Thoughts on life after the PhD
I have fairly vivid memories of the first time I saw Aliens. It was on the little TV in that room we called the “playroom” long after my sister and I were teenagers and used it more for watching TV and playing video games than playing with dolls and horses. It was fairly late at night, and I saw the film in snatches on HBO, because my parents surely would never have rented it for me. Not after the Gremlins fiasco, when I became so frightened that I didn’t sleep the night through for a month.
Even then, only ten or eleven years old and unable to comprehend much of the dialogue, I knew enough to be terrified out of my mind. Aliens has endured in the public consciousness perhaps more for its memorable one-liners (Game over, man! Game over!) than its shocks, but it remains one of the most intense film experiences I’ve ever had.
I saw it on the big screen recently for the first time in several years, and I’m amazed at how well it holds up. Twenty-three years later there’s nothing cheap or childish about the visual effects, the dialogue is still sharp and funny, and it still scares the bejeezus out of me. Even knowing the movie well enough to recite it from memory didn’t make for a boring evening.
Aliens has been praised as one of the most “complete” action films around–well-developed characters, slick action sequences, skillful editing, and a narrative that doesn’t let up once it gets going. It’s also been recognized for its intensity–Roger Ebert rated it highly, but admitted that it “made him feel bad”–the constant shocks and anticipation of more shocks were just too much. Watching it on the big screen for the first time, I noticed that it makes great use of sound–not just the driving soundtrack during the action sequences that has been appropriated for hundreds of action film trailers, but in its choice use of silence. The first forty-five minutes of the film are surprisingly quiet, the kind of quiet that keeps you on the edge of your seat wondering when people are going to start dying. Our first real hint of activities comes not through explosions and screams, but through the steady, pulsing beat of a motion tracker, thumping like dripping water when nothing is in range and giving off a dreaded beeping sound when unidentified objects are moving closer. Sure, there’s plenty of screaming and machine gun fire, but some of the film’s most effective scenes are about waiting in silence, wondering what’s out there and when it’s going to attack.
And then, of course, there’s Sigourney Weaver. Watching her in action made me realize how long it had been since I’d seen a truly kick-ass female action hero who a) didn’t have perfect breasts and washboard abs, b) didn’t have to ultimately be rescued by the hero (hell, she drags HIM out of the burning building), and c) wasn’t forced to run around in skin-tight neoprene or a cleavage-accentuating tank top. I tried to think of other female action heroes who don’t play second fiddle to the male leads or don’t look like supermodels, and I had trouble coming up with a single name. Maybe the ladies from The Descent–another amazingly scary film–but they kind of all end up playing the victim. Sigourney Weaver wields machine guns, drives a tank, keeps everybody in line, and single-handedly disposes of the queen alien with a hydraulic loader. When was the last time Hollywood wrote a female character like that? And given Aliens‘ success, why don’t they do it more often? It’s such a rare treat to watch an action film and see a heroine that I actually admire, one who’s more than eye candy or a sidekick for the main dude.
Rumor has it that a fifth Alien movie is in the works, though it’s still very much rumor. Not sure if I would bother seeing it, given that I thought the third movie was mediocre and the fourth was dreadful. But if it means a chance to see Sigourney kicking ass again, or to experience something resembling the skillful tour-de-force of the second film, I might could be persuaded.
writing•translation•scholarship on Japan (and a few other things)
tales of travel, research, and life
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