Aliens

Aliens ★★★★★

I don't know about anyone else but I find reviewing my favourite films to be far harder than reviewing some ropey old load of shit that I've just watched.

There are a couple of reasons why this might be. On the one hand I think it is because I am more naturally of a negative disposition and find it a lot easier to hand out criticism and sarcasm than praise and encouragement. Then again, a more positive way of looking at it could be that I just find there is so much to be said about my favourites and it is very difficult to know when and where to stop.

Aliens being my favourite film, this is the most difficult task of all. It probably would have been so much easier if my favourite film had been something that wasn't two and a half hours long, covers three major genres, also ventures quite regularly into comedy, and also has two different versions that are both perhaps as highly thought of as each other. Then again, if it didn't have such extraordinary depth throughout its lengthy running time then it probably wouldn't be my favourite film. Loving things is hard sometimes.

As I've mentioned before on Letterboxd, my history with Aliens is a lengthy and sometimes lucky one. I first saw it when I was 10 when my dad excitedly dragged me to the local video shop knowing that Aliens had just been released and they had a copy available for rental. I don't remember finding it too scary even though horror films were something I did not like at all when I was younger, until a certain film came along and changed all that.

In fact, I didn't remember much about it at all until I came across it by accident on a tape version that I must have recorded off the telly when I was looking for something else. From that point on, albeit with the bad language having been 'edited for TV', it became my favourite film. The discovery of the director's cut then altered my opinion of it for the better. Aside from a clunky exchange of first names between Sigourney Weaver and Michael Biehn towards the end, I felt the additional scenes added a lot to the film. Plus, they made a great film longer, which always sits well with me.

But as I have grown older my appreciation for this film has actually grown rather than diminished along the lines of familiarity breeding contempt. I'm never nervous approaching a viewing of Aliens like I am with my other absolute favourites, for some reason. As someone who is virtually never sure about anything, this is strangely one of the few constants - I'm going to watch Aliens now and it's going to be every bit as fabulous as it was last time.

Last night's viewing was actually even more pleasing. Again, I noticed things about it that I had never noticed before. The sound, for instance. What a fantastic sounding film this is. The use of incidental music especially is completely inspired - and, more impressively, is even more inspired when James Cameron chooses NOT to use incidental music. When Biehn climbs up to see if there are unwanted intruders above them all, there is no sound at all. No foreboding crescendo to tell us, hey, this bit might be scary.

The little snippets of music used at appropriate times such as the militaristic burst of drumming as the marines get suited up for battle are really thoughtfully added and not overdone as well, while the sound effects are upped in volume when the type of scene demands it. There's a possibility I'm not talking out of my arse when it comes to this as well as I notice Aliens won a Best Sound Effects Editing Oscar back in 1986.

I know many people don't regard Aliens as a horror film - I personally would, so each to their own. One thing that has been a regular and constant bugbear of mine when it comes to horror films is the misuse or overuse of music to build up to a jump scare. I hate jump scares as it is and while Aliens only has one or two, they are played out to silence - such as when Paul Reiser investigates a facehugger in a tank only for it to wake up and startle him as he comes close to it.

When Biehn remarks, "Looks like love at first sight to me!" it struck me what a brilliant line that is in the context of what we learn later in the film. A fabulous double-edged remark that means nothing at the time and that I've only just picked up on the connotations of on what was probably a 40th viewing, by way of a wild guess. The little moments such as that are the gifts that keep on giving with Aliens.

The big set-piece scenes are fine and very good, of course, especially the two end showdowns with the Alien queen. But what of the smirk on Biehn's face when Weaver starts operating a loader, realising that Weaver is far from being "Snow White"? Or the subtle forgetfulness of Gorman (William Hope, really underrated here) to give the reasons to his troops why he doesn't want them firing when they find what they believe are the colonists to highlight how unsuitable he is for this job?

I always, almost without fail, think that the true genius of a truly great film is not in the stuff that you simply cannot miss but in the stuff that you have to keep coming back to discover. I can't think of many, if any, films that constantly manage to have you notice, realise and discover new things each and every time you watch it. For a big, ballsy Hollywood blockbuster to be shot through with these elements is all the more remarkable, I think.

Aliens is unique as well in being a sequel that is quite unlike any sequel that I can think of. Not in terms of the kind of film it is but in terms of its relation to the original theme. In his review, DirkH makes the point that this isn't really a sequel at all. Initially I disagreed with that point but the more I've thought about it, the more I could see why anyone would make that statement.

Has there been a sequel that has been so very, very different from the original despite existing in exactly the same thematic universe? The original is a taut sci-fi psychological thriller-cum-horror that builds on steadily escalating tension and very occasional scenes of panic and chaos. Aliens is more or less quiet for an hour - and then it explodes. There is no longer just the one "xenomorph" to deal with, rather hundreds, possibly thousands, of the buggers.

Pulse rifles, grenades, flame throwers and shotguns are employed. Marines are routinely picked off in a variety of different ways. Drop-ships crash and supposed heroes start panicking and not acting the way they should. It's so much easier to pick on James Cameron for the career path he has chosen for him these days but from my perspective that is the case because he was the one who had the nerve to take one of the finest films of any genre or nationality of the 1970s and do something completely different with the sequel. COMPLETELY different.

What the hell did Cameron think he was doing? Just imagine the nerve he must have had to do that off the back of just one notable film. Incredible, really. It's why there may never be another film quite Aliens. Sure, there will be other sci-fi action films - many of them, in fact. Who knows, one day there may even be one that is as good as or maybe even better than Aliens.

This is the anti-sequel that should have failed or disappointed for so many reasons. That didn't quite go according to plan. I'll always be thankful for that.

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