Aliens (1986; Extended Edition) – Directed by James Cameron – Starring Sigourney Weaver, Carrie Henn, Michael Biehn, Lance Henriksen, William Hope, Paul Reiser, Blill Paxton, Al Matthews, Jenette Goldstein, and Mark Rolston.
I own ALIENS on Laserdisc.
Did you own a Laserdisc player? They were awesome … as long as you didn’t mind flipping your disc over every 30 minutes (or 60 minutes, depending on format). Seriously, every 30 minutes you had to stop appreciating how awesome the sound and picture quality was to walk across the room and flip the disc over. Or replace it with the next disc. I swear, I’m almost positive ALIENS was spread out over 3 separate discs. Someone actually said, “Hey, we can do better than VHS. We can do better than Betamax. We can put movies on records! People will totally accept only being able to watch 30 minutes at a time if those 30 minutes are super incredible!”
It was ALIENS, however, that made me want a Laserdisc player. I wanted the best experience in picture and sound to fully appreciate the 2 1/2 hour assault on my senses, and when I watched it, I cranked the volume as high as I could stand it in order to be ensconced in the violence. I loved it. I loved every minute of it, and still do, though over the years I’ve come to appreciate ALIEN more than its sequel.
(For the record, I owned ALIENS, Jurassic Park, and Demolition Man, on Laserdisc. Sing with me now: “One of these things doesn’t belong here, one of these things just isn’t the same …”)
I won’t claim that ALIENS is the greatest action movie ever made, but it is the best film James Cameron ever made, it is an unrelentingly brilliant movie, and it is one of the odder sequels ever made. Ridley Scott’s ALIEN is an atmospheric, moody sci-fi/horror film. It’s quiet, self-contained, slightly claustrophobic, growing steadily louder and more intense as the story builds.
James Cameron cares little for silence. While he does allow the story to grow relatively slowly at the start, ALIENS exists to be loud and violent. Cameron announces his intentions in the first scene of the movie. Ripley (Signourney Weaver) is still where we left her at the end of ALIEN: in stasis aboard the escape shuttle. It’s quiet and still and then a blow torch fires up to cut open the shuttle’s door and Cameron cranks the volume. The torch BLARES and the door eventually SLAMS to the deck.
Mood succumbs to volume.
ALIENS is a loud, shoot first, shoot often piece of bombast. Cameron has taken Scott’s working class commercial towers and replaced them with a bunch of amped up space marines. (Cameron would examine the effect of an alien presence on working class men and women in The Abyss.) Cameron’s take on the military is a universe away from someone like Michael Bay; where Bay basically creates military porn, focusing on the expensive, shiny toys and masculine, impeachable men, Cameron treats the military here in a much more cinematically stereotypical manner: there’s the tough talking sergeant, the ineffective school-bred lieutenant, and the frat boys with guns grunts. The machinery, too, is designed to be more functional than cool.
Before Ripley hooks up with the military, she has to sit through a corporation hearing about her conduct in ALIEN to blow up the ship. The corporation is willing to admit that there is some evidence to support her report, but not enough to renew her commercial license to keep her in their employ. It’s been 57 years since the end of ALIEN and Ripley is a woman out of time. Her daughter has lived her whole life and died, so all Ripley has is Jonesy, the cat from the Nostromo who went into stasis alongside her. At Ripley’s hearing it comes out that colonists are now living on the planet where the Nostromo encountered the alien.
Cameron has no interest in investigating Ripley’s life in this new age. He just wants to put her in a low position, so when Carter Burke (Paul Reiser), the company man who’s been assigned to handle her transition post-stasis, comes to her with news that something has gone wrong out on LV-426, Ripley is almost forced to sign up for the trip.
Ripley meets up with the space marines and neither side is all that impressed with the other. The space marines are comprised of the inexperienced commanding officer, Lt. Gorman (William Hope), tough talking sergeant Apone (Al Matthews), the gun happy, musclebound Vasquez (Jenette Goldstein), the loud-mouthed, bigger bark than bite Hudson (Bill Paxton), and the quiet and competent Hicks (Michael Biehn). It’s Hicks who would typically be the hero in an action film like this, but in ALIENS he takes a secondary role to Ripley. Importantly, it’s Hicks who most strongly supports Ripley, noticing her intelligence and toughness before anyone else.
Game recognizing game, and all that.
The marines have these simply-drawn, largely-played personalities, but they are really here to do two things: shoot aliens and get killed by aliens.
