ALIENS: THE DIRECTOR’S CUT

By Marc S. Sanders

James Cameron’s Aliens is deliberately morose in its storytelling and cinematic look.  It’s ugly and nightmarish.  It’s nerve-wracking at times.  It’s dark and somber too.  It’s also one of the best action films ever made.  For me, this is Cameron’s best film and it’s not only because I’m a sci-fi blockbuster nerd of sorts. 

Serving as a sequel to Ridley Scott’s monster movie, Alien from 1979, Aliens works on its own independence while still adhering to the storyline qualities of the original.  Sigourney Weaver returns as Ripley.  The story begins 57 years later where Ripley’s lifeboat ship from the end of the first film is found in deep space.  She reports back to the conglomerate company of the terrifying happenings she experienced with her crew mates who didn’t survive when an unrecognizable creature terrorized them aboard their vessel.  The company is less than apt to believe her account though. 

One of the company men, Burke (Paul Reiser), requests that Ripley accompany him and a squad of tough Marines on a mission to the planet, LV-426, where her crew discovered an immense crop of eggs and took back an alien aboard their ship.  In Ripley’s absence, a colony of over a hundred families was set up on the planet to establish habitable real estate.  However, the colony has lost contact, and the company is sending in the military to assess the situation to see what’s going on. Ripley is supposed to only serve as an advisor.

James Cameron’s script and direction takes its time to build up suspense and explore what’s unknown to these soldiers.  Upon arrival on the planet, much of what they find is left in wreckage and no one is to be found anywhere.  At best, Ripley can only see what was likely the remains of alien attacks with acid burns within the steel structures.  Yet to Ripley and viewers familiar with the first film, it is still a mystery as to what truly occurred.  Naturally, more will eventually be uncovered and then this arriving crew will have their hands full.

James Cameron has an imagination that bursts with colorful and amazing ideas.  The Terminator films were astonishing in its own apocalyptic future that haunts a present time period.  Titanic was a film mired in much expense and technical setbacks. Though, no one ever expected just how accomplished the award-winning blockbuster turned out to be.  Avatar is wonderous on a planetary level.  However, James Cameron is not necessarily a celebrated script writer.  Often his dialogue is very cheesy and unnatural.  Aliens is the exception though.

The script acknowledges that these gung-ho marines are “grunts.”  Thankfully, they talk like grunts.  I know that many fans adore Bill Paxton as the cut-up member of the troupe known as Hudson, who has brilliant one liners.  It’s actually a well fleshed out character.  Before Hudson knows what he’s up against, this new mission is just a lame “bug hunt” and he happily screams out as their spacecraft makes the quick drop into the planet’s atmosphere.  When he eventually comes to face to face with the monsters, terrifying, cry baby like fear overtakes him.  He’s giving his one liners like “Game over, Man,” and “We’re  fucked!”  Yet, the dread and anxiety are completely relatable.  There’s something out there waiting to tear me apart and eat me, and there’s hardly anyone left to help and rescue me.  I’m in the middle of nowhere.  Cameron wrote a good under the radar kind of character, and we feel for this guy’s dilemma as if it’s our own.  Paxton’s performance made it better and awarded it with adrenalized highs…and these aliens, with teeth and tails and acid for blood, are most definitely scary as hell.

I no longer watch the original theatrical cut of Aliens.  I turn to the Director’s Cut that Cameron always envisioned.  Particularly, it triumphs because the Ripley character is much more fleshed out with necessary dimension for the film.  Early on, a cut scene, now restored, tells us that Ripley’s daughter died from cancer while she was lost in deep space.  The daughter lived to the age of 66, even though Ripley didn’t age a bit.  Awakening from her cryo sleep, only introduces heartache for Ripley.  What I like about this information is that it serves a relationship later found in Aliens.  A little girl named Newt (Carrie Henn) is found by the marines and appears to be the sole survivor of the alien attacks.  Ripley steps in as a surrogate mother towards Newt as all of the characters work tirelessly to survive and somehow get off the planet.  The Director’s Cut gives some value to Ripley and purpose beyond just violently slaughtering aliens as a means of revenge or fulfillment.  It allows Aliens to work on an effective emotional level and Sigourney Weaver earned her Oscar nomination because of it.

