Review: Transformers: The Last Knight


Ten years ago, the first live-action Transformers film exploded onto cinema screens across the globe with a maelstrom of CGI, big action set pieces, awkward humor and leering close-ups of Megan Fox’s physique. Despite some changes to the cast over the years, the films have all followed a very specific formula, which has resulted in the films having so many similarities that they have all essentially been the same movie. Having a product that draws people in because they know what to expect does not have to be a drawback, though, as the similarly action-filled Fast & Furious franchise has only gained more success thanks to a formula that allows the audience to enjoy well-known characters involved in increasingly outrageous action-packed shenanigans, which serves as the perfect setting for switching off your brain for a couple of hours whilst munching on overpriced popcorn. However, while the audience for a Transformers movie is presented with a product that they are familiar with from the first scene much like the audience for a Fast & Furious film would be, the familiarity of the Transformers franchise is not anchored in a continuation of an overarching narrative or a zest to expand on a cinematic universe. Instead, Transformers: The Last Knight looks and feels exactly like what it is, namely the result of a paint-by-numbers approach that is not in place to give a clear outline of the film’s structure, but rather reeks of being a callous checklist that makes everything on screen feel like a carefully calculated financial decision.

The main problem with this approach is that there is no heart to be found in the Transformers franchise. As a result, what you get the fifth time around is an unengaging and dull rehash of a film you have already seen four times before in 2007, 2009, 2011 and 2014 respectively. And while Michael Bay has seemingly taken some of the criticism towards his unapologetic leering at the female leads and the racist humor that was particularly rampant in Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen to heart, he has far from abandoned these problematic elements. Thus, you get yet another female lead who may not be portrayed in a manner as blatantly leering as in previous installments, but Bay is still finding it difficult to refrain from being vulgar and sexist. Likewise, you get yet another batch of his racial stereotyping with how certain Decepticons are portrayed in a montage that is executed in a way that draws awkwardly obvious parallels to the introduction montage of the anti-heroes of 2016’s Suicide Squad.

Aside from every element of Transformers: The Last Knight being about as surprising as Michael Bay’s love of explosions, a baffling choice was made regarding the use of aspect ratios. What ultimately looked like a schoolboy error in the trailers for Transformers: The Last Knight proves to be a highly frustrating element in the final product, as the same hyperactive jumping between different aspect ratios is present throughout the film. While the filmmakers did indeed state they were using different cameras during filming, one would expect that there would be some method to the madness. Alas, while Christopher Nolan applied some restraint and sense to his use of transitions between IMAX and the 2.35:1 aspect ratios in The Dark Knight by using IMAX solely for the action sequences, there is absolutely no sense to be made from the use of aspect ratio transitions in Transformers: The Last Knight. Not only is there seemingly no logic applied to which scenes these transitions should be used for, the frequency with which the multiple ratios used will change within even a single, dialogue-driven scene is so jarring that this inexplicable creative choice merely serves as the irritating icing on an already calamitous cake.

Although the leering and racial stereotyping has been toned down this time around, Transformers: The Last Knight is another tonally uneven, big budget extravaganza that has Michael Bay written all over it. Those who have enjoyed the previous installments will therefore get exactly what they are expecting, but that also means that there is nothing new or refreshing about this film, which will make it a painful endurance test for those who have found the previous films tedious. This is not least due to the continued use of cringeworthy humor and dialogue, but also because no amount of carefully executed and CGI-filled action sequences can elevate the film to actually being fun. Thus, despite trying to tie the history of the beloved bots into world history and Arthurian legend, it all ultimately blends together in a big, bland, bloated mess that makes you wish that Michael Bay would do the world of cinema a favor and transform into a retired filmmaker sooner rather than later, as the Transformers franchise is showing severe signs of metal fatigue.

Verdict: 2 out of 10.

Review: Wonder Woman

Wonder Woman

Nearly eight decades after her introduction, Wonder Woman has finally become the title character of her own cinematic adventure. Sculpted from clay by the queen of the Amazons, Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen), and brought to life by Zeus, the Amazonian princess Diana (Gal Gadot) grows up on the island of Themyscira as the only child among the warrior women. She is keen to learn the art of fighting, but her mother is anything but supportive of her daughter’s passion, as she fears that should Diana learn what she is truly capable of it will draw the attention of Ares, the god of war, from whom the Amazons are hidden on the island paradise. World War I is raging in the outside world, however, and the Amazons soon find the conflict on their doorstep when American spy Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) crash-lands in the waters near Themyscira. As German troops follow hot on Trevor’s heels, the Amazons are brutally exposed to the reality of human warfare, and Diana is compelled to join Steve in an effort to bring a conclusion to the War to End All Wars.

