Saturday, June 30, 2012


Recently James Cameron decided that film adventures weren't enough and became the first man to dive to the bottom of the Mariana Trench. The expedition was hardly a whim, Cameron has long had a fascination the oceans. His love comes through in several of his films but never more in The Abyss, his largely forgotten 1989 spiritual thriller and the next film in our Cameron Roundtable. As always, we're joined by Max O'Connell of The Film Temple.

Loren Greenblatt: We just saw Close Encounters of the Third Kind: Underwater Edition.

Max O'Connell: That’s a fairly accurate description of The Abyss. Cameron’s films all have Spielberg influences, but this is his most overtly Spielbergy movie.

LG: Spielbergy?

MO: Spielbergy is a word. I’m coining it here.

LG: Alright, Joss Whedon. Let’s talk a little bit about where this film came from: this was a passion project for Cameron. He came up with a short story when he was about 17, kept it on his mind, and after the success of Aliens he finally had a chance to make it. It combines his love of extraterrestrial life and, most of all, his love of the ocean. The man is an aquaphile.

MO: Insert Simpsons-Troy McClure joke here.

LG: He loves the ocean, so this is the perfect film for him. The film takes place on an underwater drilling rig run by blue collar oil workers (trope!), and there’s a crashed nuclear submarine (trope!), and the oil workers are hired for salvage and to find survivors.

MO: They’re led by Virgil “Bud” Brigman, played by Ed Harris in a great performance as the blue collar hero, and his wife, chief engineer Lindsay, played by Mary Elizabeth Mastrontonio, who’s most famous for playing Tony Montana’s sister in Scarface and for her Oscar-nominated role in The Color of Money as Tom Cruise’s girlfriend.

LG: Sadly I don’t think she did much after this.

MO: It’s too bad, she’s very good in everything I’ve seen her in, but like a number of Hollywood actresses she disappeared as she got older.

LG: And she has a Sigourney Weaver-esque edge to her, but not quite as tough.

MO: It’s more overtly cerebral, but she’s also filled with a great deal of humanity and compassion, and there’s a Spielbergian desire to understand our so-called boogeymen in her character. The aliens that they find underwater, which could be scary, aren’t frightening to her. She wants to understand what they are, how they work, and why they’re there. She recognizes a shared intellectual curiosity they have.

LG: I think the key line is “you have to look at the world with the right kind of eyes”.

MO: It’s a corny line, but it does encapsulate the heart of the film very well.

LG: I’m not quite sure if they’re aliens, though. They call them NTIs, or non-terrestrial intelligence.

MO: But we get the idea that they’re not from around here. They could be aliens. I thought they were.

LG: I took it that they were an intelligent race that lived underwater, which is entirely possible.

MO: It is, and it’s left open, which is something I really like about this film.

LG: We see them throughout the film, but we don’t really get to them until the end, and Cameron has a lot to get through before then. There’s a number of Navy SEALS who accompany the oil workers underwater, led by Michae Biehn as Lt. Coffey.

MO: He’s a gung-ho jarhead who, like a number of military men in Cameron’s films, doesn’t have much interest in understanding his foes. He lacks the empathy of the scientists.

LG: And you know he’s the bad guy because he has a moustache and he wears black.

MO: He’s also suffering from high-pressure nervous syndrome, where he’s underwater and he starts to shake and lose his grip on reality underwater and grows more paranoid.

LG: In Futurama terms, he’s got ocean madness.

MO: It doesn’t help that we’re at the tail end of the Cold War and he’s already paranoid about Russians. It’s 1989, so this is right before the fall of the Berlin Wall, and a few years before the Soviet Union collapsed.

LG: We watched the Special Edition, which is very important to mention, because they’re very different films. In this version, there’s a Cuban Missile Crisis type situation going on. The aliens are underwater, the military is suspicious, so Michael Biehn gets the ominous order to “go to phase 2”, which is never good in a movie. Biehn arms a nuclear warhead from the submarine and brings it back to the base. At the same time, there’s a hurricane that causes an accident, and it traps the rig underwater and cuts them off from the surface.

MO: It’s one of the many Cameron films that establishes a very tight timetable for the characters to work in.

LG: Like in Aliens, which also had them cut off from their ship.

MO: Now Cameron has to establish a lot of characters and make us like them, since we’re going to spend three hours with them. By and large, they’re pretty good. There’s a rough blue collar character named Catfish who’s a lot of fun, there’s an African-American woman named One Night who’s great. Really the only one who doesn’t work is Hippy, the rat guy.

LG: His thing is that he has a pet rat. I found him, at a screenwriting level, too gimmicky. A lot of these characters have their gimmicks: One Night is a black country-music girl, and that’s pretty good. There’s a fun scene where they sing a country song, “Willing” by Linda Ronstadt, as they travel to the sub, and that’s pretty great. Hippy is too self-conscious though.

MO: It might have worked with a more talented actor, but Tod Graff really overplays the twitchiness. The only other thing I know he ever did was direct this proto-Glee movie called Camp, which, other than an early performance from Anna Kendrick, is completely intolerable.

LG: Oh, yeah, he’s also a conspiracy theorist. It’s too much. Now, this is a very important film stylistically for Cameron. Apart from having his pet themes, it’s the first of his films with a really hard-edged blue look that he’s known for.

MO: Well, Aliens has a lot of it, but not to this extent. We joked about a part where a frustrated Ed Harris throws his wedding ring into the toilet, changes his mind, and has to delve into the blue goop that’s in the toilet to find it. Throughout the rest of his movie, his hand is still blue. We noticed that forty minutes from the end his hand was still blue. It’s funny.

LG: His hands are blue, his balls are blue, everything’s blue in this movie.

MO: Both above and underwater.

LG: It’s also his first PG-13 film, which he acquits himself well with. There’s a couple of fight scenes between Michael Biehn and Ed Harris, and they’re all great. He manages to keep them fairly brutal with the sound design and lighting, despite the lesser rating. There’s a scene where there’s a swinging light between them that helps keep the scene dynamic when it could have been really standard. Cameron’s really good at taking little scenes and finding a way to pump them up.

