If You’re Going to San Francisco

The Rock (1996)

I should begin by publicly apologising to my old school friend, Ben, whose bargain bin copy of The Rock I accidentally-on-purpose held onto forever. He recently reminded me of the giant-boxed ex-rentals and free posters up for grabs in Richmond’s video shops like Trinity Video and Choices – the former was a tiny cupboard of a shop next to Woolworths, stocked with VHS tapes, a range of computer games, and some Games Workshop miniatures, the latter was perched at the top of the marketplace, where I later applied for a summer job, attempting to copy Quentin Tarantino (or Randy from Scream), but was sadly rejected.

In an era when I should’ve been solely revising for my GCSEs, I was rewinding and rewatching tapes of Nic Cage in The Rock, Face/Off, and Con Air instead; obliterating essential brain cells at a time when I needed them the most, in what can only be described as an act of pure escapism. Little did I know, I was in fact (sort of) training myself to make films – something I didn’t realise I wanted to, or could do until the following year when I enrolled at a local technical college to become a sports journalist, but was bug-bitten and ensnared by a calling to make movies. I always loved them, but the possibility hadn’t ever occurred to me, in spite of my undercover obsession with Dawson’s Creek – its lead’s worship of Spielberg mirroring my own, and the intriguing Scream 2 film class discussion on sequels. Once I learned about no-budget filmmakers like the rebel without a crew, Mariachi man himself, Robert Rodriguez, and credit card maxer-outer, Kevin Smith, tearing an indie trail, I thought, why not give it a go?

It all began the day I uncharacteristically thrust myself forward to direct a mock episode of a Coronation Street scene in Darlington Tech’s glamorous hair and beauty department as part of my BTEC Media course. Then, alongside fellow students, armed with Canon XL1s and Speed Razor editing bays, we cobbled together a few music videos and fake adverts, and soon after, aged 17, I directed an eleven-minute teen slasher ripoff, penned by my best friend, Sam, entitled Night Class; a film in which it inexplicably takes a lad 2 minutes and 10 seconds to walk through a graveyard – “Bayhem,” it certainly was not. It owed more to whizzing around in a wheelchair dolly, trying to be Darlington’s answer to Rodriguez, and attempting to remake John Carpenter’s Halloween in a college in North East England. Nevertheless, it marks my first time really picking up a camera and trying to tell a story on my own terms. Storyboarding, casting, not so much lighting, but operating camera, and perhaps most invaluably, cutting. It remains the most fun I’ve ever had making a film, under our self-consciously titled production company name of Ego Trip Films, which reveals we were aware of getting ideas way above our stations, but did it anyway, and for that I’m incredibly proud because not many people bother, even after receiving “the call” to be creative. Yes, it’s just a daft little short, and it’s nothing if not derivative, but I’m so happy it exists.

“What kinda fucked up tour is this?”

Tourist, The Rock

Bay’s sophomore effort, The Rock, arrived hot on the heels of his buddy cop feature debut, Bad Boys, just a year later in fact, and much like the Will Smith vehicle, it captivated the minds of teenage lads throughout my village, secondary school, and beyond. The grandiose execution, gloss, and sheen encapsulated everything we expected from a big-budget Hollywood actioner. Every frame dripped expense. As far as I can tell, coupled with 1998’s Armageddon, it’s the more credible half of Bay’s masterpiece double-header. In short, The Rock rocked.

Sometimes a photographic eye, and a keen knack (bordering on wunderkind genius) for visual storytelling finds itself in the body of a thoughtful artist like Bay’s Propaganda Films mentor and eventual rival, David Fincher, and sometimes it lands in the socket of a juvenile mind, who with confidence to spare, barges his way to the top, by analysing, understanding, and then catering to the vast American sensibility. Fincher makes Se7en; Bay makes Bad Boys. Both worthy films for different occasions, but whichever you prefer ultimately tells you who you are, and which side your bread is buttered.