Since the inception of the DC Extended Universe (DCEU) – the DC Comics equivalent to Marvel’s MCU – the films have largely failed to impress. With lukewarm reviews for Man of Steel, bad reviews for Batman v Superman and terrible reviews for the editing disaster Suicide Squad, many feel that all hope of saving this particular cinematic universe rests on the shoulders of Wonder Woman. Thankfully, those shoulders are both capable and strong, and director Patty Jenkins’ effort breathes some much needed new life into the DCEU. Much like its predecessors, the film’s duration is similarly lengthy with its 2 hours and 21 minutes, but the amount of restraint applied to the editing establishes an excellent pacing, which ensures that the film moves along smoothly without neither pointless meandering nor frustrating leaps that distort the sense of time and continuity. The tone of the film also sets it apart from the rest of the DCEU as the film has more joy, color and hope than especially Zack Snyder has brought to the table with his much darker contributions. Thus, Wonder Woman not only establishes itself as an individual film with its own distinctive identity, it also manages to be a welcome reminder of superhero films of yore. This is particularly evident in Gadot’s performance, which is refreshingly free from the angst-ridden self-doubt many took issue with in 2013’s Man of Steel. Instead, Gadot’s Wonder Woman has a personality, determination and sense of justice that is more akin to Christopher Reeve’s Superman.

Although Gadot completely stole the show with her charisma during her brief appearance in the finale of Batman v Superman, many were skeptical about her ability to properly evoke the strength and skill of Wonder Woman throughout a feature film of her own due to her slender frame. That skepticism is continuously brought to shame in Wonder Woman, as Gadot’s enthusiam shines through in her commitment to the action sequences, even if is she does not quite have the dramatic range to match her physicality. Her performance outside many of the action set pieces is therefore largely carried by her on-screen chemistry with Pine and how much his talent elevates what Gadot lacks.

However, this also means that once Gadot is on her own against the villain in the finale, the film does lose some steam. This is not only due to Gadot, but rather an amalgamation of her lack of range, a final showdown that feels all too reminiscent of about a dozen others, and the usual superhero movie problem of the underdeveloped villain. Throughout the film, the villainous characters are set up with the bare minimum of character motivations and even less character development, making them fall victim to the kind of superficial stock characters you suspect were selected from a mail order catalogue of pre-existing and easily interchangeable super villains.

With its classic structure of three clearly distinguishable acts and an organic sense of pacing, Wonder Woman will be a largely enjoyable experience for most viewers. The action set pieces are impressive and engaging thanks to the spirited efforts of Gadot in particular, while still avoiding to turn entirely into a one-woman-show; the presence of the human characters in moments of battle mostly feels worthwhile, creating a dynamic that makes you feel like something is at stake and that everyone makes a contribution although they are fighting alongside a vastly superior demigoddess. With plenty of heart and just enough humor to not take itself too seriously, the course has been set for the DCEU to make a much greater impact, and while the final act unfortunately stumbles due to a severe case of superhero showdown fatigue, Wonder Woman is largely the divinely fresh breath of air people have been hoping for.

Verdict: 8 out of 10.

Review: King Arthur: Legend Of The Sword


Shortly after Mordred and his forces are defeated, Queen Igraine (Poppy Delevingne) and King Uther Pendragon (Eric Bana) are killed by a mysterious creature, leaving young Arthur Pendragon orphaned and outlawed, while the magical sword Excalibur becomes immovably stuck in stone. Arthur’s nefarious uncle Vortigern (Jude Law) becomes king after Uther’s demise, but the fact that not even he is able to shift Excalibur from its stony resting place becomes a thorn in his side, as it is a constant reminder that he is not the rightful heir to the throne. When Vortigern’s men years later find an adult Arthur (Charlie Hunnam) by chance, they deem him to be of the right age to potentially be Uther’s direct heir; upon inspecting his wrist, they indeed find that the symbol, which all young men are branded with after failing to remove Excalibur, is missing. Arthur is therefore captured and forced to go to the sword in the stone, and while he is of course able to remove Excalibur, he cannot successfully wield it, but he must learn to master the powerful sword if he wants to overturn the evil Vortigern and claim his rightful place as king of Camelot.

