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Hit Me With Your Best Shot: "ALIENS"

For the penultimate episode of Hit Me With Your Best Shot's second season (the finale is Rebel Without a Cause next Wednesday, join us) we're venturing into the Alien franchise, Aliens (1986) to be specific for its 25th anniversary (this coming Monday). We'll be spilling some acid blood, ducking into airshafts, doubting synthetic humans, and flame-throwing with Lt. Ellen Ripley a few times this week to celebrate. Yay, theme weeks!

Teamwork. How many action movies actually cheer for it?

Though Sigourney Weaver's iconic "Ripley" is the the franchise's true star (H.R. Giger's alien beasties are formidable but only runners-up; you know that's true!), one of the most commendable things you can say for Aliens (1986) is that James Cameron understands the importance of a strong ensemble and the value of teamwork. Many blockbuster franchises spin around one seemingly indestructable protagonist and though that's true here as well, the team around the good lieutenant never gets short-shrift. There's a brilliantly paired set of shots midway through the picture when Hicks and Ripley have just lost adopted daughter surrogate "Newt". Hicks rescues Ripley, dragging her to safety and then she rescues him in return when alien blood splatters on his chest plate and she drags him to their next destination.

Cameron has often been lauded for promoting women to lead duties in action pictures, but isn't it really only that he tends to balance the masculine and feminine throughout, rather than the far more common and totally lopsided cinematic impulse (i.e. heroic "doer" men and the decorative women that are there to be rescued or supportive or both). What's more, Cameron's action heroines are never just men in drag -- note this great shot of Private Vasquez (Cameron regular Jenette Goldstein) prepping her huge gun for war. It's hard not to miss her large breasts, especially since the shot begins with a closeup of them and they aren't taped down (Contrary to Mr. Lucas's famous edict, there will be jiggling in outerspace).  Earlier in the picture a fellow marine asks Vasquez if she's ever been mistaken for a man. Her simple inverted quip "No, have you?"

Best Shot
But given Ripley's place in the sci-fi and action pantheon it's fitting that the film peaks with its most female-centric setpiece: Ripley with her new child ("Newt") in her arms enters the lair of the Queen alien who is surrounded by her children; the room is littered with her violent egged babies, like sentient grenades just waiting for their pins to be pulled. Ripley begins to back away, after what amounts to a face/off and stand down with the Queen until one egg hatches and she realizes what she must do.

This shot, one of the most iconic close-ups of 80s cinema and maybe all of film history, is the climax of the mostly silent standoff between this franchise's two queens, underscored less by movie music than by their mutual heavy breathing. It's all in the steamy exhaustion, Ripley's heroic impulses, and that Oscar worthy head tilt from Sigourney Weaver.

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Reader Comments (18)

The shot of her standing amongst all the eggs (immediately preceeding your selection) was so close to being my favourite shot. Totally inspired by Hitchcock's THE BIRDS...a great moment of silent tension before the storm.

When watching ALIENS, do people tend to watch the original cut or the directors cut (called the Special Edition on DVD)? Because a lot is made of Ripley as a mother in the film, but the original version of the film is missing that crucial scene near the beginning, where Ripley learns her biological child recently passed away of old age. Which in turn plays a great deal into her relationship with Newt.

July 13, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterTom Clift

@ Tom Clift, I watch the director's cut for that early scene with Ripley specifically, It definitely adds a lot to Ripley's arc. I do however feel the extended sequence on the colony before the aliens attack is a bit superfluous.

July 13, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterThe Awards Nazi

yeah i was watching the extended version for this but prefer the theatrical. Tighter. I tend to prefer theatrical cuts. Directors get way too precious when they can keep any scene in.

July 13, 2011 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

my choice of best shot:

July 13, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterremy

@Nathaniel - I agree in most cases (including with the first ALIEN), but with ALIENS I think the longer cut is superior. The scene I mentioned above is crucial to Ripley as a character, and is well worth the trade off with what @The Awards Nazi called the superfluous colony sequence (I agree, it's pretty unnecessary). Plus the theatrical cut is missing the automated turrets scene, which is just an awesome sequence

July 13, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterTom Clift

Great choice for the best shot. James Cameron sure loves his heat and steam. Ripley's motherly AND visceral throughout the film.