So who in the name of Zeus’s butthole does Michael Bay think he is? With an endless parade of supermodel girlfriends, this baseball-capped, Aviator shades wearing, Michael Bolton lookalike ticks every stereotypical Tinseltown director box, but turns off so-called “real filmmakers” left right and centre – no one at film school would confess to liking anything he did, let alone being a Bay fan. Aside from this jock-looking frat dude, occasionally shirtless, with long, ’90s rock and roll locks, looking like he should be either in, or at the very least, producing Bon Jovi records behind the camera, what do Bad Boys and The Rock have in common? The suited and booted, Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer.

Both these influential figures were the fat cat, filmic fathers of Bay. Simpson exploded off the planet in ’96, prior to the release of The Rock, with pony-tailed hair and his trademark black Levi’s 501s, aged just 52, in a self-destructive haze of cocaine, pills, high-class hookers and bizarre sexual practices. But Jerry persisted without him, completing the film on his lonesome, then cut Simpson’s high-concept movie formula and established aesthetic from hit films such as Flashdance, Beverly Hills Cop, Beverly Hills Cop II, Top Gun, and Days of Thunder, and without ever really altering anything, pasted it across the board to bring us films like Con Air and Gone in Sixty Seconds (also with Cage), Enemy of the State and Bad Boys II (reuniting with Will Smith), and Pearl Harbor (back with Bay).

“Whaddaya say we cut the chit-chat… a-hole!”

Stanley Goodspeed, The Rock

Michael Bay is the kind of fella you might find schmoozing with Charlie Sheen or John Stamos behind a waterfall – a Sports Illustrated swimsuit babe under each muscular arm in the Playboy Mansion’s grotto. He’s the filmmaker who finds it totally acceptable to yell deafeningly into a bullhorn on set, behind a giant Panavision camera, as if manning a recoiling machine gun, walls collapsing in around him, with his affected grandad shirt unbuttoned slightly too far, no doubt carefully calculated for maximum manly hairy chest display, cellphone chock full of supermodels’ digits, and the giant, chiseled jaw and smirk of a man who’s doing precisely what he wants to do, how he wants to do it, 24/7, and is succeeding in making a shit-ton of cash in the process. He wants to date pornstars, and cast hot chicks who look like (or actually are) Victoria’s Secret models, to show off their flawless physiques. This man does not exude the paternal presence of a godfatherly Steven Spielberg, instructing Drew Barrymore to cover up after her Playboy spread; he’d more likely convince her to strip down further. As Nicolas Cage says in the movie, SHAME ON HIM.

On the other hand, there’s a complicity in any actress willing to work with Bay on a teen boy-titillating blockbuster like Transformers; a knowledge you’ll be tacked on the walls of college dorms across the USA and beyond. A line has to be drawn; you work with Bay and face his wrath, or seek out a more fulfilling project for a fraction of the pay, but I’ll bet you won’t be voted “FHM’s Sexiest Woman in the World” anytime soon. There’s a price to pay for that particular honour. I hesitate to say all this without being labelled a “problematic” Bay-sympathiser, but a filmmaker instructing an actor (in this case, Megan Fox) to arch their back 70%, as was reported by the now shamed, Shia LaBeouf, on the Transformers set, is merely something any artist could, in theory, ask of their subject. Should we “cancel” a Pablo Picasso or an Egon Schiele for requesting their muses bend over? What’s the difference? One perv paints with light? Can we be fair across the board here? Let’s not vilify him for doing precisely what he’s hired to do, all the while excusing the collusion of studios and the cinemagoers themselves.

Isn’t this exactly what audiences ultimately demand from a top-tier hotshot movie maker anyway? The bums are on seats. The money’s rolling in. Is his filmography really any dumber than the majority of the movies and TV shows we’re subjected to each year, particularly nowadays? This is Bay’s art. Yeah, it’s excessive, it’s chauvinistic, and flat out obnoxious at times – just like the man himself, but isn’t that an artist’s right? To express himself and his worldview? However deplorable it may be? Bay’s not an intellectual. Why are we holding him to that standard? He blows stuff up and says things like, “This island is so fuckin’ bitchin’!” But this is where the trouble starts – because he’s no dummy either. He’s a frat boy auteur, ready and willing to use you for what you can give him and his movie. Isn’t that why he’s paid the big bucks? Surely Bay’s just doing his job as a purveyor of the perverted to the perverted masses? Who’s lewd and lascivious here, really? The guy putting it up on screen, or the crowds queuing ’round the block, willing to fork over their hard-earned money to see it? Maybe a bit of both, eh?