After being stuck in development hell for six years, Guy Ritchie’s take on Arthurian legend has been released to the cinema-going public, and it is unfortunately all too evident that the film has had a troublesome production. While the score is eclectic and intense and thereby suits Ritchie’s style – just as his other trademarks such as his fast-slow-fast editing style and unapologetic laddishness are also present – nothing can save King Arthur: Legend Of The Sword from being a mismanaged mess. Although Ritchie has not shied away from the magical elements and instead vastly increased them compared to 2004’s drably unmagical King ArthurKing Arthur: Legend Of The Sword is ironically deeply unmagical in the cinematic sense, as it only excels at the questionable art of being much too short while at the same time also being incredibly boring.

The attempt to cram an absurd of amount of lore into the film without every doing it any justice for those familiar with it, while at the same time making it deeply confusing for the uninitiated, sticks out like a sore thumb. Nothing is ever properly explored or explained, the film completely lacks any decent establishment of time, geography and narrative, and the aforementioned Ritchie-ism in terms of editing tends to be used less for its style and rather as a convenient way to relay a lot of exposition in very little time. That is not the only editing issue, however, as the editor must have been knee-deep in discarded and shortened scenes; the end result the viewer is presented with is so lacking in structure that it not only makes the film unengaging as a whole, but also severely affects the individual action set pieces, making the film feel like 2 hours worth of bland montages. Unsurprisingly, character development also suffers as a myriad of characters are included in the film, but any development and proper introduction to them appears to be shunned in favor of relying on being able to flesh them out at a later point in future installments of a franchise no one asked for.

By the time the end credits roll, those who have suffered last year’s Gods of Egypt will likely be left with a sense of déjà vu. With its rushed, uneven tone and incredibly superficial approach to its source material, one wonders if King Arthur: Legend Of The Sword could perhaps have been salvaged had it been three hours long and thus enabled a more thorough exploration of the lore, as that could have increased the chances of the film being impactful. The film would also have been much better served by taking its bloated laddishness to the extreme and allow Arthur to end the proceedings by dropkicking Vortigern into a pit whilst bellowing ‘THIS. IS. CAMELOT!’

But no, there is apparently not quite enough cheese in the kingdom of Camelot to justify even a guiltily satisfying ending, as we are instead presented with an incredibly lazy setup for the next installment, which we will hopefully never have to endure. As has been previously established, strange women lying in ponds distributing swords is no basis for a system of government, and King Arthur: Legend of the Sword makes it abundantly clear that it is also no basis for a Guy Ritchie film.

Verdict: 2 out of 10.

Review: Miss Sloane


‘Lobbying is about foresight.’ So begins Shakespeare in Love director John Madden’s latest effort, Miss Sloane. With Jessica Chastain in the eponymous role, the film offers a dramatized insight into the world of lobbying in Washington, D.C., centering around a hearing that occurs some three months after the gun lobby attempts to hire the incredibly callous, but undeniably successful Elizabeth Sloane to increase the appeal of firearms to women. Having no interest in their cause, she literally laughs in their faces when they present her with their proposal. Instead, Elizabeth joins a team of lobbyists who are in favor of gun control, and thus the intricate games of lobbying commence with many a twist and turn in store for the audience as Elizabeth’s ethical balancing act increasingly begs the question of just how far one should go in order to win.

Some controversy has surrounded Miss Sloane due to the subject matter of gun control, which led to an outcry from gun users, who claimed that the film is anti-gun propaganda. However, the subject of gun control is not so much what drives the story as it is rather the game of lobbying in itself that is the focal point of the film. As such, the film may as well have utilized any other controversial political topic, as what matters here is the characters and their motivations and exchanges. The main character is of course Elizabeth Sloane, who is played masterfully by Jessica Chastain. She portrays the lengths the character is gladly willing to go to and the coldly cynical approach Elizabeth applies to everything that she does in a manner that is both very interesting and slightly chilling without becoming a caricature. The layering of the lobbyist game ensures a good pace, and the fast quipping between the various characters is generally entertaining, just as this type of exchange as well as the political world of Washington, D.C. creates obvious parallels to Aaron Sorkin’s scriptwriting.

