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.

Need for Speed

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Dangling inside a souped-up Ford Shelby Mustang, hooked to a helicopter flying over a cliff, drag racer Tobey (Aaron Paul) keeps his passenger Julia (Imogen Poots) calm by asking her “What color are my eyes?” This results in the two amusedly arguing over whose are bluer, marking a development in their relationship (and later romance). It’s a moment which could have teetered Need for Speed into twee territory, if director Scott Waugh and screenwriters George and John Gatins hadn’t consistently built up these two–and the larger group they work in–as equals with genuine camaraderie. Operating first out of a struggling body shop, the crew are a bunch of blue-collar specialists who complement one another. They move as a unit, demonstrated early on in a rural street race: Tobey as the lead driver and figurehead, backed by an eye in the sky, a mechanic, a techie monitoring the race, and a second driver serving as both protege and ringer. Trust is implicit. When the upstart is killed by a sneering trust-fund dickhead, who pins the death on Tobey (resulting in a two-year stint), it takes hardly any effort to bring the band back together for a cross-country revenge trip doubling as attempt to enter a prestige drag race. Julia at first seems an interloper; a condition on which Tobey gets to use the Mustang he borrows from an impressed benefactor. Tobey is reluctant at first, but won over (curious, even) by her confidence, communicated in Paul’s infectious smile and David Carradine cool when conversing with her. While not attuned, initially, with the group’s jargon or the way they play loose with the laws of physics, Julia more than proves herself capable. She assists with a mobile refuel, makes keen observations about various players (challenging the masculinity of a Hummer-driving bounty hunter working for Tobey’s 1%-er rival, Poots delivers the phrase “inferiority complex” with a posh pinky wag serving as a double entendre), and readily takes the wheel when needed. Rather than undercutting, or even threatening, the others, she becomes a new, key component to the whole.

Here, Need for Speed comes dangerously close to James Cameron’s 80s oeuvre. The Terminator, Aliens, and The Abyss highlight inclusive collectives with natural gives-and-takes. If a member falters, the others pick up the slack. If the group’s existence is threatened, an individual sacrifices him/herself to keep the others moving. This trait runs throughout Need for Speed, but is notable in two scenes: first, a lengthy detour in Detroit from the cross-country plot, so the crew can rescue a crew member from a humdrum office job. Superfluous as the scene is–largely it becomes an excuse to show off Campus Martius and Woodward Avenue via car chase (with accurate State Trooper vehicles and uniforms, to boot)–it speaks to the unwillingness of Tobey’s crew to go on this personal crusade without one of their own. Later, when an attempted hit on Tobey leaves Julia injured, the group rallies to ensure her safety and recovery–importantly, she isn’t used as a prompt to reignite the revenge quest. All that matters is the group. This theme is so resonant, even when it ends on franchise-setup, Waugh’s film preserves its integrity.

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.