Cameron introduces traitors as well into the story, which are likely not so surprising but make the film all the more challenging for the heroes of the picture.  Michael Biehn is the sex symbol, a cool and quiet tough guy.  Jenette Goldstein is a Hispanic marine who gives off good imagery as one of the few female squad members who enters the areas first with the largest gun in the troupe.  Lance Henrikson is memorable as an android that Ripley is apprehensive to trust – perhaps he’s the “Mr. Spock” of this sci-fi entry.

Technically speaking, Aliens is so unbelievably atmospheric in its bleak, futuristic setting.  Barring a few moments where the spaceships clearly look like miniatures, the interiors look organically formed.  I can’t compliment the set pieces enough in that respect.  When the Marines enter a large cavern, it is enormously shell like that it looks like an animal’s nest.  Cameron hides his various monsters perfectly.  So that when they slowly unravel their tales and skeletal forms, it looks as if the darkness within the frames begin to move.  The stillness of what surrounds our main characters awaken with life that maybe we don’t want to see. 

Aliens works independent of Ridley Scott’s prior picture because it’s a war movie; one that is set on an outer space planet.  We witness how the surviving squad troops strategize with what little they have left.  Thereafter, we see how they face enemies who may have the upper hand in battles to come.  I love how Cameron builds suspense with a sensor device the troops use.  It begins to ring as a life form closes in on their proximity.  The monitor fills with glowing blurs as more life forms nearby build up.  A nervous and great moment occurs when they can not understand how the aliens could be so close and yet none of them can see what is so nearby.  The surprise is unexpected and worthy of a scream. 

Cameron’s script doesn’t give his heroes a break.  Aliens thrives on the characters simply playing keep away, while one member of the party is working against what little they have left.  I like that.  While Aliens may be intentionally dreary the fact that there’s no easy out for these folks is what keeps the pulse of the film racing with nonstop suspense and action.

Aliens is an absolutely solid picture promising a future for this franchise. Sadly, it really never excelled above what was accomplished in these first two films from Ridley Scott, and now James Cameron.  Years later, Scott returned to the franchise with some interesting prequel films that colored in some of the elements that were only talked about before, like the company that puts all these people within the peril of the aliens.  Yet to date, that all still remains unfinished.  James Cameron just set the bar so high with his movie that the few that followed never amounted to what he created.

You may not feel all warm and fuzzy after watching Aliens, but at least you’ll feel incredibly excited with its construction from a director in the early years of his profession.  James Cameron brought about a solid script and unbelievable effects that say so much on a visual level.  If Aliens makes you nervous, fearful and especially terrified, then James Cameron has done his job.

ALIEN

By Marc S. Sanders

To be lost and alone is my absolute greatest fear.  I don’t know what to do when I find myself in situations like that.  I feel palpitations and terrible anxiety.  The only argument my wife and I had on our honeymoon was when we got lost in the Louvre in Paris.  She was relaxed.  I definitely was not.  I didn’t know in which direction to walk through the massive museum, located in a country that I’m not at all familiar with, inhabited by a majority of people who speak a language that I’m terribly limited at using for conversation.

When a person is completely, physically isolated, the only thing to depend on is his/her own wits and sensibilities.  That’s step one in constructing a scene of terror.  Step two is to lock that person away with an entity that is unpredictable, unrecognizable, smart and grotesquely frightening.  In a film, each time that entity comes into the play, the scene should not look like the last time the protagonist or the audience encountered this creature.  Whatever I learned a few minutes ago is not going to offer much help the next time around. 

I’ve just described the spine of the story that makes a horror film like Ridley Scott’s Alien so successful.

Science Fiction always works best when it can be convincing enough to lend authenticity to the fiction of its, well, science.  With Alien, a variation of biology and evolution lends to the terror of the picture and you don’t even realize it until the movie is half over. The title character is introduced in different characterizations with every scene it is called for.  First, it’s an egg, then a tentacled creature wrapped around the face of an unfortunate victim.  Later, at dinner time, it reveals itself in an unforgiving and memorable scene as a phallic shaped organism with a snake like tail and steel teeth.  Lastly, you just can’t even describe what it is except to say it is huge and its even worse than the monsters you imagined as a kid hiding in your closet or under your bed.  Credit has to go to the creature designs from H.R. Giger.  Every limb or shape of the monster seems to serve a purpose.  If that’s not enough, the animal bleeds acid that’ll burn through the hull of an enormous spaceship.  The alien in this 1979 film, later deemed a “xenomorph,” is one of the scariest and most unforgettable monsters in movie history.