There’s a part of most men – a sliver in some, a character-defining chunk in others, that covet his lifestyle. Do women understand there’s a little Michael Bay in all of us? Take every panel of petulant judges on TV, or every creep casting director, or model scout. If he (or she) is sick, then so’s the industry, and if we can all admit that, then why consume anything it vomits out? We, as moviegoers who enjoy Hollywood and crave more are innocent, I suppose? We’re comfortable reviling Bay, dispelling him as a hack, without ever acknowledging or understanding that he isn’t the real problem – we are. He’s just feeding the bears as far as I’m concerned. Bay is holding the mirror, and we are the warped reflection.

“How d’ya like how that shit works!”

Stanley Goodspeed – The Rock

Bay lost me forever with 2001’s Pearl Harbor – something I’ve still never absorbed in its entirety, but saw enough to be completely turned off. Everything that followed disappointed me. Especially his take on a childhood favourite, Transformers. But his first three – that out of the traps trilogy of Bad Boys, The Rock, and Armageddon, comprised an incredible trio of unabashed, people-pleasing, cutting-edge action movies. Will Smith’s edgy leap to commercial fame in Bad Boys, from TV’s The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air heralded his arrival as one of the stars of the late nineties and the new millennium. The Rock was Connery’s spectacular revival, and perhaps my personal favourite, Armageddon, which takes Bay, Bruckheimer, and Simpson’s cinematic formula and scale to stratospheric proportions where it explodes into a meteoric catastrophe of bewildering brilliance.

The Rock popped up on special edition DVD along with Armageddon on the revered Criterion label, which felt puzzling at the time, but now I think I understand it. Those films are curated under the criteria of being culturally and artistically significant – here illustrating America’s culture of excess. Perhaps they consider Bay to be a satirist? Either way, John Schwartzman’s lush cinematography, and the guidance of Bruckheimer, make this pairing peak Bay – a dog in his prime, in his time, throwing the kitchen sink at his movies with a youthful, arrogant exuberance that translated to the screen fervently. Every amped-up Tony Scottism reverberating through the mind – the fast cuts, constant tracking and trucking of multiple cameras, and larger than life performances. How could a film ever get bigger than Armageddon? I’m still not sure it can! At 136 and 151 minutes, these bloated, indulgent broad strokes, to this day, define his brand of film. They’re staggeringly expensive, but it’s all on the screen, as they say, and Bay and his buddies made their money back many times over.

“It’s a grunge thing.”

John Mason, The Rock

As the times change, the films of the past don’t. A world once sated by Bay is now hyper-aware of the circumstances surrounding said entertainment, and the real-life repercussions relating to him and his methods. We’re progressing as empathetic beings, we’re more considerate perhaps, but where does this leave us in an industry (don’t say industry) where primal desires are still sought by audiences who long for the days of Bay and company’s incendiary fireballs and male gaze bias? They’ll likely have to dig out their old DVDs and Blu-rays, because the time of the cigar-chomping movie mogul is through, and the insensitive, barking filmmaker is next. The weaselly Weinsteins and sleazy Simpsons are dead, and with them goes their bloated bigot blockbusters. I’m sure it’s for the best. But for better or worse, if for no other reason than posterity, as a record of the flashy MTV era, we’ll always have Michael Bay’s The Rock. The final hurrah of Don Simpson, and one of the genre-defining movies death-rattling around the mid-nineties, for me, should be rewatched, and respected as a massive milestone of excessive action cinema.


Express Elevator to Hell (Goin’ Down)

Aliens (1986)

James Cameron’s action-packed, balls-to-the-wall, Southern Comfort meets The Magnificent Seven follow up to Ridley Scott’s sci-fi horror classic, Alien, was first released around this time in the summer of ’86.

