Friday, January 22, 2016

Aliens (January 23 at 7 & 9:30 p.m. at the Case Western-Reserve University Film Society, Strosacker Auditorium)

Here’s my pet theory to why life went so badly downhill, personally and professionally. Why I’m blacklisted in every industry and career field. Why females have treated me like the ebola virus (actually, statistically, I think ebola has gotten luckier more often than myself). Why things for Charles Cassady are generally just a series of humiliations, punishments and rejections.

Because I’ve always felt a little cold toward James Cameron’s ALIENS. In fact, when it first came out in 1986 I only gave it two and a half stars.

(The few remaining readers of the Cleveland Movie Blog at this point quit to support ISIS. It actually works out well for them; they get hired as tenured professors at Kent State University)

Yes, ALIENS, the smash sequel to Ridley Scott’s ALIEN. The Cameron continuation was bigger, faster and more amped-up than Scott’s moody, cramped original. I’ll admit, at the time it was a refreshing change from the general Hollywood routine in the 1980s for sequels to be ever-cheaper, downtrending copies, cranked out for a quick buck.

If ALIENS errs, it does so when director James Cameron - don't forget, dude wrote the Neanderthal RAMBO: FIRST BLOOD PART TWO at the same time - insists on squeezing every last cliffhanger out and goes over the line with the manipulation, putting a screaming little orphan girl in hideous peril literally every time the opportunity arises. And conniving to make sure that opportunity always does.

Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), sole human to survive the alien onslaught of the earlier film, is found drifting in space in suspended animation and revived. She's shocked to discover that more than a half-century has gone by, and her family, including her little daughter, are all dead.

Furthermore Earth authorities, apparently dominated by a nameless, amoral Company that controls most everything, don't believe her account of her crew massacred by an alien parasite. And they've started to colonize the distant planet in ALIEN where the Ripley's crew was attacked (and answering any of the obvious questions about that distant planet had to wait a loooong while for Scott’s prequel PROMETHEUS).

Blackballed into doing menial spaceport jobs, Ripley is summoned by a slimy Company executive (comedian Paul Reiser cast against type) when communications with the colony is lost. He convinces her to go back to the planet in an advisory role with a massively-armed squad of tough, swaggering interplanetary Marines, who are itching for action and don't pay much attention to Ripley's warnings about the monsters.

When they first find the human colony it seems deserted, except for a cowering girl named Newt (Carrie Henn). But a little more searching - and nightfall - brings out the aliens, hundreds of jaw-snapping, fanged, acid-bleeding horrors, unafraid of guns, who cut through the panicked Marines. It's Ripley who has to more or less take charge of the mission (and uncover yet more Company treachery) if any of them are going to get away alive.

In an era when moronic gun-fetish actioners set the pace for the Ronald Reagan years so cherished in our culture today, ALIENS won fans on both sides of the incipient Red State/Blue State aisles, from the action freaks (you can practically see the kill-them-all routine of video games like Doom) and the horror/SF geeks, who insisted on reading profound feminist meaning into Sigourney Weaver as a butt-kicking female action heroine (back before that sort of thing became tiresome, or are you really looking forward to the next RESIDENT EVIL picture?).

And Cameron conjures a strong Vietnam metaphor (or US military misadventure of your choice) when he depicts proud, gung-ho muscleheads charging into battle with their fancy hardware, only to get shredded to pieces by hordes of a primitive enemy that keeps on coming. I was really with the film up to that point.

But then - for me at least - it gets little hard to take seriously when Ripley, forsaking even body armor, slaps together a gun-flamethrower combo and charges alone into the alien nest to rescue Newt and confront the super-sized queen alien. Overpaid critics from the 1980s onwards love to point out that both Ripley and the queen alien are essentially driving by mothering instincts and they mirror each other. It's very much to Weaver's credit (and she received an Academy Award nomination for her efforts) that Believe-It-Or-Not Ripley still comes across as human scale in the outsized mayhem.

With the success of ALIENS came further sequels, and an ultimate decline into comic-bookishness as Aliens battled Predators. I know a lot of people frankly despised the immediate continuation, ALIEN3, but I secretly thought, hey, at least director David Fincher wasn’t buying Cameron’s she-Rambo BS either; Fincher opened his iteration as a repudiation of what had gone before, with the cruel offscreen death of Newt and the one Marine who was shaping up to be Ripley's love interest. I could almost hear him shouting, THIS IS THE REAL WAY A HOSTILE UNIVERSE WORKS, YOU AIRHEAD FANBOYS! It sure wasn’t as much of a crowd pleaser.

I saw ALIENS, by the way, on opening day, mind you, in a now-vanished (like so many of them) suburban Cleveland cinema in Beachwood. Long before those of you tools with friends and living wages dressed up as Jedi to stand in line for hours and hours at a Star Wars premiere, I was THERE at one of the first matinees of ALIENS – really, not so much out of my enthusiasm for the franchise but because the matinees were always cheaper, and I really, really needed to keep my expenses down. Cleveland paychecks, you know.

And guess what? Hardly anyone else was there. And those few who did watch the thing largely sat through it in stony silence, not unlike myself, and left afterwards without much comment. I remember thinking upon exiting the auditorium, gee, I had heard the advance word on this disappointment was really, really good. Fox will probably lose a small fortune. James Cameron is sooooo screwed… I hope he at least gets half-credit for the gangbusters first half, and maybe someday directs another movie and learns to do better. Yes, I actually had those thoughts.

And, I like to think, in a fairer world than this I would have been correct. (2 ¾ stars)

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