MO: The lead-up to that scene is ever better, when Ed Harris has to swim his way into where Michael Biehn is because the doors are locked and Biehn is arming a warhead, and he comes into the pool area (and this is below-freezing water, mind you), and he has to come up to Biehn without making any noise. He’s dripping wet around a pool of water, so this is very difficult.

LG: I love that he messes it up, too. He gets there, and he has a pipe, and all he has to do is swing, but he goes for the man’s gun. He’s not the sharpest tool in the shed sometimes, and that’s mentioned throughout.

MO: They manage to do it without making it out-of-character or comically stupid. It’s the kind of mistake we all might make. It’s not painfully boneheaded.

LG: He’s not suddenly dumb for the convenience of the screenplay. What really drives the film is the tension between Harris and Mastrontonio, his estranged wife. She oversees the process, but she’s also in the process of divorcing him. It’s a very standard movie thing, Twister had the same plot going on.

MO: Was probably influenced by it, honestly.

LG: But the caliber of the performances and direction makes it work well enough. We should talk about the set-pieces. You called the crane sequence one of his best set-pieces, so you should talk about it.

MO: There’s an incredible set-piece near the end of the first act. The storm is brewing, it pushes the crane on the oil rig, which is connected to the oxygen, heat, and power for the underwater part of the rig. It collapses during the storm and falls underwater, narrowly misses them, and narrowly misses landing in a the gigantic underwater trench, which would pull them under because they’re attached by a cable. And then it slips into the trench, and everything goes to hell. There are leaks in the ship, several crew members drown in some absolutely horrifying scenes, and there’s a race to survive as several compartments fill with water.

LG: It’s a harrowing scene, and what Cameron does well is establish a mood of desperation. There’s a scene much later in the film where one character almost drowns, and they try to revive her. Cameron milks it for a long time…

MO: It’s like the Toy Story 3 ending, where they milk it as long as possible to give the sense that the worst will happen.

LG: And the film starts off a little slow but gets better and better as it goes along.

MO: It’s one of his most deliberately paced films, without a doubt.

LG: It’s not like Aliens or Terminator 2, where every scene has eight things going on, and everything moves the plot forward. It takes its time, and that’s just fine.

MO: There’s a slow-burning claustrophobic feel.

LG: There was a point in the film where I stopped thinking about the special effects, because it all looked real. In fact, there are submarine chases here, and they weren’t done with models. These are real submarines. They built the world’s biggest water tank and filmed it there, and if you’re into spectacle, it’s really cool.

MO: Better than even Aliens, we get a great sense of how everything works: what this gadget does, what this doohickey does, what the machines can’t do. Cameron is so tapped into technology that we get a sense he’s not fudging any details. There’s too much specificity.

LG: At the end of the film, we have one of the greatest sequences Cameron has ever done where Bud has to use liquid oxygen (which is a real thing for really deep dives). Ed Harris has to dive into the trench to disarm a nuclear bomb, and his descent is a tense sequence that Hitchcock would be proud of.

MO: Earlier scenes are like a warm-up for the drowning scenes in Titanic, but this thing is like a free-floating space bit, but underwater, and if something goes wrong, you’re done. He can’t speak because of the liquid oxygen, he can only communicate with a keyboard, and the pressure is so intense that it causes him to lose it. What’s great is that when he finally reaches the bottom and has to disarm the warhead, he’s told that he has to cut the blue wire with the white stripe, not the black wire with the yellow stripe.

LG: But his only flare is green, and the wires look identical by that light. By the way, it’s the only green light in his films I can think of, it struck me as a del Toro light…although he wasn’t active at the time.

MO: Well, del Toro has cited Cameron as an influence.

LG: I think any action director would be wise to cite Cameron: del Toro, Nolan, Jackson…

MO: While the film is slower than his other films, his big set-pieces have that feeling of kinetecism to them: the oil-rig collapse, the fight, the submarine chase. But that last one is just a slow, dragged out bit of tension.

LG: We should talk a bit about how the film works tonally. It’s a little bit all over the place. There’s this bit where you see these aliens every once in a while. They’re these big, shiny, bio-luminescent sea creatures, and they’re absolutely gorgeous…

MO: Early CGI work from Industrial Light and Magic.
LG: That sorta served as a prototype for the liquid metal robot from Terminator 2. Yes, it's stuff that could be done better today, but it holds up well enough due in no small part to the music. Whenever we see the creatures, Alan Silvestri’s score is doing this very John Williams-esque thing that makes it all feel like it’s a bit like Close Encounters, what with all the wonder and the awe.

MO: It’s warm and fuzzy.

LG: But we get some other dark, desperate scenes for the nuclear war bits, and we feel like we’re being tugged back and forth between two extremes. It’s not bad, but it’s sometimes a little unbalanced. It’s a total 180.

MO: He handles both tones well, but the transitions are a little shaky.

LG: But it’s still a relentlessly fascinating film, even if it isn’t an edge-of-your-seat classic.

MO: It’s also the first film of his with a large amount of clunker lines. “Do you hear me, Roger Ram Jet?”

LG: Oh, yeah...

MO: What the hell was that?

LG: Lindsay calls Biehn that for some reason, I don’t know why…

MO: Well she’s making fun of him…

LG: But it’s a “yippie-kay-yay Mr. Falcon” moment. It is his first PG-13 film, maybe he tried to censor himself.

MO: It might be. And there’s some great funny lines: “Raise your hands if you think that was a Russian water-tentacle”, because they keep mocking Biehn for thinking the Russians are responsible for the alien activity.

LG: And Ed Harris keeps repeating “keep your pantyhose on”…

MO: That one didn’t work for me.

LG:  It’s overused. It's his catchphrase.

MO: And there’s a corny line when Harris goes down. Mastrontonio tells this story to keep him lucid…

LG: It’s a good story. You get the feeling it might have actually happened to Cameron.

MO: It’s a good story that was unfortunately cut from the theatrical version, although it absolutely should be there, but one line, “there are two candles in the dark”, that’s corny, but Mastontonio sells it.

LG: Also the juxtaposition of him going down into the darkness is a wonderful mental image with it.

