On the artistic and cinematic merits of ‘Aliens’

December 21, 2015

By Matthew E. Milliken
Dec. 21, 2015

Back in July, I referred to James Cameron’s 1986 movie Aliens as seminal. I actually called it that twice, first in my review of Edge of Tomorrow (a.k.a. Live Die Repeat) and then in my writeup of Nick Cole’s 2014 novel, Soda Pop Soldier, which happens to pay homage to the Cameron film. (Rather improbably, the narrator of the book has not seen the movie.)

When I wrote those blog posts, I wanted to link to something that would back up my assertion about the importance of the movie. But I couldn’t find something that struck me as definitive, such as an entry on one of the American Film Institute’s lists of the top movies, and I didn’t want to get bogged down.

So I did what I often do when I’m looking into a topic: I opened a bunch of links and then I left the tabs open in my web browser for months.

Recently, I decided that I needed to close some web browser tabs, so I went through the articles — some read, some half-read, some never-read — that I’d opened up relating to Aliens.

Having done that, I wanted to share them:

• “Why James Cameron’s ‘Aliens’ is the best movie about technology.” Tim Carmody delves into the role that gadgets, ranging from items as simple as clothing to ones as complex as sentient androids, play in Cameron’s film. He has some interesting insights about human adaptability and how it gives some members of our species the ability to be utterly despicable (see: Carter Burke) while it allows others to survive even the greatest of challenges.

• “A sequel to end all sequels.” Brian Eggert describes Aliens as the ne plus ultra of sequels. I’ll let him summarize his own case:

Cameron reinforces themes and develops the mythology from Ridley Scott’s 1979 original, Alien, and expands upon those ideas by also distinguishing his film from its predecessor. The short of it is, Cameron goes bigger — much bigger — yet does this by remaining faithful to his source. Instead of simply replicating the single-alien-loose-on-a-haunted-house-spaceship scenario, he ups the ante by incorporating multitudes of aliens and also Marines to fight them alongside our hero, Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley. Still working within the guise of science-fiction’s hybridization with another genre, Cameron delivers an epic actionized war thriller rather than a horror film, and effectively changes the genre from the first film to second to suit the demands of his narrative and personal style.

• “A roller-coaster ride of almost unparalleled excitement.” In an extensive critical appreciation, John Kenneth Muir echoes and expands upon on a number of themes raised by both Carmody and Eggert. Muir is particularly good at depicting Aliens as a recapitulation — with a slightly happier ending — of the Vietnam War; he even describes one key scene as an instance of taking the living room, wherein most Americans witnessed that conflict, to the battlefield:

It’s a weird reversal of the dynamic in the Vietnam War; as if American citizens could step up from their sofas and impact the goings on half-a-world away. And again, it’s a way of saying (like Rambo), this time, we get to win. We don’t just sit back and watch helplessly.

Muir’s essay includes a nice mix, covering contemporary critical reaction to the movie, analyzing key themes, and examining specific filmmaking techniques.

• “Among the greatest of science fiction movies…” Philosophy professor Kelley Ross has an extended rumination about the five main movies that currently constitute the Alien(s) canon: Alien (1979), AliensAlien 3 (1992), Alien Resurrection (1997) and Prometheus (2012). (He omits the two Alien vs. Predator movies, which were widely regarded as empty-headed action vehicles.) Although Ross has little to say about Aliens that the other writers haven’t covered, it’s interesting to see all five movies considered as a collective narrative arc. I was intrigued by Ross’s analysis of one specific loose end in the spectacularly logic-challenged Prometheus, which functions very loosely as a prequel to the other four films.

Bonus links! The following two items aren’t specifically about Aliens, but they’re related, so — well, here you go!

• “Woman: The Other Alien in Alien.” Film critic Tom Shone recaps key critical writing about Ridley Scott’s ground-breaking science fiction/horror movie, Alien. There’s quite a lot of it.

In 1980, the highly-respected academic journal Science Fiction Studies devoted an entire issue to the first Alien — an event that may, in time, come to rank alongside Cahiers du Cinema’s All-Hitchcock issue of 1956. Since then, there has been no looking back. We’ve had Alien as feminist allegory (“Woman: The Other Alien in Alien,” Women Worldwalkers: New Dimensions of Science Fiction and Fantasy, 1985)Alien as mothering fable (“Mommie Dearest: Aliens, Rosemary’s Baby, and Mothering,” Journal of Popular Culture, 1990), Alien as abortion parable (“Voices of Sexual Distortion: Rape, Birth, and Self-Annihilation Metaphors in the Aliens Trilogy,” Quarterly Journal of Speech, 1995). Even Jones the cat got his own diagram, courtesy of James H. Kavenagh’s essay “Son of a Bitch: Feminism, Humanism, and Science in Alien” (October, No. 13, 1980), which sought to align the alien attack on humans with an Althusserian-Marxist takedown of humanism in general…

• “The big action and little problems of Terminator 2: Judgment Day.” Five critics from the late lamented film site the Dissolve have a comprehensive roundtable discussion of James Cameron’s most popular movie (if you don’t count The TerminatorAliens, Titanic and Avatar, that is). In the concluding section, Tasha Robinson has an interesting comparison of the Terminator movies’ Sarah Connor and the Alien sequence’s Ellen Ripley.

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