Friday, 25 February 2011

80s Movies: Aliens (1986)

Aliens, if you didn't already know, is the 1986 sequel to 1979's Alien. We've largely avoided sequels - and even the first films of franchises - during 80s movies month, with a couple of exceptions. But this one deserves including for a number of very good reasons.

Firstly, it's almost unilaterally agreed that this is the best of the Alien films. Start the old "sequels that were better than the first film" conversation in the pub and Aliens is usually one of the first films to get a mention.

Secondly, it's got some great people in it, most of whom I associate specifically with that decade. Sigourney Weaver has come to be defined by her role as Ellen Ripley (and, of course, also starred in 1984's Ghostbusters). Lance Henriksen delivers a star performance as Bishop. Bill Paxton is... well, Bill Paxton, in that same meathead character he always plays - here it's Pvt Hudson, but it could easily be bonehead Chet from Weird Science or the slightly more well-meaning Bill Harding from Twister.

There's also Paul Reiser - the comedian I know best from My Two Dads and Mad About You. Here he's playing a slightly dubious, whose-side-is-he-on company suit. It's an odd casting choice but, like each of the others in Aliens, it works well.

The Plot

It's 57 years after the events of Alien - and it was seven actual years between the release of the two films - but to Ellen Ripley it's been no time at all. She wakes up from hypersleep on her escape craft, with no concept of the time that has passed since her first encounter with the eponymous acid-blooded, double-jawed alien lifeform.

The planet LV-426, where the first film was set, is now colonised by human families - which means men, women AND children are out there - and Ripley returns with a troop of marines to investigate and destroy the threat.

From there on in, it's the classic humans versus aliens storyline - some stuff happens, some people die, and it's all really about surviving, escaping, and killing every alien on the planet. This time around, though, there's Newt (Carrie Henn), the daughter of the couple who were the first from the colony to encounter the aliens. Like most movie kids, she's a bit of a hindrance, but she does her fair share of ass-kicking for a little person.

The Design

It's impossible to talk about any of the Alien movies without mentioning the look of them. This instalment has an industrial, grimey feel to it - it's a terraforming colony, so the planet is far from hospitable. Most of the characters are marines, so it's all body armour, guns and hoo-hah. Amongst all of this is Ripley, a sympathetic, feminine character in the early films - and not the harder cynic that she becomes later in the series.

The aliens, of course, are H R Giger-inspired. Giger did not work on Aliens (his website carries a letter from James Cameron offering some excuses as to why...) but his original character concept that made the first film so successful is still visible in this instalment - and still plays a huge role in creating the world that Aliens inhabits.

I'm watching the DVD special edition as I write this, and the exterior shots of the Sulaco, the ship on which Ripley and the marines travel to LV-426, are great. It's hard to tell whether it's a miniature against a spacey background (which is what it looks like to me...) or something else, but it's a beautiful image either way and testament to the care and attention that went into making Aliens.

There are, in fact, a million different design elements that could be picked out - but it's perhaps not about the individual aspects of Aliens, after all. It's about the brilliantly conceived and put together whole, which made this movie a landmark in its franchise, in the decade and probably in the latter part of the 20th century as a whole.

80s Movies

In February, POPSICULTURE are dedicating the month to a look back at the iconic films of the 1980s - a decade whose films continue to draw massive audiences when they are shown on TV. To follow posts in this series, check the 80s Movies label or sign up to the dedicated RSS feed.

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