MO: If Cameron didn’t direct it and Mastontonio didn’t act it as well, it’d thud. But it works overall…what did you think of Ed Harris screaming “NOOOOOOO!” into the camera?

LG: Uh…

MO: It’s fun…

LG: It’s like Avatar, where the tree is destroyed, Cameron milks the tragedy a little too much. A little in Titanic as well. He does this, it’s one of his more emotional movies ,and he gets carried away sometimes.

MO: In some way, though, it’s his most ambitious movie. The way he’s juxtaposing earnest messages with bigger than life emotion and technology and action sequences and his love for underwater’s not an ordinary blockbuster. By all accounts, this should not have been made in Hollywood. I really appreciate it.

LG: You needed Cameron to make something successful first before he could get away with this. We’ve got Christopher Nolan for that now, though much as I love Nolan I don’t think his films are as dense as Cameron’s.

MO: I think he’ll get there, but yes.

LG: More stylistic tropes: we’ve got more slow-motion…

MO: And his love of using smoke and fire in some sequences. He makes great use of bright lights and shadows. He frames a lot of these alien creatures like he did with the alien queen or terminator, where they overwhelm the frame, only now it’s filled with wonder and awe rather than terror.

LG: It’s a benevolent creature. It’s the darker version of Close Encounters…though not as good.

MO: Well how could it be. Like a lot of Spielberg and Cameron films, there’s a sense of untrustworthy authority in Biehn’s character. Biehn really nails this. I think it’s his best performance. They do a good job of making his villain’s motivations clearer than, say, Stephen Lang’s character in Avatar.

LG: They’re both a little cartoonishly evil, but there’s a line that almost justifies his behavior. When the water tentacle sees the nuclear warhead, he notes that “it went straight for the warhead, and they think it’s cute!” Obviously he’s wrong, but you can understand his argument.

MO: It’s handled pretty well.

LG: Funny you mention Spielberg, since he worked with Michael Crichton on Jurassic Park. If Cameron were ever to adapt a book, I think it would be a Crichton-esque thing. I’m surprised he and Crichton never did anything together, because Crichton actually wrote a book called Sphere that’s similar to this from what I remember. There’s a deep underwater dive as a spaceship crashes in the ocean. It was adapted into a very little-loved movie in the 90s. But Cameron and Crichton have a shared love of technology and adventure. When you read a Crichton book, it’s like watching a Cameron movie where everything feels well-researched and thought out.

MO: It’s like with Cameron, even if it’s gobbledygook and mumbo jumbo, it’s really intricate and detailed.

LG: It’s real mumbo jumbo.

MO: Some other influences: Cameron has that same Kubrick/Ridley Scott interest in what makes us human. In this case it’s the ability to feel empathy and form emotional connections with each other.

LG: Which Cameron doesn’t handle as well at the end.

MO: But the relationship between Harris and Mastrontonio is great before that.

LG: Now, SPOILER ALERT, at the end it looks like Ed Harris is going to drown, and these underwater creatures rescue him.

MO: In the theatrical version, they rescue him, basically say “hi”, and note the final words he gave to his wife before it looked like he was going to die (“I love you”, basically). Then they bring them back together. It’s a bit anticlimactic, but it works better than what we get in the Special Edition. All of the other additions are great, but the ending in this version…well…it hits with a thud.

LG: In the extended version…it’s very sci-fi cliché…

MO: It’s like The Day the Earth Stood Still, but terrible.

LG: They’ve been watching us for years, it’s in our nature to destroy ourselves, and they’re going to use they’re ability to control water to send thousand-foot tidal waves to destroy humanity. They stop them at the edge. Cameron’s solution to the Cold War is another Cold War. Humans will behave because they’re scared the aliens will destroy them. We’re asked to believe that the creatures are benevolent, and then they almost commit genocide.

MO: For the rest of the movie, there’s an idea of tolerance, shared intellectual curiosity, and understanding our ostensible “boogeymen”. It’s very Close Encounters/E.T., and then they turn into monsters…and it’s handled in the preachiest way possible.

LG: There’s actually a line that says “I guess we have some growing up to do”. And then an oil rig guy turns to the military man and says “guess you’re out of a job now”.

MO: Oh, it’s bad. It’s painful.

LG: It's a terrible ending, it’s one of those things where, as a critic, you really like the film, and then you feel your letter grade dropping.

MO: I feel this is one of the most flawed great (or near-great) movies ever made. It’s stunningly ambitious, you’ll never see anything quite like it again, it’s intensely personal, and it shows Cameron’s interest in putting social awareness in his films in a more pronounced way. He does that best when he filters it through a genre movie like the Terminator movies, and worse when it’s over like the ending of The Abyss and all of Avatar, where it’s painfully earnest and simplistic. Terminator 2 straddles the line of being preachy and being OK, but it does it better than this.

LG: War is bad, people!

MO: It works better here than in Avatar because the characters are better fleshed-out, but the ending hits with a real thud.

LG: Now I’d recommend this. You’ll never see another movie like this with real submarine chases again. It’s too easy to do it with CGI, and it wasn’t practical for Cameron to do it at all. People almost died, actually.

MO: Ed Harris almost drowned, he broke down sobbing at one point, Mastontonio walked off the set in anger after Cameron told the cast to relieve themselves in their wetsuits rather than change in order to save time. The great Orson Scott Card of Ender’s Game fame did the novelization, and while he said he worked with Cameron just fine, the way he treated the cast was inexcusable. This was, except maybe for Titanic, his most arduous shoot.

LG: When you almost kill your star, that’s not good.

MO: And his producer at the time, Gale Anne Hurd, who had worked with him on The Terminator, Aliens, and was also married to him at the time, but this film ended their marriage and their professional relationship. This is where we first hear how much of a tyrant he was on set, more than his “I disagreed with the crew” bits on Aliens.

LG: He is known as a demanding, strict man. That’s not entirely bad, you should be dedicated to your craft. I don’t think you reach this level without being dedicated. But some people get here without this cost.

MO: He based Mastrontonio character off of Hurd, and yet it ended their marriage.

LG: Worth noting that the heroes are about to get divorced in the film.

LG: I recommend this film: it’s three hours long, and it’s very flawed, but it’s worth it. I give it a B.

