Friday, April 22, 2005


Yesterday I watched the movie Aliens for the first time. I saw the original a couple of years ago, and I liked it, but I wasn't a huge fan. However, this semester I'm taking a course on action films, and Aliens came up a bunch of times, so I figured I needed to see it and it was most impressive.

I'm usually not that big a fan of action movies, most of the stuff I've seen in class I've liked, but not loved. A film like Die Hard is undeniably entertaining, but it doesn't really go beyond that. However, Aliens went way beyond just being entertaining, it was one of the best action films I've ever seen.

I think there's a big difference between an action film and a film with action. Oldboy has a lot of action, but I wouldn't consider it an action movie, because the action comes out of the plot, rather than the plot coming out of the action. In Die Hard, the entire film is designed to give you action sequences, whereas Oldboy happens to have some action sequences, but the film could exist without them. Without the action sequences, Aliens would have no second half, because at about the halfway point of the film, it goes into an extended series of action sequences that last for the whole rest of the film.

The first half of the movie is good, it succinctly sets up the situation and follows up what happened in the original. It's also admirable that the film has such long buildup. There's no opening action sequence, and no real action until halfway through the movie. This allows for good setup of characters, and also creates more suspense, so that by the time they reach the planet, you really are wondering, what's up here, and when are we finally going to see some aliens. But, during the first half I was never bored, and that's what makes the film so effective. In an action film, the longer you can go without an action sequence, while still keeping the audience's attention, the better, because it will make each action sequence more rewarding.

Looking at this film, when they finally do open fire on an alien, it's so satisfying because we've been waiting for it for so long. A similar sequence would be in Return of the Jedi, where Luke, The Emperor and Darth Vader spend so much time talking, it's incredibly satisfying when Luke finally gets his lightsaber and begins to fight. If this whole movie had been them killing aliens, you wouldn't have this satisfaction, the thrill comes solely from the buildup.

That's one of the main problems I have with the Michael Bay style of editing, where everything in an action sequence is cut incredibly quick. In an action sequence, fast editing has its virtues, and Wong Kar-Wai used it to great effect in Ashes of Time, but if you want to make a film that will involve audience emotions in the action sequence, you need long shots to build things up. I would say there's a difference between spectacle driven action and emotion driven action. If you use really fast editing, you can make cool looking scenes, like in Blade II, but you're not going to involve the audience emotionally, and thus, you leave the audience to just admire the surface, and not go deeper. The quick cutting can be a spectacle in and of itself, but slower shots are absoultely essential to both involving the audience and allowing the visual to really sink in.

The whole second half of the film is one of the most engaging action sequences I've seen, and it is not just because the action stuff is so cool, but rather because of the character relationships that have been developed. Cameron does an amazing job of maintaining tension for a really long time, and even with the fact that he barely shows the aliens.

Looking at this film in the context of Cameron's ouevre, you can see clear connections with Terminator 2. If that flim was a treatment on fatherhood, this one would be about motherhood. I think this film has a deeper, more realistic parent-child relationship, largely because Sigourney Weaver is a much better actress than Arnold, and also because this film doesn't have as many comedy elements. Terminator 2 is a great movie, but it has a certain level of ridiculousness that the film is always aware of, and this film doesn't have that, which makes for a more intense, satisfying viewing experience.

A lot of the times, I view film in an analytical way, looking for layers and subtext, but in the case of this film, it's all about the emotional involvement. When Ripley goes back to look for Newt, you are willing her on, despertately hoping that she will find her. If you are looking for analytical content in the film, it would come in the discussion of motherhood, particularly the duel between Ripley and the Queen on the ship at the end. That sequence was amazing, and there's so much tension as you watch her shove the queen out into space, while Bishop is holding onto Newt. Just the images in that sequence are so great.

So, this is a film that just owns. You watch it and are completely absorbed into another world, which is what movies are all about. Is it perfect? No, but it's a top notch film experience.

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