The Dissolve has been celebrating “Aliens” as its movie of the week, with Tasha Robinson exploring the movie’s feminist themes and Keith Phipps and Scott Tobias doing a back-and-forth on, among other things, how well the movie’s practical effects have aged. But the key essay is Genevieve Valentine’s piece on the strength of the movie’s supporting characters, which has proved critical to its enduring — can we now say timeless? — appeal. Vasquez; Hicks; Gorman; Burke: If you’ve seen “Aliens” even once, you know their names. I did one of the first interviews of my career with Bill Paxton in 1997, and though I’d seen him in a dozen movies by then, there was no question in my mind I was meeting Hudson.
As Valentine points out, “Aliens” has become a model for other movies to follow, with Cameron’s script — he was, it’s important to remember, primarily known as a writer to to that point, with the movie going into production before “The Terminator” became a hit — deftly sketching characters in brief exchanges that don’t slow down the movie’s momentum.
Ripley rightly remains the anchor who carries the movie from its opening moments to its final ones. However, it’s hard to discount the effect of Cameron’s particular blockbuster alchemy in “Aliens”; the script deftly sketches the cast’s personalities through vicious banter and iconic one-liners, and the actors pick up the subtext and run with it, creating an ensemble interesting enough that many of their deaths still register in pop culture. (Whither Vasquez, dammit?) At heart, this is a demonstration of Cameron’s understanding that even an action flick is a character piece, and how a good actor will be able to create a memorable character in less than a dozen lines… The action-movie ensemble cast has been around in one form or another since Georges Méliès’ “A Trip to the Moon,” and it’s gone through hundreds of iterations: diverse samurai, fresh-faced infantry, the passengers on an upturned boat, a street gang that has to get back to Coney Island. But though “The Warriors” is a timeless classic, its characters are as stylized and static as the roles in a medieval play, and disaster movies tend to be more concerned with the disaster than the performances. “Aliens” provided the modern architecture of the all-action supporting cast: bursting with banter, not so big as to slow down the pace, and fleshed out just enough to matter. These days, we expect those ensembles. We look forward to a handful of characters to root for. The crew of the Sulaco has become the narrative gold standard — and it’s no wonder.
That “blockbuster alchemy” is key to why “Aliens” works as well as it does. Cameron takes the lead of recognizable archetypes — the tough-as-nails C.O., the sniveling corporate stooge — and through sharp, economical writing and pungent performances, turns it into gold. As much as you remember Ripley’s battle with the alien queen, you remember Hudson and Vasquez’s exchange — “Have you ever been mistaken for a man?” “No, have you?” — which Valentine points out was cribbed from a legendary Tallulah Bankhead zinger.
That brings us around to “Jurassic World,” whose supporting characters are, if such a thing is possible, even less memorable than its protagonists. Chris Pratt’s Popeye-armed raptor trainedris devoid of even the slightest hint of a character arc, and Bryce Dallas Howard’s uptight executive is distinguished mainly by her impractical taste in footwear, but it’s in the second string that the movie’s weaknesses truly become apparent. (That’s “weaknesses” from a critical/narrative standpoint. Given that the movie is on track to make well over a billion dollars worldwide, it’s not clear that they have any impact on its audience reception, because dinosaurs.) Like “Alien,” the first “Jurassic Park” was a horror movie in science-fiction clothing, but from “The Lost World” on, the movies have followed the “Aliens” template, turning the mood from horror to action-thriller. “Jurassic World” has plenty of characters, and even some fine actors, like Omar Sy and Irrfan Khan, to play them. But they’re given no memorable lines or moments, nothing at all to work with. They’re all lead, no gold.
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Compare Paul Reiser’s Burke with Vincent D’Onofrio’s Hoskins (whose name, naturally, I had to look up). The latter, “Jurassic World’s” human heavy, is a two-dimensional bad guy, a military goon played with no real commitment or actorly interest. Burke, by contrast, is a villain who doesn’t know he is one, played with as much empathy as menace; for a murderous weasel, he’s almost likable. Reiser’s performance is second only to Sigourney Weaver’s in its complexity, suggesting that Reiser could have had a substantial career as a dramatic actor had “Mad About You” not come calling.
In all of “Jurassic World,” only two characters, at best, are remotely memorable: Jake Johnson’s Lowry and Lauren Lapkus’ Vivian. Johnson plays an easy stereotype, a hipster doofus with a scraggly mustache who wears a vintage Jurassic Park tee (bought on eBay) to work, but Lapkus, best known as one of “Orange Is the New Black’s” guards, brings an off-kilter specificity to a throwaway role, and makes it the most memorable in the movie. There’s a moment near the end when the park’s control room is being cleared and Johnson goes in for a kiss; the music swells, echoing the similarly corny smooch between Pratt and Howard early in the film, but Lapkus shoots him down, turning it into an awkward hug and remarking, almost apologetically, “I have a boyfriend.” On the one hand, it’s yet another instance of the movie’s suffocating self-awareness, whereby the stupid things that happen are meant to be made less stupid by the movie pointing out how stupid they are. But it’s also a relief: Finally, someone else gets it.
There’s nothing else in “Jurassic World” like that moment — which, tellingly, grew out of a last-minute improvisation and wasn’t in the script. More than a decade in development, and the only line worth remembering was made up on the spot. If you want a contemporary franchise that’s learned the lessons of “Aliens,” look to the “Fast and the Furious” movies; their characters may not be profound, but they’re memorable, sticky enough for viewers to build a cumulative attachment to them. Given the box-office returns, it’s a cinch that another “Jurassic” movie is in the offing, and Pratt has already signed for a sequel. But as long as the T. Rex comes back, no one cares about the humans.