Thursday, May 15, 2014

The Ultimate Practical Effect: ALIENS

(My return to blogging after nearly a year comes a few days after the untimely death of legendary Swiss artist H.R. Giger, the mastermind who designed the titular beast in the original Alien, among many other fantastic and terrifying creations. Giger is not mentioned in this piece only because he did not actually work on Aliens, but it goes without saying that his artistic DNA is indelibly imprinted on the film. WARNING: If, for some inexplicable reason, you've never seen Aliens, there are a few mild spoilers below.)

Released in July 1986, James Cameron's Aliens will celebrate its 30th anniversary a mere two years and change from now. (The fact that I was old enough to accompany my underage nephew to see the R-rated film at the long-defunct Southgate theater in Milwaukie, Oregon means that I am gaining in years myself.) At the time of its release, Cameron's action-oriented sequel to Ridley Scott's 1979 sci-fi/horror classic, Alien, boasted state-of-the-art special effects by some of the top teams working in the field. Having watched the film for the umpteenth time the other night, I can offer my opinion that the vast majority of these effects hold up to this day, but one scene in particular still stands head and shoulders above the rest: the climactic battle between Ellen Ripley and the alien queen in the cargo hold of the Sulaco.

Aliens was made just prior to the dawn of a new era in filmmaking, one that was ushered in in large part by James Cameron himself. A mere three years later, in 1989, Cameron's film The Abyss became the first major live-action feature to incorporate computer generated imagery (CGI), using it to create a watery alien pseudopod in a relatively brief but highly memorable scene. Two years after that, Cameron pushed the CGI envelope again with Terminator 2: Judgment Day, a film that made extensive use of the technique. For better or worse, T2 unleashed a deluge of CGI-laden films that continues to this day, and while the quality of what we see on screen has certainly improved over the years, the use (some would say overuse) of CGI remains a touchy subject for many film fans. Personally, I'm not necessarily opposed to CGI; some of my favorite films, including Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy and Guillermo Del Toro's Pacific Rim, probably couldn't have been made as effectively without it. Nevertheless, I remain a fan of the use of practical (on-set) effects whenever possible, and Ripley's knock-down, drag-out fight with the 14-foot-tall alien queen represents what, in my mind, may very well be the pinnacle of achievement in this arena.

In order to create what would become, at the time, the largest animatronic puppet ever designed for a film, Cameron turned to the late, great special effects genius Stan Winston, with whom he had previously collaborated on The Terminator. Winston was not initially convinced that Cameron's idea of positioning two stunt performers inside a hydraulically-controlled puppet that could either be suspended from a crane or propped up from underneath was feasible, but after testing was done with a primitive mock-up, it was discovered that Cameron's idea worked brilliantly. From the queen's first reveal in the egg chamber through the subsequent scenes in which she pursues Ripley and her surrogate daughter, Newt, through the quickly disintegrating atmosphere processor, the puppet is amazingly lifelike, but it's the final, desperate battle in the Sulaco's cargo hold that really demonstrates what this astounding creation was capable of.

The finished sequence, in which Ripley dons a robot-like loader suit and goes head-to-head with the queen in an attempt to protect Newt, remains jaw-droppingly effective to this day. The stunt performers and puppeteers (up to eight of them) working in unison to operate the queen achieve perfect harmony, imbuing her with a palpable sense of malevolent life. There is not a single moment in the entire sequence in which the queen is anything less than completely believable. The use of the puppet brings a tactile quality to the scene that would be utterly lacking if it had been rendered via another method. Even stop motion animation, which I have a nostalgic fondness for, wouldn't have had the same immediacy or impact. Sigourney Weaver gives a remarkably fierce performance throughout the film as Ripley, culminating in this scene, and her acting was no doubt enhanced by having this enormous, frighteningly lifelike creature bouncing around with her on set. Even the finest actors undoubtedly have trouble relating to a green screen, but Weaver was face to face with this bad bitch. Thank goodness Aliens was made when it was. If the film had been produced only a few years later, audiences might have been deprived of this unprecedented marvel of practical special effects technology and subjected to a lackluster CGI version instead.

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