September 09, 2005

Death or glory, just another story.

I'm behind on my reviews; I have to write about Ways of Dying and I have to do Sci-Fi Canon Project reviews for Aliens, Terminator, and Terminator 2. I think I'm also going to do reviews for Nickel and Dimed and Portrait of a Burger as a Young Calf, both of which I read nearly to the end a few months ago and have been finishing up and re-reading this week.

For today I'll stick to Aliens, because what I have to say about it is simple: bigger is not better. This very large movie comes off much less impressively than its small predecessor.

What do I mean by large and small? Alien had nine characters, and that's counting the cat and the alien. At no point was anyone else onscreen or involved in what was going on. That was what made it something other, and better, than space opera. It was personal.

Aliens isn't personal. Watching big guns spit lead at an onrushing wall of tentacle monsters doesn't hit home like watching one unarmed man edge through a cavernous engine room full of dripping water and clinking chains while a single monster waits quietly in the corner. Have you ever been a Marine armed to the teeth and facing death as your comrades die around you? For most people reading this, most likely not. But I've been one ordinary person wondering if something is about to detach itself from a shadow and come after me. Probably you have too, even if it was when you were six and scared of monsters under the bed.

It's a problem of subtlety and originality. They had to add juuuuust a little more monster, then juuuust a little more hero, and that's like leveling table legs: you can't stop until you've gone way too far. So now we have Heroic Defense Against Overwhelming Odds. It's one of the oldest movie formulas there is. It's Just Another Action Movie Where People Fall Like Flies. Yawn.

I'm barely inclined to allow this into the category of sci-fi, actually, since the aliens could just as easily have been replaced by anything else. Try it. Sharks? Berzerkers? The Utah Jazz? Since there's no attention paid to the whats and whys and hows of the aliens this time around, they could be savage purple monkeys (or the flying spaghetti monster) for all the difference it would make to the story. Minus one for the Canon.

Posted by dianna at September 9, 2005 10:41 AM

or killer tomatoes even. you should see attack of the killer tomatoes.

Posted by: michele at September 9, 2005 11:00 AM

I suppose I should. I've only ever seen excerpts from it, in something called It Came From Hollywood. It's like a summary of all the stupid shit people did in midcentury movies, and well worth watching itself.

Posted by: Dianna at September 9, 2005 11:19 AM

Random fact: the tomato mothership in Attack of the Killer Tomatoes is the library at UCSD.

As for Aliens, I tend to agree. It seemed much more interested in special effects and catch phrases than in making an engaging movie.

It also manages to diminish all the parties involved, I think. The first movie had one alien who was damn threatening. The second had thousands who get mowed down by automated gattling guns. The aliens are a lot less scary when they're mostly cannon fodder, and it seems like they tried to make up for this by adding all the various alien queens and scary alien nests and cocoons and such.

And the marines! For elite soldiers, they sure put their tails between their legs, balled up into fetal positions, and cried pretty readily. I'm particularly thinking of the "Game over!" guy.

Also, and it's not specifically Aliens's fault, but it's a lot harder to take the last act seriously after you've seen the first five minutes of Alien 3.

Posted by: Zach S. at September 9, 2005 11:30 AM

designed by dr. seuss, yes? though i think the mormon mothership temple in SD is much more...spacey.

Posted by: michele at September 9, 2005 11:35 AM

Zach: I agree with you about it diminishing all parties involved. In the last movie, we were never really sure if the aliens could even be killed by anything short of the blackness of space. Maybe? Maybe not. Maybe if they came to Earth our soldiers couldn't do a damn thing about them (my frantic rationalizing and de-scarifying notwithstanding).

Here we see that, yes, I was right, you just need a big enough gun and they go down like anything else. More aliens coming? More aliens dead. Even counting down the rounds of ammo left didn't bring back the fear and suspense of there being one, that could be anywhere, that you have to go and find because it might not come to you except the way you really don't want it to, but it's content to wait until the right time to come and rip you limb from limb. Gaaaah!

And the people disappoint immensely. They're supposed to be heroes and yet most of them are dismissively made into tentacle fodder. It goes against what we all believe about heroes: that they don't die according to the same rules as ordinary humans, and that if one of them does die it's massively important. It's the reverse of the characters in the first movie, who weren't heroes and yet they went out one by one with all the suspense and drama of a proper hero death.

Narratively speaking, it's all wrong.

Posted by: Dianna at September 9, 2005 04:50 PM