Is there Space for Aliens in a Film Canon?

Dylan Hintz
Major Film Directors
Dr. Johnson

Is there Space for Aliens in a Film Canon?

Of the sixty films within Paul Schrader’s essay “Canon Fodder,” there are no more than five movies that could be counted as “escapist” or “action” films. This style of films ties closer into Pauline Kael’s idea of “trash”, and could easily consist of Westerns such as The Wild Bunch and Once Upon a Time in the West. Both films are found in Paul Schrader’s personal canon. Regardless, there is a lack of enthusiasm for movies primarily created to arouse an audience’s wonderment from a purely visceral standpoint within his list. Schrader’s eulogy to Kael states that her essay, “Trash, Art, and the Movies” was “not only wrong-headed but highly deleterious” (Schrader 36). He references her ideas that “we enjoy [movies] and what we enjoy them for has very little to do with what we think of as art…”(Kael 88-89) with a negative mindset, ignoring the fact that an entertaining movie does not limit its artistic merit. Many escapist films are made from a commercial standpoint, as Schrader confirms that “If art is money, then great art is big money and a great artist is a great businessman…” (Schrader 40), and commercial success has truly become the art of the day with films like the Spider Man series decimating box-office records. Regardless of commercial success however, even Schrader believe that to be “no reason to judge movies by condescending standards” (Schrader 46). Therefore, a middle ground between Kael’s “trash” and Schrader’s “high art,” must exist and, even if commercial, such a film could find a healthy position in a film canon, even under the criteria’s found within Paul Schrader’s “Canon Fodder.”

James Cameron’s penned-and-shot action sequel, Aliens (1986), served as a continuation to Ridley Scott’s slow-moving sci-fi horror masterpiece, Alien from 1979, locked a franchise, and became the inspiration for dozens of mediocre knock-offs that have found comfortable weekly homes on the Sci Fi Channel. Cherished by the Academy itself—nominated for seven Oscars including a Best Actress award for Sigourney Weaver—the film is a benchmark for both the science fiction and action genres. Amongst Schrader’s criteria, a blockbuster film such as Aliens is more than worthy of canonical selection, filling not only his voids of aesthetics, but also fulfilling the criteria which his mentor, Pauline Kael, discussed about “trash” in cinema. Kael states that “A good movie can take you out of your dull funk and the hopelessness” (Kael 88-89), and that “movie art is not the opposite of what we have enjoyed in movies…” it is filled with “…moments of excitement sustained longer and extended into new meanings” (Kael 106). Kael’s idea of a good movie can be cross-referenced to at least three of Schrader’s criteria: Beauty, Viewer Engagement, and Repeatability. From the perspective of these three criteria, Aliens can easily rank among any top tier canon, regardless of its style of adrenaline-pumping escapism and monster-movie roots.

Schrader defines Beauty as the “ability to qualitatively transform reality” (Schrader 44). In this sense, the beauty of a film should firstly demonstrate to its audience a new world through mis-en-scene, camera work and, sound. In terms of pure aesthetics, one scene stands above almost all others from the film Aliens: Ellen Ripley’s descent into the nest of the Alien Queen, desperately in search of her surrogate daughter, Newt. In this scene, Cameron’s use of visual effects and camerawork transport the viewer into a completely constructed reality. The lighting of the scene is intense, hypnotic, and glaring all at once, with flashing klaxons, and storming explosions filling the background as Ripley rides an elevator into the hive. The outer space colony LV-426 comes alive as smoke and fire consumes the space, the marvel of human engineering falling apart before the viewer. The sweat on Sigourney Weaver’s face can be seen gleaming even in the shadows, describing a location of heat and turmoil for the audience to feel within their own minds. The lighting grows even more intense as Ripley fires a flamethrower blast into the darkness, attempting to shield herself from the alien swarm lurking within the walls of the installation. The mis-en-scene here is so articulate with these factors thrown in that Cameron allows much of the shots to be handled by hand-held or steady-cam movements, with detailed long takes allowing for the reality to exist in more believable fashion than almost any science fiction film to come before it. Even when broken down into static shots, the film just oozes with action, the framing complete with weapons, smoke, the alien organism, all breathing conflicting intensity into each shot. Specifically, the shots where Ripley is tearing away at the alien cocoon to free Newt strike powerful emotional chords: The image of a mother releasing her daughter from the custody of a nearly invincible assailant can truly be empathized within the scene, as the form and content match just as potently as any other mother-daughter drama set in “the real world” could provide. Aliens holds up even twenty years after it initial release, concreting its Beauty within the realms of high-art canon. The presentation of a film such as Aliens is critical to its immersion factor, which will further contribute to Viewer Engagement, the second criteria to Schrader’s canon.

