Aliens (dir. James Cameron): overstretched plot meets redeemed heroine in Vietnam War fable

James Cameron, “Aliens” (1986)

Sequel to Ridley Scott’s “Alien”, this is a very different movie: “Alien” is basically a haunted-house horror story with ordinary civilian worker types set on a spaceship; “Aliens” is a combat movie about a mission gone wrong set on a distant planet. The only things the two have in common are the character Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) and the monsters who become a regular part of her life when she’s awake or at least not in deep sleep. Comparisons between the two films are beside the point: Cameron didn’t set out to remake “Alien”, he made a movie in a genre he was familiar with at the time (late 1980s), which is the action adventure genre. “Aliens” can be read as Cameron’s ham-fisted criticism of US military conduct in the Vietnam War, in which nearly two million US soldiers were thrown into a conflict a lot of them didn’t understand and many thousands died needlessly, being picked off by the enemy Viet Cong who knew the territory well (it was their home after all). In like manner, a group of marines armed with sophisticated weaponry sally forth into colonial territory established on an alien planet to protect the colonists and hunt down and destroy an enemy, only to be hit back hard by a determined and intelligent though technologically primitive monster species that has made the planet its home.

Fifty-seven years after the events of “Alien”, Ripley’s escape craft, having drifted in space, is picked up by a larger ship and taken back to Earth. After half a century away, one’d think Ripley had been given up for dead and all her details wiped off any databases and the cargo transporter she blew up written off as a lost asset but no, as soon as she’s back, she gets grilled by the Company for wilfully destroying its property, losing its cargo and her pilot licence (it’s still current?) is withdrawn. Worse than that, she discovers she has no family, her only daughter having died childless.

Resigned to manual labour as a non-entity in a society that doesn’t need or want her, Ripley is later contacted by Company rep Carter Burke (Paul Reiser) and an army man Gorman (William Hope) who advise that the Company has lost contact with its colony on planet LV-426 (formerly Thedus where the Nostromo landed in “Alien”) and they are sending a military mission there to find out why. Would she be willing to go as a “consultant”? After first refusing and then suffering a bad dream and a panic attack, Ripley finally agrees to go.

The mission, made up of young marines under the impression of going on a “bug hunt”, travels to the planet where it finds one surviving colonist, a young girl called Newt (Carrie Henn), and discovers the colony got wiped out by a hive of aliens. After being nearly wiped out themselves, the surviving marines retreat back to their drop-ship and decide to bomb the colony buildings and go home. Unfortunately the evacuation ship itself is attacked by an alien and explodes, leaving the survivors stranded. From then on, it’s a struggle for Ripley, Newt, Burke, the robot Bishop (Lance Henriksen) and the remaining marines to bring another evacuation ship down to the planet and get off before the colony explodes or the aliens get them, whichever is first. Along the way, Ripley must thwart Burke’s devious attempt to get two aliens on board the ship home and save Newt after the child disappears down a vent into the clutches of the aliens who want her as baby food. The remaining marines get picked off one by one down to Hicks (Michael Biehn) who barely survives the mission.

The film divides into two halves, the first half being exposition, tying up and elaborating on any loose plot strands from “Alien” and setting up the scene for the conflict with the aliens on LV-426; the second half all breathless go-go action with no let up and piling on one implausible plot twist after another. What holds these halves together is Ripley’s transformation from mere company worker with no future into a leader with a purpose: in finding and retrieving Newt, and confronting the alien queen twice, Ripley at last finds reason to continue living and achieves a kind of redemption. This makeover makes Ripley a fully realised character in comparison with rest of the cast who play character stereotypes. The former stickler for regulations throws them all out the window to risk her life to rescue Newt and her black-and-white view of the world changes too: Bishop shows her not all robots are as bad or creepy as they look and she even achieves a short-lived understanding with the alien queen in the breeding pit.

