Monday, April 12, 2010

Aliens (1986) & Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)

This post covers the theatrical cut of Terminator 2: Judgment Day and the "Special Edition" of Aliens, as those are the respective versions I find most worthy of discussion. If you want to know more about that, there will soon be an essay on the phenomenon of the "Director's Cut" as marketing ploy.

Severe spoiler warning, by the way; I'm also assuming a passing familiarity with both films. If that doesn't apply, I'd like to suggest you go watch them, as they are both undisputed classics of the genre.

One of the central conflicts in applying the auteurist theory to Cameron's work is the fact that he's devolved into a pretty terrible writer. His structure and plotting are arguably better than ever (how many directors can sell two consecutive three-hour films to such massive audiences?), but the bare bones of character development now leave a lot to be desired. It's difficult to defend a lot of the dialogue in both Titanic and Avatar (though I think there are some diamonds in both roughs). How is it that the man who came up with "I see you" as a catchphrase is also responsible for two of cinema's most indelible mothers?

Almost any cinephile will tell you Cameron's two best films are his two sequels. Though Cameron was (partially) responsible for the genesis of Terminator's plot, both Terminator 2 and Aliens represent great leaps and bounds simply in the way they treat their predecessors as stepping stones en route to wild, unforeseen adventure and philosophy. From Ripley's condemnation of humanity in the midst of an alien attack ("I don't know which race is worse. You don't see them fucking each other over for a goddamn percentage.") to the Vietnam-era fallibility of the military machine and from the bonding of a fatherless child with an evil machine to the temporal loopholes through which humanity is given a second chance by the consequence of its own failure, both of these films take our assumptions from their horror gimmick routes and blow them out of the sky.

At the center of all this is a pair of moms.

Ellen Ripley and Sarah Connor are as realistically layered as action heroes get. A large part of what makes Aliens and Terminator 2 work as well as they do is the duality of their heroines' motivation. Both women are juggling two sets of high stakes: the future of humanity and the maternal instinct.

For the first half of T2, Sarah Connor is more concerned with protecting her son John than with the forthcoming rise of the machines (and given the quality of that sequel, who can blame her?). The film then takes a mid-point shift along the lines of Full Metal Jacket and WALL•E, wherein the central family unit (Sarah, John and the T-800) has effectively reached safety and might as well call it a day. If we borrow any logic from the first film (and we really shouldn't, but here I go anyway), as long as the T-1000's target doesn't do something stupid like call his grandmother in Big Bear and give her his exact address, they really don't have to worry about getting found and terminated.

But Sarah stumbles upon a secondary (or rather, successive) goal. She's saved her son from the T-1000 and now takes on a duty to save humanity by killing Miles Dyson. Not only does Sarah's frying-pan-into-fire quest to destroy Cyberdyne mirror John's selfless and risky obligation to save his mother from the Pescadero Mental Hospital, it mirrors SkyNet's retroactive abortion plot for world domination. She plays her enemy at its own game, going after its unknowing and innocent creator1.

When she gets there, John and the T-800 are right behind, but they don't arrive in time to stop her. What saves Miles Dyson's life is his young son standing over his wounded, prone figure shouting "Don't hurt my daddy!". The child's plea for his father's life causes Sarah to collapse in tears, ashamed of her intentions, whereupon her son and his cyborg run in to explain everything and convince Dyson to join them in their third act scheme (this works out pretty well, considering that merely killing Dyson would have done little to slow Cyberdyne's development of the SkyNet technology).

These reversals all hinge around a basic righteousness and this is crucial to the T-800's arc. Mother to son, mother to surrogate father and son to the same, Terminator 2 is all about the lessons we (might choose to) learn from those closest to us. This machine actually serves as an important predecessor to WALL•E; his role as surrogate father is based on his ability to "understand" humanity. It's John who takes it upon himself to teach the T-800 basic human gestures and colloquialisms, triggering the machine's "curiosity" in doing so. John asks the T-800 if he can feel pain; the T-800 asks a tearful John what's wrong with eyes. The T-800 describes his internal damage readout as something that might be analogous to what we call 'pain'; ultimately he sacrifices himself to save human civilization. His final line is the endpoint of this relationship: "I know now why you cry. But it is something I can never do." Damn. I know why I'm crying, too, Lugnuts.

