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No. 25: “Aliens” (1986)

“Get away from her, you bitch!”
~~Ripley

Struggling to name a female action hero for the ages? Well, look no further than “Aliens,” James Cameron’s full-throttle follow-up to 1979’s “Alien.” Though Warrant Officer Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) isn’t the first woman to kick ass and take names, she’s certainly one of the memorable, and maybe one of the best. Cameron wrote Ripley that way, no doubt, but Weaver takes her to another level. She’s not afraid to show the strength alongside the weakness, and she reveals the very real emotional toll of so much violence and stress. In Ripley Sigourney Weaver does more than create a first-rate action hero; she provides “Aliens” with an emotional center potent enough to push this tense sci-fi/action juggernaut from “very good” into “exceptional.” 

Cameron illustrates early on the tremendous faith he’s placed in Weaver’s talent, as “Aliens” opens and closes with Ripley’s image. She is the only survivor of an expedition 57 years before (the plot of Ridley Scott’s “Alien,” more a horror film than “Aliens” is), where the crew members of space freighter Nostromo battled hostile aliens on a mystery planet. Ripley awakens from hypersleep inside a salvage ship headed to the same planet, LV-426, to find out why contact’s been lost with the terracolony there. Knowing what she knows, Ripley’s violently opposed to the mission, but agrees on one condition: Burke (a very scummy Paul Reiser), who works for the company that finances the colony, assures her they’ll every last alien. Seeing as he’s a corporate type well schooled in the art of spin, what he really means is he’s positive he can turn those creatures into some mighty effective weapons. The crew, composed of Cpl. Hicks (Michael Biehn), Pvt. Hudson (Bill Paxton, functioning as the comic relief), trigger-happy Pvt. Vasquez (Jenette Goldstein) and Bishop (Lance Henriksen), an android, don’t like Burke any more than Ripley does, but a mission is a mission.

When the ship docks on LV-426, “Aliens” kicks into action overdrive. Every last colonist has vanished, seemingly dead, but one child, a girl called Newt (Carrie Henn), has survived. She and Ripley bond out of emotional necessity, and their relationship becomes crucial to Ripley’s character and to the film’s plot. The silence and emptiness is creepy, but not half as creepy as the sense that the aliens are there, hiding in ceilings or lurking in corners. It isn’t long before the crew discovers what Ripley knew all along: that the aliens have taken over, snatching the colonists and using them as hosts for alien eggs. That realization ushers in a veritable explosion of nonstop action, a series of crew/alien battles so unrelentingly tense and savage and frightening that “Aliens” actually becomes difficult to watch. The final half hour is a testament to Cameron’s technical skill as a director. These scenes are all build-up and no release; “Aliens” sucks us in, then slams us, squirming and struggling, to the floor, pins us down and refuses to let up. The alien queen’s final attack on Ripley — an impressive melding of fight choreography and effects — merits recognition as one of the most thrilling action sequences ever filmed.

From a technical standpoint, “Aliens” merits high marks across the board. James Horner’s dynamic musical score moves in unpredictable ways, heightening our unease and providing an excellent backdrop for the action. Visual effects supervisors Robert and Dennis Skotak ascend to new heights in costuming with their conception of the alien suits worn by stunt artists, gymnasts and dancers. The alien queen, a combination of puppetry, hydraulics and more, is a work of art. Never before has an alien creature appeared so terrifyingly real; never before has what we see on screen surpassed what our imaginations could dream up. In the simplest terms, “Aliens” achieves what we viewers never thought possible.

And somehow, in all the explosions and the machine gun fire and the flames and draining violence, Sigourney Weaver stands out. She’s in the frey and manages to rise above it. Weaver’s Ripley is a testament to something most action films hide: She isn’t a hero because she’s invincible, but because she isn’t.

Cameron blazes dramatic new trail in “Avatar”

One life ends and another begins when paraplegic Marine Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) agrees to infiltrate Na'vi culture in "Avatar."

