by Adam Ferenz
July 18, 1986. 154 minutes (special edition)
Directed by James Cameron. Screenplay by James Cameron. Story by Cameron, David Giller and Walter Hill. Starring: Sigourney Weaver, Lance Henriksen, Michael Biehn, Paul Reiser, Carrie Henn, Bill Paxton, William Hope, Jeanette Goldstein, Al Matthews, Ricco Ross.
Aliens is not just a sequel to Alien, that late 1970s opus by Ridley Scott. It is the rare sequel that manages to improve on the original in every conceivable way. Writer and director James Cameron, hot off the success of The Terminator, made the film that may still be his crowning achievement. Others will claim it is Titanic or Terminator 2: Judgment Day-and those are fine choices-but for my money, this is the one that will always work the best for me. Particularly in the special edition, the film just feels right, and complete, in ways that none of his other works do. So, what makes it work as well as it does?
Beyond the acid spitting, chest bursting, face hugging, parasitical, transmogrifying horror from beyond known space? Aside from the full throttle action sequences, the top notch music and editing, the moody and highly effective cinematography and the extraordinary sound design? Beyond all that?
This is a sequel in which the events of the first film are never forgotten. Each horrific event of the original film, every terror endured by Ripley and her crew, is etched on Sigourney Weaver’s face, in a towering performance that rightly earned her a Best Actress nomination. This is a performance which feels completely earned. It is both physical and psychological. You have a woman that has been stripped down because of losing everything-including the daughter she left behind, who died an old woman just a couple years before, Ripley having been in cryogenic suspension for 57 years, her daughter assuming her mother lost and dead-and who sees Rebecca, or Newt, the little girl she discovers on the colony she and the marines arrive at, as representing a second chance in life.
Aliens is a far more assured work than the original. I can hear gasps and even screaming in some corners. How can I say that a James Cameron work is better than a classic by Ridley Scott? Because as powerful as the original was, as great a haunted house story as it was, this is a more effective meditation on loss, change and redemption. The action is in service of the story, which works because of the characters. The film also provides some excellent visual originality, with the sight of the Queen Xenomorph being especially impressive. The sequence she is introduced in is a feat of sound and silence. The sound is the way you, as the viewer, hear this awful sucking noise, and turn, with her, to see an egg being planted on the ground, from out of a long sack, tracking with the camera up, up, up and over, until finally, we see the Queen. What follows has very little dialogue, but the use of sound effects-the hissing of the Queen, the explosions of the power plant, the crackling of the flame thrower and the rattling of Ripley’s gun-are all used to great advantage to create a nearly unbearable tension. All this, immediately after Ripley has rescued Newt from being implanted by a Facehugger. In between, there is deafening silence.
The film is sometimes remembered for Hudson-as opposed to Hicks, the brave corporal played by Michael Biehn-a sniveling coward of a colonial marine, played by Bill Paxton, known for giving up as soon as the going gets tough, yet who ends up being capable at his job despite not wanting to truly risk his life. As he says at one point, I didn’t sign up for this. This is true. And this is part of what deepens the film. This is a story about the military-industrial complex, and the ways in which politicians and corporations throw away both civilians and soldiers in the name of profit and covering mistakes. Burke, the company man played by Paul Reiser, assures Ripley that the mission to the colony is a rescue and destroy mission. As the film progresses, we discover that it was Burke that sent Newt’s parents out to investigate the downed craft that Kane, from the original film, had ventured into, and which Newt’s father, like Kane, emerged from with a Facehugger wrapped around him, impregnating him with a chestburster.
The Weyland-Yutani corporation, as Burke demonstrates, was deep into biomechanical engineering, and wanted an example of the Xenomorphs for weapons research. Burke attempts to get Newt and Ripley impregnated by two Facehuggers, then jettison the surviving marines or otherwise damage their cryo-tubes, en route back to Earth, in order to hide that he is bringing two infected people to the planet. This plot is quickly ended, confirmed in part by Bishop, the “Artificial Person” who acts as a moral conscience for the team outside of Ripley. Bishop seems to function as a bit of a plot device, someone Ripley can come to terms with the ghosts of her past-Ash, the traitorous artificial from the first film-yet this does not prevent him from being a character in his own right, showing what appears to be genuine concern, programming or not, for the wellbeing of the members of the team.
The team itself is not a group of nameless, faceless, identity-proof drones. Instead, each character rises beyond mere type to show at least a modicum of complexity, such as when Gorman and Vasquez blow themselves up to allow the remaining members of the team time to escape the planet. Or, onboard the ship and during the initial investigation into the Hadley’s Hope colonial outpost, when we meet the members and see them display different attitudes and views, watching them interact as we become aware that this is not a unit formed just for this mission, but people who have worked together, sans Gorman, for a while. We see Vasquez and the other marines joke with one another, with Vasquez, upon being asked if she is ever mistaken for a man, responding to Hudson “No, have you?” After all this, we find ourselves watching the destruction, in the end, of another family unit, this time because of the greed and lies of corporate masters, no less surely than the colonists themselves fell victim to Burke’s order to investigate the downed craft, thus bringing their doom in through the front door.
The film has many great sequences-entering through that ominous front door of the outpost, the two facehuggers attacking Ripley and Newt-even the first image of the many huggers, alive and dead, suspended in liquid-or the very Blade Runner-esque view of the evacuation shuttle approaching the power plant, reminiscent of Tyrell’s pyramid. The Alien Queen, and even the shot of the Xenomorphs approaching through the ceiling, crawling like a feast of insects or rodents, toward their prey. So many indelible images, and moments contained therein, all rooted in character, backed up by the force of the past, and guided by a need to see circumstances alter.
Aliens is about change, wrought by destruction, through single minded purpose: greed or killing instinct. That it is so effective in conveying this is a testament to the skill of James Cameron, his cast and crew. Earlier, I used the word redemption, and I mean it in the sense that Ripley, at the end, has a modicum of hope for her future, however uncertain it might be, after beginning the film without a career or a family. As the events of the ill-advised followup to this showed, she would be denied a happy outcome. Yet what is here works magnificently because it is earned. I will not call it a happy ending, but it is not a devastating one. The film may drain some viewers emotionally, particularly given the adrenaline rush a first viewing might inspire, but mainly, the film works as a way of contemplating choices, consequences and responsibility in a world, much like our own, where just like now, businesses pass the buck and everyone else gets splattered. As today, the pursuit of profit and fealty to a corporation, robs us of our ability to form meaningful relationships. The film reminds us that we can fight the monsters, within and without. Perhaps especially, when they are one in the same.