Alien was a critical and commercial success, but 20th Century Fox had little interest in a sequel until James Cameron came along. Cameron had a love for Ridley Scott’s original movie and a vision for the expanding the Alien universe, and after wetting Fox’s appetite with a powerhouse script – not to mention proving his directorial abilities with The Terminator – Cameron was given the go-ahead and Aliens was born. What’s interesting about Aliens is that it arguably did more to shape public consciousness than Scott’s original; a hugely influential movie, Aliens had a direct impact on future science-fiction and action movies, as well as computer games and comic books. It was a big even blockbuster and many considered it a bigger and better movie than the original. Many kids growing up with the series preferred Cameron’s action heavy, balls-to-the-wall style, and Aliens not only often tops lists of greatest sequels, it occasionally tops lists of sequels which were better than the original. Looking back on the movie after rewatching the entire series, it becomes clear that Aliens hasn’t aged as well as Ridley Scott’s masterpiece, which stands in a league of its own above the rest of the franchise. Watching in 2014, there are faults in Aliens which aren’t present in Alien, though it’s still a great movie and one worth looking at in detail.Aliens picks up 57 years after the original with Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) finally found after drifting through space. She’s brought before the shady Weyland-Yutani company of the first film, who don’t believe her alien story and wonder why she blew up a rather expensive ship. The planet where Kane found the ship in the first movie has since been colonised and noone’s had any issues, so Ripley is ignored. That is until the Company loses contact with the colony, and Ripley grudging accepts a return trip to LV-426, serving as an extraterrestrial consultant to a group of marines. Upon touchdown, it quickly becomes clear that the colonists have suffered complete annihilation, and an all out war begins between the marines and the alien threat.Alien was a tense, tight horror movie which dealt with deep themes about sexuality, exploration and the incomprehensible horrors of space. Aliens doesn’t have as bold an agenda and has simpler goals, with Cameron bringing a military aesthetic to the proceedings, with shades of the Vietnam war throughout. Cameron was perhaps wise to move away from the horror mould, wanting to break new ground after the first movie, and so re-jigs the series from a gothic horror into a science-fiction action movie. Aliens is an intense rollercoaster ride of a movie, with none of the breathing room of Scott’s original, designed as a complete thrill ride to keep the audience on edge. Tonally, it’s very a different beast from the first, working on the concept that if one alien was bad enough, what if there’s an entire army of them? The film nicely picks up from the original and then veers off in a new direction, but like the original movie, Aliens remains mysterious throughout its opening scenes; there’s a great deal of menace and mystery when we finally arrive at the colony and these scenes are possibly the tensest in the movie, with lots of long ominous corridors and a brooding soundtrack by James Horner. The audience knows something very bad has gone down and that things are going to get worse quickly. Cameron quickly ups the stakes by removing escape plans, adding in aliens, and then setting a ticking nuclear clock on top; this is an intense movie and one which replaces the original’s quiet and almost beautiful sense of horror with more of an out and out war. Aliens works by taking the first movie and multiplying everything ten fold. So instead of a small crew we’ve got a vast team of Marines, instead of a ship we have a planet, one alien becomes thousands, etc. The approach means that the movie is less fresh than the original, but feels much bigger, and Cameron utilizes his budget and special effects fantastically to create a convincing future world. The facehuggers here are really given legs, allowed to run and jump and attack in a very tense medical bay sequence which is one of the film’s finest. A slight issue with the blown up plot is pacing; the first alien attack is a little clumsy these days (it’s meant to be disorientating but the editing doesn’t hold up as well as it used to and the cracks show) and then the movie treads water until the medical bay sequence. From there till the final frame however, the movie never lets up, and the climax is one of the best in all of action cinema. It’s essentially the first movie’s ending but on steroids (detonation timer, alien attack, escape, explosion, alien stowaway) but the suspense is intense and Cameron really works his sets and builds up a threatening, imploding world around Ripley; you can feel the sweat and steam dripping off the screen and its all very visceral and nerve-racking. The last twenty minutes of Aliens represent some of Cameron’s finest work; say what you want about the director, but he can sure put together an unreal third act. ‘Get away from her you bitch’ combined with the power-loaded callback remains one of cinema’s most iconic moments. It does help too that the film’s big reveal – the alien queen – is saved for the ending. She’s is a masterpiece of design and puppetry, and really pulls up the end of the movie, working with maternal themes like Ripley herself, as a sort of inverse monster version of our heroine. When Ripley meets the Queen, we get the first real sense in the series that our heroine is aligned on some level, with the monsters she seeks to destroy. This approach is developed further in Alien 3.Ripley is the highlight of Aliens and this is really her movie. Cameron tends to write strong female characters, and whilst Ripley isn’t quite as human or realistic here as she was in the original, the character is expanded into something powerful and idolised. She starts as a kind of audience surrogate; we follow Ripley from the first movie and like her, lack the military experience of the marines; she’s an outsider and so are we. Ripley has a no-nonsense approach in the face of military excess and bureaucratic ramblings, able to cut right down to the core of the situation and the problem, and as the film moves from the human world to the alien one, Ripley takes charge, building on the strength developed at the end of the first movie and becoming one of cinema’s best action heroines. She’s not as by-the-book this time around, and Ripley is a tough character to write (in the wrong hands, she can easily slip into enthusiastic sports coach or bitchy-office manager) but Cameron does a good job furthering her, and Sigourney Weaver’s performance is fantastic. Weaver was nominated for an Oscar for the role – unheard of in this genre -and remains one of the only women to be able to open an action movie. The sequence towards the end, when she’s loaded up with guns and heading down in the lift to save Newt, only to pause for a brief breathing moment