Horatio: “O day and night, but this is wondrous strange!”

Hamlet: “And therefore as a stranger give it welcome.
There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”
~~”Hamlet” (Act 1, Scene 5)

Before James Cameron’s gorgeous, vividly imagined “Avatar” absorbed me into it completely, Horatio and Hamlet’s exchange ran on loop throughout my mind. Though it’s doubtful Cameron based four years of hard work around a few lines in “Hamlet,” he nonetheless gives dazzling life to these words in “Avatar.” The director has implored us, just as Hamlet implored Horatio, to open our minds to the infinite possibilities of the universe, things our brains tells us are illogical or improbable. He wants us to believe big and dream bigger, and by the time “Avatar” comes to a close — 160 minutes never seemed to so quick — he’s made starry-eyed believers out of the lot of us, skeptics, optimists and everyone in-between. This is a film that will change the way you see your world, and one that redefines “possibility.”

“Avatar” begins, however, with a very human and somewhat familiar story. The year is 2145, and humankind has set up camp on the planet Pandora intent on harvesting unobtanium, an invaluable mineral, initially through bartering and other peaceful measures. Corporate tycoon Parker Selfridge (Giovanni Ribisi) and the rough-edged Col. Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang) — both unfortunately written as one-note, stereotypical villains — would prefer to blast their way through the native inhabitants, a race of lean, tall, blue-skinned humanoids called the Na’vi who refuse to relocate or give up their land. For awhile, though, Dr. Grace Augustine (a cheerfully mouthy Sigourney Weaver) has convinced Selfridge and the colonel to let her interact with the Na’vi using avatars controlled by humans. Enter Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), a paraplegic ex-Marine called to Pandora when his twin brother, trained for years to inhabit an avatar created specifically for him, suddenly dies. Initially indifferent to the task, he finds with each trip into the Na’vi world more to love about the culture, such as their intense, respectful connection to the land and to Eywa, their maternal deity manifested in all living organisms. He also takes to Neytiri (Zoe Saldana, who gets better with every part), the daughter of Na’vi’s leader who acts as his wary cultural attaché. She inherently mistrusts him. “Sky People cannot learn; you do not see,” she observes.

Though Neytiri is wrong about Sully, who finds his avatar life more fulfilling than his actual life, she is not wrong about many of Pandora’s human colonizers. Col. Quaritch, played with unkillable, Rambo-esque menace by Lang, views the Na’vi not as native inhabitants but as hostile enemies in need of extermination. To Selfridge (gripe alert: Ribisi deserves a deeper part than this), they are a nuisance in need of removal and the “how” doesn’t matter. And so “Avatar” becomes a film about the battle between humans consumed by Manifest Destiny-styled entitlement and the land’s native inhabitants. Cameron has an agenda and sways our sympathies accordingly, with our internal conflict manifested in the person and avatar of Jake Sully. And while Cameron pushes his agenda hard, he softens the message somewhat with the love story of Jake and Neytiri. Neither story is especially revolutionary; the same is true of a few characters, ill-written and flat, and the ending, a little disappointing in its predictability. Still, the interwoven stories ground this awe-inspiring, fluorescent world of make-believe — in a good way.

Besides, Cameron’s smart enough to know that visuals excuse a multitude of plot/writing sins. So much has been said about the visuals in Cameron’s multi-year, multi-billion-dollar labor of love that to say more seems unnecessary. However, “Avatar” is above all else a visual experience, and one engineered painstakingly to retain traces of our human world and expand it simultaneously. What Cameron achieves in the film is the successful marriage of computer-generated imagery (awe-inspiring to say the least) and real people. Never before have reality and fantasy meshed so beautifully, and never before has such a union seemed so astonishingly real. One scene stands out in a handful of others: a moment between Neytiri and Sully, visible to her in human form for the first time. There is tenderness in her face, the likes of which we’ve never seen in a CGI character, and there is fascination in Sully’s. He sees for the first time what he believed to be impossible, and he is changed. So are we.

Grade: A-