I was about 9-years-old, like Newt, when I first saw Aliens on television, and I must’ve been completely obsessed by the time I was 10, as each month throughout 1992, my mum would order me the Aliens magazine from our local newsagents. The magazine featured gory comic excerpts, movie trivia, a fervent fan letter section (which I felt intimidated by, and regrettably never contributed to), and mail-in order offers for items such as a £100 replica of Ripley’s leather jacket, which I was never wealthy, nor geeky enough to pull the trigger on. I’d read them and reread them obsessively, copying the pictures carefully and colouring them in.

At the time, there were several films I couldn’t watch with my family due to bad language, as I’d be, no doubt, told to switch it off. There are 25 uses of “fuck” in Aliens; 18 of them spewed by Bill Paxton‘s hysterical Hudson. Insane levels of bloody, ’80s violence, as seen in Die Hard, RoboCop, Total Recall, and Predator, and a topless Linda Hamilton in The Terminator, would also secure these films a place on heavy rotation in the Sunday morning club when my dad was at church and my mum was busy making Sunday lunch.

I slummed it for years, watching a butchered for telly, ITV taping (I think) of Aliens, with carefully chopped out adverts and news reports. This copy featured daft, dubbed lines like, “You don’t see them frigging each other over for a goddamn percentage.” This censored theatrical cut was the version that formed all my initial responses, but little did I know, there were always two incarnations of Aliens floating around – the theatrical, and the special edition. I treasured that TV taping as my sole, go-to copy until I finally acquired the special edition VHS, which was fortuitously on UK shelves early, from 1990 onward. When I did finally see Cameron’s director’s cut, with its extra 17 minutes of Xeno-goodies, it felt like Christmas morning.

“It’s 40 miles of bad road.”

James Cameron on Aliens: Special Edition

Theatrical vs special edition is a loaded question, as I feel there are indispensable additions, but also some superfluous ones. The theatrical comes in at a hefty 137 minutes already, and Jim’s cut runs at 154. In Aliens: Special Edition, it’s a case of “this time it’s more.” No doubt, fans will bicker over the validity of certain new scenes. For example, take the re-implanted, family-orientated Hadley’s Hope, with the tricycle kid (Kubrick much?) and the terraformers’ expositional discussion regarding Burke and Weyland-Yutani’s intentions. Its purpose is to both illustrate company orders, and emphasise the importance of the family unit, which is cued up with Ripley’s crushing, “families” response to Van Leuwen; a great lead-in line, which works fine on its own, but has ultimate power when preceding a hard cut to Hadley’s Hope.

However, there’s a lot to be said for leaving these scenes out completely, as the implication is already there, and in many ways, it’s more terrifying to hear, “We’ve lost contact with the colony on LV-426.” The comic, Newt’s Tale, does the trick in terms of filling any gaps in the story. In one instance, poor Newt sees her mother impregnated across from her. There was always the potential for this to happen in the film, and to have Newt witness it moments before Ripley enters and breaks apart her cocoon, freeing her. Personally, I think it’d be a tad too busy. Besides, we’ve seen a chestburster already, and an effective impregnation, of sorts, with Newt’s dad and the facehugger. It also creates the problem of what do we do with her mother after that? Ripley killing Newt’s mum is an avenue we absolutely don’t need to go down.

I enjoy the sentry guns sequence as it adds a thicker layer of pressure, pre-ceiling crawling Alien attack, but when it’s seamlessly expunged in the theatrical, I don’t miss it at all. In fact, with the reactor ticking down, and Bishop’s dropship subplot, there’s enough waiting around, and the imminent Alien breach really kicks things into gear for the remainder of the film. So, although it has merits in terms of mounting claustrophobic tension, the overall pacing is improved without it. There’s also some clearly reused footage of exploding Xenomorphs.

My first instinct, when assessing the special edition, was to keep it all. I just wanted to see everything. This brings up an important quandary regarding pacing, and crucial reveals of information. I can understand the initial removal of the early Hadley’s Hope colony scenes, as the producers simply had to get the running time down, and Gale Anne Hurd’s suggestion to remove that entire reel was a wise one.

