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Action Alphabet: 'Aliens'

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When I started planning out this series of articles I discovered relatively quickly how difficult it was to come up with a diverse list of films that form the letters of the alphabet without being repetitive with their filmmakers – but when it came to deciding which film from James Cameron’s filmography to include, there was no question in my mind to begin with his glowing and brilliant contribution the Alien franchise, Aliens. My definitive opinions regarding the movie’s predecessor, Ridley Scott’s Alien (It’s a great flick, but frankly I’d rather watch John Carpenter’s The Thing), or any other of the film’s that Cameron has blessed the action genre with aside (I love The Terminator, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Avatar, and even True Lies, for what its worth), choosing this movie to be my letter “A” was simple and easy for no other reason than the place it occupies in the Cameron canon: a well-formed story with fully-formed characters that straddles the line between action and horror more elegantly than any other film in the subgenre, not to mention having the smoothest and most believable dialogue the Cameron has been able to come up with.

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Sci-fi’s original heroine Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver, who was nominated for an Oscar for the role) really comes into her own as a stand-up fighter, having evolved from her happenstance tooth-and-nail survivor from the preceding film. This time around she accompanies a detachment of Marines to LV-426, a measly planet out in the boondocks of space, supposedly brought along for her experience in dealing with the phallic, glossy-fanged xenomorphs (the true reason for her being there is a red herring plot point). As one could easily assume, the soldiers grossly underestimate the debacle they are wandering into, and soon they are in a dire fight for their lives against an army of the acid-blooded monsters.

What is truly admirable about this film is that Cameron wasn’t afraid to play everything close to the vest – the film is in entirely the same vein as the original film except that it takes liberty and expands upon those sharply formed directorial and narrative design choices. The theme of claustrophobia is there in spirit, though the mythology is opened up to provide scope to its universe and the main setting of the planet’s colony compound is more intricate. The cast of characters is vastly superior to the original despite being made of military stereotypes. The actual aliens are amazing works of F/X artwork, a brilliant evolution from the giant man in an unwieldy costume and makeup. Most of all, Cameron’s use of the three-act-plus-a second-ending horror movie format in his favor with the additions of increasingly-tense and perfect-tempo action scenes makes it both a singular and masterful action movie, not to mention making the narrative connection between the first and second films totally seamless. Act one teases impending terror with Ripley’s nightmares; act two features that epic first battle of Marines versus xenomorphs, shot and edited with the wonderfully inventive idea of using the soldiers personal cameras as a way to draw the audience into a position to experience the action from a first-person point-of-view; act three features a last-stand battle, an arm-rest-clutching escape sequence, and culminates with Ripley’s one-woman rescue mission into the metaphorical ninth circle of Hell to save her surrogate daughter Newt from the gigantic alien queen; and once the false ending makes you feel safe and sound, the queen jumps out of hiding and has one final mano-a-mano to the death with Ripley.

But the true miracle of this magnum opus of intense action is that not only does it deliver this action in a well-tempered mixture with the horror elements but is also able to maintain the steadily increasing intensity. Having watched Aliens so many times (I’d estimated my viewings somewhere around 25 – 30), this is the one aspect that I have become a bit more unconsciously dismissive of – excessive exposure is apt to lead to blameless numbness to the severity of cinematic horror – but I still hold on to that appreciation. Admittedly, plenty of action movies come to mind that have similarly impressive capacity for upholding their action pacing, but there are few examples as shining and magnificent as Aliens.

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