But the script is also where Miss Sloane struggles. Much like instant coffee is no substitute for a cup of gourmet coffee expertly prepared by a skilled barista, Jonathan Perera’s screenwriting debut seeks to achieve a story and dialogue on par with Aaron Sorkin’s work, but Perera’s script ultimately lacks the finesse and panache that make Sorkin’s scripts as exceptional as they are known to be. Miss Sloane only scratches the surface of the Sorkin approach, and while the quips and portrayal of the lobbyists’ world is not pedestrian as such, it is never elevated to anything truly remarkable. It also detracts from the story that certain stereotypes such as the main character’s eventual emotional outburst makes an appearance, albeit not long enough to undo the otherwise good work of Chastain’s portrayal of the calculating ice queen that is Elizabeth Sloane.

It cannot be stressed enough how enjoyable Chastain’s performance is, but because of the somewhat formulaic script and execution, it also leaves you wondering how much better not only the character of Elizabeth but also the film as a whole could have been if the script had not only been more refined, but also taken more risks to truly convey how scheming lobbying can be. While Miss Sloane easily passes the time, the story and its structure seem both familiar and vague, leaving the viewer with the feeling of having seen a similar story told better in other films of the same thematic ilk. As a result, the final product is a little too polished to ensure it will fit into a genre-specific box that it unfortunately lacks the deliberate roughness around the edges that could have made it truly exceptional, but the film defies its lobbyist theme by playing it a little too safe.

Verdict: 7 out of 10.

Review: Alien: Covenant*


Anyone who has been a fan of the Alien franchise long enough to remember the unadulterated thrill it was once synonymous with, can attest to the fact that no matter which faction of the fandom you belong to, you are no stranger to disappointment. Thus, no one was particularly surprised that Prometheus got a lukewarm reception upon its release in 2012, as it was not the first time that a lackluster installment had been presented to the hordes of fans. While Prometheus has since gained a significant following, which enjoys analyzing the film’s themes and ambiguous storytelling, many have been waiting with bated breath for the return of everyone’s favorite nightmare fuel, namely the iconic xenomorph. The reappearance of the hellish creature has been no secret, as the marketing for Alien: Covenant has been very upfront about its return in Ridley Scott’s latest effort, promising that it will bring some much needed horror back to the franchise.

From the beginning of the film, it is clear that Alien: Covenant is quite different from its predecessor in terms of tone. This will please fans of Alien and Aliens as it seemingly brings the new film closer to its roots. However, the themes from Prometheus are not neglected as they are explored in more detail, thus building on the thematic additions introduced in the previous installment. This will likely intrigue fans of Prometheus, while fans of Alien and Aliens may become restless as they wait for the film to pick up the pace. Rest assured that there are more thrills this time around, though, as we are presented with a handful of monstrously gory sequences at carefully selected intervals throughout the film, where they also manage to intertwine with the themes of Prometheus. These scenes vary in intensity, but it is very clear that Scott has deliberately sought to make Alien: Covenant a bridge between Alien and Prometheus.

The character of David and his motivations are explored further, with Michael Fassbender upping the ante in his portrayal of the villainous David, whilst also portraying the new android character of Walter as a distinctly different individual. Both of his performances have many subtle nuances that attest to Fassbender’s talent, however, while he certainly gets to flex his thespian muscles to such an extent that Walter and David become two interesting sides of the same coin, the villainous tropes utilized for the portrayal of David will divide viewers. As for the newcomers to the cast, Katherine Waterston is enjoyable enough as Daniels, but her character ultimately pales in comparison to the previous heroines of the series. There is, however, a clear standout performance among the actors portraying the colonists, which is surprisingly Danny McBride’s Tennessee. Not only is the character very likable in itself, McBride’s performance also helps to make the proceedings feel somewhat grounded, which in turn makes his character a welcome reminder of the kind of characters that were an integral part of the enjoyment associated with the early films.

