james cameron

Favourite Films on Friday, #17: Aliens

Perhaps you already know this, but it’s nearly a full hour into Aliens before the first appearance by any, you know, aliens. It’s a pretty ballsy move, and one that helps make the action sequences in the second half really sing. But there’s an even more important late introduction, at the 45 minute mark. It looks like it’s going to be the aliens. The motion tracker bleeps promisingly, teasingly. Guns are raised. That blip turns into a blur streaking across the foreground. Of course, it’s a fakeout. It was a little girl. Newt. Newt changes the film. Putting kids and dogs in danger is a cliché; it’s an easy way to up the stakes, but it works. (Alien had a cat, which has nearly the same effect except that cats are rubbish). Part of this is the execution – Newt’s never overplayed, she’s not a cutesy or annoying character, Cameron can build tension like an absolute melonfarmer – but more important is that the Ripley/Newt relationship is the key to the film’s main theme. If Alien was about the fear of pregnancy, Aliens is about something much more terrifying: what happens next. You survived the body horror of giving birth to something red and fleshy; now you’ve got a small vulnerable creature to care for. When I occasionally wonder about parenthood, I’m paralysed by two terrifying realisations: A) it’s very easy, to paraphrase that filthy-mouthed Philip Larkin, screw your child up; B) you’ve got something extra to be scared of, all the time. You know how much more worried you are about being mugged when you’ve got a couple of hundred quid in your pocket? But, like, times a million. This is the feeling Aliens works on, and then builds a constant plot-based tension around it. The survivors get narrowed down, and maybe you’ll jump a couple of times, but it’s only when it comes to Ripley and Newt that it really hits bone. People remember the ‘cool’ stuff of Aliens: the firing of plasma rifles and the casually-dropped quotables. But as is usually the case, that’s not very accurate. While the two hours zip past, the film’s light on set-pieces or any extended action. Instead, it practically rubs the motherhood stuff in your face. It felt weird, watching the Theatrical Release, not having the scene where we – and Ripley – discover her daughter grew old and died while Ripley enjoyed her 57 years of hypersleep. It foregrounds her relationship with Newt even more, but the film still hardly goes light on the theme stuff. After all, Aliens is a film that climaxes with a fight between a queen alien protecting her brood of eggs and the woman whose surrogate child she stole. And afterwards Newt clutches the victorious Ripley tight and calls her “mommy”. Was there really ever any doubt what it was all about?

Favourite Films on Friday: #27, Terminator 2

The thing about Judgment Day is that, on paper, it does absolutely everything right. The ambiguous introduction of the two Terminators, playing off of Schwarzenegger’s physical appearance – and his previous appearance. Having the most important character in a film about robotic super-badasses be a vulnerable child, and giving him just enough personality to transcend being a plot McGuffin. Rooting a time-travelling science fiction story film in the everyday of Now, with trucks, policemen and arcades. It occasionally falls into cliché – hell, this is a film which has the baddie kill the kid’s dog just to show us how evil he is – but the clichés are never lingered on, they just use an understanding of cinematic convention to boost the plot along. With complete economy, it takes something simple – two men, fighting – and sharpens it into an art form. And, having built a solid foundation, it just layers everything that makes it shine on top, as a bonus: the way Arnie reloads his shotgun by swinging it around. A man speared right through his half-drunk milk carton and pinned to the fridge like a mediocre school report. That shimmering surface of liquid metal. That shimmering metal… You could accuse Judgment Day – and people have – of just being an effects movie. But it’s how those effects are used. With a simple contemporary (to the early ‘90s) setting, and by giving the super-robots human form, effects can be tucked away so they rarely stand out as too artificial. But they never fail to stand out. I’ve still never seen Avatar (and writing this is one of the occasions that makes me regret that) but the way James Cameron pushes plasticky CG to the forefront of every moment betrays how sneakily integrated they are here. It’s as if T2 understands that the future is coming, and these sparkly new effects won’t stay beautiful for very long. And then those effects are used to create stunning moments of purest, undistilled cool. You know the ones I’m talking about. Some film critics and assorted snobs – and I am of course including myself here – criticise the blockbuster’s fireworks display as being simply something to gape at. But when it works this well, when I have to physically put my jaw back in place, who cares? Even now, in 2011, nearly half a year after the proposed titular End of Days, some of the set-pieces are enough to do that to me. It reverts my mind to the state of ten years ago, when I watched a copied VHS in this very same bedroom, and hits all the same buttons that impressed me as a child. Oh, it’s so awesome! But it’s time to be a grown-up, and put more respectable terms to that feeling. To tell you about its influence, and its influence, and throw overused superlatives like ‘Iconic’ around. But T2 really understands what iconography means, especially in movies. It takes from the existing, from life and films and its own predecessor, while creating its own. Iconic. Admittedly, I have a tendency to just throw adjectives around when I’m writing these entries. Part of this yearlong exercise is about freeing myself from clichés, or at least weaving them in as well as Judgment Day does. Just in these few hundred words, we’ve had iconic, stunning, beautiful. Just for good measure, here’re a few more: clever, sharp, mind-bending. Really, though, everything T2 is and everything that makes watching it such a pleasure is one adjective. It could serve as the film’s epigraph. It could maybe replace this entire review. Above all else, T2 is: Cool. And sometimes, when you’re this cool, that’s all you need to be.