WALL•E and the T-800 also have something in common with Aliens' Bishop. It's a trope familiar in a lot of stories about sentient machines: the drive to become more human and (like humans) more like the 'creator'. Bishop's role in the plot of the sequel operates in great measure as a response to the technophobia-inducing Ash from Alien, who in service to his programming facilitated the murders of everyone on board the Nostromo (except Ripley and Jones, of course). Ash essentially uses the alien in exactly the way the company wants: as a weapon. Alien and The Terminator both introduce us to fearsome machines that in their sequels we must learn to trust.

Forming this trust in Aliens is obviously not going to be easy for Ripley, and Cameron manages to mine suspense from this long after we've built a tenuous trust for the machine, who sympathetically prefers "artificial human" to "synthetic". In the finale, Ripley emerges from the freight elevator with Newt in tow and believes Bishop to have taken off without them, leaving the newly minted mother-daughter unit to die in the reactor explosion. It's only after this last misunderstanding (Bishop picks them up in midair, having lifted off to stay the collapsing deck) that Ripley finally shakes Bishop's hand and tells him he did good. "Really?" he replies, childlike in his need for validation (too bad he's about to get torn in half).

Cameron's choice to bond Bishop to Ripley, that most maternal of ass-kickers (second only to the alien queen, maybe) is a clever detail in the story. It's Ripley's maternity that fuels the pathos of the film; she's got a vengeful streak that blows Sarah Connor's duty to humanity out of the water. What I love about the finale in Aliens is that, after finding surrogate daughter Newt and saving her from the catacomb, Ripley continues deeper into the aliens' hive to firebomb all the eggs - minutes before the whole factory is going up in smoke anyway.

You could choose to think of this as a lapse in logic, but I think it underscores a base desire of Ripley's that will be echoed in Sarah Connor's second-act reversal. Ripley's idea of winning isn't merely staying alive - she could've done that by staying at home and working the loading docks. Ripley has to kill the aliens herself. She wants to destroy the Queen's eggs and tear apart the Queen's womb, and she wants to make the bitch watch while it happens. This is about vengeance, because it was this alien infestation that directly deprived Ripley of a life with her own daughter.

It goes beyond human versus alien. It's mother versus mother.

Of course, for two films that are so easily enduring, so rich in mythology and pathos, T2 and Aliens are also Cameron's two films that were built directly upon a popular established source2. Standing as they do on the shoulders of Ridley Scott, Dan O'Bannon and Harlan Ellison3, I wonder if maybe Cameron's later problems can be boiled down to a foolish reliance on his own mind to conjure a layered character. Does Cameron the screenwriter perform his job best when filling in the gaps of a borrowed framework? It's worth considering if you want to plot the evolution of the action movie: not only are Aliens and Terminator 2 two movies that owe direct, specific debts to prequels and predecessors (and succeed partially in feeding off our expectations from the same), they are also in turn two of the most influential, iconic pictures in the genre. What will time do for Avatar?

1.) Interestingly, this also recalls the NTIs' tidal wave gambit in the extended edition of The Abyss: an ostensibly "good" entity defeats its "evil" enemy by sinking to that enemy's level. [back]

2.) There are exceptions here: Piranha II, which doesn't count (more on that later), and True Lies, which is based on a French film called La totale!. If anybody anywhere can get me a copy of that movie, I'll give you twenty dollars cash. [back]

3.) The Terminator was so clearly ripped off from two works by Harlan Ellison that a lawsuit led to every copy of the film ending with a title card acknowledgment. [back]

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