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AT THE CLOSE of Aliens the final battle required of all science-fiction rages, but this time with a difference. The only combatants left on the field are female \(more Monster-Matriarch of the alien tribe, a living gargoyle of truly awesome proportions, beside which Kali would seem a gentle creature indeed. The unconscious subtext of this scene may be that only a woman can save us from the naked female principle, unleashed. In fairness it should be said that the predecessor film, Ridley Scott’s Alien, also closed with Sigourney Weaver locked in mortal combat with a Grisly one, whose characteristics generally suggested ferocious phallicism, and thus James Cameron has here slyly corrected a historic inequality in villainy. The alien Queen-Mother as final adversary is only the last in a series of sly jokes that give a witty edge to Cameron’s futuristic grand guignol. As in the earlier film, the known universe is under the rule of “The Company,” whibh colonizes and exploits planets for profit. After 57 years of “hyper-sleep,” a colony has since been sent to the blasted planet she escaped; she is blackmailed into returning to save the colonists and does so with a company of pop-parody “Marines,” complete with a cowardly lieutenant and a cigarchomping sergeant in command of a movie-eclectic ethnic mix \(the toughest The effect of these contextual jokes is not only to lighten the tone of the film and make it less terrifying than the claustrophobic, haunted-house-in-space original. They also allow a deft and untendentious political satire to surface: against the rapacious stupidity of the conglomerate, against the arrogant firepower of the military, against the abstract indifference and thickheadness of the masculine approach to difficulties. The spirit of this satire is gracefully and powerfully embodied in the performance of Sigourney Weaver as Ripley, who Michael King, a frequent contributor to the Observer, lives in Houston. dominates the narrative and the frame to grand effect. Cameron has given her a surrogate daughter, in the form of the sole-surviving child of the colonists, and thus her battle to the death with the alien queen has personal and emotional force. More surprisingly, the filmmakers even manage a weird moment of empathy between Ripley and the alien queen; since these creatures are among the most horrifying conceptions ever brought to the screen reptilian, insect-like, and intestinal all at once, with a queasy ALIENS Directed by James Cameron HEARTBURN. Directed by Mike Nichols DESERT HEARTS Directed by Donna Deitch element of sexual repulsiveness this is no small achievement.. Both the set design and the special effects are appropriately dazzling. EARTBURN IS AN occupational irritation for pregnant women, but Nora Ephron in her novel and Mike Nichols in his film version of the same want to make it stand for larger disturbances: i.e., the particular insensitivity of a husband who is unfaithful to his wife even while she is expecting a child. That’s pretty much the emotional gist of Heartburn, although the film in its D.C./N.Y. milieu is so fake-sophisticated about adultery that it’s hard-pressed to portray it as anything more than laughable, like Meryl Streep in her eighth month trying to run down a crowded street. It’s a problem that Ephron’s novel has as well it’s hard for a reader to work up much outrage for the loss of such an unredeemable jerk but the filmmakers want to have it both ways, marriage as a sacred farce. The result is a very thin narrative filled with zingy one-liners and flailing emotions, which ends I’m not kidding with a pie in the face. If this sounds like a sit-corn writ large, well, the writing isn’t that large. But, in fact, this isn’t a film about a broken marriage. Its real subject is Meryl Streep and Jack Nicholson making a film about Nora Ephron and Carl Bernstein and their now-legendary broken marriage, still under adjudication in the gossip columns. The muchpublicized screenplay battle between Ephron and Bernstein has resulted in a toned-down good husband with a wandering eye; without the cad to play against, Streep is reduced to clumsy histrionics in a sympathetic vacuum, and the only effective scenes between the two stars occur while things are still great and they’re expecting their first child. Eating pizza and singing baby songs together, Nicholson and Streep give an idea of the kind of movie they might have made, given a half-decent script and no constricting notoriety. Instead we have a glorified celebrity anecdote, with illustrations. Nicholson is largely irrelevant he might as well be out shopping as he claims, instead of sleeping around and Streep does the best she can under the circumstances, which primarily require her to exhibit tortured patience and inarticulate outrage, by turns. When she leaves him for the final time, the gesture seems pointless, like a formal dissolution of a purely ceremonial partnership. At worst, the kids may need to get used to a new housekeeper. But the biggest vacuum in the film is the one that surrounds these two characters. Plugged into the frenzied political jockeying for status that is the raison d’etre of Washington society indeed, Ephron’s book was simply one salvo in that endless war one would think that these characters would be so tangled up in the social politics of the scene that the marriage would be doomed. \(Indeed, it appears that is what for obsessive worries about gossip, the Washington swirl barely touches this political columnist and his magazine journalist wife. They have to go to boring parties and live in a remodeling Georgetown townhouse, but otherwise they’re just everyfolks trying to get by. A long time ago, in a capital far away, one of them may have had something to do with the foundering of a government -but hey, everybody’s famous for something. HE MONSTERS THAT menace Sigourney Weaver in Aliens are vivid but rather obvious; in Heartburn, the dread foe is male infidelity, secretive but devastating; in Desert Hearts, the insidious enemy is male fidelity, against which the defen sive weapon of choice is lesbian love. “I was drowning in stagnant waters,” Women in Peril By Michael King 20 AUGUST 29, 1986