with her eyes shut, is all kinds of iconic. Arguably, the maternal elements added to Ripley don’t quite need to be there, by they do help build the movie’s themes of family. The problem is that whilst Ripley works, the rest of the cast and characters just don’t hold up. Particularly in contrast to the first film, in which top-tier actors crafted very realistic and developed characters, the team in Aliens come across as broad, defined by single traits, and essentially serve as nothing but alien fodder. The movie doesn’t need to be as in depth as Alien, but there’s a clear discrepancy here and the writing is noticeably worse across the board, with a host of one-liners which would never have appeared in Scott’s original. Aliens certainly feels more like a movie and much less authentic than the first film. The worst culprits are the Marines, who come complete with dated slang and macho-attitudes which these days, feel silly and grating. Michael Biehn is decent as Hicks, but Bill Paxton is awful as Hudson; the idea being that his hysteria mirrors Lambert’s from the first movie, but Lambert was well-acted and realistic, and Hudson in comparison isn’t. Carrie Henn’s Newt is generally accepted by fans as an annoyance; she doesn’t drag the movie down but her line readings are borderline awful. She’s added to soften Ripley by providing a maternal hook for our lead, and whilst she does provide a useful plot-device in the climax, you can argue the movie would have worked fine without her. Lance Henriksen’s inverse android provides a nice red-herring and he’s likeable in the role, and Paul Reiser’s Burke is all kinds of slimy, if noticeably broad in his villainy. The way the Company is portrayed in this movie is noticeably weaker than in the first – in Alien, the Company was threatening and ominous; here, it’s little weasels in suits, the suggestion being that either Cameron couldn’t see the corporation as a threat, or a difference in sensibilities between the 70s and 80s when it comes to big business. Looking back – it’s easy to see why the film is so well loved. It appeals to the inner-child. Yes, this is a gory movie full of swearing and death, but its also one loved by 12-year olds, who growing up, tend to keep the film with them. The difference is that Alien was aimed squarely at adults and dealt with very adult themes; you get the sense that Cameron doesn’t have the scope of Ridley Scott and as a result, his movie is more juvenile; Alien was art, this is a comic book. Gone is the poetry of the original, replaced by something more intense, visceral, and ultimately, a bit sillier. It’s a fun movie for sure, and works on a blockbuster level, but watching it years later it becomes clear it’s not perfect. There are plot-holes a plenty when you pull threads, and sadly, the film hasn’t aged well. Whereas Alien seems like it could have been made at any time, Aliens feels squarely set in the 1980s, in the same way that Total Recall and Robocop do. It has the sensibilities of an 8os action movie and these days, the cracks show. Cameron’s movies tend to push the envelope of cinematic techniques and effects, which ironically, means that they date rather quickly; all of his movies feel like products of the decade in which they were made, which is problematic when working in science fiction. The fact that Alien has aged so beautifully only highlights how the sequel hasn’t. Other issues arise from the movie’s oddly right-wing gun heavy tone and passion for technology, which is at odds with the first movie, in which technology was not helpful, it was unfeeling and indifferent. Here, technology saves the day. The use of imagery based on the Vietnam war, which works on a basic level (an advanced military expects to quickly take out an indigenous, unseen force which quickly overpowers them) but which doesn’t align with the movie’s conclusion and causes some clashes – following the metaphor, does Aliens suggest America should have just nuked Vietnam? The movie is littered with these noticeable little flaws.Part of the problems is the aliens themselves. You get the sense that Cameron doesn’t understand what Alien was about, and the beast is stripped of its beauty, mystery, and turned into a simple bug. Part of the appeal of the first creature was that it was impossible to comprehend and impossible to kill – in Aliens, the creatures are just animals, given a stupid name (xenomorphs) and can be taken out with handguns. They’re reduced basically, and Cameron can never make his entire alien army feel as formidable as Scott’s single stowaway. Aliens doesn’t aim to be a horror movie, so in some ways these changes make sense and they’re not necessarily bad (Cameron’s version of the alien is ultimately, more remembered in pop culture than Scott’s) but they do dramatically alter the tone of the franchise and they do cheapen the monster.Aliens is noticeable for introducing the director’s cut to popular culture. For a long time, the Special Edition version of the movie – which adds almost 20 minutes of footage – was the only one available on VHS and DVD. It’s an interesting cut and worth touching upon. The film highlights Ripley’s (now dead) daughter, which Sigourney Weaver always felt was important to her character’s progression. It does certainly help explain her bond with Newt, though it’s pretty on the nose and really, does Ripley need a dead-daughter backstory to justify her empathy towards a lost child? It isn’t quite necessary. Neither are the pre-invasion scenes at the colony, which tie to the first movie by reintroducing the alien ship, but which take away all the mystery from the marine’s arrival. On the inverse side again, these scenes do help bridge the gap between the coincidental – ‘the colonists are fine! oh wait, no they’re not’ jump of the original, so you can take it either way. The sentry gun sequence stops the movie dead, and across the board, the pacing is really hurt in the Special Edition, to the point where the theatrical remains the superior cut. The only interesting addition is learning Ripley’s name (Ellen) which stands as a sweet moment in a crazy climax, but again, there are some who hate this scene too. It’s worth watching both editions and making up your own mind.
In some circles, Aliens is and always has been known as a superior sequel; there are people, especially those who watched Aliens at a young age, who would argue that it runs circles around Scott’s first movie, and expands the Alien world into exciting new places. That said, there’s been something of a critical backlash against the movie in recent years – as time has proved Scott’s original to be somewhat ageless, its also served to highlight how dated Cameron’s movie has become. Aliens does push the franchise and shouldn’t be faulted for its approach, working as a very successful action movie with some very intense moments, it’s just not quite the movie it once was.
Coming soon – Alien 3 – a very bizarre movie with a troubled production but a lot of potential. Also serves as the moment when Fox began to meddle, and the franchise collapsed.