Aliens (1986): The Perfect Organisms

Sequels are worse than original films. That is a near decree that has been handed down from the high mountains of Hollywood, carved into the living stone of film history. Very rarely does a sequel live up to the standard set by the original and almost never does a sequel surpass the original. I can only think of two that have definitely done so, both were Jim Cameron movies and both had a strong action presence. One is the imitable Terminator 2: Judgment Day the film that set the standard for summer action blow out movies when I was a kid. The other, and in my opinion, superior film, is Aliens, Cameron’s action-horror-sci-fi follow up to Ridley Scott’s taught, tense original.

What makes Aliens so successful where so many other sequels, and hell, sci-fi/space movies have failed? Allow me to heap praise:

  • Story Continuation: Alien ended with Ripley’s quick thinking and courage helping her survive and enter stasis. This is precisely where the sequel picks up. Found by a salvage team Ripley awakes 57 years later than expected, faces a new world she doesn’t know, a company that doesn’t believe her (and even blames her for the occurrences aboard Nostromo), the loss of her daughter, and constant nightmares of the events that brought her here. We see Ripley try to restart her life, but she is forever haunted by the alien and is driven to face her fears for closure.
  • Story Advancement: How often does a sequel not just continue a narrative but add wonderful concepts to the universe and lore AND develop previous characters while introducing excellent new characters? Almost never. Here the story isn’t about a small expendable crew sacrificed for some corporate suit’s private agenda. It’s a military mission that takes us back to the source of the alien in the original film. We see more of the world in which these characters live. We learn more about the aliens as species. This film is the first appearance of the canon source of the facehugger eggs (barring deleted scenes from Alien largely ignored by later narratives). The first appearance of Colonial Marines and their bevy of weapons and equipment. The first appearance of Aliens as organized, strategizing hive minds. These concepts not only influenced the rest of the franchise, but science fiction as a whole as other franchises took these concepts and borrowed liberally from them.

  • Characters: I won’t even add “great” or “memorable” to this bullet point as they go far beyond that. Characters make this movie. Ripley is still one of the best characters in all of sci-fi and here she grows from a survivor to a true action heroine on par with anything Schwarzenegger has achieved. Tough, resourceful and smart without becoming the kind of “bad-ass” cliché a 13 year old boy or Quentin Tarantino finds interesting, Ripley personifies how to make a good action character without removing his or her humanity. Then there are the marines, the quiet cool of Corporal Hicks (Michael Biehn), the loudmouth braggart over-compensation of Hudson (Bill Paxton), the inexperience of Gorman (William Hope), and the absolutely kick-assness of Vasquez (Jenette Goldstein; and who, again, Jim Sterling rightly called “one of the toughest bastards in all of sci-fi”). There isn’t a marine wasted. Even characters you only see for a moment on screen or just in text, Drake, Vasquez’s incinerator partner; Wierzbowski and Crowe, marines whose camera feeds go fuzzy as their squad mates call for them; Dietrich the medic who is the first to get grabbed; Frost whose unfortunate job it was to carry the ammo. This is all off the top of my head, that’s how memorable these characters are. My personal favorite is Sergeant Apone (Al Matthews). Dripping personality, every word he speaks is a poetic verse of glorious career military jargon married with drill sergeant cadence. I personally would have gone back into the Hive for him just to have him chew me out for taking so long. Other than the marines we have Lance Henrickson in his signature performance as Bishop the “synthetic person,” corporate shill Burke played to slimy perfection by Paul Resier, and Carrie Henn as the lone colonial survivor Newt. Newt is an unusual character. This could easily have been one of those little kid characters so precocious and useless that audiences hate her. Instead she shows us how she survived on her own for so long and even helps with ideas and planning. I’m pretty sure I’d be more useless in that situation than Newt is…

