Aliens

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While switching from horror to a more sci-fi/action tenor is the most obvious change, the biggest divergence in James Cameron’s Alien sequel is the nature of the threat. Alien posited a universe where the exploitation of corporate serfdom collided with a prowling, eldritch beast that killed via copulation. The Weyland-Yutani company existed through its artificial proxies, deliberately removed from humanity. Ripley may have been able to deduce their motivations, but much about them remained as unknowable as anything related to the xenomorph. Aliens wastes no time, however, putting a face to this entity: rescued after 57 years in cryo-sleep, Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) is then forced to rehash the details of her ordeal to a room full of frumpy, dimwitted accountants. Their concern about the Nostromo’s dollar value is callous, but entirely mundane. Likewise, yuppie opportunist Burke (Paul Reiser) elicits disgust when he tries to profit off the alien’s existence, but he’s a pale substitute for cum-blooded alien-fanbot Ash and his oral fixation.

The change to less unknowable horror does allow Cameron and Weaver opportunity to better explore Ripley. While a fierce pragmatist and capable of taking charge the first time around, the film’s ensemble nature meant she wasn’t the focus. Aliens sets the franchise squarely on her shoulders. The film charts her growth from traumatized victim–clutching her chest every moment she’s triggered–to returning to the source of that trauma, overcoming it. To that end, Cameron surrounds her with a child to care for (Carrie Henn’s Newt) and a squad of Marines, trigger-happy and cocksure but also largely supportive and utilitarian.

The nature of these relationships change subtly, depending on whether you’re watching the theatrical cut or the much-celebrated special edition. The latter introduces deleted scenes where Ripley remembers a daughter who died while she was asleep, positioning Newt explicitly as a surrogate daughter. That theme is subtext in the theatrical: Ripley is still tender and steadfast, giving Newt reassuring touches (prominently when she reaches for the child’s hands through a floor grate during a rescue attempt), but their bond is more specifically over the horrors inflicted upon them. They give knowing glances and have muttered asides about the aliens, precisely because no one else has gone through what they have. In many ways, Newt personifies Ripley’s own damaged psyche. Their relationship, and the stability they provide one another, gives them a space to grow from.

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What Social Life? – Movies 2014: July

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And this is continuing:

  • Transformers: Age of Extinction (2014) – Dir. Michael Bay: Starting my month off properly.
  • From Russia With Love (1963) – Dir. Terence Young
  • Night of the Creeps (1986) – Dir. Fred Dekker
  • Goon (2012) – Dir. Michael Dowse
  • Slap Shot (1977) – Dir. George Roy Hill
  • The Prisoner:”Free for All”; “Dance of the Dead” (1967) – Dir. Patrick McGoohan; Dan Chaffey
  • The Moth Diaries (2011) – Dir. Mary Harron
  • Twin Peaks, Season 2 Eps. 2-3 (1990) – Dir. David Lynch; Lesli Linka Glatter
  • The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) – Dir. John Huston
  • Waltz With Bashir (2008) – Dir. Ari Folman
  • Prince Valiant (1954) – Dir. Henry Hathaway
  • The Jungle (2014) – Dir. Andrew Traucki: Another garbage found footage movie.
  • Blood Widow (2013) – Dir. Jeremiah Buckhalt
  • Tammy (2014) – Dir. Ben Falcone
  • Grown Ups 2 (2013) – Dir. Dennis Dugan
  • Alien (1978) – Dir. Ridley Scott
  • Aliens (1986) – Dir. James Cameron
  • Predator (1987) (again) – Dir. John McTiernan
  • Sleepaway Camp (1983) – Dir. Robert Hiltzik
  • Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014) – Dir. Matt Reeves
  • Veronica Mars (2014) – Dir. Rob Thomas
  • Homefront (2013) – Dir. Gary Fleder

Total: 22 (YTD: 104)

One of the things I paid more attention to in July was lighting. Good lighting can make a film tactile. Lot of films don’t utilize this to its full capability: Tammy and Grown Ups 2 (most comedies, really) are adequate, I guess, but everything looks flat and monotone, like the lights used for the backgrounds don’t match the lights used for the actors; Veronica Mars: The Movie gets this right in night scenes, which have that urban, neon sheen which was a hallmark of Joel Silver’s 80s flicks, adding a level of danger even to talking scenes (i.e. Kristen Bell’s face being lit by streetlamps when she and Jason Dohring are driving across a bridge), but most the film is shot in the oddly blue-tinted daytime which marks a lot of TV dramas. Then there’s movies like Homefront or Blood Widow where it’s the best (technical) part of a crappy film (and Homefront overdoes it, sometimes saturating the screen with lens flare so you can’t see what a character is doing).

As with a lot of production elements, Aliens is king here. That shot of Hicks at the top, lit by dual sources (the emergency light and the lamp) is not only aesthetically pleasing, but the 360-degree coverage of actor and setting lends the scene an urgent realism which pulls the viewer in (“immersion,” as the PR people like to say)(and it’s not just this scene, either, it’s the whole movie, especially notable in the green-screened moment of Ripley and Newt on the platform as the reactor is ready to blow, lightning and fireballs light up both background and foreground. In great films, everything’s considered).

Even better: the red light used in this scene–where the xenomorphs get past the barricades–signifies imminent danger. Panic sets in amongst the cast as the motion tracker shows the aliens getting closer, closer, closer, before finally everyone looks at the ceiling panels in a horrific moment of realization. The lamp enters the frame as Michael Biehn climbs up to find out for sure. For a few, brief seconds, the blue dominates the frame, tension mounting as he (and we) face the unknowable, the inevitable. Biehn turns his head, and the red overtakes the scene again. Cue the aliens, climbing forward from shadows. Then the shooting starts.