Critically and commercially speaking, would the special edition have been as successful as the theatrical, or even more so? Who knows, maybe the impact of seeing Aliens for the first time in its special edition presentation would’ve been dulled somehow by its pacing and length. I personally doubt it, but it is debatable. I’m definitely not an objective opinion here, as I’d happily accept another hour or so of Aliens, and to hell with the pacing.

There’s a cut of Aliens inside my mind that is better than anything currently available; a custom edit I’d love to see play out in context. The fact that I’m still craving a cut incorporating the CBS TV broadcast premiere scenes from 1988, depicting the fabled cocooning and death of Burke, speaks volumes. The long-discussed scene of Bishop crawling in the tunnel, and encountering an Alien, would also make an interesting addition, but it appears to be apocryphal and appears only in the novelisation.

I enjoy the nuances, such as the subtle moment between Ripley and Hicks, in which they reveal their first names – Ellen and Dwayne, although I think Cameron could’ve done better than Dwayne. A tiny moment earlier, where Hicks asks if Ripley is ok before entering the colony may have been removed simply due to timing, but perhaps also because Hicks asks Ripley if she’s ok again immediately after the dropship crash and the ensuing wreckage. We get it, he fancies her, and wants to protect her at all costs. This repeated behaviour is all to further Cameron’s adoptive family setup – Hicks (the father), Ripley (the mother), and Newt (the daughter). Certain shots were carefully framed to visually illustrate the trio as a functioning family unit; the most notable being post-facehugger attack, as Ripley states, “Burke. It was Burke.” Due to this important, overarching plot line, I think these little additions are all extremely valid.

“We’re in the pipe, five by five.”

Ferro, Aliens

Growing up, without really knowing what a director actually did, James Cameron was certainly in my top four filmmakers, alongside Steven Spielberg, John McTiernan and Joe Dante. There is a caveat: I only really consider his great work to be The Terminator, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, and Aliens. Everything else pales.

When I first heard the tale of Cameron’s fiery endoskeleton fever dream, him immediately painting the T-800 from memory, and then building what would become The Terminator story around that singular image, I was immediately insanely jealous; wishing I could have that experience. Now, with the Harlan Ellison plagiarising factor, I’m a little more skeptical of Jim. It’s a bit like when John Lennon’s Beatles origin myth, where he claimed to have dreamt about a flaming pie and a voice that told him, “You are ‘Beatles’ with an ‘a’.” Much like Jim’s, that story eventually folded under the truth that Lennon simply picked a name with a double meaning that sounded a bit like Buddy Holly’s band, The Crickets; but print the legend by all means, it’s usually more interesting, and often makes the creator seem like a genius.

Titanic fans will no doubt disagree, but where can you really go after Judgment Day? Everything Jim did after T2 was bloated, as if boredom had skewed his interest and integrity. The years that followed saw him obsessively diving for the wreckage of the Titanic, then announcing and apparently making a bunch of Avatar films no one asked for, and we’re yet to see any real evidence of – not that I care. I’m yet to meet one person who is excited about Avatar 2, or felt a sequel, or prequel, was even remotely warranted, let alone five or whatever silly number he’s up to.

I also feel, looking (or more honestly, not looking) at Alita: Battle Angel, that the digital film revolution has ruined many things when it comes to cinema; it also ruined Jim, along with Robert Rodriguez – an early, no-budget filmmaking hero of mine. This digital nonsense has severely affected the quality their output. With the dwindling Terminator sequels ranging from daft to dire, I’m not even remotely interested in Cameron’s take on The Terminator or Alien franchises anymore, or anything else for that matter. It’s not the ’80s or early ’90s anymore; the glory years are over, and I’m over Jim.

Cameron himself may be ostentatious to the point of nausea at times, particularly these days, but he had the goods to back it up at the beginning; a captivating sense of deliberation and control, resulting in some truly magical cinema. We’ll always have his three masterpieces. They’ll last forever, and when you’ve made two of my top ten films of all time (Aliens and T2), my hat’s off to you. Stellar job, Jim.

“Smoking or non-smoking?”