MO: I'll give it a B+. The theatrical would get a B. It’s not bad, but the relationships aren’t as fleshed out, and while the ending isn’t a total thud, it’s anticlimactic. The Special Edition, while flawed, is so fascinating and ambitious that I highly recommend it.

LG: I'm recommending it for the visual spectacle more than anything else, good as the character relationships are. No one does action like Cameron, and we’ll never see anything like this again.

Loren's Grade: B
Max's Grade: B+

That's our conversation about The Abyss. If you enjoyed this discussion, feel free to comment below and check out the other reviews in this series (listed bellow). Also, check out Max's blog, The Film Temple, where he has just posted reviews of Magic Mike and Moonrise Kingdom.

Other Installments in the Cameron Roundtable series:
Piranha II: The Spawning 
The Terminator
Aliens (Special Edition)
The Abyss (Special Edition)
Terminator 2: Judgement Day
True Lies
Avatar (Extended Edition)

Friday, June 29, 2012


Loren Greenblatt: Between Aliens and The Abyss, James Cameron directed a little music video…

Max O’Connell: REACH!

LG: Yes, it’s a music video for a song called “Reach” by Martini Ranch, which was a musical collaboration between Bill Paxton and some other guy (Andrew Todd Rosenthal, but neither of us has ever heard of him).

MO: Yeah, it’s Bill Paxton’s band. That’s the only reason Cameron directed this thing, I think. He agreed to do it so long as he had no contact with the record label. It has a budget of $90,000, which sounds like a sizable budget for an 8-minute video.

LG: There’s a lot of sets and whatnot…

MO: It looks great, and you can tell Cameron directed it. The song itself is pretty mediocre, though. Wikipedia compared Martini Ranch to something Devo might do, which…

LG: No.

MO: Yeah, no.

LG: Devo’s too intricate, self-aware and intelligent to do a song like this.

MO: Yeah, no offense, Bill Paxton. We like you.

LG: But don’t quit your day job.

MO: Yeah, this is not very good. But the video is interesting. It has a very long introduction.

LG: Longest I’ve ever seen.

MO: Bill Paxton is an outlaw biker in a post-apocalyptic western future.

LG: Basically, James Cameron invented Firefly.

MO: Though…Joss Whedon’s a Cameron fan, but I can’t imagine he actually saw this.

LG: No, probably not.

MO: I don’t think anyone saw this. I had never heard of it before Loren brought it up. We found it on DailyMotion, and I had never heard of the band or anything about this. The design of the video is very interesting: Paxton is clad in biker gear that looks like a cross between the way he looked in Near Dark and the way Arnold looked in Terminator 2.

LG: There’s a lot of leather in this film. There’s a brothel with women wearing leather…which is an odd thing. He’s usually a feminist director, so you wouldn’t necessarily expect this from him, this objectification.

MO: Well, he might just be portraying a time period or something. It seems like an oppressive environment. Plus, the hero is a woman. In fact…

LG: The hero is Cameron’s future-wife/esteemed action director Kathryn Bigelow, who is gorgeous.

MO: Who’s still gorgeous. She’s sixty years old and you’d never guess it. She looks forty.

LG: But in this she’s much younger.

MO: But aside from that, she’s a great filmmaker. The year before Reach, she made Near Dark, which is the quintessential vampire movie as far as I’m concerned. She made Point Break, the goofy/wonderful action movie with Keanu Reeves and Patrick Swayze…

LG: Which was produced by James Cameron…

MO: She made Strange Days, a sci-fi film we both like a lot…

LG: Which was written by James Cameron, though we’re not going to cover it here.

MO: And most recently she became the first woman to win the Oscar for Best Director when she won for The Hurt Locker. It’s funny cause she actually beat her now ex-husband Cameron when he was nominated for Avatar. She also has a new film this year, Zero Dark Thirty, the “killing Osama bin Laden” movie.

LG: Perfect timing on that: bin Laden was killed days before she announced she was making it, so it got plenty of momentum.

MO: But as for Reach…

LG: Long intro, Paxton comes up to the town and terrorizes it, and a gang of women trying to catch him (led by Bigelow) that come into town wearing Sergio Leone dusters. And as if there was any doubt that Leone influenced this, the song liberally samples The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly’s score.

MO: Plus there’s images that look like they’re straight out of A Fistful of Dollars, what with the people building coffins. The film’s look is very distinctive and interesting. I wish it were just an 8-minute short, because the song is not very good.

LG: Whoever Bill Paxton’s bandmate is, I’m sure he’s behind a fast-food counter telling everyone “I once had a band with Bill Paxton, and we had a video directed by James Cameron”.

MO: And everyone responds: “…sure….”

LG: That may not be true, he might be doing something else very successfully.

MO: But we can’t remember the song ten minutes after the fact, other than them yelling “REACH!”

LG: And it always cuts to close-up of Bill Paxton, wide-angle lens, yelling it.

MO: Right out of something like Near Dark, where he’s that very imposing figure.

LG: And there’s some Near Dark actors and Cameron regulars in here.

MO: Well, there’s Lance Henrikson and Jeannette Goldstein.

LG: There’s not a lot to talk about with this film, so let’s just name some shots we liked. I like the shot of a mariachi band being dragged behind a truck, and they’re all playing. 

MO: I like the close-ups on Paxton snarling “Guess this ain’t your lucky day!”

LG: So, I suppose I give this thing a general B-.

MO: B+ for the video, C for the song, B- overall.

LG: Basically: it’s a thing, it’s on the internet, it’s free. If you want to check it out…fine. We’re not gonna stop you.

Loren’s Grade: B-
Max’s Grade: B-

If you want to see what a James Cameron music video looks like, I've embedded it below. Also, don't forget to check out Max's Blog, The Film Temple.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012


After the runaway success of Terminator, James Cameron could have made anything. Instead he made a sequel to Ridley Scott's 1979 smash Alien. Scott's prequel Prometheus is currently playing in theaters. As always on the Cameron Roundtable we are joined by Max O'Connell of The Film Temple.

Be aware that while we have put up spoiler tags for the worst of it, it's a fairly in depth review so expect some mild spoilage of the film and of the first Alien throughout. We do not discuss Prometheus, so no worries there.

