the ‘Alien’ franchise as well as a high point in Cameron’s career.  For a well-made and involving picture, check this one out.

Patrick’s Top Five Villainesses

Usually the antagonists in films are men. But every so often, a women comes along in a film who’s so cruel, nasty, and just plain evil that you can’t help but say, “Wow, what a b****!” Anyways, here’s my pick for the best (worst) villainesses of all time.

5. Dr. Elsa Schneider – ‘Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade’ (1989)

She was such a sexy love-interest for ‘Indy. Too bad she was a double-crossing Nazi.

4. Rossa Klebb – ‘From Russia With Love’ (1963)

By far the single most troublesome (and ugly) woman in James Bond’s life, she spends most of the film trying to kill him. Kuddos to the poison-tipped shoes though.

3. The Alien Queen – ‘Aliens’ (1986)

One ugly, disgusting creature. She’s got two mouths, a fifty-foot egg sack, and the ability to summon other aliens at her whim. Not only that, but she tries to kill the film’s little girl (gasp!). Thank goodness Ripley (and a military-grade power suit) was there to save the day.

2. The Wicked Witch of the West – ‘The Wizard of Oz’ (1939)

She’s a witch, she’s got an army of flying monkeys, she can wield fire, and she’s pure evil. Need I say more?

1. Mrs. Robinson – ‘The Graduate’ (1967)

She’s manipulative, creepy, and slightly insane. She seduces Dustin Hoffman only to turn psycho on him when he starts dating her daughter. She’s as deranged and frightening as they come, and there’s a look in her eyes that keeps me awake at night. No villainess has been more disturbing, conniving, or just plain evil.

Classic Review: Forbidden Planet

Stars: **** out of Four

Summary:  A masterpiece of tension and atmosphere!  With slick special effects, too!  You won’t believe your eyes and ears as MGM transports you to another world, 1950s style!

That says it all. Even if that scene doesn't happen in the movie.

That says it all. Even if that scene doesn't happen in the movie.

Review:  The 1956 science fiction classic, ‘Forbidden Planet’, is a good movie.  I’m not sure I should say anymore, except that’s it’s really, really awesome.  No, I think what I should say is, it succeeds in being better than it has any rights to be.

Okay, seriously, I’m going to review this movie.  Here’s what makes it great.

This film is the perfect midnight fare.  I highly suggest a viewing experience with a large television, surround sound, and absolutely no lights, in the dead of night.  Try not to talk during the film, either.  ‘Forbidden Planet’ is so atmospheric that it’d be a shame to not dive in.  It’s like MGM Studios was kind enough to fill a hot tub with fresh, hot water and some sort of weird but healthful Italian herbs, spices, and soaps.  Sure, you’ll have to adjust to the weirdness, but that’s what makes it a singular and unforgettable experience.  Just soak it in.  One of the coolest features of this particular experience is the music, which is credited as ‘electronic tonalities’, because apparently the musician’s union at the time didn’t think it qualified as music (or so I heard) — I mean, this was the first film ever to have a completely electronic score.  In any case, these strange, otherworldly sounds definitely fulfill the old maxim that “sound is half the picture”.  Without this score, the film wouldn’t have near the sense of mystery that it needs to succeed.

The technology, though stylized and sometimes already a bit run over by the actual science of our day, looks beautiful and functional.  The set-design is superb, with gorgeous matte paintings substituting for an alien sky.  All in all, the special effects are ahead of their time, surpassing similar concept films of the same era with ease.  Particularly impressive is the landing sequence of a flying saucer and the combat scene between the ship’s crew and a giant, invisible monster, which stops in a force field and is unveiled in its grotesque glory.  I would be amiss to not mention the incredible artwork put into rendering the ancient Krell city, however, which gives us a fantastic sense of scale and complexity.

The story, well, I’m sure you’ve heard.  An earth ship lands on an alien world, to investigate the status of a science vessel that arrived there 20 years ago.  Only one survivor and his young daughter remain, however, and things get sinister quickly as it is revealed that the stranded scientist is not telling everything he knows about the horrible disaster which overcame his colleagues.  It is slow in pace, which is great for creating real tension and fleshing out the characters.

Philosophically, the issue is the inherent badness of human beings.  Buried deep in our “id”, our subconscious self, is what the film calls “the mindless primitive”, and what St. Paul calls “the flesh”.  Whatever you call it, the message of the movie is that humanity can never afford to be without caution in however much power it attains.  Without something keeping the dangerous, bestial side in check, humanity’s advances in technology will only lead to the most destructive outlet for the “monsters from the id”.  We may well destroy ourselves, as the ancient Krell did in ‘Forbidden Planet’.  The way I look at it, with this in mind, the classic warning that “Absolute power corrupts absolutely” is something of a misnomer.  It is not absolute power which corrupts; it only amplifies that which already exists within a person, for good or ill, and universally, humanity has a lot of ill will.  As the film concluded, “We are, after all, not God.”  And even then, orthodox Christianity teaches that God willingly humbles Himself and refuses to abuse His power, and sometimes even to use it without being asked directly.

Well, anyway, the film is great.  Don’t rent it.  Buy it.  Or better yet, find a way to see it on the silver screen.  I’m sure somebody out there has a print of it.  It’d be worth the sacrifice just to go for a walk on the ‘Forbidden Planet’.

Classic Review: Alien

By contributor Patrick Zabriskie

Stars:  ★★☆☆

Inside that egg theres a facehugger even a mother couldnt love.

Inside that egg there's a facehugger even a mother couldn't love.

