It may have taken Aliens seven years to hit the big screen after 1979’s science-fiction classic Alien, but the wait was definitely worth it. One of the rare examples where a sequel not only maintains the integrity of the original but also logically raises the stakes whilst organically furthering its story, Aliens is an action-packed ride fitted end-to-end with memorable set pieces, ever-quotable lines, and the enduring visual style that solidified James Cameron as one of the best newcomer directors of the decade.
57 years after the events of Alien, Ripley’s (Sigourney Weaver) space pod is finally recovered and she awakens from stasis to discover that no one outwardly believes her account about giant alien “xenomorphs.” I can’t imagine why…
Unbeknownst to her, the original planet where the Nostromo‘s fate was sealed has been the recent site of a terraforming project under the guidance of the Weyland-Yutani Corporation. When contact to the project is interrupted, they goad Ripley into joining an armed expedition as an adviser. Naturally, the team find themselves stranded on the deserted planet in the company of hundreds of xenomorphs as they desperately try to survive.
Comparing Alien to Aliens is a contrast of two different beasts altogether. Where Alien is primarily a science fiction horror film, Aliens is a sci-fi action/adventure (although it still retains a few horror elements). When the much debated question of which is the better film is asked, my answer tends to be that while Alien may well be the better film, Aliens is much more fun to watch – thankfully, not in a slapdash, stupid-but-fun manner.
As mentioned, Aliens is a good template for a proper sequel. It furthers the story rather than taking the safer, “market-friendly” approach of repeating the success of the original movie beat to beat. The development of Ripley, in particular, solidified her standing as one the strongest genre protagonists of the time (gaining Weaver an Academy Award nomination). With the application of Cameron’s notable predilection for vulnerable female characters evolving into powerful, militaresque powerhouses, Ripley finally becomes the action star that she is more generally associated as.
To be fair, Cameron (who also penned the screenplay) had the opportunity to work with a practical blank slate concerning Ripley’s character. As intended in Alien, she was the everyman character – the normal Joe surprise protagonist that just barely rises to occasion and survives thanks to a good mix of luck, wit, and determination. Beyond that, the history of her character and her life outside of that immediate situation left much room to be explored and Cameron wisely chose to focus on that development.
[Spoiler warning from here on out.] Contrary to the gender-neutral approach to the crew in the first film, Aliens takes a more standard path and focuses on Weaver’s role as a mother figure (a plot thread that is expanded in the Director’s Cut). Though it’s the easiest (and perhaps laziest) direction to take with Ripley’s character, her connection with the orphaned Newt (Carrie Henn) on the planet (one lone survivor connecting with another lone survivor) forms the heart of the picture and the impetus for the climactic confrontation between Ripley and the Alien Queen – mother versus mother in the mother of all battles. A showstopping moment from the design of the Queen herself to Ripley’s exoskeleton battle suit, the scene retains an emotional sincerity and deftly avoids schlock (despite its iconic one-liner) with exemplary special effects and staging.
Story-wise, there’s nothing too original on the base level surface. Films have shown crews stranded on inhospitable planets populated with dangerous lifeforms plenty of times before but by building on the original mythos that separated Alien from the flock, Aliens becomes grounded as something far more distinct. Playing with many of the original’s concepts affords the film the execution of some excellent ideas and set pieces such as the aforementioned climax, a flamethrower-armed Ripley creeping through a room laden with eggs, her ambivalence towards the android Bishop (Lance Henriksen), and the team’s initial encounter with the acid-blooded terrors themselves. One highlight, a scene where Newt and Ripley are trapped in a fortified laboratory with two facehuggers on the loose, is one of the film’s most spine-tingling, genuine horror sequences. Cameron doesn’t retreat to the gimmick of jump scares but rather lets the natural terror of the situation play out organically. It’s highly effective with a far-reaching influence. There is little doubt that the velociraptor kitchen encounter in Jurrasic Park wasn’t its spiritual successor.
The only nitpicks in Aliens are the deconstruction of the enigmatic nature of the xenomorphs into earth-like insects (à la the novel Starship Troopers) and the degradation of their almost infallible nature. The addition of an alien queen to the mix downgrades the rest of the species as a series of regulated drones that run head first into machine gunfire and are squashed by tanks. There is little sense of the unnerving, intelligent, individualistic nature of the original menace in Alien. Furthermore, with the reveal that the Queen is responsible for laying those pesky eggs, it practically nullifies the terrifying implication from Alien where the xenomorph’s captured prey are slowly cocooned and transformed into facehuggers themselves. Here, the cocooning is primarily used as a restraint for deadly facehugger make-out sessions. I’m sure there are some supplementary explanations or excuses for this deviation, but as it stands in the film, the almost banal reduction of the xenomorphs to an insect colony takes a little away from their overall mystique. Despite this, the Queen’s nightmarish unveiling and ensuing battle with Ripley easily redeem any suggested missteps.
Nitpicks aside, Aliens is an engaging, visually astonishing ride with a memorable cast of characters (that includes Cameron-favorite Michael Biehn, a slimy Paul Reiser, and quote-machine Bill Paxton), a terrific score by James Horner (despite some recycled motifs here and there), and award-winning special effects. Having perfectly laid a how-to blueprint for the excellent production of a franchise sequel, how could any of the follow-ups be disappointing?
Join us next week for our Default Assault Alien Day Special and keep an eye out for our upcoming reviews of Prometheus and the franchise’s latest entry – Alien: Covenant.