Loren Greenblatt: Quick synopsis: at the end of the first Alien, Ripley (Sigorney Weaver) (Spoilers for Alien 1)is the only survivor (well, her and the cat) on her ship (End of Spoilers). She goes into crytostasis and is woken up 57 years later. It’s a completely different world, everything’s more advanced, and her daughter has died. We find out the Weyland-Yutani company has colonized the planet the aliens were found on, and now the colonists are missing, so Ripley and a bunch of marines go to figure out what happened. Answer: nothing good.

Max O’Connell: This is my favorite James Cameron film. It’s the one I’ve seen the most. I ‘ve been known to watch it multiple times a week. I also think this is his best script.

LG: Yes, I agree. I haven’t seen it as many times as you have, but all the people who complain about Cameron’s dialogue and structure really need to look at Aliens. It’s not a short film- we saw the 2 ½ hour long Special Edition. It’s not unheard of for a summer blockbuster to be that long, but circa 1986 it’s pretty long.

MO: Well at that point it was the theatrical edition, 137 minutes, but that’s still fairly long.

LG: Well my theory on this stuff is, the longer a film is, the denser it needs to be to justify that length. Boogie Nights is about 155 minutes and there’s never less than 8 things happening at once in each scene. Also, along with being long, you have to deal with the expectations of it being a sequel to Alien, but try to make it different enough to justify its existence. Right away, we see Cameron’s own variation of the credits from Alien. And frequently through the film, even though it’s a very different film than Alien, you see Cameron’s version of a lot of things from Ridley Scott’s film. One of the things I really love is the way Cameron establishes mystery. Getting the audience to go with hard sci-fi can be difficult. Plus it’s a sequel, so right away you think it might be a retread. But Cameron establishes an opened up version of the world and establishes a mystery. We open with Ripley in the escape pod from the first film. She’s been sleeping for we don’t know how long, and a robot comes in, and we don’t know what the hell is going on at first. Setting up a mystery around a character we care about. It’s a good way to set up a new sci-fi universe.

MO: Also it does a good job of picking up where the last one left off. The first film has heavy use of untrustworthy authority, (Spoilers for Alien 1) what with the company giving an android permission to kill his crew in order to preserve the alien (End of Spoilers), and the fact that it’s a bit of a corporate-owned world. Aliens really takes that idea and runs with it. It fleshes out the Weyland-Yutani company, which is a major part of the Alien mythology. Loren noted that a kid’s Big Wheel has a Weyland-Yutani logo on it.

LG: I thought the corporate owned Big Wheel was a bit much though.

MO: They’re like Disney or Fox. They own everything. It’s a film that explores a lot of ideas that might have had people guessing from the first film (though there’s plenty of stuff Ridley Scott himself had left over to look at in Prometheus). We knew where the aliens came from- the facehuggers. The facehuggers come from eggs. So where do the eggs come from? Well we find that out here. Then there’s the fact that this film has not only his best structure, but his best dialogue. It’s fairly natural for a Cameron film, and it has a number of his best one-liners. Everyone remembers the great “get away from her, you bitch!” line, and Hudson’s “Game over, man, game over!”. But there’s plenty of other great stuff throughout. “What do you mean we can’t use guns? What are we supposed to use, harsh language?” Or “Guess she don’t like the cornbread neither”. Both of those spoken by Frost, one of my favorite five-line characters ever. Bill Paxton gets plenty of great comic relief lines (I love his “we’ve got knives, we’ve got sharp sticks” speech in the Special Edition).

LG: This is also a very strong film in terms of character motivation. We find out very early that Ripley’s daughter has died, and now no one believes her about what happened in the first film, and she’s been blamed for millions of dollars of equipment and several deaths. It pulls her apart before the main action even begins. So there is a lot of stuff going on inside her throughout the film. Which is good cause she's gonna get put through her paces in this one.

It's gonna be another bad day for Ripley

MO: You noted in The Terminator that there’s a Vietnam parallel with the guerrilla warfare and Cambodian genocide imagery. The parallel here is a lot closer. The marines are all gung-ho, there’s a lot of great macho dialogue, their spaceship is shaped like a big, penetrative gun, the sergeant wakes up with a cigar in his mouth. It’s all great. They imagine they’ll get it done and kill everything, they have no empathy for the colonists, and they have no understanding of their foe. Oh, and there’s a commander with zero experience.

LG: Ripley’s kind of brushed off by them, they don’t care about what the alien is like. They might have wanted to stick around when she noted that it has acid for blood. One of the few quibbles I have is that relatively few people get sprayed by the acid blood until near the end.

MO: Well, it happens quite a bit in the first fight…

LG: It’s late in the film where it really happens first. It’s a minor thing, but it bugged me the first time around.

MO: No, a few marines get sprayed in the beginning, like Drake, whose face melts off, and Hudson gets it on his armor. It happens more often later on, but I saw more than you did.

LG: Complaint retracted. One of the things I really love about the movie is the segmentation. After we get to the colony, the film could have easily become a one note shoot-em-up, instead Cameron gives us five or six mini-segments all with unique flavors and mini goals. And in each segment things get progressively worse for the characters.

MO: Cameron is noted for his differences from Ridley Scott, but he takes a lot from him as well. When we first get there, we get the Ridley Scott-style deliberate pacing that slowly builds dread before we finally see the aliens. It’s empty, they don’t know what happened, there’s no people around, no aliens around. There’s some sign of struggle, but there’s no sign of where anyone is. He milks the terror really well right up to when we meet the one survivor, Newt, the little girl hiding in the walls.

LG: Newt’s a very important character. It’s one of the two Cameron films with a mother-child dynamic. Ripley is a strong mother figure trying to protect a feral child who’s, to some degree, already independent by necessity. She’s survived, but she still needs, and is ultimately receptive to, a mother figure, much like the punk-kid from Terminator 2. It’s a great way to build up these strong female characters.

MO: Well Cameron is known for his strong female characters, and you don’t get much stronger than Ripley. We kind of like Sigourney Weaver in this movie, just a little bit.