Mama

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Punk chick Annabel (Jessica Chastain) doesn’t want to be a mom. She’s first introduced staring at a negative pregnancy test, saying “Thank you, God.” With her tattoos and a wardrobe of tank tops, Misfits T-shirts, and tattered jeans, she doesn’t ‘look’ the part. Soon enough, though, she’s dragged by her boyfriend Lucas (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) into caregiving for his nieces, who are semi-feral from five years in the wilderness after a botched murder/suicide attempt by their businessman father. Oh, and they were raised by a spidery, possessive banshee.

Mama, at its best, uses its contrived plot to correlate childhood fears with Annabel’s own insecurities about parenting. Asking Victoria and Lilly (Megan Charpentier and Isabelle Nélisse) “What’s in the closet?” and “What’s under the bed?” when she (almost) catches sight of their supernatural Mama, Annabel has lost any sense of control–of herself and her life. Andrés Muschietti shoots scenes where she is framed by doorways or otherwise isolated from the children within their rural, state-picked home (a condition of granting custody): she’s vaguely aware of the ghost’s presence, but wants out of her situation (“It’s not my job”). Only after Lucas is hospitalized, by Mama, does Annabel take interest in the girls. She converses with the more receptive Victoria or warms a freezing, resistant Lilly in an embrace similar to how Ripley catches the terrified Newt in Aliens. Mama herself is like the Queen Alien, elongated fingers and cranium, fighting Annabel for control of Lilly and Victoria. Her presence in the house is even marked by a blackened orifice, a gateway from which she and moth-servants spring forth. This rivalry posits a Gen Y update of James Cameron’s classic, but Muschietti piles on contrivances: a case worker investigating Mama’s rote backstory and a great-aunt who also wants the kids are dull. Their only purpose to push towards a senseless climax in a digitally-colored Thomas Kinkade forest (executive producer Guillermo del Toro’s rubber-stamp on the project). The movie becomes so cluttered, Muschietti forgets to give Chastain her own “Get away from her, you bitch!”

In Space, No One Can Hear You Sloth

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If I were to sum up Aliens: Colonial Marines in a single word, it would be “lazy.” Not just the weird graphics and sound glitches that permeated the game (Did anybody really expect that hands-off demo to actually represent the game? Come on, now), or that Gearbox farmed out quite a bit of the work to a second developer. Nah, Colonial Marines‘ biggest act of sloth was ignoring Aliens’ greatest themes.

It’s not something technical that directly ruins the immediate, visceral experience of playing a game. The atmosphere of primal, sexual violence and predation that defines the xenomorph’s existence isn’t related to whether or not NPCs move when the script requires them to be running for a ship with Corporal Winter; the subversion of traditional gender roles in all five of the Alien movie quintet doesn’t effect the ability to maintain sound during something as basic as a cutscene. What the recognition (or not) of these things does do is show how thoughtful a developer is to their own work. So, when female characters are relegated to objectives for their testosterone-fueled counterparts in constant need of protection (Reid, a cypher who exists purely on quest logic) or sacrifices on the altar of angst (Bella with her chestburster), we see a regression from the gains made by the development of Ellen Ripley. Such a philosophy infects the entire production.aliens-colonial-marines-powerloader

The version of the Colonial Marines from Randy Pitchford’s crew are superficial fascimiles of Cameron’s Vietnam-era camaraderie and arrogance, not unlike what’s found in Halo or Gears of War, lionized rather than deconstructed (hence Colonial Marines as subtitle). Cameron, pre-Titanic, showed his Marines, the spitting image of masculinity (“Have you ever been mistaken for a man?”), breaking down in the face of real danger and the knowledge their actions were in service not to country but indifferent corporate interests. It’s a human approach that doesn’t conform to rah-rah, “Support the Troops” bumper sticker culture (see also the excellent Spec Ops: The Line). Gearbox replaces thematic depth with jingoism: characters repeat “Oorah to Ashes” as if in prayer, while Captain Cruz (a character resembling Stephen Lang’s Avatar villain) gives a platitude-laden speech before an assault on Weyland-Yutani and the xenomorphs. As a result, what was a last stand for Aliens’ Hicks, Hudson, and Vasquez gets bowdlerized into Colonial Marines‘ run ‘n’ gun hill-taking set-pieces (notably, Reid and Bella are the only Marines shown to crack under pressure when one pulls a gun on the other; The Line‘s squad completely breaks down by game’s end). Only the multiplayer “Escape” mode has any focus on tactics, survival, and desperation Aliens had, though I suspect it’s because the developers lifted from Left 4 Dead. Everything else, including the incurious, hole-riddled story, isn’t even in the same universe.

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This isn’t an unexpected development. Gearbox’s biggest projectsthe bloated yet empty Borderlands and the lurching corpse of Duke Nukem Forever they helped across the finish line–are born of the insular culture video games have fostered for years: male-dominated sex fantasy at one end, sterile boys-seeking-treasure at the other. Even when the women are permitted to kick ass, as with Lilith in Borderlands, they are void of personality or femininity; this extends further in Colonial Marines‘ case, to the multiplayer mode, where female Marines are given fewer customization options (only two faces with variable skin tones and two voices), as if their inclusion was the begrudging compromise to fans it was. That’s all the game is, really: Gearbox/TimeGate dragging their feet at the thought of actually making an Aliens game, and instead churning out leftovers from other shooters.