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 Ten Directors (Without An Order)

Well, apparently I’ve been called out on the Silver Mirror for a top ten directors.  Here we go.  My Top Ten Directors (again in no particular order):

Sergio Leone

I feel a little guilty about stealing a little of James’ top ten thunder here, but it’s a proven fact that Sergio Leone is made of pure awesome.  His movies are violent, comical, and (surprisingly) touching.  He doesn’t allow himself to get boxed in by labels or genres.  Even if you’re not a fan of spaghetti westerns or gangster films, you can’t help but watch his movies and smile just a little.

Hayao Miyazaki

This man is the Steven Spielberg of animated films.  Movies like ‘Spirited Away’ and ‘Princess Mononoke’ show powerful story telling and an incredibly beautiful sense of art, all the while delivering a powerful and yet not anvilicious message.  He shows that animation isn’t just for kids, it’s for adults too.

Rob Reiner

Rob Reiner knows how to make a good movie.  Well, as a matter of fact, he knows how to make a lot of different kinds of good movies.  He’s done everything from horror movies like ‘Misery’, to dramas like a ‘Few Good Men’, to fantasies like ‘The Princess Bride’, to family movies like ‘Stand by Me’, to comedies like ‘This is Spinal Tap’.  Few directors have such a resume.

Akira Kurosawa

The excellence of Akira Kurosawa cannot be understated.  He is the mastermind behind Japanese epics full of action, slow motion, quick cuts, and badass samurais.  He’s not too well known in the U.S. of A., but he ought to be, considering that such famous films as ‘Star Wars’ and ‘The Good the Bad and the Ugly’ wouldn’t have existed without his work.

Ridley Scott

What can I say?  This is the man who made ‘Alien’, ‘Blade Runner’, and ‘Gladiator’.  He’s a master of despotic story telling that still shows a surprising amount of action.  Let’s hope his next film, ‘Robin Hood’, lives up to his other classic works.

John Carpenter

John Carpenter is a master of horror and suspense.  He has scared audiences to death with films like ‘Halloween’ and ‘The Thing’.  He’s also responsible for the arguably coolest character in the history of film, ‘Escape from New York’s’ Snake Plisken (“Call me Snake”). Badass!

John McTiernan

I think action directors are very underrated.  John McTiernan helped resurrect the then-ridiculous genre in the late 80’s and early 90’s with such classics as ‘Die Hard’, ‘Predator’, and ‘The Hunt For Red October’.  He’s made his fair share of bad films, but when it comes to action films, you can count on him to deliver.

Woody Allen

Woody Allen is great about telling very personal stories that also manage to make you laugh your ass off.  His insights are unique and yet relatable at the same time.  His movies about everyday people caught up in the struggle of day-to-day life are forever entertaining.

Clint Eastwood

Not only is he a badass actor, but a master director as well.  He shows seemingly hard-hearted people slowly learn to open up to others, and it’s a powerful effect.  Films like ‘Unforgiven’ and ‘Gran Torino’ mix subtly and raw power.  As the Smashing Pumpkins might put it, he is a bullet with butterfly wings.

Don Bluth

Don Bluth dominated my childhood. Films like ‘The Land Before Time’ and ‘The Secret of NIMH’ I still love to this day.  There’s a certain mysticism he employs in his films that is, well, empowering.  The characters in his movies are always just a little more real than in other animated stories, and it makes them that more relatable and really less “kiddy”.  That’s the great staple of his animated films.  They aren’t just for kids, they really are for all ages.

Classic Review: Blade Runner (Final Cut)

Stars:  **** out of Four

Summary:  Brooding, foreboding, brutal, and brilliant.  A culturally significant picture not quite like any other.

I know it's nothing like the film, but my head gets the image of Harrison Ford shooting thousands of robots, as he runs across giant knives, from seeing this poster.

I know it's nothing like the film, but my head gets the image of Harrison Ford shooting thousands of robots, as he runs across giant knives, from seeing this poster.