LG: She’s very strong. It’s a pity that films like this don’t get Acting nominations…

MO: She got a Best Actress nomination, actually, but it’s one of the only major action roles to get an acting nomination. I’d argue she should have been nominated for Alien as well, but whatever. I’m not sure that she was really seen as a favorite- she was up against Kathleen Turner for Peggy Sue Got Married, and she ended up losing to Marlee Matlin for Children of a Lesser God, but it’s still a landmark occasion. This is a character who’s highly influential over future female action heroes, like the Bride from Kill Bill. It’s a great character- she’s still shaken up from the events of the first film. She’s still a bit standoffish (Ridley Scott played with expectations where she was built up as the “bitch” character who’d get killed). But Scott and Cameron sympathize with the fact that she’s a survivor, and she becomes more likable here when she gets a human connection.

LG: It’s a shame that we still don’t get a lot of good, female action stars.

MO: Or that a lot of major female heroes are over-sexualized to the point where it’s leery and borderline misogynistic.

LG: Back to the film. When they first get to the colony we see one of the biggest carry-over from Alien, aside from the world and Ripley. It’s a bit like the ship-approach from the first one. There’s even the same helmet-cams from the first film, though Cameron uses them in a very different way. You’re almost getting snippets of a found-footage pseudo-documentary movie. It really adds to the realism and tactility of the world. In the theatrical cut, this is the first time we see the colony. We’re just being thrown into this, and we have to get our bearings. We watched the Special Edition, though, and there’s one gripe we have with this version.

MO: We see life on LV-426 before the aliens attack. We see the terraformers doing their thing and Newt’s family. We see a great moment that later turned up in Terminator 2 (“whenever I look for an answer, they tell me ‘don’t ask’”), and that’s not bad. Newt’s family discovers the derelict spaceship from the first one, and the facehugger attacks her father. It’s not bad, but it’s better when we don’t know what’s going to happen when we’re going in.

LG: Also, the film has some incredible special effects, but it doesn’t work as well in these scenes. The set looks very good in dim lighting, but in bright light, they looks kind of fake. Also: making Newt’s family responsible for the alien attack is a bit much. It’s better if she’s just a random colonist. And ultimately it’s better if we’re just with Ripley in the beginning, as we are the theatrical cut. It makes it more claustrophobic and mysterious. The cutting back and forth of the Special Edition is less effective. That said, that’s the only thing we don’t like about the S.E., everything else is worthwhile and makes the film much stronger.

MO: It absolutely is. And that scene: it’s not torture. If there’s a fan cut that has every scene from the Special Edition other that that bit, I’d love to see it. I’m sure there is, as we’re not the only people who complain about that scene.

LG: And the scene doesn’t undercut the film or anything, it’s just better without it. Some of the other additions: there’s a bit more with the Marines, there’s more establishing shots on the ship. The marines are interesting: a few of them are actual characters, but some of them are just monster-food. But even the ones who are just monster-food, we get a sense of who they are. These are people who know each other, and we get a sense of how they work as a team. It’s not a case where they’re thin. We just don’t know them well. And that’s a huge distinction. Hell, a lot of the later films in the Alien series have that problem, like Alien 3…

MO: Can you name anyone in Alien 3 other than Ripley and…Charles S. Dutton’s character whose name I can’t remember?

LG: Or in Alien Resurrection where they’re just a bunch of stiffs there to be monster-food, and we don’t care. Here, they’re real people we don’t know well. Like Terminator, even though this isn’t a world Cameron created, he updated it enough to claim a lot of credit for the mythos, and he has thought out all the angles.

MO: His films are all really well worked out. There are characters in this thing who are only around for a little bit, like Frost or Sgt. Apone or Drake, who I remember better than main characters in a number of other action movies. There’s a lot of specificity here, which Cameron brings.

LG: I think it’s even more important than his visual style or his editing. His specificity in his writing is extremely important and really sets him apart from a lot of writer-directors who say “eh, good enough.”

MO: That said, that style is tremendous. Something I love that carries over from the Terminator is that tactile sense of not just the violence, but all of the grit and sweat and particles. When we find Ripley, her hypersleep chamber has been closed so long that it’s covered in frost. The sets all look terrific. The pornography in the marines’ lockers is a great detail that you might not notice, but it’s important that it’s there.

LG: And it’s not all tacky Hustler stuff, there’s also some classy black-and-white photos mixed in. You get a sense that there are different tastes within the barracks.

MO: We also get a good sense of how the machines work. There’s a tank that resembles the Tumbler in the Nolan Batman movies so much that I’d be surprised if it wasn’t an influence. We get a good sense of how it works. We get a sense of how the weapons work…in fact there’s a scene where Michael Biehn’s character shows Ripley how the future rifles work. He tells her to “feel the weight”, and we really do. You noted that Cameron is great with showing how bullets are limited, and nowhere is that more important than in the sentry-gun scene.

LG: Oh, it’s a great sequence in the Special Edition. The guns are just outside the perimeter. We don’t see them fire, but we hear them, and we see the counter showing how many bullets are left, and tiny as it seems, it’s great. It’s a rare case where telling us what’s happening is more effective than showing it. It’s very Hitchcockian.

MO: And like Ridley Scott and Stanley Kubrick before him, he’s very good at contrasting bright lights with dark shadows, sterile interiors to gooey stuff.

LG: It’s a very gooey, icky film, and that’s one of the great things about it. One of the great things about Ridley Scott’s film was the facehugger. The biology of the alien is so bizarre that it had to be iconic. It comes from an egg, then there’s this thing that lays eggs in your throat, and then the egg grows and bursts out of your chest. The facehugger is one of the scariest things in the first film. They wrap around your face and shove stuff down your throat…

MO: There’s a lot of rape subtext…

LG: A lot. And the thing’s legs have fingernails, which is creepy…and James Cameron managed to make it even more terrifying somehow. My favorite scene in the film is also the most claustrophobic and Hitchcockian-Ripley and Newt are trapped in a room with two facehuggers and we see the things walk, and it’s terrifying. I don’t get creeped out easily, but this is just…yech.