However, while Alien: Covenant is undoubtedly ambitious, it is also incredibly frustrating. Since the film is hell-bent on being an amalgamation of such vastly different limbs of the same franchise, it does not manage to pay quite enough attention to either one, which results in the film becoming an inexcusably bland imitation of its predecessors. This is not so much due to the revelation of what David has been up to since the events of Prometheus being incredibly self-serious as well as somewhat clumsily executed in terms of the literary works it seeks to paraphrase, as this storyline will always divide viewers the way it has done since its introduction in Prometheus. Instead, the biggest sin Alien: Covenant commits is rather due to how much Scott has allowed it to be weighed down by an endless stream of callbacks to the first two films, which prevents Alien: Covenant from creating its own identity. This is further evident from the portrayal of the crew, which aside from the handful of aforementioned characters are so utterly disposable and hollow that the inability to invest in them severely detracts from the impact of the horror elements.

Some people will enjoy the first half of Alien: Covenant but dislike the second half and vice versa, which is an understandable reaction as Scott has essentially managed to cram what should have been at least two separate films into a single, two hour feature. While a revelation may occur once we see how Alien: Awakening will fit into it all, Alien: Covenant ultimately feels like the rushed result of trying to follow up on the convoluted storyline of Prometheus, while also trying to provide fan service in the form of xenomorph-based horror. It is therefore no wonder that it is nearly impossible to become invested in any of the characters, as the film’s frustratingly rapid pace completely defies what once made the franchise so wonderful, namely great, fleshed out characters and a pacing that was tight and tense while still taking its time to create a suspenseful atmosphere. By trying to close the gap between Alien and Prometheus, Scott appears to have neglected the tension-building, and the film suffers from it. There will undoubtedly be much more to say about Alien: Covenant once the film gets analyzed further and more content is released, but for now it is merely another disappointing addition to an otherwise wonderfully terrifying movie universe. As such, Alien: Covenant may impress newcomers to the franchise, but long-suffering fans of the first few films will likely feel like it is game over, man.

Verdict: 5 out of 10.

*An edited version of this review was published in the June 2017 issue of Fortean Times.

Retrospective Review: Aliens

Ripley and Newt 2

The first time you sit down to watch Aliens after having watched Alien, there is a sense of anxiousness as to what the sequel could possibly offer in order to up the ante from Ridley Scott’s terrifyingly suspenseful masterpiece. From the moment when that initial proximity alarm inside the Narcissisus escape shuttle sounds, the unease grips you as you are unsure if Ripley is going to be safe, simply because of the relentless ferocity of the happenings of the first film. Director James Cameron undoubtedly knew this as the robotic laser utilized by the salvage crew was paid for by the director out of his own pocket due to budget constraints, but he was adamant that it had to be featured in the film to create tension from the very beginning. This proved to be a wise move as having something non-human enter the shuttle first does indeed prolong the feeling of anxious uncertainty. This of course continues into the next scene, where the sheer terror of the fantastically executed chestburster nightmare tells the audience that they are in for one hell of a ride. However, it does more than merely establish the tone and intensity of the film; it also establishes that Ripley is suffering from severe PTSD.

To make matters worse, Burke, a representative for the Weyland-Yutani Corporation, informs Ripley that she has been in stasis for a shocking 57 years, meaning that the xenomorph not only inflicted severe emotional trauma on her as she lost her crew and fled the Nostromo, it also effectively stole her life. The impact of this forced disconnect from the life she knew is particularly evident in the special edition version of the film, where Burke once again is the bearer of bad news when he informs Ripley that her daughter has died aged 66, a mere two years prior to Ripley being found.

As if that was not bad enough, when Ripley attends a hearing shortly after getting the devastating news, the suits from Weyland-Yutani refuse to believe that she could possibly be telling the truth about what happened to the Nostromo. When she suggests that someone should be sent to LV-426 to verify her story, the chairman, Van Leeuwen, nonchalantly brushes off Ripley’s request as he informs her that there have been people living there for over 20 years. A stunned Ripley is left speechless when she learns that not only are there people living there, they are also families.

Defeated, Ripley seemingly gets back into the habit of a daily routine, but she is still haunted by traumatic nightmares. Suddenly, Burke shows up on her doorstep unannounced with Lt. Gorman of the United States Colonial Marines in tow. Unsurprising to both Ripley and the viewer, the company has lost contact with the colony on LV-426. Initially refusing a condescending Burke’s request to tag along with the marines to the planetoid as a consultant, her recurring nightmare finally pushes Ripley over the edge and she realizes that she has no choice but to revisit LV-426. Not only will she then get the chance to exterminate the xenomorphs for good, she will also have the opportunity to process her trauma by confronting the cause of it.