The aliens’ life-cycle and physiology reveal them as overgrown insects: they bleed lots of acid blood which they can use as a weapon, they have a parasitic larval stage, they moult as they grow and they have a “queen” whose life is completely given over to laying eggs. There seems no point in making the queen the biggest and most intelligent critter if she’s merely an egg-laying machine – one could argue she’s actually a slave to the other aliens – but the detail hardly matters in a cartoon plot. Having Gorman as combat mission leader despite having no actual experience in the field begs credibility. Ripley surviving one encounter with the aliens can be put down to luck but surviving two with a little girl in tow and nearly all the marines save one totally blown away is perhaps too much even for coin-tossers among us. Anyone who’s bad like Burke and everyone who is disposable or disrespects Ripley gets it in the neck – or the face – and the people Ripley cares about or who have a lesson to teach her come through safely. Come to think of it, a huge powerful and wealthy Company able to send ships into space should be able to afford a robots-only military mission or even just a reconnaissance satellite with Google Earth streetview (and better) technology to investigate the disappearance of a colony but then of course there’d be no movie and Ripley would have no transformative redemption and a reason to go on living. There are many “just-in-time” moments that strain credibility: the aliens cut off electricity just when the survivors decide what to do with Burke after they discover his little scheme, Ripley saves Newt seconds from being custard-pied by an alien larva, Bishop arrives in the nick of time to rescue Ripley and Newt from the alien queen’s wrath and the queen herself is about to haul Newt from beneath a grate just when Ripley in her cargo-loader challenges her to a duel.

A conservative message about the role of women may be present, in that Ripley finds her true destiny being a mother (to Newt) and is challenged by another mother (the alien queen) to prove herself worthy of that destiny. On the other hand, the men in “Aliens” become weak or compromised in some way and as they fall to the aliens it falls to Ripley to lead the expedition and to salvage whatever she can of it. Only Hicks, who respects Ripley and treats her as his equal, stays alive.

In spite of the overstretched plot, the various “in time” incidents and a weak copycat flush-down-the-airlock ending, “Aliens” is a likeable live-action cartoon movie which fleshes out a familiar character and the monsters who become, for better and for worse, twinned with her forever. The one aspect of “Aliens” that lifts it above other similar popcorn action movies is the development of a character who through her encounters with her worst enemy matures into a leader and discovers inner strength and resourcefulness.

Buddha Collapsed out of Shame: charming child actors carry a bleak and pessimistic message

Hana Makhmalbaf, “Buddha Collapsed out of Shame” (2007)

Charming and delightful with two small child actors playing the main parts, this film carries a sombre message about the effects of grinding war and religious fundamentalism on ordinary people in Afghanistan. It shows how, far from liberating women and girls from the restrictions imposed by the former Taliban government, the US-led invasion actually helped cement the oppression of all females by making the country more unstable, driving people deeper into poverty and enabling the Taliban and similar groups to present themselves as fighters against the invading forces. By framing and presenting these issues in an ingenious way from the viewpoints of young children in the games they play, Hana Makhmalbaf, the daughter of Iranian director Mohsen Makhmalbaf, shows how the attitudes and prejudices of adults pass down to and are maintained and embellished by a new generation.

The film resembles a documentary in the way it shows scenes of the Afghan countryside: panning shots that emphasise its vast deserts and mountains, shots of farmers and shepherds at work, and in particular the scenes of the Taliban’s detonation of the Buddha statues at Bamiyan that bookend the movie. The scenery looks beautiful with stunning blue skies, wide brown plains and clear rivers that beguile viewers and leave them unprepared for the wretched conditions the local people live and work in. In the caves that surround Bamiyan lives a six year old girl Bakhtay (Nikbakht Noruz) with her family. When morning dawns, the parents have already left home and Bakhtay is left alone to care for a baby sibling. She hears the neighbours’ son Abbas (Abbas Alijome), about her age, reading aloud so she investigates and discovers he is reading from a book. Bakhtay is inspired to want to learn to read – she too wants to read funny stories about walnuts falling from trees and hitting grown-up men – so when Abbas and a shopkeeper tell her she needs a note-book and pencil for school, she zealously raises the money to buy the items by taking some eggs to the local market to sell. Selling the eggs turns out to be an ordeal but Bakhtay has just enough to get a note-book so she takes her mum’s lipstick to write with. From then on, it’s another ordeal for Bakhtay to go to the right school: Abbas takes her to his school but it’s a boys-only school so she must go off on her own. On the way, a gang of boys torments her and holds her hostage in a cave; after escaping, she must follow a river all the way to the school. The teacher and the girls at the school reject her and she is forced to leave.