The centerpiece of ALIENS, of course, is Ripley’s journey back to LV-426 to face her nightmares. In ALIEN, Ripley and the aliens rose in prominence together through the film, ending in their final confrontation. Here, for as different as Cameron’s film is from Scott’s, he keeps this idea of the Ripley/alien parallel. This time around the focus isn’t on a rise to prominence but the role of motherhood.
Back when Cameron was writing Ripley into her low point, he slipped in the detail about her being a mother who’s lost her child due to all that time she spent in stasis. When Ripley and the marines get to LV-426, they find only one survivor, a little girl named Newt. Ripley spends much of the film caring for the girl in between figuring out how to survive the aliens.
For their part, the aliens don’t seem to be interested in doing much but kill kill kill, or when possible, cocoon cocoon cocoon, but then someone finally gets around to asking, “Where did all the alien eggs come from?” It’s idiot Hudson who posits the actual answer, that maybe there’s a Queen somewhere, which would make all the aliens they’ve seen the worker bees.
During the getaway, Newt gets taken by the aliens and Ripley goes back for her, which sets up the confrontation between Ripley and the Alien Queen. The big showdown comes with Ripley standing over the Queen’s eggs with a blowtorch. The two females recognize the situation they’re in, and Ripley’s threat allows her and Newt to make it back to the ship, where Bishop (Lance Henriksen) carries them away from Lv-426.
But not away from the Queen.
There’s one final showdown, which sees the Queen rip Bishop in half and then go one-on-one with Ripley, who’s suited up in a cargo loader exosuit. It’s a good final battle, even if it ends the same way as ALIEN, with the alien getting sucked out into space and Ripley going back into stasis.
ALIENS is a phenomenal movie, Cameron does an excellent job balancing all the shooting and killing with the narrative of a tough woman embracing her role as mother. When we get to the end and find that there’s an alien mother, too, it recontextualizes the rest of the movie (and ALIEN, too). While not humanizing the aliens, it does re-position them as creatures of survival. It’s the humans who are the invading force of LV-426, after all, and while the aliens survival tactics are brutal and uncompromising, at the end it’s one mother versus another for the protection and vengeance of her young. Ripley’s relationship with Newt is the emotional core of the movie; they each fulfill the other’s need (Newt lost her mome, Ripley lost her daughter), but they’re also both survivors.
And that’s what facing the aliens is really all about – survival. In ALIEN, Ripley proved that she was the best survivor, but she also had the benefit of having others face the aliens first: Dallas, Kane, Lambert, Brett, and Parker all unsuccessfully face down the alien threat first and Ripley is able to survive this unexpected threat. In ALIENS, however, she knows what she’s going to face and she’s willing to go on the offensive without ever losing her respect for the what the aliens are capable of doing. Ripley’s goal, however, is never to simply eradicate them just for some thrill of the kill or revenge quest. She wants them dead, but she doesn’t want to be there to see it, and she doesn’t have any need for personal vengeance. She asks Burke to promise her that the mariens are going to LV-426 to kill them, but she needs to be convinced to join the mission. She’s not driven to kill them – she’s driven to survive them.
As I said way up at the top, I enjoy ALIEN more than ALIENS, though they’re both top quality film making. When rumors began swirling that Prometheus was going to be an alien prequel, I was much happier than Ridley Scott was directing it then I would have been if Cameron was involved. Both men make excellent movies, but Scott does a better job with story than Cameron does; I usually feel like the story is driving a Ridley Scott movie where I feel like the action is driving a Cameron movie. (There are exceptions, of course.)
There’s no question, though, that ALIENS is the bigger, larger ride. ALIEN is a movie that gets inside you, while ALIENS is a movie that jumps on top of you.
It’s to Scott and Cameron’s individual credit that they can both make such good movies and such different ones while covering the same ground.
ALIEN / PREDATOR Review Index
ALIEN: A Survivor, Unclouded by Conscience, Remorse, or Delusions of Morality
ALIENS: My Mommy Said There Were No Monsters. No Real Ones. But There Are.
ALIEN 3: A Bunch of Lifers Who Found God at the Ass-End of Space
ALIEN RESURRECTION: Must Be a Chick Thing
ALIEN VS. PREDATOR: I Think This is a Manhood Ritual
ALIEN VS. PRDATOR: REQUIEM: Small Town America Kills Two Franchises at Once