Hudson, Aliens

Alien fans are sticklers, and Cameron was a brave man to take on the sequel. For the most part, I love his attitude throughout this era. The boozy British crew were undoubtedly at odds with him. They were Ridley Scott fans, and objected to “Grizzly Adams” waltzing in with his pixie wife and taking over the gaff. It was just another job to them. All the while, Jim was killing himself daily to carve out his vision and get it on camera the way he envisioned it. It was his moment, and he took it; no thanks to them.

Granted, the “sequel master” shows us things we’ve seen before, but he also ups the ante. Take the Alien warriors – their movements are more wide-ranging, and appear to be a massive advancement on the first in terms of their physicality. However, I personally prefer the often stationary, or calm and collected, slower movements of the creature in the first film. Aliens’ Xenomorphs can appear more like mindless drones, as opposed to perfect organisms, but they needed to be fallible, so it’s forgivable. For this particular film, that was what was required of them. Alien has some flawless one-on-ones; Kane and the egg, the ambiguous, yet palpably sexual violation of Lambert, Parker’s tense undoing, that classic Dallas jump scare, and Brett’s chain-dangling, watery face off. They’re all slasher movie 101 set pieces, done artfully and stylistically, and each has its own beauty, with the steady, calculated movements of the Alien, the unfurling of its tail, and the whole haunted house aesthetic. But Aliens needed to be more overt. Clearer. We wanted to see more crawling, running, jumping, and although the rubbery suits and limp arms of the creatures jar a bit in 2020, it’s where that next step needed to go.

Jim knows what to leave out too. I don’t think Cameron believed he could, or needed to top the facehugger scene from Alien, so he didn’t even attempt it. It’s brilliant. We all know it. It transcends the film. It’s firmly in our memories, in pop culture, and it doesn’t require a retread. Cameron wisely ups the stakes in unexplored areas, where the technology of ’86 could outdo Scott’s ’79 vision.

When Bishop, the seemingly kindly “artificial person” says, “Magnificent, isn’t it?” in reference to the facehugger specimens, and holds a lingering, suspect glare with Spunkmeyer, it’s all Cameron; cleverly playing on the series’ sneaky AI expectations by referencing Ash, Ian Holm’s chilling, murderous company android from Alien. This shrewd game leads to a satisfying payoff, with Bishop’s heroic actions aiding Ripley at the denouement, and even physically grabbing Newt to rescue her after being sacrificially torn in two. Yes, Cameron gives us another robot, but he uses our prior knowledge to play us.

I don’t believe Cameron was trying to top Alien, necessarily. Aliens was designed as a sequel, not a remake; a “combat film”, as opposed to a gothic horror. Jim is respectful of the original, and as a fan, clearly adored it, and wanted to walk in Scott’s shoes as a world creator. As Cameron once said, “Alien is a funhouse with things jumping out of the dark. Aliens is a roller coaster. You can see what’s coming, but you can’t stop it.” The word I kept returning to was extension; he extends the universe, the story, and the characters. Cameron didn’t create this world, but he interpreted it logically, and then broadened it. He developed the creatures beyond the walls of the original, expanding upon their life cycles and behaviour. He added to the synthetics, revealing more about their protocols and rules, and built upon Ripley’s character, adding the death of her daughter, and haunted, recurring dreams, to propel her towards the action once again.

“Look into my eye.”

Apone, Aliens

For Cameron, the leap from The Terminator to Aliens in just two years is astounding. The Terminator, although a sci-fi horror classic in its own right, has its roots in low-budget filmmaking. Aliens is a powerhouse spectacular, fizzing with all the bells and whistles of a true blockbuster. What is often overlooked, I think, is Jim’s practical, hands on approach, and his use of just about every trick in the book to get his images on screen.

They don’t make ‘em like they used to. For anyone thinking, “alright, grandad”; particularly younger folks, an entirely practical approach offered a tactile element – the puppets were really there, on set, with no one looking up at tennis balls on sticks at something that’ll be figured out later in post. The crew built them, tested them, and I imagine, based on the rubbish bin bag queen test, panicked drastically, then worked incredibly hard to make it work for camera.