Apart from some plot strands left dangling – once Bakhtay leaves for school, we see nothing more of the baby left at home – and various passages in the movie that could have been edited for length (some shots linger too long after they’ve made their point), “Buddha …” is well-made with a basic plot that moves at a steady pace. Simple, straightforward dialogue helps move the plot along yet successfully conveys Bakhtay’s feelings about the harrowing situations she must endure. The bullying she receives from both boys and girls can be painful to watch. Apart from the teenage stationery shopkeeper, most adults in the film appear uninterested in Bakhtay’s travails or refuse to help her; in an almost Kafkaesque scene, a traffic police officer cannot help her as his duties restrict him to directing invisible traffic; the teacher at the girls’ school boots her out because of the disruption she causes with her mother’s lipstick. All the obstacles in Bakhtay’s way as she struggles to kick-start her education are Afghanistan’s problems in miniature: Bakhtay’s foray into the local market, completely dominated by men, shows how much women are shut out of everyday life; the boys’ taunts and games centre around war and ethnic, gender and social divisions in Afghan society; the teacher’s reaction to Bakhtay shows the extreme fear Afghan women have of the Taliban and what they represent. The symbolism can be overdone and many scenes can have several interpretations that are equally valid and relevant to Afghanistan’s present condition and human society generally.

Noruz is appealing as the chubby-cheeked moppet who through sheer persistence and a chirpy nature overcomes a series of challenges that would make most adults faint: nearly being buried, kept in a dark cave, forced to wear a “burqa”, finding a seat in a crowded classroom only to be kicked back out. Bakhtay shows considerable cheek in leaving the baby at home, stomping around calling for her mum, intruding on adult men’s conversations and foiling the boy bullies’ schemes. Alijome is equally lovable as Bakhtay’s loyal friend who also suffers from the other boys’ bullying.

Ultimately though the film’s message is very bleak: Bakhtay is eventually forced to conform in a way that suggests all Afghans, male and female, no matter how spirited and determined they are, will be crushed under the extreme conditions of Taliban and warlord rule, if people inside and outside the country do not resolve to stop the war and force the withdrawal of foreign troops. Makhmalbaf takes no sides and the suggestion is that the Americans are as much to blame as the Taliban and warlords have been in perpetuating Afghan social inequities and suffering. Enterprise, individuality and integrity will falter under such a regime. Though the film pounds these and other points about Afghan society relentlessly, with ominous music to match, the heavy-handedness is balanced by the child actors’ charm and innocence and by the simple narrative which has many moments of humour. This is definitely a film for adults even though it’s dominated by children and their games and activities.

“Buddha …” was made by Hana Makhmalbaf when she was nineteen years old and is her first feature film. Her mother Marzieh helped to write the script and other members of her family also assisted with filming.

Johnny Mad Dog: clear anti-war message let down by generic portrayal of film’s events

Jean-Stephane Sauvaire, “Johnny Mad Dog” (2008)

A film of child soldiers set in an African country experiencing a long and protracted civil war, “Johnny Mad Dog” will be gruesome watching for most people. The movie revolves around the viewpoint of two teenagers, Johnny Mad Dog (Chirstopher Minie) who leads a militia of under-age soldiers, some of them barely into their teens, in a rebel army and Laokole (Daisy Victoria Vandy) who tries to save her crippled father and little brother from the rebels when they hit her town and kill or drive away the soldiers. The film’s narrative follows the boys from the time they receive their orders from the General (Joseph Duo), through their journey into a town and then into the capital city to meet up with other rebel groups fighting government forces; along the way the youngsters commit appalling and brutal acts of violence such as forcing a child to shoot his father, raping a TV news reporter and torturing a middle-aged couple by forcing them to have sex. In warfare, the boys efficiently despatch a sniper; in brief periods of “peace”, they quarrel, waste too much ammunition in the air, steal things and generally sort out their particular places in their little social hierarchy. In the meantime, Laokole is torn between getting her wounded father to hospital and keeping her brother safe: she decides to take Dad to hospital in a wheelbarrow but loses the small boy.

