“All right sweethearts, you heard the man and you know the drill”
‘Aliens’ is yet another film that I’ve watched over and over again since I was barely out of a single digit age. I taped it on ITV one year and wore the tape out with constant use. Of course, when the Director’s Cut came out on DVD, I immediately upgraded to that! It added depth to the film’s various themes. That’s the version I always watch! Not sure I could handle the theatrical cut anymore…But, suffice to say, it is one of my favourite films. Not only is it a case study of how to do a sequel, but it can also stand on its own without the first ‘Alien’ to hold it up. Yes, the two are different beasts, and suit different moods and tastes. But I’d say ‘Aliens’ is more accessible than ‘Alien,’ and take that as you will! As it celebrates its 30th Anniversary this year, it would be a shame not to review it!
The premise is simple: Ellen Ripley wakes up 57 years after the events of ‘Alien.’ Her former employers at Weyland-Yutani blame her for the destruction of the Nostromo and disregard her story of a homicidal alien. LV-426, where Ripley and her crew first encountered the alien eggs, is now the colony Hadley’s Hope. Coincidentally, around the same time that Ripley is debriefed, contact is lost with the colony. Weyland-Yutani employee Carter Burke asks Ripley to join him and a marine unit to investigate. Ripley initially refuses, but after enduring the same nightmare of an alien bursting from her chest, she agrees to join. Of course, the colony has been taken over by a horde of aliens…
Look at the premise, for a start. Yes, it’s simple, but it isn’t simply a regurgitation of the first story. ‘Alien’ was a horror story with an alien in place of Michael Myers. ‘Aliens’ is a war movie. Everything is bigger and better in terms of effects, locations and characters, but not simply to justify a sequel. So many sequels ramp up the explosions, expletives, deaths and gore for no other reason than to stretch out an identical story to the first one (take, for example, the hilarious 22 Jump Street. It mocks the very conventions of sequels that it exhibits). Like I said before, there are many aliens, rather than one. There are more characters, more guns, more explosions, more deaths (maybe? Actually I’m not sure…), and more gore. But everything is done to expand on the themes and atmosphere of ‘Alien’ with meaning. Nothing is superfluous here.
“We’d better get back, ’cause it’ll be dark soon, and they mostly come at night… mostly”
Take, for example, the character of Ripley. We don’t find out much about Ripley in ‘Alien,’ apart from that she loves her cat. In ‘Aliens,’ we find out that she had a daughter who died during Ripley’s cryosleep. It instantly gives Ripley an added dimension. Time has obviously passed since the events of ‘Alien,’ and it’s always a tragedy for a parent to outlive their child. However, a replacement comes along in the form of Newt, a girl who appears to be the only survivor on Hadley’s Hope. This gives Ripley a chance to recoup the loss of her daughter and restart the process of being a mother again (without the birth as an added bonus!).
The theme of maternal affection even rears its head on the alien side of things. The android Bishop poses the question of ‘who’s laying the eggs?’ Private Hudson suggests a Queen. The climactic finale has Ripley facing off against the Alien Queen (a masterful redesign of the typical Alien, bigger and better but just as grotesque and disgusting, especially her overly long egg sac). It’s mother figure vs mother in a fight to protect their children. There has never been a more appropriate climactic battle for a film.
Not only does Ripley embrace her maternal and feminine side, but as the marine unit fall to the aliens, she has to embrace her masculine side by kicking some alien ass! It may seem unlikely that a women who’s been asleep for 57 years is a more effective fighter than a hardcore marine corps, but we are meant to see parallels to the Vietnam War. The cocky marine unit initially don’t believe Ripley’s tale of an inhuman killing machine. The commanding officer, Lieutenant Gorman, is clearly inept and freezes at the first sight of danger. When the marines blunder in and are attacked by the aliens, it’s Ripley who saves them. Gorman stutters and does nothing. Watching that scene from start to finish, it’s easy to point out the similarities to the Vietnam War. American soldiers rush in with advanced technology without understanding their enemy. The enemy easily ambush the soldiers. The aliens have no advanced technology, just their stealth and ability to survive. Ripley knows the aliens. She’s the only one who can defeat them (or at least escape them).
“Not bad for a human”
But enough about the themes of the film. Regardless of the themes, ‘Alien’s is a relentless thriller. The characters are established quickly enough. We are given just enough to care about the marines. As soon as Ripley and the marines land on LV-426, director James Cameron piles on the tension to an unbelievable degree. And he rarely eases the tension. Framing a shot around a heat-seeking device is used multiple times during the film, but it always makes you nervous. Everything, from the music to the acting to the atmosphere, is shaped around the constant tension. Sweat pours from the cast in every close up, and during the first viewing I’d be surprised if viewers don’t have to mop their forehead a few times.
And I can’t review ‘Aliens’ without reference to the awesome characters, such as Private Hudson, who utters classic quotes as the stuff begins to hit the fan. “Game over, man, game over!” and “They’re coming outta the walls. They’re coming outta the goddamn walls” are just two Hudson quotes that I use frequently. The interplay between the marines as they are gearing up for LV-426 is comedy gold. And, of course, I cannot forget Ripley’s “Get away from her, you bitch!”
‘Aliens’ is a textbook example of how to do a sequel. It isn’t simply a repeat of its predecessor with better effects and bigger explosions (like you could say about Terminator 2…but I still love that film to bits!). ‘Aliens’ takes the concept of the original and takes it in new and exciting directions. We learn more about the character of Ripley, and that knowledge in turn impacts in a massive way on the story. She and Newt are the emotional core of the story. Mix the themes of masculinity and feminism (especially as Ripley fights a horde of aliens with phallic shaped heads!) with an allegory of the Vietnam War and there’s enough beneath the surface to reward repeat viewing. Oh, did I mention the old Cameron fascination with evil corporations? That’s here as well! As an exercise in pure tension, Aliens is as unparalleled as its predecessor was as an exercise in pure horror. The two films are so different that comparing the two is almost meaningless. They both stand on their own as epitomes of their respective genres (sci-fi horror and sci-fi war/action). But given a choice between the two, 8 times out of 10 I’d choose Aliens…
VERDICT: 10/10. Cameron’s second masterpiece after ‘The Terminator,’ and only his third film! ‘Aliens’ is a kinetic thriller that blends science fiction and war to create a classic. Not only that, but it’s the perfect example of how to do a sequel!
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Click here to read my review of James Cameron’s ‘The Terminator’ (1984)
Click here to read my review of James Cameron’s ‘Terminator 2: Judgment Day’ (1991)