The Alien queen could very well be the pinnacle of film puppetry, requiring 14-16 operators to function. Ripley’s escape from the queen, under flickering electric light is a masterclass; hiding and revealing the creature to the exact degree required, to both instill terror and retain mystique. It’s a piecemeal task, but a worthwhile one. There are, I imagine, lots of starts and stops, taking a few frames from here, and a few frames from there. That’s a good looking snarl! That dripping goo looks decent, and that movement feels real for however many frames. This accomplishment is testament to the filmmakers – the excellent editor, Ray Lovejoy (2001: A Space Odyssey, The Shining, Batman), in particular, as well as effects magician, Stan Winston (Predator, Terminator 2, Jurassic Park) and his team.

Although I don’t wish to disregard the VFX guys and girls behind their computer screens, there’s something to be said about purely practical work. Teams of puppeteers (it took nine people just to make the facehuggers in the stasis jars move) who, with the aid of smoke and mirrors, can achieve an in-camera effect, which doesn’t require any further embellishment. There’s a purity to it. For me, perhaps alongside the T-Rex from Jurassic Park (aided beautifully by CG in this instance), the Alien queen is the greatest animatronic puppet ever assembled, and sadly the last of its kind. It existed, and was photographed; not added in later, and it shows. When you’ve experienced practical effects like this, how can CGI ever measure up? Aliens will look great forever (unlike Fincher’s Alien 3, which although having my favourite Alien warrior in the dogburster (or oxburster, depending on which cut you prefer), is damned to the annals of early CG nonsense where audiences will giggle and point at it in perpetuity.

Not all directors fall victim to sucky CG. Some superb work goes unnoticed, as it’s so subtly done. Denis Villeneuve has a firm grasp of it. Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, I felt, was particularly restrained, and offered up some striking, believable imagery. I do think most modern CG will age out rapidly due to its continuously evolving nature. Contradictorily, some argue it peaked with Jurassic Park – one of the first examples of its use, so who knows. Maybe we’re going backwards. It could come to pass that early, and some contemporary CG, with the exception of the big guns like Jurassic Park, will soon appear more dated than Aliens. Perhaps we’ll look back on Avatar and laugh, but aside from some hokey rear/front projection plates (I’ll concede that’s one occasion where Prometheus-level CG would’ve come in very handy), and the typical issues of a few dated costume and hair designs, I don’t think Aliens will ever fall victim to the same pitfalls as these CG-laden blockbusters.

“I say we take off and nuke the entire site from orbit. It’s the only way to be sure.”

Ripley, Aliens

James Horner’s majestic, often mimicked or pinched score is a vital component in the success of Aliens. Robert Rodriguez nabbed “Bishop’s Countdown” from the Aliens OST and used it to great effect in the From Dusk Till Dawn trailer. Even Die Hard got in on the action with an unused piece called “Resolution and Hyperspace” being selected by McTiernan for the climactic dispatch of Karl.

Gale and Jim, at that stage of their careers, clearly didn’t understand the time and approach required to effectively score a feature. All their bravado, and threats to sack Horner showed bad form on their part, and quite embarrassingly reflected their green approach to collaborating with a composer. Their inexperience played a destructive part. If you’re after The Terminator’s rudimentary chase scene music, a chimp can knock that off on the black keys of a Casio keyboard in thirty seconds. This is anything but a throwaway score. It’s emotive and layered, moving and sweeping. Fact of the matter is, Horner needed a locked picture cut before he could really dig in and time out the cues. The producers were down to the wire, and it caused rows. Jim picked his battle wisely in retrospect, as the rumour was he focussed his undivided attention on approving the myriad sound effects, rather than the music, which was already being spearheaded by the more than capable Horner. In 2003’s Superior Firepower documentary, Hurd says Horner didn’t finish the music on time. Maybe so, but only because you failed to provide him with a locked picture cut, and sufficient time to score. This clearly ate into Horner’s four-week recording window, and that’s what resulted in delays. Then, when Horner did eventually deliver, the couple moaned because it didn’t have every moment they’d discussed previously, precisely at the times agreed upon. How could Horner possibly achieve that without a picture lock? It’s an impossible request. I still feel he not only delivered one of the strongest scores of all time, but also miraculously managed, against all odds, to keep somewhat of a cool head with the troublesome producers. It’s a true testament to the man.