This is where some of the most memorable badasses to ever grace the silver screen are introduced as the setting shifts to the military vessel the Sulaco. The atmosphere is charged with overconfidence and bad jokes as the cocky marines remain unfazed by Ripley’s account of her initial encounter with the most hostile of organisms. Before long, everyone is in full swing with preparing the drop-ship for the last leg of their journey, and the viewer feels somewhat reassured from seeing their arsenal of impressive weapons, as these guys clearly mean business.

As the drop-ship hovers above Hadley’s Hope, the colonist complex on LV-426, the structure looks intact, but there are no signs of life whatsoever. Once the marines are on the ground, they proceed inside with military precision, but the interior shows no signs of life either. They do, however, find signs of a panicked struggle in the form of makeshift barricades and weapons damage caused by small firearms. Additionally, there are also some very large holes going through several floors of the complex, as if substantial amounts of a corrosive material melted its way through the structure, which the observant viewer of Alien will recognize as a recall to the first film, except this time the damage is much more extensive. As the tension increases to painful heights, more discoveries are made in the facility’s medical lab, where the marines’ motion trackers suddenly start to ping.

MarinesRicco Ross, Mark Rolston and Cynthia Scott lead by a frosty and alert Michael Biehn.

The sound of those motion trackers would turn out to be one of the most unnerving elements of the film as it went on, but aside from the comic relief in the form of a false alarm triggered by some hamsters around the same time as we see the infamous half-eaten donut – if you are a big fan of this film, you know the one I am talking about and how much of an obsession it is within the fandom and what it lead to in the generally abysmal Aliens: Colonial Marines game – the only other time the motion trackers are not a warning about impending xenomorph mayhem is when they detect the presence of the little girl Newt.

Once Newt is reluctantly caught by a fiercely determined Ripley, the two quickly begin to bond because they share the trauma of witnessing the horrors the xenomorphs are capable of inflicting on people, and Ripley gradually develops a relationship with Newt, becoming a surrogate mother for the child. Having lost her own daughter, Ripley becomes fiercely protective of Newt, but the little girl avoids becoming an obnoxious element of emotional manipulation by proving her worth several times, showing that it was not simply sheer dumb luck that kept her alive, as she plays a pivotal role in escaping the aliens later in the film.

Newt has a strong character arc, one which not only intertwines with Ripley’s due to shared experiences, but also adds depth to both characters, which is an essential part of the film’s appeal, as it makes the viewer that much more invested once the marines learn the hard way that the xenomorphs are the ultimate killing machines, making their trip to LV-426 spectacularly go from bad to worse to nuke the site from orbit.

Newt 2Well, hello there, childhood trauma.

Whenever I recollect my first viewing of Aliens, Alien always bleeds into it with the chestburster, the scared cat and Brett finding the molted skin of the chestburster before the fully matured xenomorph descends upon him. However, there are always two scenes I can clearly remember; Ripley holding Newt in the queen’s nest, surrounded by the alien eggs, and the alien queen falling into space during the finale on the Sulaco. The former image would prove particularly impactful as I was myself a pale, scrawny girl with long blond hair, much like Newt.

Experiencing Newt go through all those horrors resonated with me profoundly. With my mom sporting a perm similar to Ripley’s at the time and my sister being a buff and sassy badass with a hairstyle similar to that of Vasquez, it seemed inevitable that I would forge such a strong bond with the franchise because of this installment. As it turned out, my love for this film and its universe would to some extent infuse itself with my identity, particularly in terms of my skepticism toward large corporations – more on that in my retrospective review of Alien3 – and I have had many great experiences because of the particular fandom that materialized after Aliens burst on to the screen.


Aliens set 7Actor Bill Paxton on set with writer-director James Cameron.

In the summer of 1983, the young filmmaker James Cameron was about to begin shooting The Terminator, but there was a scheduling conflict as Arnold Schwarzengger had agreed to star in Conan the Destroyer, which delayed the production of The Terminator by 9 months. While this was not long enough to make another film, it did give Cameron the opportunity to take on a writing assignment. During a meeting regarding another project, Cameron was made aware of the studio’s plans to make a sequel to Ridley Scott’s 1979 masterpiece, and Cameron gladly accepted the task of writing the script. However, once the shooting of The Terminator was finally about to commence, Cameron was unable to hand in a finished script for Aliens. He had only managed to write about 90 pages and was still in the middle of the second act, but the studio loved it so much that they did the unthinkable; they told Cameron that they would wait for him to finish the script once he had finished filming The Terminator, and if that film showed promise in terms of his skills as a director, they would also allow him to direct Aliens.

