Craig from Dark Eye Socket here with Take Three.
The 1980s. Male. Character actor. Sci-fi. Aliens from deep, dark space and the deep blue sea and robots from the future. All under the tutelage of James Cameron. Today: It's Mr. Michael Biehn
Take One: The Terminator (1984)
It’s a good thing the T-800 didn’t find Sarah Connor any sooner than he did. He would’ve consequently deprived us of all that full-throttle Biehn action and indeed made The Terminator a very short movie, nay, franchise. (Found her! The end.) As the main man from future times, resistance fighter Sgt. Kyle Reese is electrically plonked down butt-naked from post-apocalyptic LA, circa 2029, to present-day 1984 to protect poor baffled Linda Hamilton. Biehn delivers a sturdy yet tender supporting turn. The Austrian Oak was obviously the big draw but this film triggered Biehn's signature part: the slightly wracked, occasionally cracked and often knackered hero.
Looking like a conspiracy-expounding tramp and armed with only a raincoat-concealed shotgun and an advantageous prescience, Biehn wastes no time finding his quarry. Hamilton and Biehn exerted sudden panic and impromptu connectivity believably together, making for an endearing sci-fi pairing. Of course this closeness stretched only nearly to the end of the first film, but their legacy reached further. As in Aliens, Biehn is particularly chivalrous with his female co-star. Of course his role dictates as such, but it appears to come from an uncommon aspect of Biehn’s own screen persona: it’s in the way he furtively expresses himself in the film’s calmer moments as much as when, elsewhere, he’s as blisteringly kick-ass as we’ve seen of him over the years. He’s a generous almost-leading man and a physically astute presence.
Take Two: Aliens (1986)
Next to Reese, Corporal Dwayne Hicks in Aliens is the part Biehn will likely be most fondly remembered for. He emerges from the hyper-snoozing throng of grunts aboard the Sulaco to be the chief military man to aid and abet our Ripley. Immediately he’s an amiable presence with his wry, room-pleasing comments
Looks like the new lieutenant's too good to eat with the rest of us grunts.
He's easy to warm to amid the nefariously hard marine banter. And when it comes to Ripley, he shoots downright puppyish looks her way at opportune moments throughout the film: he bats his eyelids at her.
The adoration is even clearer when he reiterates Ripley’s line
I say we take off and nuke the site from orbit - it's the only way to be sure.
I’ve often wondered, if circumstances been different would they have dated – but I always doubted it. Ultimately, their relationship was platonic, a hastily scrabbled together sibling-like bond. (He may have got to bed Sarah Connor, but not Ellen Ripley.)
He sees in Ripley someone who takes no bullshit and gets the job done. That obviously keeps Hicks keen, so he boldly steps up to her particularly badass level of expertise whilst quietly impressing her, too. (If the scene where he shows Ripley how to operate a pulse rifle isn’t one long, abashed tough-guy approach to heavy petting then I don’t know what is; gun talk seems to equate foreplay for Hicks.) She reciprocates his enthusiasm but as forward momentum: their connection, their tandem onward battle, was probably the thing that saw not only Hicks but also Ripley herself through to the end of their nightmare. Ripley’s a singular crusader, but she’s not without the indispensible assistance of her adoring, essential wingman.
Take Three: The Abyss (1989)
This time it’s warheads. From far off in deep space to deep below the ocean, Biehn sinks into The Abyss in Cameron’s ground-breaking, FX-spearheading sci-fi. He’s evil this time, as indicated by his sinister twitching moustache. (He couldn’t be a goody two-shoes for three Camerons in a row now, could he?) Lt. Hiram Coffey, a US Navy SEAL, has malignant ideas in mind when he plunges the depths with cranky Ed Harris and his estranged, headstrong wife Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio. Unbeknownst to all, Coffey wants to get his hands on the Trident nuclear missiles sunk on a downed sub – the others can lark about with those pesky seafaring alien entities. To call Biehn dastardly in The Abyss is putting it lightly - he’s downright vile. But it’s all kept keenly under wraps for just long enough, thanks to the way Biehn works his clammy performance magic.
His performance keeps the right paranoid spasms and sticky movements in check to effectively conveying the claustrophobic mood and work as the oily cog that keeps the plot itself on its ill course. If Cameron's film wasn’t going to have any scary aliens this time around, then a human presence had to pick up the evil baton; Biehn complies in fine style.
Biehn's relationships with the first two franchises didn't last. He was ditched in Terminator 2: Judgement Day (we can see him only in the special edition and director’s cut) and killed off within the opening titles of Alien³ . But in William Gibson’s early, rejected script draft of that film, Hicks shockingly replaced Ripley. But writer-producers, and long-time Alien leaders, Walter Hill and David Giler dispatched him. (Biehn still got paid.) Rumour has it that Biehn is pencilled in for both Terminator 5 and Avatar 2, his James Cameron trilogy may just become a quintet yet.
Three more (non-Cameron) films for the taking: Rampage (1987), Tombstone (1996), Grindhouse/Planet Terror (2007)