Back in the days of Drew’s Script-O-Rama (which endearingly hasn’t altered to this day), which we’d visit during our media and film studies courses to learn how to correctly format scripts, I’d often reference the stark, expressive opening lines of Cameron’s Aliens screenplay.

“Space. Silent and endless. The stars shine like the love of God – cold and remote.”

James Cameron, Aliens screenplay

I hadn’t seen the original Alien when I first saw Aliens. Alien is often viewed as a liberal-leaning, leftist, feminist masterpiece, and in opposition, Aliens a pro-Republican Nam allegory, in staunch defence of the nuclear family. To an extent, I think the shoes fit, but I detect more intentional feminism in Aliens than in Alien.

I can’t think of a scene more moving and heroic than the selfless return to nightmarish horror Ripley embarks upon in the third act of Aliens. A bereaved mother’s surrogate relationship with an orphaned colonist named Newt leads to one of my favourite moments in cinematic history – the gearing up in the elevator scene, in which Ripley holds her promise, and boldly goes back to rescue the little girl after a traumatising abduction. It’s a quest only a mother’s love could possibly explain, and yet there’s no shared blood between the two. It’s heartrending, adrenalising, and precedes one of the all-time great sci-fi movie battles: Ripley vs the Alien queen.

“Not bad… for a human.”

Bishop, Aliens

Although it’s a carbon copy of the original Alien trailer, the sublime, wordless Aliens teaser is still outstanding. Seeing it in a cinema would’ve been monumental. I’d’ve been there on opening night in a heartbeat. It doesn’t fall victim to the usual pitfalls of most modern trailers, and does exactly what it’s supposed to do: tease us.

Notably, castmembers, Lance Henriksen (Bishop), Jenette Goldstein (Vasquez), and Bill Paxton (who very nearly took Bobcat Goldthwait’s Zed role in Police Academy 3: Back in Training, prior to being scouted out to play Hudson), all reunited for future-ex-Mrs Cameron, Kathryn Bigelow’s rock and roll vampire flick, Near Dark, a year later in ’87.

If you have any interest in seeing the invariably clueless old duffer duo, Siskel & Ebert, dismiss this total work of art in six minutes flat, you can find their asinine review of Aliens in the YouTube playlist below. The only borderline interesting insight was Ebert’s chestburster time bomb argument that Newt may have been carrying an Alien embryo inside her when the marines arrived, and that justified her place in the film as a device for tension and drama, and she was not simply a “child in peril” cheap shot, as Siskel put it.

“And you, you little shithead. You’re staying here.”

Ripley, Aliens

Aliens remains a dark action piece with a warm human centre, utilising the profound theme of committing to another person when it may mean your life. As the late, great, Bill Paxton once said, in reference to Cameron, he really made it “snap, crackle, and pop.”

I’m firmly team Scorsese on the whole Marvel Universe, Disney behemoth, Star Wars remake machine, and the theory of the infantilisation of cinema – these dummies in shorts and baseball caps, still feuding, and banging on about Star Wars aged 40. However, Aliens happened to be my Marvel Universe. It was my superhero movie. My franchise, or whatever you’d call it, or at least one of them, alongside Indiana Jones and Back to the Future. So, I both identify with, and pity the Star Wars lot, and the Marvel kids, because my favourite film when I was 9 was infinitely better than theirs.

There are no more video boxes as such, all the Blockbusters are dead, and the HMVs are dying; it’s hard enough finding DVDs and Blu-rays in the shops here in Korea – everything is streamed now. That being said, I hope there are still a few kids out there, staring at posters, or Netflix images (or whatever they do these days) of fascinating films; wondering what they could possibly be about, and waiting on tenterhooks to finally see them, never forgetting what drew them to it initially, and then getting immeasurable pleasure and satisfaction from the final film like I did with Aliens.