When somebody asks me what my favorite movie is, the intellectual in me says Ran
, the cynic in me says Network
, and the child in me says The Empire Strikes Back
. But always another unnamed part of me screams Aliens
. And though it’s not the first movie to come to my mind, it’s always the last. This is a hard one to review. Certainly my favorite action movie, possibly my favorite science fiction film, and one of my personal top ten of any genre, any time. But why?Is it because the action scenes are really that intense? No, that’s not it. Die Hard
trumps it in that respect, same with Terminator 2
.Is it because the characters are that endearing? That’s definitely part of it — Hicks and company feel like close friends by now, but there’s something more to it. They’re great archetypes and captivating actors, but it’s not the only reason.Is it because I grew up with this movie? Now we’re getting closer. I still remember the texture of my Queen Alien action figure, and the mild nightmares it gave me the first few times. I know every line, every beat. I used to doodle xenomorphs or try out the Bishop knife trick with a pen when I was bored in class.But I’ve forgotten lots of movies from my childhood. What makes Aliens
different? What current does this film possess that keeps attracting me?It’s not just me who’s been moved by this film, either. A quick perusal of Rotten Tomatoes
reveals reviews proclaiming it “the greatest sci-fi roller coaster ride ever,” “damn near perfect,” and “[t]he most intense and satisfying piece of science fiction ever made.” My Film and Literature teacher once told me that after seeing it she “puked and slept in her parents’ room for a month.”
In his review
of the film, Roger Ebert proclaimed: “I have never seen a movie that maintains such a pitch of intensity for so long; it’s like being on some kind of hair-raising carnival ride that never stops.” He further explained that the film so shook him that “[it] filled [him] with feelings of unease and disquiet and anxiety.” How could so many people be so shaken and so moved by what is in final analysis little more than a fantastical war movie?
Near as I can tell, it’s the combination of rhythm, texture and sheer energy that makes this film. To explain, step by step:
Aliens is a masterpiece of the under looked art of sound design. It’s is a true symphony of diagetic and non-diagetic sounds, and it is telling that I could listen to the motion trackers or the Power Loaders as easily as I could Mozart. The dialogue is spoken in an alternatively languid and frenetic pace — half screamed, half muttered, that emulates the argument/counter-argument set-up of most classical music. Each actor is an instrument, providing a distinct cadence and pitch that blend together to form an almost musical script.
The production design is just as good. The juxtaposing of the benign sterility of Gateway Station, the industrial clutter of the Sulaco, and the mud-and-iron Hades of the abandoned LV-426 gives us a sense of a full and tangible world, as does the further juxtaposing of the familiar (filing cabinets, normal clothing, tricycles) and the futuristic (Power Loaders, motion trackers, cryo chambers). There is a patina of overuse upon everything, as well. Paint is chipped, metal is burnished, light bulbs are burnt out. This is an oft-used technique (pioneered, in fact, by the film’s predecessor), but Aliens pulls it off masterfully.
Furthermore, every scene (nearly every shot) moves — whether it’s the scrolling green text during Ripley’s hearing, the gyroscopes on the Sulaco’s mess hall table, the whirling fan in Newt’s hideout, or even something as simple as perforated ceilings or video static. This film doesn’t amble towards its climax, it bounces to it.
And when it bounces, you bounce.
That’s the crux of the matter. Your heart races with the characters because, unlike so many other movies, because the film’s reality is so strong that you become a part of it. That’s how millions of people, myself included, were moved so deeply. This is more a roller coaster than a film. Every bump feels real, every death-defying act feels truly death-defying, and even after more viewings than I care to count, Aliens still feels spontaneous, intense, and most importantly, real. Rest assured I’ll watch it many more times.