Thursday, 10 November 2011

(Alien) Queen's Silver Jubilee

It's hard to believe that a full 25 years have passed since the first outing for James Cameron's film Aliens. Being underage in 1986 [1], I didn't actually see the film until a year or two later [2], and even then my first screening took place during a party when a whole load of other things were going on (for some of which I can only apologise). So it was later still that I got my first proper viewing. Needless to say, being both a science fiction fan and a teenage boy, I loved it from the get-go.

Last night saw its return to our arts cinema as part of a film studies course run by a local college. Why, exactly, Aliens was picked for this course was not entirely clear, even after a 5 minute introductory speech by the course lecturer (which appeared cribbed from Wikipedia), but the smart money's probably on the film's feminist subtext [3]. Which, given Ripley's dominant presence throughout Aliens, is overtly bordering on being the actual text. Certainly, the only common theme discernible through the films being shown for the course was a central female lead. Anyway, has the passage of 25 years, as well as the widespread appearance of realistic CGI space aliens, taken the shine off the events that take place on LV-426?

Easy - no.

Though I know the film like the back of my hand, familiarly has certainly not bred contempt. If anything, seeing it again has just reminded me how just well executed a film that it is. Cameron may not have dramatic range - as Titanic painfully shows - but so long as he sticks with action, particularly science fiction-flavoured action, he's almost untouchable. He's also pretty skilful and careful with the detail in his films. For instance, knowing the outcome in advance, I now see Cameron's skill at dropping in brief mentions of plot elements that come to play larger roles later on. For example, the cargo loaders and the tracking device. These - and others, I can't remember them now - are kneaded naturally into the flow of the plot without belabouring them or making them obvious foreshadowing.

But Aliens is also still a brilliant ride. After its tense first hour of careful build-up, it just doesn't stop. While repeat viewings have definitely dimmed things somewhat for me, I still found the tension in the film's second half pretty unremitting. But in a good way. Arguably, the film suffers a little bit from Cameron's predilection to prolong the endings of his films - just when you think everyone's safe, they're not - but this serves to nicely pull the rug from beneath first-time viewers.

One niggling aspect, however, was that the cinema chose to show the so-called Director's Cut of the film. At best, this only adds wholly superfluous scenes, such as those with the sentry guns. But in pre-empting the arrival of the Sulaco with scenes of life in the colony on LV-426 before the Aliens turn up, Cameron's extended cut essentially spoils the "surprise" for the audience. Obviously, the film is called Aliens, so the appearance of xenomorphs isn't exactly a complete surprise (except for the most cinematically naive of viewers), but Cameron's cut is illogical and unhelpful. Of more concern is that this might be the cut of the film that future audiences see by default - that really would be unfortunate. But not without precedent.

That said, the one addition that might have been a good idea on the part of Cameron is the short portion dealing with a daughter in Ripley's backstory. This seemed overdone to me when I first saw the Director's Cut, but I now think that it nicely tees up the maternal theme (both Ripley's and, arguably, the Alien Queen's) that the film comes to rely on. A theme that, while absent in Alien (unless the cat, Jones, counts), comes to the fore in later sequels, particularly Alien Resurrection (it's about the only good part of that film).

Overall, it's extremely pleasing to be able to report - once again - that sometimes you can go back.

[1] An inconvenient fact that, somewhat alarmingly, hadn't stopped me seeing its predecessor, the SF-horror film Alien, several times before I was 13 (and my brothers were even younger than that).

[2] It's hard to believe now that, in those days, it took more than a year for a film to translate from cinema to video. These days there's almost an unseemly rush for a film to jump to the small screen.

[3] Arguably, Aliens is alternatively / additionally an allegory about the Vietnam War, essentially the routing of an advanced American combat troops by "primitive" indigenous forces. But given the ultimate victory of said advanced troops, perhaps this doesn't stack up quite so well. Unless, of course, the film is giving the audience the Vietnam outcome that they wanted?

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