ALIENS (1986)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 17 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Monster Violence, and for Language

Directed by: James Cameron

Written by: James Cameron

Starring: Sigourney Weaver, Michael Biehn, Paul Reiser, Lance Henriksen, Carrie Henn, Bill Paxton, William Hope, Jenette Goldstein & Al Matthews

With ALIEN being a giant success, a sequel was inevitable. Where to take the property though and who could possibly pick up the reigns after Ridley Scott left his distinct mark on the series? While Scott’s ALIEN focused on scares, James Cameron’s ALIENS was all about action. As you might have guessed from its title, there are many Xenomorphs in this film. ALIENS is a sequel done right in that it builds off the original film to take the series in bold new directions, all while constantly upping its game. The end result is not only one of the best sequels in film history, but also one of the best sci-fi action movies to ever grace the silver screen.

As the sole survivor of the Nostromo, Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) has been in hypersleep for 57 long years. Rescued from the cold recesses of space by the same company that screwed her over in the first place, Ripley finds that (unsurprisingly) no one believes her tales of an acid-bleeding, long-headed, two-mouthed, bug-like monster. In fact, the planet where the Nostromo originally landed is now a site for colonization. When the colony goes dead quiet, Ripley is called in as a consultant for a bunch of space marines assigned to investigate the oddly silent location. When they arrive, Ripley and the space marines discover hundreds of vicious Xenomorphs. In a race against a ticking clock, they must use their heads and work together to escape the planet.

In my ALIEN review, I complained about how stupid most of that film’s characters were and how they essentially boiled down to slasher victims in space. ALIENS remedies this issue by having a colorful group of characters who make smart choices and come off as instantly likable. While I didn’t care about most of the crew members dying in the first film, the deaths in this sequel make the viewer sad to see another beloved space marine bite the dust. Yes, Ripley is a bad-ass and really gets a lot of room to shine in this second installment. This is especially true during the final 30 minutes that have her saving the day on a deadly solo mission. However, the supporting cast is stellar this time around.

The biggest stand-out of the space marines is Lance Henriksen as android Bishop. While Ian Holm was just plain creepy as the first film’s android, Henriksen manages to be both creepy and charming at the same time. First time viewers, won’t know where his allegiances fully lie and Cameron wisely inserts scenes that could be taken two completely different ways. As other notable space marines, Michael Biehn is charismatic as Hicks (also serving as a possible love-interest for Ripley), Bill Paxton is hilarious as grunt Hudson (uttering one of the most iconic lines in an action movie ever), and Jenette Goldstein is a total bad-ass as Vasquez.

Paul Reiser plays corporate scumbag Carter Burke and owns his transformation from annoying sleazeball (at first) to downright despicable asshole (by his final scene). ALIENS also seemingly does the impossible by bringing in a little kid and not making them annoying in every single second that they’re on the screen. This child-in-danger comes in Carrie Henn as Newt. Henn had no previous acting experience before this film, which makes her performance that much more impressive. She nails the role of this young survivor and has become a fan favorite over the decades, all while providing a reason for Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley to develop instant motherly protection.

James Cameron’s ALIENS is much more of an action movie than a scarefest, but Cameron keeps everything in tact that made the first movie great. This include the freaky-looking planet design, the insect-like monsters, and the sense of constant danger around every corner. Even though there are more characters this time around and they’re heavily armed, that just means there’s more people stuck in the same heart-pounding situation and their ammo will eventually run out. An adrenaline-pumping chase scene through a series of ventilation shafts is every bit as claustrophobic as the best jump scare from the first film, but this time there are aliens coming from all directions and bullets flying everywhere.

Cameron’s sequel further builds on the creatures’ biology, nesting habits, and introduces a Queen Alien to the series (all those eggs have to be coming from somewhere). This towering creature is one of the most intimidating monsters to ever hit the big screen. Think a regular Xenomorph times a hundred and much, much bigger. This makes for one of the greatest human vs. alien battles in the finale too. This isn’t to negate the film’s quieter, more effective moments, because there are a few twists that naturally built and progressively up the stakes in a believable way.