As production on Aliens began, Ron Cobb was hired once again because of the substantial amount of realism his highly practical designs had brought to Alien. Conceptual artist Syd Mead was also brought onboard to help with the production design, in particular that of the Sulaco, the drop-ship and the armored personnel carrier. With the Vietnam War still haunting the national psyche of the USA, these vehicles were deliberately designed to subconsciously remind the viewer of Vietnam War imagery. This subliminal element also played into the design of the marines’ uniforms and how they were decorated; the sentiment of the unruly and cocky marines came to be thanks to Cameron’s impression of the behavior of the American forces towards the end of the Vietnam War. However, the parallels ran deeper than mere visuals, as Cameron had deliberately written the story of the xenomorphs overpowering the marines as a paraphrasing of how the Vietnam War had played out. The dynamic between the protagonists and antagonists in Aliens sought to capture how the arrogant, overconfident American forces relied too much on their seemingly superior technology and how they were bested by the Viet Cong because their knowledge of their local environment gave them the high ground in spite of having less sophisticated weaponry at hand.

While the most was expertly made of the film’s modest $18 million budget, the production itself did not progress smoothly once shooting began in Acton and at Pinewood Studios. Not only were there issues with asbestos at the decommissioned Acton power station in West London, which served as the interior for the colony complex, Cameron also butted heads with the British crew at Pinewood Studios. Not only was the crew enamored with Ridley Scott’s original film and had little else but contempt reserved for the young Canadian writer-director, they also largely worked permanent jobs at Pinewood, which made them further apathetic towards the production. One of the ways this was apparent was in the form of the many tea breaks on the set; as anyone familiar with British culture can tell you, the British are largely fueled by tea, so when the tea trolley would makes its rounds at Pinewood, the crew would bolt to get their refreshments. This infuriated Cameron, who was used to a different work ethic in the States, and things eventually got so bad that a mutiny almost occurred on the set, with much of the crew preparing to leave the production altogether.

Thankfully, a full-blown crisis was averted, and Aliens became a smash hit when it opened in the summer of 1986. Both critics and audiences alike were enthralled by the fruits of Cameron’s labor, resulting in the film receiving almost universal critical acclaim as well as grossing over $85 million during the four consecutive weeks it spent as number one at the North American box office. Additionally, the film was also nominated for 7 Oscars, which aside from the expected technical awards also included Sigourney Weaver’s first Oscar nomination. While the film only won two Oscars for Best Sound Effects and Best Visual Effects, the fact that Aliens was recognized in the prestigious Best Actress category was an unprecedented acknowledgement of the horror and science fiction genres, which are mostly shunned by the Academy. Mostly.

Creature Design

Xenomorph suitsJohn Rosengrant and Tom Woodruff Jr. working on more flexible xenomorph suits.

In 1979, the xenomorph was portrayed by the exceptionally tall and slender Bolaji Badejo, whose portrayal of the creature certainly managed to terrify audiences around the globe, but the costume he wore was anything but flexible. Thus, when Cameron wanted to include multiple xenomorphs in the sequel, he wanted the alien suits to allow for increased mobility in order to help increase the intensity when they had to go up against the marines and their advanced weaponry. Furthermore, there was also the concern of budget constraints, which resulted in many of the suits being realized as spandex suits with alien skin accents attached. This design approach may look crude when you see it in the workshop as above, but Cameron knew how he wanted to light and shoot the costumes, which would never involve dwelling on the basic suits long enough for the audience to notice the primitive construction.

Cameron has always been open about his admiration of Ridley Scott’s Alien, and while he rightfully considers the chestburster in Aliens to be an improvement over the original incarnation because the one in Aliens is much more articulated, he has stated that he thinks the facehugger in Alien looks superior to the ones featured in the sequel. However, while the skin texture and representation of the creature’s innards were executed with delightfully grim detail in 1979, the original facehugger was lacking severely in terms of movement. Considering the sequence where Ripley and Newt are trapped in the medical lab had to focus on evading agile facehuggers, the special effects team ended up creating the illusion of a ferocious parasite by using an amalgamation of animatronics as well as pulling limp rubber facehuggers attached to wires. The effects may look underwhelming when presented separately, but the different elements were edited together so well that this scene remains unbearably suspenseful to this day.

