‘This time its war’ – Cameron himself came up with that arresting tagline, and war it was, at least from a production standpoint. I’m not sure why the Alien films were so difficult to craft, Ridley Scott had legendary problems with the first movie and of course David Fincher has all but disowned the third due to the unforgivable executive meddling, I suspect it’s due to a combination of a unique tranche of perfectionist directors who were not prepared to acquiesce to the autocrats instructions without a fight, the general difficulty of making SF pictures with all the complications and additional pressures of unusual production design mechanics, the manufacture of scores of convincing creatures and beasts, the visual effects complexity where the boys are always attempting to surpass their peers efforts, the strenuous shooting schedules on inhospitable sets, the crafting of impossible and uncanny worlds. Cameron had expressed an interest in constructing a sequel to the 1979 smash-hit during a passing meeting with producer Gale Ann Hurd, a request she relayed to a nervous 20th Century Fox whom waited to see the performance of his recently completed picture The Terminator before handing the reigns to the sophomore director – let’s not forgot that in 1985 the only other film on Cameron’s CV was Piranha 2: Flying Killers – so when Ahnoldts rampaging mechanoid annihilated the 1984 Box Office records he quickly found himself on a flight to London.
I was too young to see Aliens at the cinema when it was first released and I surprisingly don’t have any memory of when I first saw it, I did however manage to attend a fantastic screening of the movie at Abbey Road studios (where the film was scored) in I think 2006 to celebrate its vicennial inception and I still have a moldering copy of the Special Collectors Edition© StarBurst style magazine loitering in hibernation somewhere, in the intervening years the films position as one of the finest, if not the finest SF/Action hybrid picture remains pretty much unsurpassed. As the second tranche of the Alien Quadrilogy Box-Set I’m happy to report that like Alien it’s another fantastic transfer, some purists complain about the removal of the grain in the images and the artificial ‘crispness’ of the digital corrected frames, in this instance the production team have successfully navigated the path of retaining its original claustrophobic, cerulean paranoia with a texture that still portrays a 25 year genealogy in that it still looks like it was made a quarter century ago, but not in a bad way. The version I selected was the lengthier directors cut with the additional footage on LV-426 that embeds more of a prologue to the kinetics, and of course some of the extra combat stylistics such as the chainguns and other war pron.
Aliens is quite a rare beast in comparison to the current moviemaking maelstrom I think, sure there are plenty of sequels around these days much to everyone’s disgust but at least Cameron and company tried to build on it’s progenitors infrastructure, on its mythology and genetics to birth something different, a beast with a stricter emphasis on action, excitement and kinetics in tandem with a brooding, mysterious, horrific atmosphere of course – that’s the kind of director James Cameron is – but it still retains a fidelity to the original, it is reverent and respects its progeny whilst widening the margins of this future universe rather than simply rehashing the same plot elements and designs with a slightly more amplified spin. Yes it follows the same build-up, horrific sequence, running through klaxon blaring smoke shrouded corridors and double ending structure but the characters are defined, the world feels organic, the mystery and dread are intact and it’s just damn exciting even half a century later. Some of these fidelities spring from the likes of Ron Cobb being retained on the production staff whose ergonomic designs such as the caverns and tunnels of the settlements being exploded from the claustrophobic dread of the first film to encompass the pioneers environment with its higher volumes of vehicle and foot traffic, a simple example of the intrinsic details that Cameron and his team applied to all elements of the films mise-en-scene, down to the uniforms and colours, the weapons and support equipment, the vehicle and tank designs, the instrument and quarter designs – they all feel intrinsically part of the world building, an attention to detail that is relatively rare. You could call him something of a cinematic le corbusier if you were feeling particularly pretentious. Many of these designs were inspired by the visionary work of the great Syd Mead, the conceptual artist whose vivid images of a realistic, functional, convincng future world were moulded and modified into the final sets and locales that are captured on-screen. I’m surprised he hasn’t been more in demand in the film world given that impressive CV (well, let’s just overlook Timecop shall we?) but I think he got bigger paychecks for other corporate work he’s performed in industrial design and architectural work over the intervening years.
