OK I’m under no illusions that I’m about to be in anyway controversial here; I love the movie Aliens. It’s one of my favourite films, I think it probably stands the test as my favourite SF film. I would also maintain that it might well be one of the five (three?) best SF movies ever made. But that’s too big an argument to have on a blog (plus it’s an argument I might lose so I’m not interested in having it until I’ve had a couple of pints).
So, Aliens, why do I love thee? Let me list the ways (in no particular order and with no particular coherence – look I’m writing this in my lunch break OK?)
This is a film that more than 25 years after first release still feels sharp and none-too-out-of-date. That would be achievement enough for any film, for an SF movie it’s extraordinary. After all nothing ages quite so fast as yesterday’s vision of the future. And in a world where CGI can do anything (except look COMPLETELY real) the inspired combination of model-making, puppetry and sheer ingenuity that went into Aliens’ special effects still manages to look pretty good. (It’s fair to say that ‘traditional’ special effects, where the artifice reveals the skill and effort that went into its production, still impress me more than modern CGI. But then I am nearly 400 years old.)
It feels sharp and now(ish) not just because of how it looks but because of how it sounds. Nothing helps a film feel relevant and real for longer than a bloody good script. And Aliens has a fantastically good script. Both in structure and the finer detail of single lines the script sings like a tautly strung plucked line – the whole thing is just so damn tight. Not a single line is wasted, not a single word within those lines. Indeed I found the Director’s Cut to be a sadly flabby experience. Even with the sentry guns (I looooove the sentry guns!). The original script tells you exactly what you need to know, it sketches in just enough background incident for you to draw your own conclusions (you know, like a grown-up – Hollywood are you listening?) and it delivers the story at a breakneck pace, winding up the tension with continually tightened deadlines (Seventeen days! Four hours! Five minutes!). And along the way it peppers that story with a treasure trove of quotable dialogue. Has any SF movie been more quoted? Everyone has a handful of favourite lines. I’m not going to quote mine – it would take too long. The people in this film sound real. They laugh and joke even when they are in the deepest shit (a sure sign of a realistic script), when they spout clichés (Apone I’m looking at you) they do it knowingly. We can come to know these people through their words. Which leads me to character.
The characters in this film are fantastic and our appreciation of them is aided by some excellent acting. Even when (see above) they conform to cliché, they somehow remain believable (we all of us perform to type sometimes right?). Yes Gorman is the clichéd inexperienced Lieutenant but when he’s sweating his way through his epic failure commanding the foray beneath the cooling towers, boy do we feel for him. Yes Hudson (yaay! Hudson) is the classic complainer and back-talker but he’s funny, bolshie and real. And then there’s the women. Vasquez (‘You ever been mistaken for a man?’ ‘No, have you?), Dietrich (competent, sarky, believable) and Ripley. Ripley, Ripley, Ripley. I’m quite a bit helplessly in love with Ripley. Has there ever been a better portrayal of a no-nonsense confident-but-troubled woman making her way in a ridiculously male environment with grace, candour and strength? She never uses her sexuality and when her mothering instincts cut in it’s entirely unpatronising and unsentimental. Ripley is a model female character. All the more extraordinary then that she turns up in the middle of an often-times gung-ho, bughunt in space movie. And never feels out of place.
And oh this blog piece is going on and on and I haven’t even touched on the tech: the dropship (revisited in Avatar), the M41A Pulse Rifle, the Sulaco (catch that Conrad reference). Or the aliens – terrifying for being glimpsed briefly and in flickering strobes until we see the full awesome glory of the (let’s not forget puppeted and hydraulic) Queen (‘Get away from her, you bitch!’).
And, and, all the other stuff. The direction, the photography, the art design.
Let me end on one thing. This film is relentlessly nervewracking and terrifying. It puts the screws on you and never. Lets. Up. And it has some genuine jump out of your seat moments. Literally.
I saw this film twice in the first week it came out. You know the bit where the facehugger in the stasis tube thumps against the glass? I jumped. Later in that week I watched the row of people next to me at that moment. They jumped. All of them. Six inches out of their seats.
Aliens. I love you. Ripley? I love you too. But Aliens I love you more.