Tuesday, April 26, 2016

4/26 - Alien Day

Poster art by Vance Kelly available here

I am not immune to the appeal of internet synergy. Also, I love the Aliens franchise, so today I’m writing about James Cameron’s action/sci-fi masterpiece, Aliens!

First, a bit of explanation for the uninitiated. Alien was released on May 26th, 1979. Aliens was released on July 18th, 1986. Alien³ and Alien: Resurrection were released on May 22nd, 1992 and November 26th, 1997 respectively.

So you might be wondering - what the heck is this 4/26 business?

The planetoid where the bad shit goes down in the first two movies is designated LV-426 in Aliens. Hence, 4/26 is Alien Day. It’s sort of a stretch, but it beats May the Fourth to the punch, which is possibly the point since FOX can’t really ride that horse anymore.

Aliens was my introduction to the franchise. I’m sure I’ve talked about it before, but I first saw it at a friend’s birthday party. The party plan was to eat pizza and cake and ice cream and watch movies which, by the way, is still my favorite party plan. The VHS was released in February of 1987 – an amazing month for VHS releases that also saw Friday the 13th Part VI, Transformers: The Movie, and my all-time favorite movie Big Trouble in Little China hit videocassette. This means I was ten or eleven when I saw Aliens. Perhaps a bit young. But my friend’s parents were a little more permissive than mine. We watched a bunch of R-rated movies over there for the first time. Probably some scrambled porn, too.

Yeah, we had to sneak to watch that. They weren’t that permissive.

There were certainly parts of the movie that scared me. When Newt falls down into the water, when Ripley is walking through the eggs and warriors to face down the Queen, and of course that scene with the proximity sensor. That makes my list for one of the most tense movie scenes ever.

But I don’t consider Aliens a horror movie. James Cameron managed to successfully execute something truly rare – a genre switch. Alien was a horror movie that happened to occur in space, which enhanced the creepy factor. But Aliens was an action movie with some horror elements that took place in a science fiction setting. And it totally worked, not just for it being a quality movie, but from a narrative standpoint as well. It was a logical continuation of Ellen Ripley’s story while at the same time an escalation of the original elements of the movie. If some people had just found another xenomorph out in space it would have been a rehash of the first movie and I doubt we’d have the franchise we have today. James Cameron took Ridley Scott and Dan O’Bannon’s setting and creatures and started building a whole new universe.

Oh, and “Xenomorph” is not the proper name for the aliens. Not any more proper than “Alien”, anyway. It’s a designation that Gorman uses as a blanket term for nonhuman lifeforms. So if you’re going to use that, it’s “xenomorph”. The only terms that have been used to describe the species are Internecivus Raptus and Linguafoeda acheronsis , both of which are about as canonical as Talon Kaarde or, apparently, Army of Darkness. For more on those names, check here and here. People way smarter and more dedicated than me have spent hundreds of words talking about it.

Another interesting throwaway bit is the mention of Arcturian poontang. It comes up in a discussion amongst the Colonial Marines and makes it clear that contact has been made with non-human, non-Earthling humanoids in this supposed future. We never see anything but humans and the titular xenomorphs throughout the franchise (until later when we meet the Engineers in Prometheus), but they are out there and, apparently, commonly mingled with.

Aliens was a game changer for me. It incorporated so many things that I loved – the military (like GI Joe), futuristic space stuff (like Star Wars), monsters, and a sexy lady in her underpants. All of it was put together so well and so convincingly. There wasn’t a second where anything looked fake or felt artificial.

Side Note: This next bit might sound like I’m picking on certain things. I’m not. I adore all of this stuff and understand the limitations that made them what they are.

I was aware of special effects at a very young age. Clash of the Titans was one of my favorite movies when I was a kid. But the look of the monsters always bothered me. Not the design or the appearance, but the way that they blended in with the scenes they were in. Or rather, the way they didn’t blend in. Flash Gordon has a lot of that, too. The same goes for the Rancor in Return of the Jedi. That scene drives me absolutely crazy because of all the crap that has been changed about those movies they still haven’t fixed what is, to me, the most glaring problem. I can sit and watch every minute of every Star Wars move and overlook a lot of things, but that fucking Rancor drives me crazy.

Side Note: Okay, yeah – I’m picking on the Rancor.

You might think it’s a wonder I ever came to love Doctor Who like I do, but these issues didn’t affect my overall enjoyment of the movies and shows. I was just aware of them and wished they could be better.