  • Quotability: When people think of quotable movies the same names come up; The Godfather, Scarface, Goodfellas… Usually crime movies or movies with carefully designed catch phrases like Jerry McGuire. I’d posit that Aliens has some of the most memorable quotes of all time. From Apone’s ringing “Absolute BAD-asses” to Newt’s quiet “They mostly come at night….mostly…” And from Vasquez’s, “I only need to know one thing: Where. They. Are” to Ripley’s marvelous “Get away from her you BITCH.” There is more that is used and reused in pop culture, especially in the sci-fi pop-culture sub-genre than in almost any sci-fi movie ever. Maybe even surpassing Star Wars in some circles… Even phrases like “5 x 5” are now owned by Aliens. And of course…the most epic give up cry in the history of entertainment “Game over man…Game over!” Hell…Hudson could have his own quotes section…

Aliens succeeded by not trying to remake the original, while sticking to its formula, adding new effective elements that made sense in the world, introducing characters who feel real, and telling an absolutely terrific story. I love every second of it, and actually recommend by a wide margin the longer director’s cut, which includes memorable character-building scenes and an amazingly suspenseful sentry gun sequence. The only flaw is you actually like all the characters (well except Burke…) so much you don’t want any of them to die…

Perfectly written. Perfectly cast. Perfectly designed. Perfectly acted. Perfectly executed in every way.

A perfect organism receives a perfect five panicking Hudsons out of five.

Hudson

See my original thoughts on Aliens from last year’s “Best Horror Sequel” post here.

Dark Skies Gives Hope to New Horror

Sometimes you just get lucky. I’ve seen Dark Skies pop up on my TV for weeks, so last night I said, ‘what the heck, I’ll buy it.’ And I’m glad I did.

Overall, Dark Skies was an impressive new horror movie. It gave me hope that some people know how to make a good horror movie, and other directors and producers should pay attention. It was well shot and planned, and it has major rewatch value.

Let’s dig in. Here are a few of highlights from the movie: Contains spoilers!

Dark Skies Alien
Photo: http://www.cinemum.net

The Plot Is Refreshing

I cannot express how satisfying it is to include the plot in this review. Dark Skies tells the story of a family who becomes ‘haunted’ – not the house, the family. Think The Conjuring but with the whole family. However, ghosts do not haunt them; aliens do. I know it sounds odd at first, but embrace it. They are creepier than you think. Also, the movie plays a constant mind game with the audience, but it’s done so well you don’t realize it until the very end.

Note to Hollywood: The plot different but not stupid. It moves quickly, but there are few if any plot holes. It’s not a remake (thank goodness!). If a plot has been done 20 times in the last five years, don’t make the movie.

A Real Family

Every family has issues, money problems, stress, etc. sometimes. The Barrets have normal problems like unemployment and money issues, but I was thrilled that neither parent was an alcoholic. I think Hollywood throws alcohol into the mix to create a crazy scene or break a character down, but sometimes it’s not necessary. The villain should do the job and break down the characters.

The parents (Keri Russell, Josh Hamilton) have stress that affects their relationship, but they also work on the issues. They try to care for and love their kids. The brothers are close – adorable even – but they still have their own friends and interests. The Barrets feel real and believable, and you can’t blame them for the haunting. They are a normal 21st-century family.

Note to Hollywood: The actors did an amazing job. There were few special effects, and my awesome RevPub partner pointed out, “it was just actors doing  good job of being weird.” Also, pay attention to the scene with J.K. Simmons. It was a clear, concise way to explain everything. It also has a great line, “Nothing. Nothing makes you special.”

The Grays

I could do a post on the aliens alone. They torture this family, and it starts immediately. First, there are “break-ins” (the cop is an idiot by the way). Then the Barrets start to lose complete control. They have time lapses, become “possessed”, and do some crazy and creepy things. The audience never sees a Gray up close, which is awesome because it reduces the possibility of stupid effects. The Grays take this family over, and it eventually leads to abduction. They’re threatening, and it feels like it could happen to anyone. There’s no escape.

Note to Hollywood: Not seeing the monster is an effective way to scare an audience. It’s much more subtle.

Closure Is Everything

Ending a horror movie well remains one of the biggest obstacles in the genre. It’s hard to do because there are variables, and they can all feel the same. Dark Skies did it, though. The story ties into itself, a sequel is possible, no one jumps out or into the camera for a cheap scare. The aliens abduct a family member. Everything is not dismal or perfect. The Grays won, but at least the family survived, and there’s hope. It ended better than most modern horror movies, and I appreciate that.

