Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Aliens (1986) The Abyss (1989) Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991)




About eight years ago James Cameron was hard at work on his epic Titanic, which was looking to be a Heaven's Gate style fiasco. Most of the initial press on the production focused on its numerous delays and budget overruns. Requiring money from two studios, it was the most expensive film ever made, until last year when King Kong surpassed it. Cameron had to give up his 8 million dollar fee to keep 20th Century Fox from firing him. When it was finally wrapped up, the final cut of the movie ran over three hours, which was a length guaranteed to make any studio exec shake in their Gucci loafers. It was finally released in during the holiday season of 1997 to reviews that were just lukewarm; they praised its visual effects while dumping on the film's melodramatic plot and bad dialogue. One thing was certain: if Titanic failed, Cameron, the notoriously temperamental director who was always at odds with his cast, crew, and the studios, would never work in Hollywood again.

Ultimately, the gamble paid off better than anyone could have dreamed. Titanic went on to become the highest grossing picture in history, taking in 1.8 billion worldwide. It swept the Academy Awards in every category it was nominated except makeup and acting (notably, it is also one of the few Best Picture nominees to not have its screenplay nominated in the writing awards).

Ever since Titanic, James "The King of the World" Cameron has been in exile for the crimes of courting the lucrative market of teenage girls and their allowances by casting Leonardo Dicaprio, and making Celine Dion's diabetes inducing "My Heart Will Go On" inescapable on the radio for nearly a year. Fans of Cameron's earlier, action-oriented output tend to look at Titanic as a black stain on his filmography.

I personally think some of the backlash against Titanic is overstated. While the romance is deeply hackneyed, the sinking of the ship with screaming passengers banging off rudders as they fall to their deaths *almost* makes up for it. You do get a brief flash of Kate Winslet's titty, and Leonardo Dicaprio is killed in the end (that said, I hate Dicaprio's teen girl following more than the actor himself.) No matter what its few virtues are, Titanic is a bloated and indulgent mess of a story, which is strange because one of the strengths of James Cameron's films has always been their relentless attention to pacing. I present as evidence of this a comparison between the theatrical and special editions of Aliens, The Abyss, and Terminator 2: Judgement Day.

The differences between the theatrical cuts and the special editions of these three movies are striking. Thick swaths of exposition and special effects scenes are left on the cutting room floor to trim the least bit of slack from the reels. Sometimes the cuts are befuddling, removing some incredibly awesome stuff that wouldn't have slowed the movie down a bit. Other cuts wisely rein in some of Cameron's more didactic tendencies. Still, all of these movies (and their pricey special edition laserdisc boxsets) came out long before the DVD craze hit critical mass, so we cannot attribute the edits as a crass plot to double dip buyers.

Aliens was Cameron's follow-up to his sleeper hit The Terminator. Tasked with creating a sequel to the sci-fi horror classic, Aliens takes a different, more action-oriented track by pitting Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) and a group of gung-ho space marines against an entire planet of the acid-spitting creatures. Despite being a complete left-turn to its slow and atmospheric predecessor, Aliens works as a non-stop, gut-wrenching thrill ride which has spawned legions of imitators (see Doom or the movie version of Starship Troopers) in the twenty years since its release.

Aliens wisely reigns in Cameron's worst impulses. The Vietnam metaphor (with the Marines' superior firepower ultimately failing against the aliens sheer numbers and ferocity) is mostly an afterthought. When Hicks (Cameron regular Michael Biehn) suggests using a nuclear weapon on the facility, it actually sounds like a good idea. And while I typically think that the inclusion of cute little kids into R-rated action films is an unwise decision, Newt (Carrie Henn) stays fairly un-annoying throughout. Making her character a deeply traumatized and not particularly loquacious little girl is certainly preferable to the "cowabunga, dude!" attitude of John Connor in Terminator 2.

Kudos to Aliens for also developing its supporting cast so well. Most of them inhabit the usual war movie cliches: the cowardly blowhard, the cigar-chomping sergeant, the slimy corporate guy etc. but they get enough small character moments to make them memorable. Who hasn't thrown their Playstation controller in a rage screaming "Game over, man! Game over!" like Hudson does after the dropship crash?

I guess we can also trace back to Aliens the now science-fiction convention of women being allowed into combat positions in the armies of the future without anyone blinking. Hell, the super-butch chicana Vasquez even gets the biggest gun. I guess "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" also doesn't apply in the future...

