Aliens (1986)


Directed by: James Cameron

Written by: James Cameron and David Giler

Starring: Sigourney Weaver, Michael Biehn, Carrie Henn

“That’s it, man. Game over, man. Game over! What the fuck are we gonna do now? What are we gonna do?” — Bill Paxton as Private Hudson

•  •  •

I really wanted to like this movie, damn it.

Even in 2017, the hype was undeniable. James Cameron, fresh off his legacy-launching job at the helm of The Terminator, was directing the sequel to arguably the best science fiction film of the 20th century. Everyone I’ve talked to about Aliens has heaped praise upon it. I went into this movie expecting it to be bigger and scarier than the original.

But it’s just bigger. And more annoying.

The original Alien thrives by putting a small crew in a claustrophobic hellhole from which there is no escape. It works because the smaller cast makes each character actually take on a life — whereas Aliens brings an entire squad of marines into the picture, for the sole purpose of being able to have more kill sequences without running out of human ammo. But I just can’t bring myself to care about any of those characters. In fact, they’re not even characters —  they’re just pawns being sent out to be destroyed en masse.

This movie is aggravatingly predictable across the board. In the first film, Ian Holm plays a traitorous android whose sole mission is to get the “perfect organism” back to the company, with the rest of the crew ID’d as expendable. In the sequel, we have Bishop, an android who from the start Ripley distrusts and despises loudly and openly. But of course James Cameron isn’t going to play the same villain trick again, and there’s a sense that Bishop has to do something to redeem the viewers’ negative impressions of androids (which of course he does).

Paul Reiser with his charming baby blues plays Burke, the new company man. Let’s not forget that this is the same company that sold out the crew in the first film in order to get the alien back to Earth and study it. But don’t worry! Everything is different now, and Burke assures Ripley that he wants to help destroy these creatures at all costs, which no sane viewer can buy for even a millisecond.

This all sets up a suicide mission in which the characters plunge down onto a space colony that has been torn apart by the xenomorph aliens. Everyone’s dead. Well, except for Newt, the young girl who has somehow survived while hiding among the wreckage, just waiting for Ripley to show up. Ripley takes on a motherly role for the child, and the dynamic between the two is one of the real enjoyable aspects of Aliens. Sigourney Weaver received an Oscar nod for best actress, and I have to believe that the scenes between her and the young actress Carrie Henn are a big reason for the nomination.

The movie’s strongest moments come through effects and makeup, and there are some truly dazzling sequences. The xenomorphs remain terrifying, and now that there’s an entire horde of them, chaos and violence follows wherever they roam. And that can be a whole lot of fun, don’t get me wrong.

But I can’t excuse the lazy storyline that just doesn’t have enough emotional bite to captivate me. There was a phenomenal sequel that could have been made here. Cameron just didn’t make it.

E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982)


Directed by: Steven Spielberg

Written by: Melissa Mathison

Starring: Henry Thomas, Drew Barrymore, Peter Coyote

This is one of those movies that, in a way, gave impetus to the idea for this blog. I’m not exactly sure how I got to be 25 years old without ever seeing this 1982 Steven Spielberg classic, but the fact that I did really seemed to upset people.

I talked with my parents on the phone recently, and they were adamant that we had watched this movie together as a family — but I don’t believe them. Or at least I wasn’t alive yet when the family watched it.

Anyway, seeing E.T. for the first time as an adult in 2017 admittedly does take away some of the magic. Some of — OK, a lot of — the child acting is grating, and the special effects obviously don’t cause the same jaw-dropping reactions they would have if I had watched the movie when I was younger.

If I had seen those kids on their bikes flying in front of the moon 15 years ago, my imagination would have run wild. I would have wanted to hop on my bicycle and zoom around the neighborhood as soon as the credits rolled. Watching it today, it’s hard not to just see the ridiculous use of green screen.

That said, Spielberg is a master at creating atmosphere, and the alien invading suburbia plot works so well in E.T. I especially like how the only adult showed in the first half of the movie is protagonist Elliott’s frustratingly clueless mother. All other adults — including the great villain-turned-hero “Mr. Keys” — are filmed from the waist down until the very end of the film.

So Spielberg creates this world that we experience from the child’s point of view, which is incredibly smart in making us believe this boy-alien relationship. It blocks out any encroaching “realness” of the outside world, and keeps the viewers — like the children — in a bubble.

There’s a scene in the middle of the movie that really stood out for being from an earlier time. Most people probably remember it because E.T. cracks open a few Coors and gets comically drunk while Elliott is away at school. But do you remember what Elliott was doing at school? He and his classmates are about to dissect frogs. But before they do this, they have to freaking chloroform live frogs in a jar.

Is this the way the world used to work? Did schools actually pass out live frogs and tell children, “OK, you take it from here.”

“They won’t feel anything,” the teacher tells the class as he instructs these 10-year-olds to kill a living creature. Elliot famously saves the day, and the result is a flurry of frogs hopping out of the windows.

Thirty-five years after its release, E.T. struggles to stay enjoyable in ways that other earlier Spielberg films (Jaws, Jurassic Park) don’t. I really don’t want to harp on the child actors too much, but Henry Thomas is just bad. Really bad. He can pull off amazement and wonder, but line delivery just isn’t his strong suit. I kept feeling like I wanted to escape his performance, but there was no way out. He’s in it nearly every scene — and it wore me down.