Note to Hollywood: Stop using jump/cheap scares at the end. It’s getting annoying and repetitive.

I could go on and on about this movie, but I suggest seeing it yourself. If you’re on the fence about the alien thing, just go with it. I was a little skeptical at first because I was scared it was going to be dumb, but it wasn’t. Dark Skies is an effective, fun scary movie.

Feel free to let us know what you think about it in the comments below!

Complete Review: Aliens and Predators Intro

Throughout my pre-adolescent and teenage years there were two film franchises that dominated my creative sensibilities: the Alien films and the Predator films.
These two IPs fueled a my art work, story-telling, and designing for years and even sparked my interest in warrior culture, comic books, and the sci-fi genre as a whole.
They were some of the first novels I bought for myself, and I wore the VHS taped-off-of-HBO versions of some of the movies out with repeated plays on summer vacations.


The years have not always been kind to these two venerable series as the films got reboots, sequels, spinoffs, and tie-ins that are of varying quality.  What hasn’t changed is my interest and love for the lore of both and some of the iterations of the franchises represent my favorites of their perspective media; from movies, to books, to comics, to video games.


The idea of a full retrospective has been floating around with me for a while but it seemed too big to do.  I’ve recently gone back to watch nearly every film in the movie franchise of both and the time felt right.  A long, complete review of all the movies in both the Alien and Predator franchise, including their various crossovers and tie-ins.  It’ll get years of opinions on two of my favorite series on paper for the first time and will be both gratifying and cathartic!


For the next ten weeks or so it’ll be all Aliens and all Predators all the time, covering the series from their most divine moments to their most ridiculous.

To start off here’s a nice taste of things to come:

Top 3 Final Girls (Horror)

The final girl is an often disputed topic, especially since the film industry has evolved her into a hero of sorts instead of a woman solely fighting to survive. When I first studied the final girl, I was in a film class about 10 years ago. This was before The Hunger Games, Divergent, and the other movies that redefined the female’s role. This was before the final girl seeped into other genres, and there were few final girl-guy combos. According to today’s views of the final girl, even Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz could rank high on the list.

Let’s look at the horror genre, and who the final girl is in a horror movie. According to Carol J. Clover, author of Men, Women, and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film, the final girl simply possesses two qualities:

  • She undergoes agonizing trials
  • She virtually or actually destroys the antagonist and saves herself

With these rules in mind, here are my Top 3 Final Girls:

(CONTAINS SPOILERS)

Sidney in Scream
Photo from: http://www.imfdb.org

3. Sidney Prescott, Scream franchise

Four movies and 20 years later, Sidney Prescott may be the updated version of Laurie Strode, the final girl from Halloween. Because this movie spans several, the focus will be on the first.

Scream: Mostly a virgin in the first film, Sidney kicks and slams her way to survival. She’s the “more behaved” girl among her group, doesn’t party a lot, and it’s clear she begins as a virgin who’s fighting to keep her purity. Sidney is so smart she immediately suspects her boyfriend, who turns out to be one of the killers. As her friends start getting killed, her main goal is to survive but also protect others.

She kicks the killer down stairs, hits him, shoots him, cusses them, and ends up battered and bruised. Sidney beats the stuffing out of Ghostface over and over again. She runs a lot! Sidney finally submits to her boyfriend and loses her virginity. Afterward, he reveals himself as one of the killers. So in this case, the final girl is literally and figuratively devirginized, which instantly makes her stronger. She may cry, she may ask why, but she never stops fighting to survive.

you're next
Photo from: zuts.wordpress.com

 2. Erin, You’re Next

The only nonfranchise and newest film on the list, Erin is well deserving of her No. 2 spot. She’s not pure, drinks whiskey, dates her ex-teacher, and hails from Australia. She’s almost the opposite of final girl 101, but that’s the beauty of her character and the evolution of the final girl. The definition has evolved to include a more realistic female, one who may be flawed, but it doesn’t stop her from kicking serious boo-tay.