Ultimately the whole film is anchored by Sigourney Weaver's incredible performance as Ripley, which earned her a nomination for Best Actress. Though she battled the ultimate penis metaphor in skimpy underwear in the first film, Aliens wisely doesn't try to play Ripley as an ass-kicking sex bomb with a bare-midriff. Her duel with the Alien Queen in the end is played out as the ultimate Battle of the Mommies. While we root for our own species, one can almost identify with the Queen's freak out while Ripley blows apart her eggs with a grenade launcher. Aliens is probably one of the most feminist sci-fi movies ever made, but doesn't have a "check your testicles at the door" feel that would alienate most of its male audience.

The special edition, which adds 17-minutes to the running time, is unquestionably the superior version of Aliens . The scenes were removed to bring the running time down closer to two hours (with the extra scenes, Aliens still comes in at a not unwieldly two and a half hours.) Besides adding a few snippets of dialogue here and there, there are three crucial additions to special edition:

1) The scene before the inquest with Ripley on the park bench. In this, we learn that her daughter (who was never mentioned in Alien) had died an old woman during her 57-years in hypersleep. While it's plain in the theatrical cut that Ripley has mommy issues due to her fierce bonding with Newt, this scene clearly defines and deepens her maternal motivations.

2) A scene of the colonists making their first contact with the aliens. In the theatrical version, we only see the aftermath of the aliens assault on the colony. The special edition is made starker by contrasting it with this scene of the alive and bustling colony, not to mention making more explicit the fact that Burke uses the information Ripley gave at the inquest to try and find the alien. While some have chafed at the conceit that it's Newt's parents who are first infected, I do not find it distracting at all.

3) The sentry guns. Why 'oh why were these ever removed from any cut of the film? Not only is the idea of sentry guns simply cool, the scene is well executed, with the marines grimly staring at their rapidly depleting ammo counters. It also gives a greater sense of the aliens intelligence, as well as adding tension to one of the films few slow spots.

The only addition that detracts from the theatrical version is Hudson's "I am the ultimate badass..." speech on the dropship, which suffers from clumsy writing. Overall though the deleted scenes are gold and do not bloat what is one of the best and most intense sci-fi action films ever made. The same cannot be said, however, of special edition for The Abyss.

The Abyss has been called one of the hardest film shoots in history (if you're looking to buy this disc, I'd highly suggest shelling out for the two-disc version. The documentary on disc two is excellent, and worth it alone just to see Ed Harris biting his tongue to keep himself from calling Cameron a dick during his interview.) Filmed in an abandoned nuclear reactor, the underwater photography is simply amazing. Compared to the generic outer space settings of most sci-fi films, the bottom-of-the-ocean setting feels rich and claustrophobic.

Aliens also make an appearance in this movie, though they are markedly different from the slimy nasties of Aliens . Opening unwisely with the most recognized quote of Nietzsche (you know, "look in to the abyss...abyss looks into you..." yadda-yadda) The Abyss starts with an Ohio-class submarine tracking an NTI (Non-terrestrial Intelligence) through a trench, thinking it's a Russian "bogey". The alien watercraft gets too close to the sub, shutting down it's electronics and causing it to crash into a cliff, which sinks the sub in a well executed and chilling opening. It does however bring up the point, if the aliens are so peace-loving, why don't they save the submarine crew like they do the surviving drillers in the end?

The sinking of the sub sets off an international incident between the US and Russia in a bout of Cold War saber-rattling that would become antiquated just a few years later. The military requisitions a nearby underwater oil rig to search the sub for survivors, and more importantly, the nuclear weapons aboard it. Difficulties pile up as the Navy SEAL sent to command the operation begins to suffer from "pressure sickness" dementia and the oil rig gets damaged and cut off from the surface because of a storm.

The main characters' performances are all good. Ed Harris (in a rare turn as a leading man) is effective as Bud, the everyman working guy trying to do what's right in a desperate situation. Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio's Lindsey teeters on being shrill before ultimately becoming sympathetic. And Michael Biehn, in a switch from his usual stoic good-guy role, is menacing enough as the Navy SEAL Lt. Coffey, though he doesn't quite get to the core of the character, who is the antagonist more by accident than by malice. The supporting cast feels less fleshed out in The Abyss than it did in Aliens. While Bill Paxton was able to make Hudson's cowardly bluster endearing, The Abyss's version of him (the mouse loving Hippy) comes off as annoying and shrill.