A crew of seven are piloting a large ship back to the planet Earth.  Their cargo is carrying mineral ore (whatever that is).  This crew is not military of any kind.  There’s a science officer, but by and large, I’d characterize these people as truckers in outer space working on behalf of a company, by hauling a load across the galaxy.  During the long journey, they rest in a cryo-like sleep.  As the film opens, they are awakened by their transmission computer, known as “Mother,” to respond to a distress call.  Their ship has been diverted from Earth to investigate an unexplored planet.  As the piece continues, the crew brings back a plus one. They have no idea what to expect or how to handle its presence, and then they are hunted across the maze of the large ship, dispatched one by one.

The byline for Alien is marketing brilliance.  In Space, No One Can Hear You Scream.  It only scratches the surface of the terror you encounter when watching this terrifying film.  Ridley Scott uses art direction set up with long, dark hallways and warehouse size rooms that make the cast appear infantile.  His labyrinth of a spaceship offers up practically any place for a killer creature to hide and strike at an opportune time. 

It’s important to point out that Alien lends to the argument for the value of 4K resolution.  This latest print to honor the film’s 40th anniversary offers much clarity within the dark settings of the picture.  Having seen Alien countless times, I still examine each frame carefully because Giger’s designs allow the monster to blend in properly with engineering architecture of long and large pipes and cables, and immense darkness.  Chains hang from the ceilings and water drips down for no reason to be explained.  It’s just how the spaceship lives, apparently.  The atmosphere rattles you, however, when you realize there’s a dangerous bug crawling around somewhere.  Did I just catch a glimpse of the alien’s head there????  Was that his tail????  Is that a limb, like an arm or a hand????  I know all of the highlights of the picture by now, but to this day I still look for when and where the silent terror is looming, thinking I missed it from the last time I watched.  Would you believe on this last viewing, I found a caption of the alien I don’t recall ever seeing before?

Once the monster is established and we see our heroes within inescapable danger, then paranoia and mistrust can lend to their erratic nature.  The screenplay from Alien co-creator Dan O’Bannon establishes how the “grunts” of the seven (Yaphet Kotto, Harry Dean Stanton) debate what is and isn’t their responsibility and what monies they truly are entitled to on this mission.  Early on, before the threat is even considered, a divide exists within the band.  They are not always going to get along.  Later, the debate on whether to quarantine the crew members who investigated the distress signal on the strange, unknown planet comes into play.  It would be easy to simply make Alien all about blood, guts and sci fi laser pistols in a post Star Wars/Star Trek era, but it is even more effective to create disagreements and seeds of unreliability among the group.  One or two of them could end up operating in a different and unexpected direction that won’t help their cause.  Maybe it’s not just the alien we should be afraid of.

The seven members (5 men, 2 women) all have different personalities.  They like one another well enough, but they all have uncommon values and motives.  Sigourney Weaver portrays Ripley, the third in command, behind two men.  However, in outer space, does it really matter where she falls in the line?  The science officer, Ash (Ian Holm), seems to drift into his own way of thinking, separate from the rest.  Captain Dallas (Tom Skerritt) moves along the straight and narrow, only doing what’s assigned simply to move on and get things over with.  The other woman Lambert (Veronica Cartwright) does not have much dialogue to work with, but her expressions seem to be questioning why she even took this job.  Was this woman desperate for work and this is the best she could find?  She’s definitely the most unrelaxed and fearful of the crew.

Like Steven Spielberg’s Jaws, Alien does not operate on the movie monster alone.  There are other factors at play.  A popular Hollywood story is that Spielberg didn’t show the shark for a long period of time simply because the thing would not work, mechanically speaking.  Ridley Scott, however, demonstrates that he can present the animal one way and then show it in a completely different form later.  When it has reached what we can only believe is full evolution, we still don’t get a clear physical picture of the creature’s design from head to toe.  Scott will show us teeth, or maybe a shoulder blade or a tail that whips or moves at a slow and cautious pace.  The alien functions with a combination of real-life predators’ behaviors.  It hatches.  It sheds its skin.  It bites.  It runs.  It hunts a prey.  It grows and evolves…and seemingly very quickly.