The nineteen seventies was a dark time for many.  The economy was bad, morality was degrading, and the United States had been cursed with a string of sub-par presidents, not to mention several global wars and conflicts.  In this dark and grim decade, therefore, it is no surprise to find a string of pioneering horror films, including ‘Jaws’, ‘The Exorcist’, ‘The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’, ‘The Omen’, and ‘Halloween’.  These films were darker in tone and more serious than previous horror films, and they are largely responsible for helping to modernize and reinvigorate the horror movie genre.  The last entry in this line of horror films is ‘Alien’, in 1979.  Despite praise from many a critic, this cosmic odyssey lacks the elements which make it truly great, and more importantly scary.

After the title assimilates across a panorama of outer space, we are shown the Nostromo, a rather gothic looking mining ship slowly drifting through the cosmos.  Its seven crew members are suddenly and abruptly awakened from long-term hibernation by the ships computer, dubbed MOTHER, and are ordered to investigate a strange S.O.S. signal from a nearby planet.

Upon landing on this strange, dissident sort of world, they discover the ruins of a gigantic and long crashed alien ship with an enormous chamber of eggs inside.  One of the eggs unleashes a strange hand-like creature that attaches itself to a member of the crew, putting him into a coma.  After bringing him back to the ship and unsuccessfully attempting to control or even understand this life form, the “hand” all of the sudden falls off, and all is at peace.  That is, until another creature bursts out of the man via chest in a now iconic movie scene.  The remaining part of the movie chronicles the crew as they attempt to combat and kill “the eighth passenger”.

For what it’s worth, the plot is an intriguing one.  It’s sort of a 50’s B movie on steroids.  There is also an interesting implied message on workers rights in this movie, as this crew finds its life being compromised by the desires of a company-controlled computer, perhaps a nod to the tough economic years of the seventies.  There is also a kind of sexual undertone that is inferable from this movie, as much of the artwork and even the look of the alien are reminiscent of human sexuality.

However this story carries with it an inordinately large amount of shortcomings.  The most notable and most important flaw lies with the acting.  It is difficult to tell what makes for a bad performance in a movie, whether it be the performance itself or the writing.  It seems that a little bit of both is at fault here in ‘Alien’.  For the first 45 minutes of the movie or so, nothing anybody utters possesses a trace of emotion.  It’s all bland scientific terminology and company policy.  This is only worsened by the actors, who evidently were told to deliver every line in a lifeless manner.  Unfortunately, this is not good for creating horror.  I cannot feel much fear for characters who don’t seem human.  When they did start showing real emotion, a whopping hour into the film, I could have cared less if they lived or died.

There are other problems with plot.  There are inconsistencies or questions left unanswered at the end of the film.  For instance, why show literally thousands and thousands of eggs if only one of them proves to be a threat.  Or why show a bizarre alien skeleton in the old ship?  Just so the characters can spend one minute examining it before proceeding onward and completely forgetting about it?  Or why bother to let the audience know halfway through the movie that MOTHER wants the alien unharmed without telling us why.  It feels unfinished, unpolished.  Sure, some of these questions are answered in the sequel, too bad it took seven years to make.  Lastly, this movie is just too slow going.  An early trailer for the movie indicated a rather frantic pacing for this movie, but that’s really not the case.  It’s close to 45 minutes before the audience actually sees the eggs and about another 30 minutes before the true Alien makes its appearance. Even after that, the creature just makes short cameos interspersed by boring dialogue.

Other aspects of this film are hit and miss.  The set designs are perhaps the most elaborate and well done I’ve ever seen.  They don’t feel like gigantic movie sets, they feel like real places, real confined spaces, which is good for making claustrophobia.  Also, this movie is notable for its heavy use of handheld camera work, which adds, at times to the lost and confined feeling of this movie.  The special effects in general are pretty good for 1979, but they tend to slump in key places.  Take the famous “chest burst” scene.  From a believability standpoint, it’s absolutely brilliant—until the creature runs across a table, fully revealing that it is being pulled across on a metal track.  This sort of flaw is a disaster for this movie, because it so easily undermines credibility, which is not something that this film can afford to lose if it wants to be affective.  Another example is the alien suit.  It was wise for the filmmakers to cast a 7-foot Kenyan in the role of the creature, because it helps to make him appear less human when in full attire.  However, a man in a suit is just that, and at the end of the day it simply is a little too noticeable that this is a stuntman walking around the set.  Again, complete and total belief in this creature is crucial to making this film work, but they didn’t quite get it, and it compromises the whole premise.

Lastly there is Jerry Goldsmith’s score.  It’s interesting in how unnoticeable it is.  There is no real strong theme holding it all together, and it is altogether too sedated to make much impact.  Not only that, but often at what are presumably the scariest points in the movie, the music is simply stopped.  This is a bad idea, because, coupled with the issues with special effects, it doesn’t quite pull of fear as well as it should.  It’s a shame too, because Goldsmith has proven on other occasions how capable of creating a mood he is.

In conclusion, ‘Alien’ simply does not support its own premise well enough.  Its not that it couldn’t have, but it doesn’t.  A few key rewrites would probably have saved it, but as it stands, it is simply an average film.  At times it can scare, but it’s rarely for a better reason than for shock.  However, if there is one good thing that came out of ‘Alien’, it’s the other movies it had an influence on.  For instance, the sequel, 1986’s ‘Aliens’, was a much more balanced and entertaining affair.  Also, Ridley Scott, the director, would go on to refine his bleak-future style with the classic film ‘Blade Runner’, while a group of other filmmakers would create the masterpiece known as ‘The Thing’—a much better update of science-fiction horror—just three years later, borrowing elements from this film.  ‘Alien’ serves as an important lesson to filmmakers: Don’t let a film be overshadowed by its legacy.