The Abyss tries to be Close Encounters of the Third Kind meets Das Boot, but only really succeeds at being the latter. As a thriller, The Abyss is top notch. The scenes of both the submarine sinking and the crane collapsing on the oil rig hit all the right disaster film notes. There are several scenes, particularly the one where Bud and Lindsey are trapped in a slowly flooding submersible, that are certain to be too much for anyone with a serious fear of drowning.

Where The Abyss stumbles when it shifts its attention to the aliens. Besides lengthened exchanges between characters, the main difference between the theatrical version and the special edition has to do with the motivations of the Non-Terrestrial Intelligence. In the theatrical version, the ending has Bud being rescued by the aliens after disarming the nuclear warhead. He and the Deepcore crew are delivered safely to the surface as a sort of "thank-you" for not blowing them up. The shift in tone is jarring. After being put through the wringer by the film's thriller mechanics, we are suddenly expected to feel awed by pink and blue aliens that look like a toy out of Spencer's. In the theatrical version, the aliens exist only to provide a few crucial plot points rather than serve the larger theme of the film.

The alien's motivations are clarified in the special edition. As the humans are attempting to attack them with a nuclear weapon, the aliens are preparing to counterattack using one hundred foot high tsunamis to eradicate the world's coastlines (a scenario that has added chill factor after last year's Indian Ocean tragedy.) The aliens scroll through a slide show of man's inhumanity to man to prove their point, and confirming my opinion that if our species is judged by what we watch on television, we are fucking doomed. However, moved by Bud's sacrifice and his emotional exchanges with his ex-wife, the aliens decide to spare humanity by stopping the tsunamis mid-wave via their unexplained ability to manipulate water.

While this explanation does give the ending of The Abyss special edition more of a point, it raises three problems. 1) It still fails to make the aliens (who are designed to look like harmless neon-jellyfish) sufficiently threatening. 2) Assumes that mankind will be thrilled with the prospect of having a species on the planet that can destroy humanity. I doubt the sense of whimsy that Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio feels at the end would be shared by the rest of the world. They would likely respond by sending them another nuke. 3) Really only serves the message of Nuclear Weapons = Bad that was obvious even in the theatrical version. While it's a feelgood, humanitarian sentiment, by 1989 I think that very few people believed that a nuclear holocaust would be a good thing.

James Cameron's films preach peace, while being paradoxically fascinated with weapons and hardware and bloodshed (to be fair, Cameron is not alone in this sentiment.) This contradiction is even more apparent in Terminator 2: Judgement Day.

I guess we can blame a lot of this on Arnold Schwarzenegger. In an attempt to soften his image into something more family friendly (a horrible misstep which begat shite like Kindergarten Cop) Schwarzenegger insisted that his character in the sequel be the hero and not kill anybody. Considering that his character in the first film slaughtered people at will, this neutering of the Terminator (who is called the T-800 in the sequel, since now we are into model numbers...) could have been fatal to the film. Indeed, the body count for Terminator 2 is roughly half of what the first film's was. This is offset by the fact that while the confrontations are less bloody, they are bigger and more over the top than The Terminator's were. Terminator 2 also had about twenty times the budget of the first movie.

Terminator 2 does boast a villain that is on par with what Schwarzenegger did before he was wussified. Robert Patrick's T-1000 is the perfect foil for the T-800. Perfecting the CGI techniques that he introduced in The Abyss, the T-1000's liquid metal assassin is less a hammer than he is a scythe. If the terminators are meant to be "infiltration units", it would seem that one that can change its form at will would be better than bulky old Arnold, who you could spot a mile away. Though the Rodney King beating occurred just four months before the film's release, (and well after the movie was in principal photography) disguising the villian as an LAPD officer ends up being a sublime synergy of early nineties zeitgeist.

The premise of Terminator 2 is roughly the same as the first film's: Skynet, an artificial intelligence defense network, comes to the conclusion that human beings are the enemy and starts a nuclear war between the US and Russia. Building a huge army of machines to wipe out the survivors, the humans begin fighting back. Before the machines officially lose, they send a Terminator back in time to kill the leader of the resistance, John Connor. Okay, a few sentences of voice-over narration in the beginning explain that it's actually *two* Terminators. By 2003 when the second sequel was released it ended up being three Terminators, and we are waiting to see if it will actually end up being four, should Schwarzenegger need a payday after he's done playing governor.

