One of the fringe benefits of having children — somewhere above people being nice to you in airports and below watching a new life take root in the garden of the world — is getting to see things through their eyes. In heartwarming fictions, that usually means being resensitized to the world’s injustices, but it can also mean fresh insights into the things you loved or loathed: Reading “A Light in the Attic” with my five-year-old daughter has reminded me of the wonderfully true weirdness of Shel Silverstein; suffering through the cast album of “Cats” confirms it’s as gratingly cacophonous now as when I was a teenager, although to be fair “Mr. Mistoffelees” is a great soundtrack to jumping on the living-room couch.
Over the weekend, Matt Zoller Seitz showed “Aliens” to his 11-year-old son and a several other fifth-graders at a slumber party. He wrote up the results, first as a series of tweets and than as a post at RogerEbert.com. “I realized again,” he wrote, “that while unfortunately you can’t see a great movie again for the first time, the next-best thing is to show it to people who’ve never seen it.”
One boy said that Ripley in her hyper sleep chamber looked like Sleeping Beauty. As this was an intentional reference on writer-director James Cameron’s part (there’s a Snow White reference an hour later) this seemed like a promising note on which to begin the screening. “I like the way this looks,” one said. “It’s futuristic but it’s old school. It’s almost steampunk.” “This is like Team Fortress 2,” another remarked. “Dude, shut up, this was made like 20 years before Team Fortress 2,” said the kid next to him. “This is, like, every science fiction movie ever made,” another said, as Ripley operated the power loader for the first time.
“This movie has so many cliches in it,” a boy said when Colonial Marines disembarked the drop ship and made their way through rainy darkness to enter the alien-infested colony. My son told him, “This movie was made in 1986. It invented all the cliches.”
The fifth-graders also determined that Vasquez is a “boss,” which fuckin’-a right.
I watched “Aliens” last year for the first time in at least a decade, and found it holds up astonishingly well. As the latter exchange from Seitz’s account reflects, it’s a movie that’s been so thoroughly observed into the culture that it’s almost impossible to see it now the way audiences (including a barely teenage me) saw it at the time: In my writeup for The Dissolve’s Top 50 Summer Blockbusters, I compared it to the Sex Pistols’ “Never Mind the Bollocks,” which when I first heard it struck me as a so-so heavy metal album — before I realized that was because other bands had been ripping it off for years.
What was startling to me was that, for all the ways in which “Aliens” set the template for nearly every big-budget sequel that followed — “Why don’t you do what the first movie did, but more?” — there were other aspects that got left behind. After “Titanic” and “Avatar,” James Cameron’s writing is easy to mock, but no director’s ever been better at establishing supporting characters with a few lines of dialogue and a performance honed just short of caricature: Seitz’s eleven-year-old charges may have been annoyed by Bill Paxton’s Hudson, but they won’t forget him. Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley has become iconic, but Paul Reiser’s Burke is equally sharp and complex, revealing how much Reiser could have accomplished as an actor had he not hitched the next train to sitcom-ville. Even the effects have held up astonishingly well, barring some bad rear-screen projection in Ripley’s final assault on the alien queen; it’s doubtful we’ll be able to say the same of today’s bleeding-edge CGI nearly 30 years hence. There are lots of reasons not to be optimistic about Neill Blomkamp’s forthcoming sequel — “District 9” was okay, “Elysium” was painful, and “Chappie” looks worse — but Blomkamp’s VFX background is near the top of the list.
“Aliens” is hardly an art film, but as Seitz points out, it takes, at least by contemporary standards, an astonishingly long time to “get going” — the tradeoff being that once the xenomorphs start coming, they essentially never stop. He recalls watching it first-run with viewers who were holding their collective breath, and their bladders, until the first big action sequence, then sprinting for the bathroom as if their lives depended on it. Nowadays, one doubts an audience would be so patient — Seitz describes having to shush the constantly chattering boys for key sequences — but “Aliens” is still worth crossing your legs for.