What a masterpiece. Aliens is one of those few movies that I can watch again and again, an exceptionally good high-tension thriller in which you will learn to hate some of the humans even more than you fear the ostensible monsters. That’s not to say that the monsters aren’t scary; they are often terrifying. But no matter how disturbing they look or how frightening their eventual appearance is, it’s the way in which we come to dread their inevitable appearance that sets this movie apart from its peers.
Time and again, Aliens refuses to completely show us the fearsome foe that everyone knows will show up. This is typical thriller-fare, but Aliens stands out in its ability to build anticipation and fear of what is yet to come. I mean, Aliens is really good at this: when I watched it again with my friends last Friday, I was surprised to find how tense I was. I knew the movie, and we were forced to pause several times due to bathroom breaks or problems with our disk, but every time the movie stopped I could still feel the tension in my body. Even though I knew what was coming and even though the building tension was interrupted multiple times, I could still feel the pressure of my anxiety increasing. Where many other thrillers fall apart if you interrupt them, Aliens still delivers.
Part of this, I think, is because Aliens uses the maxim of “less is more” with incredible effectiveness. I’ll mention this again later, but it will be full of spoilers.
Instead, let’s talk about immersion. The sound design is a real marvel, with both the music and the effects offering a great deal. The music is evocative and sparse, creating a pervasive sense of isolation and threat despite the apparent strength of the heroes. And sometimes, in the really tense moments, it drops away into silence and lets us stew in the tension of what is happening on screen. The sound effects are similarly impressive, from the repetitive and increasingly stressful click of the marines’ motion detectors to the dull pounding of the sentry guns as they fire offscreen, several bulkheads away. Better yet, it’s clear that there were scenes that were specifically included for the fear and anxiety that their sound design would create. Witness those desperate moments of trying to get people’s attention through soundproofed glass.
Another element which I only realized after re-watching the movie on Friday is that almost all of the technology in the movie has its own distinctive sound. Or, more accurately, almost all of the technology has a a sound cue. Whether it’s the whirr and beep of the movie’s computers or the hydraulics of the power loader, everything has a very audible presence in the world.
This goes hand in hand with the excellent job that they did in designing technology for the movie. Despite looking very much like the future of the 80’s, complete with classic dot matrix printer paper with little holes running down the sides, everything looks very solid, real, and believable. Maybe this is a generational thing, and people who grew up in the 2000’s won’t feel able to accept this as futuristic technology. But I felt like the chunky, tough and utilitarian machines all have a certain appeal of their own, and they certainly pull me deep into believing the setting of the film.
Speaking of believing the film, I’m incredibly glad that Aliens wasn’t made with awkward early CGI. Lately, every time that I’ve seen old CGI I’ve been pulled out of the film; I’m glad that my immersion in Aliens isn’t spoiled by something like that. Furthermore, I’ve been amazed by how well the effects that they did use have aged. Despite being almost 30 years old, the film’s visuals still feel convincing. I think part of this, again, has to do with “less is more”: because the film doesn’t ever try to show more than just enough to increase tension, it almost never tries to create things that look unconvincing in retrospect. H.R. Giger’s terrifying alien and environment design helps too.
Oh, and let’s not forget one of the very best parts of the movie. Sigourney Weaver‘s Ellen Ripley is definitely my favorite movie heroine, and without doubt one of my favorite movie heroes of all time. She is a grimly realistic survivor instead of a stupidly overcompetent action hero, and yet despite not fitting the action-hero mould she is still incredibly strong and impressive. In many ways, Aliens feels like a love letter to Ripley’s indomitable determination despite obviously impossible odds. And that doesn’t feel unreasonable. There’s a very good reason why Sigourney Weaver’s performance in Aliens was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress.
Ok, time for a few spoilers. I hope that you’ve already seen the movie, but if you haven’t, you should avoid this section.
Back to “less is more”; the fact is, we don’t really see very much of the aliens until the very end of the movie. What we see instead is the mental breakdown of the commanding officer, the collapse of the squad of badass marines as they’re torn to pieces after their commander hamstrings them. But we see those collapses through the very same fuzzy team video channels that the commander is watching; we only get hints and bits of the horrible experience that these people are going through, and that’s far more frightening than seeing everything in its entirety as it happens.
This comes up again with the sentry guns a little later in the film. Instead of watching the guns blowing apart aliens, we watch the marines as they stare at the sentry guns’ ammunition counters, falling precipitously as they chew through their last precious rounds. Listening to the sentry guns’ firing as the ammo counters on screen blaze downwards is chilling, and seeing the tense expressions on the marines’ faces at the same time is even better. We see only a brief glimpse of the aliens in that whole scene, and we don’t actually need to see any more. In fact, the most tense part of the entire scene comes when we cut back and forth between the guns, one smoking and empty while the other fires sporadically, and the ammo counters, showing the last few rounds as they dip towards zero.
*END OF SPOILERS*
So yes, I do love this movie. If you haven’t watched it, give it a try. If you’re paying attention, maybe you’ll see all the little pieces of the film that have inspired so much other media that has been made since.
p.s. It’s refreshing to find an action-thriller that doesn’t shy away from having powerful and strong female characters fulfilling the same roles as their male counterparts. I love seeing that.