Continuing my series of Alien movie reviews, we come to the second entry, James Cameron’s 1986 sequel, Aliens. This was actually the first Alien movie I ever watched, and fortunately it was the 1992 Special Edition director’s cut (rented out from the local video shop – remember them?). I therefore have a tremendous amount of affection for it, even whilst admitting that the original is probably the superior piece overall. Not to slight Cameron’s work, however; he crafted a technically brilliant and highly influential film in its own right, and it’s extremely doubtful the Alien mythos would have survived and thrived as much as it has were it not for his work here.
A sequel to Alien could have gone in numerous directions, but it eventually landed in the lap of Cameron, having proved his talents on low-budget hit The Terminator (1984). Coming a full seven years after the original, and working from a story by himself and producers David Giler and Walter Hill, Aliens gave the director the first real opportunity to stretch his skills on a proper budget (though certainly not huge for the time – around $20m). Rather than simply retelling the same story, Cameron sensibly raises the stakes in several ways. Firstly, there is now more than one Alien, as the title implies – in fact there are LOTS more. Necessarily this does take away some of the sheer terror that Ridley Scott’s original developed. There we saw how just a single creature almost supernaturally stalked and killed Ripley’s entire crew. By having hundreds of the creatures on the loose, thereby giving them the advantage, the terror should conversely be greatly diminished. Thankfully this is not the case, for two reasons: firstly, H.R. Giger’s creations are so superbly nightmare-ish that being afraid is still the only option; and secondly, James Cameron turned out to be one of the finest action directors Hollywood had ever produced. The tension and adrenaline he succeeds in generating through set-piece after set-piece is phenomenal by anyone’s standards, and certainly overcomes any loss of mystery and suspense that sequels usually suffer. This is a different terror from the original movie: this is no longer a haunted house in space; this time it’s war.
The term ‘rollercoaster ride’ might have been invented to describe the film’s story. The happy ending from the first movie (well, hopeful rather than happy, perhaps) turned out to be not-so-happy, as the movie picks up 57 years later, with Ripley’s family having died in the interim, and worse still, the planet that Ripley’s ship landed on is now colonised. Ripley is coerced into revisiting the planet with a platoon of hi-tech colonial marines when contact with said colony is lost.
Cameron’s certainly a much better director than he is writer (see Titanic for proof of that), but I would argue he did some of his best ever writing here. Ripley’s character is much beefed up, with a psychology and history that adds depth and intelligently builds on what we learnt from the original film. Sigourney Weaver takes the script and delivers a powerful performance, and, astonishingly for a genre film (and a sequel to boot), won an Oscar nod for her trouble. The stakes are raised for Ripley too – her maternal relationship with Newt (Carrie Henn – never seen onscreen again since), the girl who miracualously survived the slaughter of the colony, is key to the film’s emotional wallop. Were it not for this beautifully-judged and handled plot thread, the subsequent action scenes would lose their resonance, and this is what separates it from the imitators and rip-offs that followed.
But that’s obviously not what makes the film so cool to a teenage boy – that would be the action scenes. The film delivers in spades here. The initial investigation in to the abandoned colony buildings, the devastating first encounter with the Xenomorphs, the subsequent desperate defense against the unstoppable foe and the final running battles – it’s brilliant, relentless, buttock-clenching stuff. Making the most of his mere six Alien costumes, Cameron offers a deft lesson in how to make less appear more. Yes, the film lacks the subtlety of its predecessor, but when the replacement is this much fun, who cares? Chock full of memorable moments (the attack underneath the cooling towers, with Gorman watching his monitors helplessly while his troops are wiped out; the auto-sentries; the moment where Hicks discovers how the Aliens have evaded their defences (ripped off wholesale in 2005’s Doom); Ripley’s descent to rescue Newt), Cameron’s inventiveness and ease at shooting action is quite evident to see.
Coupled with that is the instantly quotable dialogue – especially from Bill Paxton’s panicky Private Hudson:
“We’re on an express elevator to Hell – going down!”
“I am the ultimate badass! State of the badass art!”
“Stop your grinnin’ and drop your linen.”
“Yeah man, but it’s a dry heat!”
“They’re coming outta the goddamn walls!”
“That’s it man, game over man, game over!”
“What do you mean, “they cut the power”? How could they cut the power, man? They’re animals!”
“You’re dog-meat, pal!”
Ever since this film, as far I’m concerned, Paxton can do no wrong. The rest of the cast are also excellent, led of course by the often-underrated Michael Biehn as the quietly resourceful Cpl. Hicks, Paul Reiser as corporate slimeball Carter Burke, and the ever-reliable Lance Henricksen as android Bishop. The rest of the cast play their roles with equal conviction and, as with Alien, are far more memorable than usual in films of this ilk. Indeed, one feels greatly saddened when they are whittled down to the final survivors.
Another key element in the mix is James Horner’s score, which is both suitably atmospheric and heart-poundingly exciting when necessary. The production design is also noteworthy, building on Scott’s original whilst updating it too. As with Alien, very little of it has dated, and I would go so far as to say that it is still being imitated today; again, only the computers have aged. And the sets and photography are terrific: I swear there are times you can feel the chill air, damp with the smell of hot gunmetal and sweat, blowing off the screen. Hats off to the late, great Adrian Biddle, who struck gold on his first outing as Director of Photography.
The main point of contention that seems to divide fans of Scott’s and Cameron’s films is the Alien Queen. This is understandable, as it does remove a lot of the mystery that surrounded the origins of the Aliens, and how those eggs came to be in the wrecked spaceship of the first movie. It also added some confusion about the Alien’s lifecycle, conflicting with the excised scene in the first movie where Ripley discovers the fate of Dallas. Cameron’s modification to the lifecycle does at least make sense, and undoubtedly makes for a thrilling showdown, though the point about demystification is well made.
All in all, it’s an excellent film, and a most worthy follow-up to Alien. The 1992 special edition is the superior version, without question – it adds about 17 minutes more, including a good deal more action and backstory for Ripley and Newt, whilst never feeling overlong. One suspects this was the version Cameron would have preferred to originally release in cinemas, but was overruled by the studio (I’ve not read this anywhere, but it sounds plausible). It was that rare beast: a sequel that could legitimately claim to be the equal of its predecessor.
One final note of praise: I love the sound effects in this film. Kudos to whoever came up with the sound for the pulse rifles and the motion trackers – just fantastic!