Throughout his career, James Cameron has directed two of the best sequels of all-time: TERMINATOR 2 and this film. ALIENS is not only a perfect example of how to make a stellar second installment that outdoes the original, but it’s also one of the best science-fiction action hybrids to ever grace the silver screen. Adrenaline-pumping action, colorful characters (who the viewer is sad to see die), unexpected plot turns, high stakes that progressively become higher, and an already great mythos evolving are just some of the reasons why this sequel is so phenomenal! ALIENS is entertainment at its biggest and best!

Grade: A+

RAMBO: FIRST BLOOD Part II (1985)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 36 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

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Directed by: George P. Cosmatos

Written by: Sylvester Stallone & James Cameron

Starring: Sylvester Stallone, Richard Crenna, Charles Napier, Steven Berkoff, Julia Nickson, Martin Kove & George Cheung

1982’s FIRST BLOOD brought an iconic movie character to life and delivered social commentary through a gritty action movie lens. While FIRST BLOOD may be the most serious RAMBO film, I feel that RAMBO: FIRST BLOOD Part II is the movie that cemented John Rambo’s place in cinema history as an action hero for the ages. RAMBO is one of the coolest action movies ever made and had a profound impact on the action genre as a result. Countless rip-offs wanted to be this film, but FIRST BLOOD Part II is a highly explosive adrenaline rush that cannot be duplicated. This sequel is a very different film from the serious social commentary predecessor, but I love it as 100% pure entertainment.

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A year after the events of FIRST BLOOD, Vietnam vet John Rambo (Sylvester Stallone) is offered a get out of jail free card in the form of a top-secret government mission. Rambo reluctantly agrees to drop back into the jungles of Vietnam and search for possible POWs (even though the war has been over for years). However, he is instructed not to engage the enemy or rescue anyone…just take photographic evidence for a follow-up team. Rambo’s conscience gets in the way of his orders and he rescues a POW. As a result, bureaucratic baddie Marshal Murdock (Charles Napier) aborts the mission and leaves our musclebound hero for dead. This doesn’t sit well with John Rambo as he’ll go to any length to regain his freedom and rescue the remaining POWs, which means facing off against two different villainous nationalities.

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RAMBO: FIRST BLOOD Part II is a straight-forward action movie that delivers excitement from start to finish. The plot throws FIRST BLOOD’s tragic war hero into the fray with lots of explosions, gunfire, and a high body count (a total of 69 on-screen deaths). It’s a far more action-oriented film than its predecessor, but works surprisingly better as one hell of an awesome ride. Sylvester Stallone slips right back into the skin of John Rambo as if no time has passed at all. Stallone wasn’t just responsible for his performance though as he also polished the final version of the sequel’s script, which was originally a much simpler tale penned by none other than James Cameron. Stallone added political commentary into the screenplay (including a final speech that was inspired by his conversations with veterans) and reshaped a side character entirely.

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The real villain of FIRST BLOOD Part II isn’t made out to be the Viet Cong or Soviet forces that Stallone sprays with bullets, but instead the bossy bureaucrat who willingly to turns a blind eye. This point is driven not so subtly home by Charles Napier’s smarmy performance as pencil-pushing Marshall Murdock. Murdock is a scumbag and I wanted to repeatedly punch him in the face. His villainy doesn’t come in the form of directly shooting POWs, but rather from giving orders over a radio and feigning concern. The only returning side character from the original film is Colonel Trautman (Richard Crenna) who has a slightly bigger role to play this time around, but doesn’t really get a chance to jump in on any of the action. Rambo also receives a partner/love interest in foreign agent Co-Bao (Julia Nickson). This character doesn’t exactly have a huge arc, but the story does something cool with her nonetheless.

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RAMBO: FIRST BLOOD Part II is entirely different from its gritty predecessor and serves as perfect action-packed entertainment. The location/battleground, filmed in Mexico substituting for Vietnam, is larger and the pacing never slows down. Even when Rambo is facing a brutal interrogation and capture (an all too familiar scenario in action films), I was hooked into wondering how on earth he was going to get out of the desperate situation and how many people were going to pay for it with their blood. The level of on-screen mayhem is staggering and it’s easy to see why many consider this second installment to be the most memorable film in the RAMBO franchise. Watching John Rambo wipe out tons of Viet Cong and Soviet baddies never gets repetitive either as the film constantly finds new violent ways for him to fight. These include but are not limited to: knives, exploding arrows, rockets, machine guns, hand-to-hand combat, and a stellar stand-off between two heavily armed helicopters.