I just saw this movie last Sunday, but I still assumed that ALIENS was a departure from the flawed noir stylistics of TERMINATOR. But those close-ups, one of many great ones, brings the cyberpunk back. I wish Cameron still made tight movies like this.

July 14, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterPaolo

Cameron's preferred version is the 1991 Special Edition. I don't believe it makes Aliens a better film but the revelation about Ripley's daughter adds a purpose to the character that's crucial.

His '92 Abyss Special Edition is everything. My personal favorite Cameron picture ever. The '93 T2 Special Edition is unnecessary. Should've made a Special Edition for True Lies, a lot of interesting character stuff left on the cutting room floor.

July 14, 2011 | Unregistered Commenter/3rtfu11

@/3rtfu11 I kind of dig the T2 extended cut as well...or at least I dig one of them (there's a few, and I forget which one is which). The one I own on DVD - The "Ultimate Edition" is my favourite...mostly because of that scene where John teaches the T-800 how to smile. Not only is it pretty funny, but it helps humanize the robot and give more weight to his relationship with John. A bit like the ALIENS scene come to think of it.

July 14, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterTom Clift

I own both the Ultimate Edition and the Extreme one by default since they repackaged them with Total Recall. I'm not sure there's any addition to T2 in the Special Edition version that I care to keep -- that Theatrical Release is God's eye perfect.

July 14, 2011 | Unregistered Commenter/3rtfu11

Aliens is perfect,i always feel the head tilt is her way of communicating to the queen "are you taking the piss?"

July 14, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMARK

I almost forgot about the automated turrets sequence. Not that it isn't awesome, but the film already has enough awesomeness as it is.

Anywho, my fav shots:

July 14, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterThe Awards Nazi

I had just commented about the "deleted scene" on Jose's site, but - I saw the film back in the day (sort of - my brother brought it home on VHS -anyone else here remember VHS? Anyone else here remembering having to rent a VHS player from the one local video store - before Blockbuster - because your family hadn't bought one yet and they were so damned expensive?)

The scene where she discovers her child died long ago was not part of the original release; my brother told me about it later when he saw it on an extra (and it was an extra on TV, when they started adding deleted scenes to movies on TV to "compete" with home video). So I had no idea of the backstory at the time but I've wondered how my experience might have been deepened with that little bit of knowledge, that one piece of information that seems fairly crucial. Not that it wasn't an amazing experience to begin with, and the "mother" theme (and female-centricness) of the film was still apparent of course. This was especially important to me at the time because every other action film at the time was male-dominated (still are, pretty much.)

I miss that James Cameron - one who knew how to make a tight, thrilling action film layered with metaphors and depth of characterization rarely seen in the genre. (Avatar was fun in the theater but deflated in my memory afterwards like a failed souffle.)

July 14, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJanice

Janice -- i remember renting VHS players. It feels like 1000 years ago things changed so rapidly. now i just press play on my computer.

Mark -- perfect is the perfect adjective yes :)

Tom -- i much prefer the theatrical on T2. And I prefer Aliens theatrical too BUT you're right that the automated turrets scene is awesome awesomeness.

July 14, 2011 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

Ripley had a child? God forbid. "Aliens" was such a great movie EXCEPT for the sentimental mother-daughter crud. At first I thought Newt might be a little Mad-Max-style apocalyptic urchin, but at some point I just wanted to throttle her. I know, I know, she was necessary to provide contrast with the Alien Mother and her viscous eggies, but still.

July 14, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterOwen Walter

God, how I love this movie. And yeah, the only version I'm watching is Special Edition.

Nathaniel, you have to see it on Blu-ray, it looks outstanding!

July 14, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMierzwiak

Is it too late to contribute to this? I'm finishing up a post on this as we speak...

July 19, 2011 | Unregistered Commentertheoncominghope

Mierzwiak -- i may replace my copy -- it was pretty badly beat up.

theoncominghope -- i'll add you. just send me the link filmexperience (at) gmail (dot) com

July 19, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterNathanielR

Thanks for adding me, Nathaniel!

July 20, 2011 | Unregistered Commentertheoncominghope
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