Aliens ★★★★½

This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.

This review may contain spoilers.

This film gets off to a slow start, and while sitting through the scenes of nightmare fake-outs, supernaturally incredulous bureaucrats, and generic military toughs, I got a bit worried that it was going to be significantly worse than I remembered it being.

But when Aliens gets going, man, it gets going hard. It absolutely masters one of my favorite storytelling techniques, something I call the Principle of Inconvenience. The Principle of Inconvenience states that no obstacle can be overcome easily. Ideally, every time the characters attempt to solve a problem, the solution should bring about a new problem. This film is absolutely genius at heightening the tension by introducing a new problem with every solution.

Even better, most of the characters act in ways that are logically consistent with reality. The plans they come up with generally seem reasonable under the circumstances, so you don't end up yelling at them for being stupid. When they do make bad decisions, it's usually under circumstances in which no one can be expected to act rationally. In one particularly brilliant sequence, a panicked Ripley pounds the call buttons for two different elevators, escaping in the first one that arrives. The alien pursuing her is stranded below...but then the second elevator arrives. That's one great moment, but this film is loaded with them.

The "ticking clock" is employed to great effect as well. The most prominent example is the fact that the entire station is expected to blow up in a matter of hours, but there are many smaller ticking clocks throughout the film. On several occasions this is the amount of time that it takes to weld something closed, which in this context turns out to be a pretty believable way to add a few seconds of suspense to any scene.

The special effects are hugely improved over those in Alien, too. The aliens themselves are far more strange and inhuman this time, moving like an unholy union of a tarantula and a chameleon and virtually never looking like a man in a rubber suit. This film also sees a repeat of the dismembered android effect, which was a cool sequence last time, but here it is both more complex and more believable. Where in the original the android's head was clearly a cast model until its very static closeup, here we have an android crawling around on the floor sans legs and the effect is impeccable.

But is it a perfect film? No. Not really.

The worst part of it is probably the character of the idiot company rep, who is deadset on bringing back live specimens despite the ample evidence right in front of him that this would probably spell the end of all humanity. But it would score him a few simoleons in the meantime, so he doesn't care. There could have been some nuance to his character, some sort of death wish that makes the money more important to him than his own survival, but there's nothing like that. He's just a vapid character who would kick his own grandmother down the stairs if you offered to pay him for it. The villain of Roger Rabbit has more depth than this.

There's also the strange vision of the future that's endemic here. Nothing recognizable as our own history is visible in these stories, they're as divorced from reality as Star Wars. But somehow Reebok makes everyone's shoes, and characters can joke that the Hispanic character is an "illegal alien." I'm not up on the Alien franchise deep lore, but from what's visible in this film, I find it hard to believe that there's such a thing as a US-Mexico border war. These kinds of things detract from the believability of the film's universe.

And because I can't help myself: James Horner, what are you doing? This film's score is one of the most derivative, unoriginal things I've ever heard. It opens with an incredibly close ripoff of Khachaturian's "Gayane's Adagio", familiar to viewers of 2001 as the theme that plays during the beginning of the Discovery sequence. The rest of the score is either: 1) repeating the motifs that Jerry Goldsmith invented for the last one, 2) military snare-drum stuff, or 3) basically the same music that Horner wrote for the Klingons of Star Trek III some two years earlier. It's just straight-up lazy and in many cases the film would have been better off without it.

So that's Aliens. It's not a great film; its problems are way too glaring and stupid to allow for that status. But it is a very good film, and its second half is so enjoyable that it's hard to keep caring about all the times that it made you roll your eyes earlier on.