Alien has been duplicated many times following its release, including a few shameless sequels.  Mind you, some of the franchise follow ups remain exceptional in their own right.  What misgivings Ridley Scott’s movie have later inspired cannot be helped.  Mr. Scott should consider it an honor, at best, that various craftspeople have attempted to top what he accomplished, I guess.  Those copycats don’t follow the recipe of Alien though.  There’s either too much of an ingredient included like blood and guts or there’s a lacking in its script, such as the eerie haunts of a dangerous setting or the overeager intelligence of its characters.  Whatever the case may be, the achievements in horror work so well in Alien, because it moves with dread, uncertainty, helplessness, a lack of knowledge, and then with only a few touches of gore and violence that are mostly left to our worst imaginations. 

Alien is not only one of the best science fiction films ever made.  It is also one of the best horror films ever made.

AVATAR

By Marc S. Sanders

James Cameron is the guy with the ambitious talent, and yet he more often than not has a missing link in his widening imagination. It never surprised me that Titanic was nominated for a slew of Oscars and still the one thing that was not recognized was Cameron’s overly melodramatic screenplay. That shortcoming carries over to Avatar from 2009.

As a naysayer of 3D viewing who is giving you this review, I was initially so impressed with this picture featuring tall blue people with tails and big ears that I saw film twice. Still, I couldn’t get past the simplicity of the story. Avatar is Pocohontas. Avatar is Dances With Wolves. Avatar is Ferngully. (Okay. That last one I only heard from Miguel and his girlfriend Penni. I’d never seen Ferngully.)

Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) is a Marine now confined to a wheelchair and recruited to replace his deceased soldier brother on a mission to meld his mind with an “avatar” body of a native of the neon jungle planet known as Pandora. The actual Greek meaning of the name Pandora is never considered for any kind of thought provoking significance. Jake is assigned to learn about the natives known as the Na’Vi and expose a tactical weakness in their fighting skills and weaponry. Jake works alongside the scientist known as Grace (Sigourney Weaver) to connect with the people. The evil military corporation led by a mean grunt named Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang) is in need of collecting a valuable mineral known as “unobtainium.” Grace’s priority is not the mineral. She’s more concerned with connecting and peacefully studying the people. On Jake’s first tour into the wild, he ends up stranded overnight. Gradually, his mission for the means of the military and corporation dwindle as he bonds with a Na’Vi named Self (Zoe Saldana). Soon, he identifies only with aiding the Na’Vi declaring his will to defend their planet against the greedy humans.

Much of Cameron’s near 3 hour film is a travelogue of the fictional Pandora and the customs and behaviors of the Na’Vi along with the creatures they share the planet with like oversized dog looking animals and winged dragon variations that the natives can ride on their backs. Neon plant life is shown in excess. Rivers and streams as well. Wide open skies too. It’s amazing to look at for sure, but eventually the novelty wears off. More or less, a lot of these trees are just glowing palm trees.

Because the film’s central storyline is so simplistic and familiar it’s not very gripping. When a Na’Vi dies or a precious worship tree tumbles at the behest of the military’s destruction, the Na’Vi wail in their own way. It just didn’t hold me so much because I didn’t feel a connection to the sci fi the film presents. James Cameron can paint a picture like no other. Somehow though, his prints are devoid of much emotion. The dialogue is clunky or cheesy in its nature. Regrettably, this has always been his problem going back to films like The Abyss or even the original Terminator. All BIG IDEAS, but weak development.

Avatar enchanted audiences back in 2009 thanks to its 3D. It was positively immersive and you felt surrounded by the nature of it all. At home, that effect is sorely missing and so you are left dazzled during the film’s exposition, but worn out on its long winded and simple storytelling.

Apparently, James Cameron is filming the next three sequels back to back to back. Three more movies of this? Really? Look, the guy has a great track record and has mostly defied the pessimists over the years when his budgets go through the roof, but I can’t see another nine hours of this material to hold me interested or thirsting for more of either Pandora or what the blue people still have yet to offer.