Friday, October 9, 2015

Freaky Friday: Aliens (1986)

Sigourney Weaver in Aliens
The season is upon us, and it's time to get in the mood for Halloween. Every Friday in October, The Oscar Buzz will be highlighting the films that The Academy recognized that likely chilled you to your bone. While there have been several genres more prevalent than horror, there's been a fair share that have popped up and proven themselves among the more prestigious competition. What is it about these films that stand out? Are they just scary, or is there something more to their charm? Join in the journey of recognizing the award nominated scares that you may or may not have known about.

Directed By: James Cameron
Written By: James Cameron & David Giler & Walter Hill (story), Dan O'Bannon & Ronald Shusett (characters), James Cameron (screenplay)
Starring: Sigourney Weaver, Michael Biehn, Carrie Henn

Oscar Wins: 2
-Best Sound Effects
-Best Visual Effects

Oscar Nominations: 5
-Best Actress (Sigourney Weaver)
-Best Art Direction-Set Direction
-Best Sound
-Best Editing
-Best Original Score

When it comes to horror, most films don't stand a chance of racking up Oscar nominations outside of technical fields. To The Academy's credit, they do recognize films that put in an artistic merit that makes the films visually stunning and powerful. There is something far more immersive about the genre that the average character drama will not afford you. For instance, director James Cameron's Aliens is a film that likely wouldn't work without aliens and special effects, if just because it adds to the horror of outer space. While he has since gone on to become one of the most renowned directors for his visual effects ingenuity, Aliens was his big breakthrough, and one that saw him tackle a franchise that likely didn't need any tampering with. Following up director Ridley Scott's Alien, Cameron decided to make a film that was bigger, louder, and faster in every way. What he ended up making in the process was one of the greatest sci-fi horror films in history.

With exception to protagonist Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), Aliens feels almost like an entirely different movie. The adequate description of Alien is that it was a haunted house movie in outer space. It was slow and clinical, slowly unveiling its various conflicts. By comparison, Aliens was a film all about the spectacle. A common analogy is that it was the Vietnam War of sci-fi horror films. It's a film in which a series of troops go in, guns blazing, and attempt to destroy the Xenomorphs who threaten to kill them. There's fire, explosions, and everything that makes an action movie go down smooth. There's even more impressive machinery at Ripley's disposal this time around, and if you're not in the mood for Scott's minimalism, you probably can get some appreciation in Cameron's maximalism. If nothing else, it was the early signs of his inventiveness that would continue to be explored in The Terminator franchise and later in Avatar.

However, the film's greatest achievement is probably that it created one of the most popular feminist icons in action film history. Ripley was always the leader figure in the Alien franchise. She could fight with the best of them. Yet here is where her character became so much more. During her journey, she runs across an abandoned girl naked Newt (Carrie Henn). Where the cliche is for the woman to abandon her dreams and raise the child, Ripley chooses to move onward, protecting the child in the process. She is more than a maternal mother. She is also protective. She famously shouts "Get away from her, you bitch" when Newt is threatened by a Xenomorph. It's only one of the small indicators of her strength in the face of danger.

It makes sense why this performance earned Weaver an Oscar nomination. Even if action films are still taboo for acting nominations, Ripley is a character that defies simple descriptors. She is motherly, but tough. While Weaver had a strong grasp of the character in Alien, it is in Aliens that she really becomes more exciting and complicated. It is also likely why this remains the franchise's sole acting nomination. For better or worse, the rest has been predominantly technical, with mixed results. With exception to Prometheus, Ripley has remained the franchise's one consistent, and for good reason. She is able to travel the galaxy, defending herself in the process. The fact that a sci-fi character would even get nominated is still fascinating.

As divisive as he may be later on, I think a lot of credit should go to Cameron on everything he has done right to cinema. Even if he didn't create Ripley, he fleshed her out into the iconic character that she became. Considering that he would later do this again with Sarah Conner in The Terminator franchise, he has a strange gift for making strong female characters in action blockbusters. While time should suggest that others have caught up, it does seem like it's a tad more difficult for others to grasp. In most cases, the women are strong, but with detrimental flaws. Ripley's not such a being. She may be flawed, but they're regular, character-driven flaws that are easy to overcome. To thrust her into the metaphorical Vietnam War film, it only ratchets up the tension and makes her achievements all the more powerful. Even if the film seems like regular 80's action material, it is far more compelling thanks to some character growth.

Even if the attention is deservedly on Ripley, Cameron's craft is also on full display here. While he would pioneer various styles later on, it's interesting to see him take on special effects at a primitive stage of his career. While the character models may share similarities to Alien, they are more gruesome and powerful in ways that make for a more intimidating film. The sets are more rustic and the landscape is far more unruly. If you cannot enjoy the film on a story level, it's hard to ignore on a technical level, with almost every last detail given too much attention. Most of all, this film helped to make aliens from the cutesy 50's b-movie takes to the more intimidating antagonists that would populate most of later fiction. This is a film that turns sci-fi into something more surreal and scary, thus resulting in something more powerful. It's about war. It's about motherhood. It's about a lot of life's great mysteries in ways that only truly ambitious cinema could be.

Yes, the majority of Aliens' Oscar nominations fall into technical categories. Even then, it's still an achievement to see Weaver in that acting field. While this is less of a horror film than others directly relating to supernatural themes, it's still a film that finds what's scary about being a mother, or going to war. You fear for your life, and Cameron manages to create a sensational attitude as things happen. It's bigger, louder, and faster for sure, but it's also more passionate and heartfelt in ways that aren't often present. No matter where you lie on the debate of Alien vs. Aliens, it's easy to know that both are great and set up a rather compelling franchise that may have been more hit and miss since, but is inevitably invaluable thanks to Ripley. With promise of more sequels from Scott, one cannot help but wonder if there will ever be a return to the glory days of the franchise. For now, it's just great to have Ripley out there for us all to look up to.

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