The depiction of Johnny and his unit as they alternately kill and plunder, and act like a bunch of typical teenagers obsessed with second-hand Western pop culture or stolen trophies like a pig, looks realistic if bizarre. Many child actors who appear had actually been soldiers and you wonder how they must have felt recreating brutal, nightmarish scenes. The often shocking contrast of the boys’ violence and their relative innocence and naivety is a reflection of the surreal society that produced them, a society where adults are helpless and passive – even the UN soldiers guarding the city hospital barely hold out against Johnny’s rabble – or are deliberately uncaring, cynical and lying; and children are the ones who take responsibility for their parents and siblings. The rebel leaders who lure Johnny and the other boys into their ranks promise the children money for their future and provide charms claimed to ward off bullets and injuries but betray the children by joining the regular army once the war is ended.

Using a mixture of jumpy handheld camera shots, fixed-film shots and scenes shot in slow-motion style, Sauvaire achieves an effect that is at once immediate and in-your-face, and at the same time in its own way, universal: children brainwashed, degraded and traumatised by ongoing war and extreme poverty, with the adults exploiting their innocence, eager energy and desire for security. The film looks beautiful, even artistic, even in scenes of parts of the deserted city where evidence of poverty and long-term government neglect might be expected; the forests look too green and lush, and the houses appear picturesque and colourful.

The country where the war takes place is never identified; this is at once the film’s weakness and part of its purpose, which is to show that the events could happen in any country where there is ongoing civil war, but this approach risks making the country, its people and places generic. The film narrowly focusses on the boys’ activities and interactions so they come across as little more than thuggish brats with AK-47s. Viewers never learn if the government the rebels fight against really is corrupt and favours some ethnic or religious groups over others. The rebel leadership is never identified so viewers have no way of knowing if Johnny’s general is just not a nice piece of work or is representative of the rebel army leaders. For all we know, the rebels may have had very legitimate grievances which would have given a context to the orders the boys receive from the General and the mayhem they cause, and the film an added complicated political-social dimension which would enrich the sparse plot.

The performances of Minie and Vandy as the teenagers on two opposed sides of the war, whose lives run in parallel save for two meetings, are pivotal to the film’s plot and both youngsters deliver excellent work particularly in their scenes together. Their first scene, completely wordless, holds the possibility of a friendship and possible redemption for Johnny, and the close-ups of the actors’ faces, frozen yet filled with conflicting thoughts and feelings, are stunning; the protagonists’ second scene together, in which all hope of reconciliation is gone, is terrifying in the way it suggests both youngsters have been completely corrupted and degraded by the adults and events around them and will remain enemies forever. For all his bluster and near-sociopathic tendencies, Johnny shows potential to be a more sensitive person – he refuses to blast away a group of UN soldiers, to his unit’s astonishment; he is concerned for a prostitute he names “Lovelita” when she is shot – if he had been given better luck in life; and Laokole shows an unexpected hardening, vengeful side.

The message that war dehumanises people, most of all children, is very clear but for all that, “Johnny Mad Dog” is one-dimensional and not nearly as effective as it could be. The journalistic concentration on the issue of child soldiers throws the spotlight onto the child actors but without the background context that might explain how and why the civil war in the unnamed African country broke out and whether the rebels had good cause to revolt – this could be completely fictional yet plausible as it would be reconstructed from real life events in various countries- the film undermines its message and becomes open to charges of racism and exploitation of its themes for the titillation of audiences within Africa and beyond. Nevertheless it’s a worthwhile film to watch for the work of its two leads in portraying two opposed characters.

The film was shot in Monrovia and other parts of Liberia but is based on a novel “Johnny Chien Mechant” by novelist and scientist Emmanuel Dongala, who used his experiences as a refugee fleeing Congo (Brazzaville) in the late 1990’s when war broke out there, for the book.