Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Born slippy: too close for comfort encounters with unidentified life forms, too few encounters between James Cameron and editor

Just a glance at the personnel involved in
Alien (1979) serves to remind us just how remarkable this movie—at once science fiction and slasher flick, not to mention a chamber drama—truly was. The cast included John Hurt, Harry Dean Stanton, Tom Skerritt, Yaphet Kotto and Ian Holm, while the director came fresh from his in many ways never bettered debut The Duelists (77), and would thereafter make a little futuristic detective yarn called Blade Runner (82) which managed to revolutionize a genre. His name was Ridley Scott, he came from advertising, and while time hasn’t proved him the world’s deepest director the guy had style to spare and a cunning, merciless sense of economy.

The strength of the ensemble cast is emphasized early on, their first scenes being group ones of seemingly regular folks amiably bitching about their jobs. Intriguingly, the film’s hero only establishes herself roughly halfway through. We only really start to notice—if not entirely trust—Ripley (a long, tall and very cool Sigourney Weaver) after we see just how badly things go with the unidentified creature she alone insisted not be let aboard the spacecraft, the first major spasm of mayhem occurring in that still utterly traumatizing “birth” scene where the only overtly sympathetic character dies writhing in his own blood. It's a scene that instills a sort of corporeal discomfort that would undoubtedly make David Cronenberg smile. From there onward a showdown of intergalactic Darwinism locks the movie between its teeth, playing out on a brilliantly claustrophobic set from one of the great periods in sci-fi design, with gear made of industrial strength material, stuff with actual weight you want to wrap your knuckles on.

Edmonton's Metro Cinema is screening Alien this coming Sunday afternoon along with Aliens (86). There are camps that claim the sequel superior, yet to my eye the relationship between the two is nearly identical to that between The Terminator (84) and Terminator 2: Judgment Day (91), which Metro screened last week and which were both directed, like Aliens, by James Cameron. Aliens indeed establishes its themes of ruthless maternal and/or propagatory instincts more clearly, and develops Ripley, awakened after a 57-year sleep to help fight an entire colony of the acid-blooded, multi-mouthed aliens, into a fully fleshed out character with a resonant backstory and inner conflicts. Yet after Scott’s style and economy we go straight to Cameron’s workmanlike flabbiness. Like T2, Aliens is another two-and-a-half-hour movie full of over-cooked sequences and abundant redundancies. The climactic scene where Ripley discovers and then escapes from the queen mother’s lair, all goopy vaginal egg pod thingees, smoke and sweat, is masterfully handled—too bad we’re then forced to sit through a “surprise” second ending that’s not half as thrilling and just takes forever.

There are concessions, like a sinister Paul Reiser as the corporate weasel, Bill Paxton, fresh from playing Chet in Weird Science (85) and reveling in playing a babbling human Nerf ball, and Lance Henrikson, proving robot scientists can actually be nice guys, always lending a hand, even when their bodies are chopped in half. For better or for worse, there’s more of everything in Aliens, though I’d pick its predecessor for the stronger, meaner chills and thrills any day of the week.

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