You’re Next: A family has arranged for almost everyone to be killed, so two brothers can inherit the family fortune. Erin is supposed to survive as “a witness,” but because she serves as a threat, all the antagonists try to kill her at some point. She does everything she can to protect this family she barely knows, but when the truth comes out, so do the knives and blender. She reaches her breaking point, and her only goal is to save herself. And she does. She kills everyone – even the cop at the end, accidentally.

Laurie Halloween 1
Photo from: herocomplex.latimes.com

1. Laurie Strode, Halloween franchise

No one beats Laurie. This buttoned-up virgin babysitter beats the crap out of Michael Myers a few dozen times. Sure, she has some breakdowns, but overall, her character grows into a mature, confident woman. Because the Halloween franchise expands eight movies, and Laurie is in many sequels and the remakes, I’m focusing on the original Halloween and Halloween II.

Halloween: She’s smart, unsure, pure, studies instead of partying, and serves as a good role model to teen girls. She doesn’t succumb to peer pressure, and her character still serves as a role model some 30-plus years later. She’s stalked by Myers throughout the entire movie, and he kills nearly everyone in his way. She is responsible for herself but has to protect the kids as well, which she does. She immediately directs them out of harm’s way. Laurie stabs Myers with a knitting needle (win!), a coat hanger, and manages to run and hide until Loomis shoots him.

Halloween II: Laurie has to fight to survive later that night! This sequel takes place only hours after the first; it all happens in less than 24 hours. She’s injured and exhausted, broken, but still strong enough to escape Myers while he chases her throughout the hospital and its complex. Laurie’s endurance and need for survival remains rare in horror movies, and she stabs and limps her way to safety until Myers goes kaboom!

Ellen Ripley and cat
Photo from: mestadelsbilder.wordpress.com

BONUS: Ellen Ripley, Alien franchise (courtesy of James)

Ripley also goes against the horror movie stereotype. In the first two films, she shows some exceptional horror movie common sense. She’s typically composed and level-headed.

Alien: She’s the one who reminds everyone how unwise it is to bring the unknown alien creature on board the ship. She advises against leaving the planet before the ship is repaired. She’s the one who finally decides on a plan of action to escape the xenomorph. Plus, she went back to save the cat!

Aliens: She is stunned at the short-sighted foolishness of the Weyland-Yutani corporate suits, refuses to participate in the mission until it’s promised the goal is the annihilation of the aliens, and she has to take command of the mission when the leaders prove too senseless to be effective.

Ripley is unique because almost never in the first two films (and only in the third due to the circumstances of the environment) is her gender ever discussed. She’s a flight officer, a survivor, a fighter, and leader. The only reference to her gender is made by another woman – in Aliens when Vazquez (who Jim Sterling calls “one of the toughest bastards ever”) asks who “Snow White” is. Ripley is a final girl because she refuses to let events happen to her. She affects events, and she determines the plot. She can also melee fight an alien queen and WIN.

They Are The Men in Black

What do you to stop your 13-year-old from playing video games? Put in Men in Black.

The sci-fi comedy premiered in 1997, along with one of the greatest duos of our time. An unlikely pair to some became a crowd favorite, so much so that a third sequel was made some 16 years later.

The tag team:

J (Will Smith) and K (Tommy Lee Jones) make this movie. The know-it-all Smith and the seasoned Jones create an on-screen presence that’s hard to ignore. It’s one full of wit, sarcasm, and meanness, but of the best kind. Whether it’s the banter or the two men bullying Tony Shalhoub or a pug, they’re a perfect mix of rookie and veteran. The script and gestures are hysterical, and I just noticed Jay scratching his eyebrow with his middle finger for the first time this weekend. I always see something new.

Is there other life out there?

One of my favorite parts is the discovery phase. I love finding out there is a secret organization that manages the aliens on the planet. There aren’t a lot of aliens in this movie, but you know of bugs, the little worm guys in the break room, and the cute baby squid, to name a few. I remember seeing this movie as a kid and thinking, Wow… that would be a cool job. MIB made me question if we were alone in the universe.

Special effects don’t have to be over the top.

