Directed by: James Cameron
Starring: Sigourney Weaver, Carrie Henn, Michael Biehn, Paul Reiser, Lance Henriksen, Bill Paxton, Jenette Goldstein, William Hope, Al Matthews, Mark Rolston, Ricco Ross, Colette Hiller, Daniel Kash, Cynthia Dale Scott, Tip Tipping, Trevor Steedman, Paul Maxwell, Valerie Colgan
(out of 4)
James Cameron’s Aliens arrived in theaters seven years after Ridley Scott’s groundbreaking Alien, and achieved what few sequels were able to do – take the original premise in new directions, improve upon the story, and raise the stakes. For me, to compare the first two Alien movies is a tricky affair; I enjoyed the second movie more while realizing that there are things Scott’s film does better. The original film is very close to a masterpiece – the first half is a visual tour de force boiling over with ideas and successfully communicating the impression of how small we all are compared with the emptiness of space. It only starts to falter when it enters the realm of slasher cinema; the cat-and-mouse game with the monster can’t measure up to the tension of the discovery of the derelict spacecraft and the creature’s shocking first appearance. In contrast, Cameron’s film ups the ante on many levels, turning Alien into a war film that is a commentary on Vietnam at the same time it’s predicting the end result of the rise of the military industrial complex. When it’s not doing that, it is creating – in the main character Ripley – the Über-Mom, and the ultimate feminist achievement – strong-but-vulnerable, feminine-but-tough, motherly, and able to kick ass on a moment’s notice.
Wait a sec, I ordered mine coddled...
The only survivor from the previous film (well, along with Jonesy the cat), Lt. Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), awakens from hypersleep 57 years later, informed that her escape shuttle had “drifted through the core systems” and that she was lucky to have been discovered at all. Stripped of her rank for destroying a multi-million dollar freighter (I would have expected her to put up a bigger fight, given that Weyland-Yutani threw the Nostromo to the wolves without concern for the crew’s safety), she is plagued by nightmares of a baby alien bursting from her chest. She gets a chance to slay her demons when company man Burke (Paul Reiser) asks her to return to LV-426 as an advisor to a group of marines who have been called in to figure out why the local terraforming colony stopped communicating. We are then introduced to a wild bunch of marine/mercs including Vasquez (Jenette Goldstein), the arrogant jokester Hudson (Bill Paxton, hamming it up – “Another bug hunt!”), the quiet professional Hicks (Michael Biehn), cigar chomping Apone (Al Matthews), wet behind the ears Lt. Gorman (William Hope), and standard ship android Bishop (Lance Henrickson – “I prefer the term artificial person, myself.”). Ripley is understandably annoyed at the presence of a synthetic, given what happened last time, but she soon has her hands full looking after the colony’s only survivor – little girl Newt (Carrie Henn, who can scream at a pitch I didn’t think was possible for humans). After the crew unwittingly stumbles into an alien nest, most of the marines are soon wiped out, leading Hudson to change his tune very fast (“Game over, man. Game over!”). Stranded on the planet and with time running out (the nuclear power plant on the station is going to blow – you know how these things go), Ripley must take command of the remaining (and now demoralized) marines and figure a way off the rock while avoiding the deadly xenomorphs, dealing with the sleazy Burke (who wants the aliens for the company bioweapons division), and finally proving to everyone that she has what it takes to be a good mother.
Needless to say that Aliens is hugely influential in its own right, inserting itself into, as Bill Paxton said, contemporary popular culture. Cameron has created a science fiction/military hardware fantasy involving interstellar grunts facing monsters that has been copied countless numbers of times in film and video games (a sequence that takes place in a fiery processing station with steam, explosions, electric charges, and a voice countdown seems quite perfect for a first person shooter). The movie is above all an action picture, more than “horror”, despite very tense scenes in close quarters involving chest-bursters, facehuggers, and finally, the massive alien queen, which is a thing to behold. It’s adrenaline pumping, with hardly any letup, except for some character moments establishing Ripley’s tendency to gravitate towards the nuclear family lifestyle (“daughter” Newt, new “hubby” Hicks), and there are some nice practical effects that still deliver quite a jolt (the android Bishop being torn in half by the queen is damn amazing). Then there’s the rousing score, endlessly quotable lines, the “knife trick” – this is a horror/sci-fi geek wet dream. I think I prefer Cameron’s film because it uses the same tropes from the original but does them better. The countdown-to-destruction sequence is reproduced here with more complexity, and Ripley is given a girl to protect which is much more poignant and involving than a pet cat. There are two iconic scenes involving the “two mom face-off” – one where Ripley goes Rambo on hundreds of eggs and another when she dons a “loader-suit” to even the playing field. What’s also amazing here is that Cameron was obviously working within a limited budget and manages to pull off a lot just through editing. Finally, Aliens shows us some character growth and catharsis as Ripley descends through hell and passes her trials by fire, triumphing over physical demons and her own nightmares. An exhausted Newt asks “Can I dream?”, to which Ripley responds “Yes, I think we both can.” (Hey, maybe the whole movie is a dream she had in hypersleep). Aliens is an exciting roller coaster ride and one of the few films that lives up to the hype.
If you watch the Special Edition (Director’s Cut) of Aliens, you’ll find a much longer running time (2.5 hours) that inserts new scenes of the terraformers at work (before the aliens attack the colony), Newt’s family before they enter the derelict ship, and the sentry guns sequence. There’s also a subplot about Ripley’s daughter, now dead, which adds to the running pathos and makes more clear her attachment to Newt. On the older Special Edition DVD is a short but informative interview with Cameron (from 1986) and multiple trailers, as well as photos and shots of the models and animatronics used in the film. If you don’t have the Blu-ray I highly recommend getting it – this high-def version is the best I have ever seen of the movie, and every time I watch it I pick up something in the details I had never noticed before. Both the Blu-ray and the Two-Disc Collector’s Edition DVD contain the 1986 theatrical version and the 2003 extended version. (along with 2003 commentary featuring Cameron and cast/crew). The collector’s edition DVD also has lots of extras which cover every aspect of the making of the film. (If you want all those extras with your Blu-ray, you’ll have to get the Alien Anthology set).
- Bill Gordon