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It’s not hard to see why RAMBO: FIRST BLOOD Part II has had such a massive impact since its release. Besides being the second biggest movie of 1985 (right behind BACK TO THE FUTURE), this action classic has spawned plenty of parodies (UHF, HOT SHOTS Part Deux, etc.) as well as many rip-offs. It’s easily one of the Stallone’s best films and the peak of 80’s action. Not every film is meant to enlighten, inform or deeply move us. Sometimes, we can be entertained beyond belief and that’s precisely what RAMBO: FIRST BLOOD Part II did for me!

Grade: A+

TERMINATOR 2: JUDGEMENT DAY (1991)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 22 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Strong Sci-Fi Action and Violence, and for Language

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Directed by: James Cameron

Written by: James Cameron & William Wisher

Starring: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Linda Hamilton, Edward Furlong & Robert Patrick

In the grand scheme of sequels that manage to be better than the originals, TERMINATOR 2 ranks among the very best. The original TERMINATOR was a little sci-fi actioner from the 80’s that managed to surpass the modest expectations of audiences and studio execs alike. James Cameron returned to the script and screen to craft a sequel to his surprise hit in 1991. JUDGEMENT DAY is one of those very rare cases in which a sequel manages to outdo the original in every possible way. Not only that, TERMINATOR 2 has earned reputation for being one of the best action films ever made. It wears that crown proudly and holds up perfectly to this day. This is easily the best entry in the series and, in my humble opinion, the only great TERMINATOR flick thus far.

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Years have passed since Sarah Connor first encountered the Terminator. Since then, she has wound up in a mental institution, because who would ever believe crazy stories about killer robots from the future? While his mom wastes away in the loony bin, future resistance leader John Connor is a troubled 13-year-old in foster care. Skynet has decided that if at first you don’t succeed, then give it a second try and send the advanced T-1000 back in time to off teenage John. Luckily for John, a reprogrammed Terminator (once again played by Arnie) has also been sent back to protect him. It’s Sarah, John and the Terminator vs. the T-1000 in a new game of cat-and-mouse.

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TERMINATOR 2 finds James Cameron using a duplicate plot device to a much greater effect. Besides bringing in the time-traveling robots trying to off a future leader in the past, Cameron and co-writer William Wisher use every available opportunity to their advantage. This is a far more ambitious film than the first one was. Besides the obvious Terminator vs. Terminator conflict, John forms a friendship with robo-Arnie. While this might have come off as cheesy in any other movie, their bond has real emotion placed into it. Then there’s Sarah Connor struggling to accept that a Terminator identical to the one that caused her so much grief is actually there to protect her and John. Finally, there’s an attempt to stop Judgement Day from ever happening and this subplot takes the movie into a number of bold places (including a heart-pounding hostage sequence).

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This would all be a bit meaningless if the performers came off as dull as they did in the first movie, but everyone plays a well fleshed-out character. Sarah Connor is brought to life as one of the best bad-ass heroines to ever grace the silver screen (alongside Ripley from ALIENS and Furiosa from the latest MAD MAX). In any other movie, teenage John Connor’s childish attitude might come off as annoying, but it works perfectly as Furlong brings the character to believable life. Arnold Schwarzenegger is given more wiggle room to develop as this good Terminator shows more of an emotional range (all explained through various plot points), even if he still delivers his lines in appropriately mechanical fashion. So while Arnie gets to play the hero this time around, Robert Patrick plays the chilling T-1000. This silent, intimidating villain dispatches his prey in gruesome fashion with razor-sharp elongated fingers.

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While 1984’s TERMINATOR didn’t skimp on action, it was definitely focused more on the chase than actual conflict between man and machine. That’s not the case in this sequel as the conflict happens to be between a machine aided by a mother and son vs. an even deadlier machine that happens to be aided by naïve authority figures wielding very big guns. The stakes are increasingly heightened as the running time moves along. It certainly helps that special effects bringing each action scene to life hold up flawlessly. Before James Cameron was wasting his time on clichéd romances (TITANIC) and expensive blue aliens (AVATAR), he helped pioneer the technology that brought a liquid-metal T-1000 to life. Every car chase, shoot-out and conflict sticks out in its own way. No frame is wasted and no scene is pointless.