In each instance, the resistance is able to send back a protector. The first one, Kyle Reese, ends up fucking John's mom, Sarah Connor, and turns out to be John's father. What we did not learn in the first Terminator (the scene containing this crucial little nugget of information was deleted from the final version) is that the technology used to create Skynet is all based on the processor chip found in the first destroyed Terminator. It is this clever plot symmetry that raised The Terminator above the level of just another late-night cable thriller and turned it into a classic. And it is these plot points that Terminator 2 will throw into a paradox in order to give the sequel a) a reason to exist and b) a feel-good ending.

Perhaps I carp unnecessarily; after all, the Terminator movies never aspire to be "hard" sci-fi. Sure, they could have gone the philosophical route and explored the symbiosis between man and machine, but as the Matrix sequels have now proven, that wouldn't have been the wise choice. Terminator 2 adds layers of schmaltz and message to the formula of its icy cold predecessor. Even when I was 14, I always found stuff like the "Why do you cry?" scene and the thumbs up the T-800 gives as he's being lowered into the molten steel cringe worthy.

The source of most of Terminator 2's stupid and sappy moments is the character of John Connor. While I'm sure that many great leaders have evolved from punk kids, John Connor is pretty annoying throughout. I can forgive the scenes where he teaches the T-800 Bart Simpson-esque catchphrases. I mean at age ten, who didn't try to teach their pet parakeets curse words? But what exactly is the point of trying to teach a machine about human emotions besides throwing a rebuttal at the moral censors of the time who were outraged at the film's violence (and in their narrow worldview, could be justified since while Terminator 2 is R-rated, it was certainly designed to rope in the kiddies.) In Sarah Connor's voice-overs, she describes the Terminator as the father-figure that John never had. Somehow, I think having a father-figure that follows your every command without question would make a piss-poor male role model. Still, while you want to slap Edward Furlong from time-to-time, but he doesn't derail the movie ala Jake Lloyd in the Phantom Menace.

Faring much better is Linda Hamilton as Sarah Connor. Extending James Cameron's obsession with militant mother figures, Hamilton (now buffed up, weapons trained, and suffering from an all-too-real Cassandra Complex) delivers a performance that is more compelling than the shrinking violet she played in the first movie. You are tempted to cheer when she bashes in the face of the creepy face-licking guard with a broom handle. Though she is cut from the same cloth, Sarah Connor is ultimately less of an iconic figure than Ripley, but just barely. Between her and Robert Patrick's T-1000, the conflict at the core of Terminator 2 stays focused and intense.

Most of the extra scenes in the special edition are welcome additions. The most notable change is in the gas station, when the T-800 has its processor reset so he can learn. Not only does it make sense in terms of overall plot, but in a movie that was noted for its groundbreaking computer effects (which still look good, if a bit dated) the scene has one the most clever practical effects shots that I've ever seen involving mirrored sets and Linda Hamilton's twin. Also good are the scenes where Miles Dyson explains all the practical (read: peaceful) applications of his Skynet processor and a short clip of the T-1000 glitching after being frozen in nitrogen, which should have been left in the theatrical version since it's so short it wouldn't have hampered the film's pacing in the least.

Others were rightfully left on the cutting room floor. Sarah's mental hospital dream sequence with Reese feels like something out of Ghost. The part where John Connor tries to teach the Terminator how to "smile" is mostly stupid slapstick that deserved to be deleted. Even the special edition leaves out the atrocious alternate ending, where an elderly Sarah Connor sits on a park bench in Judgement Day-less future. However, if you're really into torture, it can still be integrated using easter eggs on Ultimate Edition DVD.

Watching these special editions, you can see the arc in James Cameron's filmmaking. Running from lean and low-budget to slick and increasingly concerned about message, one can only postulate where on that spectrum his next film will sit. According to Imdb.com, Avatar is in production and should hit the screen in 2007. The preceeding ten-year break, with everything from the Star WarsThe Matrix to The Lord of the Rings, has dramatically changed the stakes of what special effects and science fiction is capable of. We can only hope that Avatar contains the best of these changes in technology, and not their rampant excesses.

1 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

It does however bring up the point, if the aliens are so peace-loving, why don't they save the submarine crew like they do the surviving drillers in the end?

drillers - civilian. submarine crew - military.

5:02 AM  

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