Schrader denotes that the most powerful film “frees the viewer from this passive stupor and engages him or her in some creative process of viewing” (Schrader 46). It is in this case that a thrilling action film such as Aliens can actually succeed in a way that other films of the genre tend to miss the mark. While the intellectual participation of the audience is somewhat limited by the linear style of the events, Aliens can maintain an edge that cuts through any form of passivity that a viewer may arrive at when set in front of the screen. This shines in scenes such as the initial movement of the Colonial Marines into the colony. A strong science fiction film will do its best not to explain everything away to the viewer through narrative discourse; rather it will make attempts to introduce the concepts of the culture through the actions within the scene. It is in this sense that the audience must keep up with the action as well as the storytelling. During the scene, the Marines are entering the installation slowly in a militaristic fashion similar to modern day (or even advanced at the time of filming) military infiltration. There is no “boot camp” scene to describe this to the viewer; the film simply follows the course of the action, integrating this new-world form into the narrative. What adds to the viewer engagement is the lack of explanation—the continuation of action without any pauses, limited music, and an articulate set of sound effects.

The motion tracker, a device used to determine the proximity of a possible threat, beeps slowly throughout the scenes. The audience realizes there is a need to pay attention to this noise, much like the beep of a heart monitor. When it increases in frequency, it is an audio signal that danger is coming, and the audience, knowing this is a terror-inducing film, will interact via preparing themselves for the “rush” that the action is about to hit towards them. Schrader claims that a movies “ask so little of us” (Schrader 46), but in truth, scenes such as these ask viewers to explore the very frame itself, to scan the area for possible threats, to keep alert just as the marines do and truly engage themselves with the scenario. Aliens is a true landmark in audience interactivity with touches such as the motion tracker and the use of extensively well-placed shadow lighting to create a tense and threat-filled atmosphere. It has become not only an inspiration to the genre of horror-based film, but horror-based video games as well, demonstrating its place in film canon as not only aesthetic but of historical importance.

This historical importance is most represented by the film’s nearly unending repeatability factor. Repeatability, as Schrader states, implies that a work of art “can be experienced repeatedly, it can be appreciated by successive generations, it grows in importance and context with time” (Schrader 45-46). The video game generation’s obvious influence by this film in hugely popular franchises such as Halo adds to the contention that Aliens is the root of an entire subset of entertainment culture. It still bares relevance twenty years after its debut, and is frequently paid homage to and even parodied. What classifies it under a canon, however, is the quality of the original product. While there are many “movie-of-the-week” films on the Sci-Fi Channel that follows the formula of Aliens, they do not stand the test of time in the same way, nor do they maintain a solid impact.

Schrader believes that “the ability of certain films to retain their impact over repeat viewings is a textbook example of what makes a ‘classic’” (Schrader 46). The impact of this film is felt most crucially in the integration its special effects—a few years before the dawn of computer technology (something Cameron himself helped to move forward greatly), Aliens was filled with the peak of puppetry and makeup effects. These effects still manage to impress a viewer if only because there is a greater degree of reality to the effects than what is offered by computer graphics. The climactic final conflict of the film pits Ripley against the Alien Queen in a melee between the beast and Ripley’s exo-suit (used primarily to load crates, not for combat). In theory, a scene like this would come across as completely ridiculous or at the very least, comical. In practice, Cameron’s sense of technology, proportion, and framing take what could amount to a simple “Godzilla” styled brawl to an epic and tense duel between one woman and her nemesis—that being the alien queen, the ultimate embodiment of Ripley’s darkest fears. There is nothing like this within the Sci-Fi genre, in which the action could become over the top but maintains a weight of reality that grounds it into repeatable viewings and unmatchable quality. It is that unattainable quality that keeps Aliens at the top of the canon, and thus makes it worth watching over and over again.

Kael and Schrader may be at odds when it comes to defining worthy film-going experiences, but what ties the two critics together is a desire to enjoy cinema in its fullest respect. Schrader’s canon criteria state that a movie must contain a certain set of aspects at a certain level in order to reach canon status. The Beauty, Viewer Engagement, and the Repeatability of James Cameron’s Aliens are presented by the immortal mis-en-scene, camerawork, and special effects of the film. All of these factors secure a place within canon for a film that, intellectually, is little more than a monster-movie. It is therefore in the craft of the film and the way in which it is carried out that Aliens deserves its canonical ranking as being one of the most enjoyable and best executed films of its kind.

Works Cited

Kael, Pauline. “Trash, Art, and the Movies.” Going Steady. Boston: Little Brown and Co.
1970. 87-129

Schrader, Paul. “Canon Fodder.” Film Comment. Vol 42, No. 5, Sept/Oct 2006. 33-49

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Is there Space for Aliens in a Film Canon? by Dylan Hintz is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 United States License.