Review:  Similar to my review of ‘Citizen Kane’, I ask this question: How can I begin to review one of the most influential films of all time?  Many science fiction films, some worth their own salt, have directly taken inspiration from ‘Blade Runner’.  This is, in my opinion and the opinion of many others, Ridley Scott’s magnum opus.  The film’s own inspiration comes from film noir, and of course the dark, hard science fiction of novelist Phillip K. Dick.  It was Dick’s popular work of sci-fi philosophy, ‘Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?’, that formed the basis of the screenplay.  Humanity, in the future, creates extremely close replicas (or, “replicants”, as they are dubbed) of themselves, putting them to work.  Suddenly, slavery is again acceptable, because these androids aren’t really human.  Right?

I mean, right?

If the influential philosopher Descartes is to be believed, if we think, that is how we know we are a thing.  “I think, therefore I am”, it is commonly translated, though that popular phrase is slightly off, but that’s beside the point.  The point is, how does this apply when so-called strong AI becomes frighteningly human-like?  Do we grant our machines equal rights with us, as a kind of offspring of the human race?  We have not yet devised a machine that blurs the lines between us, so all arguments over this question have remained theoretical.  Currently, we still put artificial intelligence against something called the Turing test, which so far has concluded that true strong AI is years, maybe centuries away, if at all possible.  But in the future that Phillip K. Dick and Ridley Scott transport us to, the Turing test has been passed by the replicants.  The Tyrell corporation, responsible for their creation and management, now has a “Voight-Kampff test”, which initially seems effective at identifying them.  But science marches on.

The film opens with two men in a darkened room.  One, a Blade Runner; that is, a policeman tasked with hunting down rogue androids.  The other, we don’t know.  The Blade Runner is giving him the Voight-Kampff test, but before a solid conclusion can be made, the replicant — ’cause that’s what he is — shoots him dead and flees.  A short time later, a former Blade Runner, Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), is called by his old boss and set on the case.  There are four possibly dangerous rogue replicants on the loose, and it’s up to Deckard to hunt them down.  Teamed with Gaff (Edward James Olmos), he travels to meet Tyrell himself, hoping to find that the Voight-Kampff test still works on this latest batch of replicants, of which the rogues are members.  While at the Tyrell corporation, Deckard is surprised to find that they have just perfected — but not released — a type of android that can pass the test.  The first of her kind, Rachael (Sean Young) and Deckard form an uneasy attraction to one another, but Tyrell tells him to avoid revealing her identity as a replicant to anyone — especially her.

Without spoiling the rest of the plot, here’s my summary of the action.  Things are bleak throughout.  Many of the replicants act more human, more alive, than Deckard ever does.  The whole city seems dead, machinist, a necropolis of impostors.  The only people who care to challenge the status quo are — you guessed it — the escaped replicants.  Though their actions are indubitably brutal and hateful against the rest of humanity, it’s because they are escaped slaves without a guide.  Their “father”, Tyrell, is quite wicked.  They find no solace in him.

Now onto the question of Deckard.  If you’ve looked into this film, you’ve probably heard of the common theory that he is himself a replicant.  This is never stated, not even in the Final Cut version that was released on DVD/Bluray.  But it is a quite reasonable assumption.  Gaff, who basically disappears about halfway into the film, would seem to be the actual Blade Runner, the guy in charge of watching over him.  He seems like a guardian angel figure, and doesn’t really take sides.  He seems strangely aware of Deckard’s activities and location at all times, even of his secret romance with Rachael.

The violence of the film is very shocking, especially in the Final Cut.  A man’s skull is crushed with the bare hands of a replicant.  People are shot, stabbed, and otherwise bloodied.  Yet, despite the title and the R-rating for violence, this is not an action movie.  It’s a mystery thriller, a very slow burning, intentionally depressing contemplation.

The cinematography is amazing, and with it, the special effects.  They work in nearly perfect union to create a completely believable, nightmarish, and sometimes beautiful world.  The futuristic technology, remaining without enhancement even in the latest home video release, is seamless.  You will believe a flying car can in fact fly.

Philosophical and unquestionably adult, ‘Blade Runner’ has proven to be an elegant masterpiece.  It’s too bad that most science fiction pictures won’t approach its excellence… but then again, who does?