Release Date: July 18, 1986
Director: James Cameron
Production Company: Brandywine Productions
In the past few years as I’ve become something of a cinephile and watched lots and lots of movies, I often have an uneasy feeling about revisiting favorites from my childhood. Will this movie have held up badly? Will it reflect my younger self’s bad taste? Often, I end up delighted that I still enjoy a film I remember fondly. But what’s even better about revisiting movies is getting an entirely different perspective on a favorite movie.
As the parent of a 9-year-old girl, I was not prepared to be overwhelmed by the centrality to Aliens of the character Newt (Carrie Henn), a child who is the sole survivor of a human colony that is decimated by the parasitic xenomorphs. Kind of like rewatching E.T. as an adult, the depiction of a child in extraordinary circumstances resonated with me more than it did when I was a child. Henn’s performance is very Spielbergian, and she joins Judith Vitter in my Hall of Fame of Child Actors Whose Great Acting Performances Somehow Didn’t Lead to Lengthy Acting Careers.
Newt plays of Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley developing the star character’s maternal role in what shapes up to be a battle of mother versus mother, human versus alien queen. It’s not subtle, but it’s fascinating that in 1986 this idea of motherhood had never really been explored in an action film. It’s one of the many things that makes Aliens one of the great 80s blockbusters and one of the greatest sequels of all time.
It helps that Aliens is an entirely different genre than its predecessor, moving from thriller to action adventure. Ripley is joined by the rambunctious Colonial Marines as they investigate what happened to the human colonists on the terraformed planetoid where the Nostromo’s crew found the derelict alien ship in the previous film. Bad things happen. And as the title promises, there is more than one Alien. The great cast includes Paul Reiser (then primarily known as a stand-up comedians) as the sleazy company rep Carter Burke and Bill Paxton steals scenes as Private Hudson who sensibly panics when they’re overrun with xenomorphs. Game over, man!
Release Date: May 25, 1979
Director: Ridley Scott
Production Company: Brandywine Productions
At its heart, Alien is a very simple story. The crew of the spaceship Nostromo are diverted to a mysterious planet. They pick up a parasitic life form (in the most disturbing and disgusting way). The creature runs amok and picks off crew members one by one. Only a single crew member (and her cat) survive to the tell the tale.
The movie is built on atmosphere. The Nostromo is a gritty, live-in spaceship with way too many places for a hungry xenomorph to hide. The movie builds up the tension slowly making it all the more effective when things spiral out of control. In that sense it’s not unlike another 70s film I watched recently, The French Connection. It’s also a character story. The first hour of the movie is establishing the crew of ordinary working grunts before anything happens.
The cast is made up mostly of older characters actors. In fact at least four of the crew members are played by That Guy. Tom Skerrit, Harry Dean Stanton, John Hurt, and Yaphet Kotto are all “That Guy!” when you recognize them in the many movies and tv shows they appeared in. Veronica Cartwright is not a That Guy but her career ranges from a child actor appearing in The Birds to playing an astronaut’s wife in The Right Stuff. Ian Holm is far from being a lovable hobbit in his creepy performance as Ash. Sigourney Weaver was unknown in film at the time and there’s little indication that her character Ellen Ripley will be the sole survivor early on in the film. And yet, Ripley is also smart and confident, and if the rest of the crew had listened to her, none of the bad things would’ve happened. Weaver also has to carry the film for basically the final half hour on her own and does a terrific job of showing pure terror and yet the necessity of doing what needs to be done.
When I was a kid I saw Aliens first and watched it repeatedly before ever seeing Alien. I remember liking it less because of its spareness and the lack of humor and camaraderie that is found in Aliens. I may have only watched it twice before. I’m glad I’ve revisited it as an adult because I realize it is actually a masterpiece. It’s a lot like Jaws in that it is a lot deeper than the horror/thriller blockbuster it appears on the surface in the way that it works with realistic depictions of ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. I’ll will have to revisit this film again soon.