I’m not usually one to be particularly jingoistic but I am proud of the history of these films being shot in the UK, as per Alien much of Aliens was unleashed at Shepperton Studios with much of the final sequences being lensed in the nearby Acton gasworks, a tradition of the US bankrolling UK based productions which I have to reluctantly agree has been continued with the Harry Potter series keeping a roof over the heads of many of the industries lower tier craftsmen, artists and designers. Nevertheless I loathe those movies as much as I would abhor a week-long marine training course with all the relentless exercise and sleep deprivation, a process that the American recruits endured as part of their training regime for the movie. Sigourney Weaver, back in her career defining role expands Ripley’s pathos to new levels that cemented her iconic position as a kick-ass conqueror, I’m happy to be corrected but surely she is the first SF action heroine? And no, Barbarella doesn’t count. Weaver was excluded from the training activity as she was finishing up her acting duties on Half Moon Street, a lucky coincidence that kept her from bonding with her colleagues which awarded her an ‘outsider’ status with the cast that correlates with Ripley’s experiences in the film. Due to the somewhat grumpy demeanor of the British crew toward the American upstarts – Cameron was not one to be entirely happy with our beloved trade union enforced series of tea breaks and general working practices – the American cast felt like they were operating in a hostile and foreign environment, again as a mirror to the films fiction, as Cameron’s now notorious reputation as a work driving tyrant was born. Joining Sigourney Weaver were a few faces now notorious amongst film fan circles, including Michael ‘Stay Frosty’ Biehn and Bill ‘Why don’t you put her in charge’ Paxton with their portrayals of the beloved genre figures of Hicks and Hudson, whilst Lance Henrikson plays somewhat against type as the phlegmatic android Bishop and Jenette Goldstein provoked more gender inversions in the franchise with her muscular, testosterone driven portrayal of the feisty Vasquez.
That supine antithesis is just one of the themes that echo from the original Alien within this sexually androgynous future world (note that there is not one moment of sexual affection in the entire franchise, at least from the humans perspective), Cameron seizing the baton established in the first film and running them through his own particular peccadilloes – notions of the surrogate, the maternal and the mother, empowered and physically robust females – just look at Terminator 2 or Jamie Lee Curtis in True Lies, Avatar or even Rose in Titanic – it’s a central conceit in all his work. Aliens also emerges admidst a nest of 1980’s movies that exposed America’s PTSD inducing defeat in Indochina, where overwhelming firepower and technology was redundant in the face of a homogeneous and merciless foe, sandwiched between the likes of Platoon and Full Metal Jacket, Hamburger Hill, Bat 21, Rambo (which Cameron penned the screenplay for) and Good Morning Vietnam to name but a few, the film is classic SF metaphor of non-fictional concerns that can more subtlety penetrate and refract a nations national psyche. The aceldama that occurs on Acheron is a fine addition to the annals of SF cinema, a territory which is positively infested with swarms of radioactively mutated insects, those xenomorphs of the series obviously have an arthropod like quality which I’d argue is a manifestation of an unconscious awareness that these critters are the only species that could possibly survive a nuclear conflagration and would be destined to usurp the planet from our extinct stupidity. But, as they say, all of this is academic and the real charm of Aliens is in its galvanizing pace, its tense texture, the graphically realised future world and some unbeatable action sequences – the way the build-up is handled in the motion sensors sequence is exemplary.
James Horner’s chunky, throbbing action soundtrack is a favourite of mine which became adopted for the trailers of similarly minded action movie projects, presumably in a vain marketing effort to coat inferior material with a veneer of quality, that’s not bad for a 4 day effort that he wrote under duress as he and Cameron fundamentally locked horns on the aural composition and its integration with the visuals. The visual effects were masterfully crafted by Bob and Dennis Skotak, using the whole panoply of techniques available at the time – in camera beam splitters, instate perspective dupes, travelling mattes – all incorporated with a physically real Alien Queen puppet which is unveiled during the climax of the film. This regal beast was a real construction, operated by no less than 16 puppeteers, giving a real density, a real sense of horrific threat to proceedings. Sure, some of it looks a little clunky by 21st century standards but Cameron and his editors camouflage the beast and much of the other contractions of the film with an adept eye, maintaining a fine balance of sense perception that could break the spell, but these techniques are delivered at a pace which doesn’t dovetail into confusingly erratic, almost epileptic cutting nonsense that merely confuses and rejects the viewer – I think there are some very solid reasons why this film is still a favourite to many and this understanding, this knowledge of how an audience absorbs and internalizes a visual experience is a large part of the films classic status. Cameron seems to know exactly how many frames are required to suspend the disbelief – his and Jackson’s approaches to their new projects being shot at 48 fps is going to be quite an interesting ride, especially when one considers Godard’s adage that ‘cinema is truth at 24 frames per second’ then I guess they will be twice as authentic? As authentic as a medieval fantasy realm and foreign world can be eh? Anyway, next up, the inauguration of a certain Mr. David Fincher’s career….