As we watched Friday, my son turned to me and asked, “Mom, how did they make that look so real?” The answer is a great movie crew and some CGI. The bad bug in this movie looks vicious, not cartoony. The spaceships don’t look fake or so unbelievable that you can tell a computer was used. The producers used real New York landmarks and celebrities, which adds something special. The effects aren’t so fast that you can’t keep up, and it’s a perfect mix of real and digital — certainly a lesson some directors should pay attention to now.

Take the time to rewatch.

I admit the sequels are not as good, as most sequels, but the series is super fun and entertaining. There are some light life lessons and touching moments, but overall Men in Black just takes you on an adventure without traveling too far from home.

Here are some of my favorite lines:

Beatrice: You here to make fun of me too?

Kay: No, ma’am. We at the FBI do not have a sense of humor we’re aware of. May we come in?

———–

Kay: All right… That’s confiscated. All of it. And I want you on the next transport off this rock or I’m gonna shoot you where it don’t grow back.

Jay: [shaken] Yeah and… and… and I’m gonna be back to talk about them Rolexes.

———–

Jay: [stepping on some cockroaches] Oh, I’m sorry. Was that your auntie? Then that must be your uncle over there!

———–

Jay: You know what they say. It’s better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.

Kay: Try it.

———–

Kay: I don’t suppose you know what kind of alien life form leaves a green spectral trail and craves sugar water, do you?

Jay: Uh, wait, that was on Final Jeopardy! last night. Damn, Alex said…

And don’t forget the song!

What I Learned from Independence Day

Inspiration hit again this weekend as I came across a movie I cannot resist watching: Independence Day. I have seen this movie dozens of times, and it gets better, and worse in some cases, every time.

I realized during this viewing that Independence Day was my first alien invasion film. It was my first “aliens are not our our friends and will kick our ass” Sci-Fi movie.

A lot of people may scoff because I had not yet seen classics like Alien, War of the Worlds, or Invasion of the Body Snatchers, but I loved slasher films and Pulp Fiction more than anything at that age. Independence Day actually inspired me to watch the other alien movies.

I remember seeing Independence Day and being mesmerized by the shots, the White House being destroyed, and it was during this movie I came to love Will Smith.

So, for a fun Sunday read, here’s what I learned and loved about Independence Day.

1. Special effects could look real. This movie sucked me in from the first strike to the final escape from the mothership. After the first assault, there was something so disturbing and admittedly cool the Statue of Liberty laying face down in the ocean. The effects were not over-the-top or goofy; they were almost too believable. I guess that’s what earned Independence Day an Oscar in 1997 for Best Effects, Visual Effects.

The Statue of Liberty lies face down in the ocean after the alien attack.
Photo courtesy of Pop Culture Ninja

2. Will Smith was awesome. I watched Fresh Prince with everyone else, but it wasn’t until this movie that I appreciated his smart/bad ass side. He punched an alien after taking it down and talked trash to it. You don’t get much cooler than that.

3. Bill Pullman is not a very good actor. No offense, I love him in this movie and While You Were Sleeping, but he forces emotion. The script was well written, but Pullman did not bring me to tears or make me pull for human survival. I love watching him, but I am convinced it’s his eyes and smile.

4. The world needs heroes. In this movie, there were regular people doing amazing things for survival. Who could forget Russell (Randy Quaid) telling his kids he loved them as he helped save the planet? Or Jasmine (Vivica Fox) trying to get her crew, including the First Lady, to safety? In an alien invasion, there are no super heroes, only real people.

5. Jeff Goldblum made being a computer geek cool. I wanted to block cell calls, decode weird signals, and help save the world. The Smith-Goldblum team was movie magic as they raced off to to the mothership.

6. Not all aliens are like E.T. These aliens were intelligent, huge, well defended, and not playing around. They were not cute, would use your body to take the planet, and they did not care. This movie showed with enough fire power, a city could be destroyed in a matter of minutes.

So, what do you think? Where does Independence Day rank on your list of Sci-Fi alien movies? It may not be a Sci-Fi/horror movie, but it’s a good action flick that makes you realize we’re not as tough as we think.