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There are a number of movies that I wish I could have experienced on their opening weekends, but TERMINATOR 2 is near the top of that list. This movie must have been even more spectacular, mind-blowing and exciting with a packed audience of fans who didn’t know what they were in for. TERMINATOR 2 is not only among the rare breed of sequels that outdo their predecessor, it’s among the very best action films ever made!

Grade: A+

THE TERMINATOR (1984)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 47 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

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Directed by: James Cameron

Written by: James Cameron & Gale Anne Hurd

Starring: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Michael Biehn, Linda Hamilton & Paul Winfield

Reviewing old movies has its perks and problems. The perks are that I can watch and write about random movies from various time periods whenever I feel like it. The problems are that certain classics have their hordes of passionate fans who are ready and more than a little willing to rip the heads off anyone who dares disagree with their opinion. It should be noted right now that I did not grow up with TERMINATOR and therefore, I don’t have much nostalgia for it. As it stands, I only consider one film in the whole series to be great thus far and it’s not this one. THE TERMINATOR holds up as a cheesy, very 80’s sci-fi actioner that’s entertaining, but has its share of flaws that stick out to me.

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Thanks to an artificial intelligence network known as Skynet, the future will be an apocalyptic wasteland. Thankfully for us, humans are winning the war against machines after rallying around celebrated resistance leader John Connor. Times are looking grim for the machines and it seems that time travel is their only option for stopping the humans. So they decide to send a death-machine (called a Terminator) back to 1984 to kill Sarah Connor, thus stopping John’s birth before it happens and effectively winning the war. This cold, calculating Terminator cannot be reasoned with and seems impossible to kill, but Sarah finds a savior in another time-traveler, Kyle Reese, who has been sent back to protect her. Sarah and Kyle engage in a deadly, explosive game of cat-and-mouse with the Terminator in hopes of destroying it.

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Arnold Schwarzenegger plays the Terminator. He plays the role of a heartless, emotionless killing machine convincingly. It’s Arnold after all and he isn’t exactly known for emotions (ba dum ching!). The movie isn’t necessarily about the Terminator though. Yes, he’s the bad guy and Arnie’s mug is plastered on everything regarding this series, but the protagonists are Sarah Connor and Kyle Reese. While Sarah becomes one of cinema’s best female bad-asses in the second installment, she’s far from that in this first entry. Sarah’s character is a hapless waitress who is timid, shy and feels like she belongs in a romantic comedy as opposed to an 80’s sci-fi classic. This might be what sells her for most people in this first film, but I wasn’t buying it. She’s a bit bland and Kyle Reese is even more of a dull character than her. He’s the typical hero who’s been sent to save the day. When romantic chemistry forms between them, it all feels forced and bland…just like both characters. When Sarah changes from scared victim to brave heroine at the end of the film, her transformation feels far too rushed and unconvincing as well.

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TERMINATOR is very much an 80’s movie too. It’s complete with a cool synthesizer score, an over-the-top cheesy sex scene, and silly dialogue (one character threatening to knock the Terminator’s block off is kind of hilarious). Though a majority of the film plays out like an elongated chase scene between man and machine, director/writer James Cameron doesn’t skimp out on the action scenes either. While one futuristic battle sequence drags for a bit too long (especially seeing as it was edited into the middle of a conversation taking place between Sarah and Kyle), the finale is truly something to behold. The special effects that constructed the Terminator hold up very well (save for one rubber Arnie head), especially what appears to be a blend of stop-motion and practical work during the final confrontation. The humanoid metal skeleton of the Terminator is still a rightfully iconic and terrifying image of something inhuman posing as one of us.

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James Cameron seemingly created THE TERMINATOR as a little movie to help regain his career after PIRANHA II crushed his reputation, but this film defied expectations and became a bonafide movie saga that still endures to this day (with a fifth entry hitting in less than two months). Nobody could have predicted that TERMINATOR would wind up going where it did. There are definitely problems that I have with the film, but, again, I didn’t grow up with this series like so many others did. As it stands for me, the first TERMINATOR is cheesy 80’s fun that went on to spawn a far superior sequel. Obviously, you already know if you’re going to watch this. In all likelihood, you probably already have.

Grade: B

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