Aliens was better. Everything was real and visceral and present. The ships and vehicles and aliens themselves felt like they existed in the real world and blended with the actors in an utterly convincing way. Now that I’m older the model stuff is slightly more detectable as being model stuff, but it still looks fantastic. And thanks to a brilliant combination of stunt work and puppetry those terrifyingly mobile aliens are some of the most convincing and menacing creatures ever depicted on screen. They’re the equivalent of Dan O’Bannon’s running zombies in Return of the Living Dead. Story-wise, the audience does not expect them to do what they do. In the first movie the alien is terrifying, but not very mobile. I wish I could sort of erase my memory of Alien and Aliens and go back and experience them again; treasure the shock of the initial movie and the doubling down on menace that the sequel presented.

This movie also introduced me to many things that I would come to love.

I thought Michael Biehn was the coolest guy in the world. His Lieutenant Hicks was a badass hero, but was still personable and relatable. At the time I was sure that a live action GI Joe movie was inevitable (I was right, it just took longer than I thought) and Biehn was Duke. No question. He was the guy. I pictured it in my head all the time.

This is the movie that started my lifelong obsession with Lance Henriksen. As the android, Bishop, he was so cool and so on top of everything, but just a little sinister. He also has the most interesting story in the movie, as even for new viewers the lingering effects of the android Ash’s murderous malfunction from Alien are made clear. Ripley’s eventual trust and acceptance of Bishop is touching, adding to the effect of his bifurcation at the movie’s climax.

I also became a fan of Paul Reiser because of Aliens. Burke was a shitbag, but he stands out as one of the great sleazy villains in movie history. Reiser’s excellent performance led to me being aware of him in other things, including a stand-up comedy special that I can’t seem to find and a show that debuted later in 1987 – My Two Dads. My Reiser fandom would lead me to watch that and his later sitcom, Mad About You.

Side Note: This is the first time I have confessed my love for Mad About You in a public forum. For some reason it seems weirder than liking Golden Girls.

Ellen Ripley was one of the first movie characters that I truly felt sympathy for. Or at least, I felt it more deeply than I had for most characters. Out of all the horrors that Aliens shows us, the idea that she was asleep for all those years and that all of her loved ones had died was terrible (at the time we did not yet know about the cut scene about her daughter). And on top of all that she has to once again venture out into deep space to face these monsters. Ripley is a brave, tortured character in this movie and that affected me and gave me an appreciation for protagonists with a little more depth than, “I want to find pirate treasure!”
Plus, she is pure POWER in this movie. Once she makes the decision to go to LV-426, she is a juggernaut of certainty. These aliens MUST be destroyed and human life MUST be preserved. Her singular focus borders on obsession, and probably would if not for her hard edge being tempered by Newt. As a matter of fact, there’s a whole message of hope and renewal tied up in the family unit we briefly see form with Ripley, Hicks, Newt, and to an extent, Bishop.

The Power Loader is one of the coolest pieces of technology ever seen in a movie. This is ridiculous because it’s just a forklift with feet, but the way that Ripley uses it to fight the Queen and how brilliantly the scene is shot make it a badass piece of machinery.

Cinemachines by NECA

Really, all of the technology seen in Aliens is awesome. I’m still waiting for great toys of the dropship and personnel carrier. NECA is making 6” die-cast toys of several vehicles and sets from the franchise, but I want versions that will interact with figures of some sort. I think the window for reasonably priced 3.75” scale versions has closed, unfortunately.

In 1992 we got a Special Edition of Aliens on VHS and Laserdisc. While I appreciate the economy and pacing of the theatrical cut, I love the elements that were restored in this version and how much they add to the narrative. Seeing Newt’s family gives the character more impact and makes her feel more significant. The scene where Burke tells Ripley about her daughter is not just powerful and heartbreaking, but is now significant for having led to the successful Alien: Isolation video game. And the part with the remote sentry guns is just rad. This, to me, is a superior version of the movie. While the original stands on its own, the Special Edition feels like completion.

Aliens is a landmark of American cinema. It’s one of the few movies that I consider perfect from beginning to end and one of many that I have lost count of how many times I’ve seen.
I’ll be reviewing it soon, but a new hardcover collection of the comic book sequels to Aliens, published by Dark Horse, is available now. I’m only a little ways into it, but it’s sort of the other side of the coin from what happened in Alien³, as Newt and Hicks are alive and the creators could not use Ellen Ripley. It’s good. Buy a copy here and help out Needless Things!:

For a full listing of Alien Day Exclusives and goodies, check out ComingSoon.net!

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