MO: Something the first film has that you almost can’t fault it for because of the budget being so low, is the fact that the alien was very much a man in a suit. This film gives a better sense of how bug-like these things are. There’s a part where one falls under the tank, and you hear this big crunch that you’d hear if you smashed a beetle.

LG: Cameron’s interpretation was that they were more bug-like. He asks who laid all the eggs, and he adds an alien queen. It’s a very interesting contrast when there’s a mother lioness of Ripley fighting another mother lioness at the end.

MO: And the queen thing is compared to bees and ants, which is just great. It’s almost like they’re an infestation.

LG: But they’re also very intelligent: they lay an ambush and cut the power.

MO: But Cameron also builds his first mech suit since Xenogenesis.

LG: And like that film, a person’s movements control the machine. But it’s less goofy here: they’re robot forklifts that practically look real. I almost don’t even want to know how they did it, it’s so convincing.

MO: It looks real. It looks like Cameron built these things, which, it’s obviously a special effect, but we don’t get that. Also: we’ve had an idea before that the aliens were bio-mechanized weapons before, but it’s clearer here.

LG: There’s a lot of nuclear power stuff too- there’s a “let’s nuke ‘em” solution for the aliens, there’s the fusion reactor that’s melting down. The nuclear stuff from Xenogenesis and Terminator is still on his mind, and won’t be leaving it any time soon.

MO: But it’s a good time to talk about the corporate overlords. Burke, played by Paul Reiser, is a company man who befriends Ripley.

LG: He’s very trusting at first and he’s in her corner…at first. (Spoilers) He’s trying to cover up company mistakes, he’s concerned with the dollar amount of the colony over human lives, and he almost kills Ripley and Newt by trapping the facehuggers in with them to impregnate them.

MO: He is responsible for the colonists’ death, and he goes to disgusting lengths to get the aliens back. Which is a continuation of the first film. But the film also plays with expectations, since there’s another android, and the last one was a bad guy sent to watch over things for the company and kill the crew if necessary. (End Spoilers)
 They play with that a lot with Lance Henrikson’s character, Bishop. Henrikson’s very good here…

LG: And he has a great introduction doing the five-finger-filet game so fast that he can’t be human. He doesn’t identify with people or society, preferring to be called an “artificial person.” Similarly Ripley has been exiled from society. Again, like the Cassandra myth, she knows what’s up and no one believes her. Her mistrust of him, while understandable, may also amount to misplaced self loathing not to mention space-racism. Their alienation makes them natural allies, but she’s so mistrusting that she can’t recognize it until late in the film. It’s a great exploration of her flaws as a character. Cameron is willing to give her real issues, which is more than you can see in a lot of action films.

MO: The Terminator was a very technophobic film, this is a little less so. It’s a little like Blade Runner- they’re more human than we think they are. That she can build a human connection with Bishop is great. Cameron is interested in what makes us human, and part of it is empathy, which Bishop, Ripley, Newt, and the marine Hicks have where others don’t, and that’s part of their undoing. They empathize with the colonists.

LG: And Bishop learns empathy for Ripley a little bit. This is a theme that culminates in Terminator 2, which we’ll get into there.

MO: There’s a number of great characters here. Michael Biehn is really strong as Hicks, this marine who’s so dreamy and dazed in his delivery and presence that he almost seems out of place. He wasn’t originally cast- another tough-guy character actor, James Remar of Drugstore Cowboy and The Warriors, was- but he’s well cast here. He’s more empathetic and he’s a love interest that’s not overplayed. They never get a big sex scene or kiss or declaration of love, but their bond over the course of the film is wonderful.
LG: I never saw it as a love interest. I saw her as somewhat asexual, which is interesting considering all the psycho-sexual imagery in the films.

MO: Wow, I never got that. The human connection between the two was always an attraction to me.

LG: But it was never going to be consummated.

MO: Oh, I don’t know about that. She’s sexualized and feminized so much that I can’t see her as asexual. The way Cameron plays with her femininity is so interesting that I can’t read it the other way.

LG: Though a number of the female characters are asexualized.

MO: Well Vasquez (terrific performance by Jeannette Goldstein) is the toughest of all marines, but she’s had to do it by being another one of the guys. She’s actually more macho than any of the men other than Hudson, who’s a coward (Bill Paxton is hilarious in this).

LG: We should note that this is not an all-male fighting force. There aren’t just one or two women: there’s a good handful. It’s not all white either. It’s very diverse in terms of race and gender.

MO: Well you can see the influence on Paul Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers, which has that as well, or the influence that Starship Troopers the book might have had on this.

LG: Well I’ve always argued that Aliens is the best movie adaptation of Starship Troopers available, not that I don’t like Starship Troopers.

MO: I love Starship Troopers.

LG: It’s a good film, but this is better. I’m surprised the author didn’t sue. There’s so many similarities of marines going after bugs and it being a sham…

MO: Well Highland is a more militaristic guy (ok, fascistic) where Cameron is more critical.

LG: I wouldn’t say critical…

MO: Well, their attitude gets them killed…

LG: But they’ve had successful missions, even if their attitude here is all wrong. They’re not bad guys.

MO: Oh no, they’re not bad guys, but they’re flawed human beings who make grave errors in judgment.

LG: But it’s not like other war films like, say, Platoon or Casualties of War, where there are rapists and murderers mixed in with the crew.

MO: I understand what you mean. None of them are nasty characters, and it’s not like they’re saying a military shouldn’t exist, but it’s still somewhat critical. I’d like to get into some other influences on this: obviously there’s a bit of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner in there along with Alien, and the opening has the same classical piece as in Kubrick’s 2001. In fact the intro is a bit of a space-ballet in its own right. Cameron has that same sense of meticulous design as Kubrick and Scott, but he borrows his rhythms from Spielberg and Lucas.

LG: The thing about Lucas is that his influence from samurai films was to drop you into a complicated world, which Cameron does too. There’s a lot of segments and mini-goals in Aliens like there is in Star Wars, and there’s the lived-in future. Now here’s an interesting thing: when I was a kid, I somehow got it into my head that Cameron wrote the first Alien. He had nothing to do with it, but look at it and you can see why he signed onto the sequel. The first one has a lot of similarities to Cameron’s work: there’s blue-collar space workers, blue light and blue mist (though that’s a Ridley Scott thing too), a strong female character, a script that’s very into the rules of its world. Alien is just chuck full of things that Cameron likes to put into his films. After Terminator, he could have done something original, but he chose to do a sequel to someone else’s film, and I think that says a lot of how the first film resonated with him.