The word ‘intense’ springs to mind.

However, the biggest creature effect in terms of both size and impact was the addition of the alien queen. Wanting to explore where those eggs aboard the derelict spacecraft introduced in the first film came from, Cameron had already added the queen of monsters in his script. While H.R. Giger was not involved with the production of Aliens, Cameron based his design for the new creature on Giger’s original work. Knowing that Cameron would only suggest something that had the potential to become a reality, special effects master Stan Winston then began having a creative back-and-forth with Cameron, whereby they continuously enhanced each other’s design suggestions. Becoming one of the largest practical creature effects achieved up until that point, moving the queen would require the effort of up to 16 operators, but all the hard work paid off as the queen of monsters became an equally chilling and awe-inducing addition to the franchise’s impressive cabinet of horrors.

Stan WinstonStan Winston on a ladder on the set with the intimidatingly huge queen.

1992 Special Edition

Due to multiplexes not being as common in 1986 as they are today, Aliens had to be no longer than 2 hours and 10 minutes in order to fit in as many screenings per day as possible. This frustrated Cameron, as he felt his vision required a longer runtime to be done justice. He therefore ensured that a special edition of the film was released on laserdisc in 1992, where 16 minutes worth of footage was added. Aside from the tense sentry gun sequence, these additional scenes mainly focused on character development by showing Ripley getting the devastating news about her daughter in the beginning of the film as well as having her and Hicks exchange their first names towards the end of the film. Another addition, which not only adds some background information about Newt and her family, also covers what some may consider a plot hole in the theatrical cut of the film, namely how the colonists on LV-426 got exposed to the alien species in the first place.

While being able to add more depth to an already great film such as Aliens raises the stakes and thereby makes for a better film as a whole, having been fortunate enough to experience both the theatrical cut and the special edition on the big screen, I would argue that the theatrical version is the best introduction to the film for first-time viewers. This is largely due to how the uncertainty of what awaits the marines once they set down on LV-426 is much greater when the extra scenes in the beginning of the film are removed; having no context makes the imagery of the damaged complex and particularly Newt’s entrance much more suspenseful. In return, the special edition is the preferable option for repeat viewings, as increasing the emotional depth of the characters and making the ride longer and bumpier is what has ensured the film’s rewatchability.


Whenever I am asked what my favorite film is, I always pick Aliens without any hesitation whatsoever. James Cameron expertly expanded upon the extraordinary foundation laid by Ridley Scott in 1979 by answering questions we wanted answered, creating another terrifying monster, and giving us the marines to love and Burke to hate. He made Ripley an even greater character than she already was and gave her one of the greatest one-liners of all time, which still causes enthusiastic rounds of cheering and applause from cinema audiences to this day. Aliens is an action-packed, intense thrill ride that is both a product of its time as well as a timeless classic. Even now, in my function as a critic, I cannot fault Aliens whatsoever, and I am not ashamed to admit that whenever I rewatch Aliens on the big screen at the Prince Charles Cinema, I tend to get a little teary-eyed out of sheer, unadulterated adoration for this masterpiece, which kick-started my love for cinema.

Verdict: 10 out of 10.

Review: Mindhorn*


Failed actor Richard Thorncroft (Julian Barratt) has not had much success since being the eponymous character of the 1980s detective series Mindhorn. Scrambling to make a living, he awkwardly fumbles his way through auditions and meetings with his agent, but to no avail; no one has any interest whatsoever in working with the self-obsessed has-been. However, Richard suddenly gets a chance to restore his former glory when the Isle of Man police force ask him to assist them in a peculiar case. On the Isle of Man – which was the setting for Mindhorn back in the day – a suspected serial killer has escaped hospital, and he insists on speaking only to Mindhorn, as he is convinced that he is a real detective rather than a fictional character. Not being the kind of person to turn down some free publicity, Richard returns to the small community, convinced that the task will be exceedingly simple. The plot, of course, thickens beyond his wildest imagination, and he soon finds himself in increasingly absurd and dangerous situations as he tries to revive his career by solving the strange case.

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