MO: And here he brings his sense of kineticism and that blockbuster model, not to make it sound generic. Raiders of the Lost Ark five years earlier had kind of finalized what a blockbuster film was, and Aliens follows that very closely to an effective degree. And, like any action movie from Carpenter to Spielberg, there’s that Howard Hawks “man on a mission” feel.

LG: Also the feral kid is lifted from The Road Warrior. The two kids even look alike.

MO: We didn’t get into this earlier, but Carrie Henn is terrific here. She’s got kind of a weird accent, where she’s an American who was raised in Britain, so she’s a kid whose pronunciations go back and forth, but it’s not much of a distraction. Cameron gets a good performance out of her. He’s got a real talent working with young actors, which shows up in Terminator 2. Now, the James Horner score you might be able to speak about better because you’re a bigger Star Trek fan.

LG: There are bits from Horner’s scores from Star Trek II and III that show up here. That has a bit to do with how pieced together the score was- Horner didn’t have long to write it because Cameron took so long putting a final cut together- but Horner has a reputation for reusing bits of his previous scores.

MO: Yeah, and he was so upset he said he would never work with Cameron again (although he has twice, with Titanic and Avatar). That said, I love this score. It’s my favorite Horner score. It has those great driving rhythms he does well. It fits so well with the material. Plus it does reuse a cue from the first film, one of my all time favorite music cues, in the elevator scene near the end.

LG: And the stuff that is original works like gangbusters. And so does the stuff he adapted from his Wrath of Khan score. His reuse of Goldsmith’s cue from the first Alien brings us back to the structural similarities between the films: both end with running from the alien, a fakeout ending, a surprise scare, and blowing the alien out of the airlock., right up to the cryosleep ending. But Cameron does these callbacks very well. It never feels like a retread.

MO: And his use of slow-motion here is great: in the nightmare-exposition scene, in the alien attack near the beginning, in the queen’s attack at the very end. He uses it to heighten the situation very well. But the predominant theme here is feminism and motherhood. I’ve argued that Aliens is the ultimate feminist action movie. The opening credits have the “I” in Aliens in a slightly different font: it looks like a vagina. The marginalize woman has to prove herself. The female protagonist is more empathetic than the male characters, even the more masculine female. The four strongest characters in the film are all women: the strongest civilian is Ripley, the strongest civilian is Newt, the strongest marine is Vasquez, and the big-bad is an alien queen.

LG: I think you may be stretching it with the vaginal “I, ” but you have a point with the way Cameron centers on the women. In the midst of all these characters he keeps Ripley an active participant. She has more to do here than heroes in entire action trilogies. It’s set up so she could have been hanging about as everyone shoots the aliens, but she’s ultimately the only person who can get anything done. 
vaginal credits, yes or no? You decide!
MO: A lot has to do with her maternal instincts. For some godforsaken reason, the theatrical cut deleted a scene where Ripley reacts to her daughter’s death, and it strengthens the relationship between her and Newt, and her actions when she protects Newt are now that of a mother figure. It fills a bit hole in her life, and they develop a wonderful relationship, and when Newt falls in the alien-nest, it gets the finale going. It’s ultimately a fight between two matriarchs trying to keep their people going: Ripley with her daughter-figure Newt, and the alien, who’s trying to keep her species going by impregnating Newt. Something else Cameron does that’s great is that when he frames the queen, she overwhelms the frame of the camera. It doesn’t quite capture her enormity, which is terrifying.

LG: And it’s great as a practical shot, as it makes the special effects more convincing.

MO:  It’s like the Jaws thing, where technological limitations make the director more creative. Cameron does that sometimes with his villains: they’re so overwhelming that the frame can’t capture him. He did this once or twice with the terminator, and he does it even better. Finally, I’d love to note the dream and birth imagery in both films: both Alien and Aliens open with characters waking up, almost in a sterile birth setting, which contrasts the more horrifying births throughout them. Ripley is found almost in a cocoon, the only thing keeping her safe….

LG: There’s a lot of birth imagery: the nightmare sequence, the alien jumping through people’s chests, and there’s a bit of dialogue in the Special Edition where Newt asks if that’s where people come from.

MO: And those two are almost impregnated by the aliens. And along with the nightmare, there’s a lot of other nightmare imagery, both in the events of the film and the fact that Ripley can’t dream without waking up in a cold sweat. She tells Newt “don’t dream” at one point in the film, and when the film reaches its end, she and Newt finally note that they might be able to dream now that the ordeal is over. It’s a wonderful note to end it on where they really are safe. Had the series ended here, it wouldn’t be like Alien, where Ripley is floating out into space and might never be found. She, Newt, Hicks, and Bishop are really going to be OK, as far as we know. It’s a sense of closure that doesn’t feel cheap or unsatisfying. It’s well earned.

LG: After the hell that these films put her through, I’d like to see a movie where Ripley goes on vacation and nothing bad happens to her, because she has earned it.

MO: We’ll pretend that all of the horrible things that happened to her in Alien 3 didn’t happen. I’d accept that junk if the movie were any good, but it isn’t. Any final thoughts?

LG: I love this film. I don’t know if it’s my favorite Cameron film, but it’s close enough. I give it an A.

MO: I give it an A too. I think it’s between this and Terminator 2 for what Cameron’s best film is, and I’d give this an edge. It’s his richest, it’s his densest, it’s his best written, and I think it’s a masterpiece.

Loren’s Grade: A
Max’s Grade: A

That’s it for our discussion of Aliens. If you agree or disagree feel free to comment bellow. Also, be sure to check out Max O’Connell’s blog The Film Temple for this and other great reviews including his review of the original Alien.

Other Installments in the Cameron Roundtable series:
Piranha II: The Spawning 
The Terminator
Aliens (Special Edition)
The Abyss (Special Edition)
Terminator 2: Judgement Day
True Lies
Avatar (Extended Edition)